'We are the trailblazers.' IFB UG and MUG students take part in the iGEM competition

Students from the Intercollegiate Faculty of Biotechnology UG and MUG are working on cleaning the sea of toxic phthalates, chemicals used to soften plastic. The team is taking part in the international iGEM competition, where young researchers from around the world work to solve problems using synthetic biology.

Similar to hormones, but harmful

From the left: Adam Gackowski, Mateusz Rudnicki i Julia Karasińska

From the left: Adam Gackowski, Mateusz Rudnicki i Julia Karasińska

We have come across the problem of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC), i.e. compounds with a structure similar to hormones in our body,' says Mateusz Rudnicki, the initiator of the project and a master's degree student in Biotechnology. 'High concentrations of these chemical compounds in water can affect humans and animals, disrupting their development. This is a newly recognised problem, not yet fully investigated, for which no easy solutions exist.’

'EDCs do not occur naturally, so our organisms cannot break them down. Because of that, when they are massively introduced into the environment by humans, they start to accumulate and negatively affect people and animals,' says team member Adam Gackowski, a second-degree Biotechnology student. 'The good news is that they can be converted into other substances, which have naturally occurred in nature for thousands (or millions) of years.'

Endocrine disruptors include phthalates, which are used, among other things, to soften plastic. They can be found, for example, in the Baltic Sea. A team of eleven students is working on creating a filter that would clean the water of harmful substances. They want to do this by using enzymes that break down phthalates into simpler molecules, better absorbed by humans and animals. The device could be used in households or wastewater treatment plants.

We support each other, not compete

The project by IFB UG and MUG students is one of the hundreds of entries in the prestigious iGEM competition, which has been organised for over 20 years by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). More than 400 teams participate yearly - each trying to solve a different problem using synthetic biology. The projects are to be carried out and described in such a way that any researcher can replicate the results so that the technology can be used to solve local problems.

Zespół iGEM IFB na Dniu Studenta Międzyuczelnianego Wydziału Biotechnologii UG i GUMed

Zespół iGEM IFB na Dniu Studenta Międzyuczelnianego Wydziału Biotechnologii UG i GUMed

'The main idea of the competition is that synthetic biology should be developed by everyone around the world to solve local problems,' explains Julia Karasinska, team member and second-degree Biotechnology student. 'Other teams have the advantage of experience, as many faculties participate in each iGEM edition. At IFB UG and MUG, we have been the first for ten years. In Poland, only four teams have entered the competition in the last seven years, the last one four years ago, so we are the trailblazers.'

Due to the unlimited number of gold, silver, and bronze medals, teams worldwide are not competing against each other. The award goes to anyone who meets the conditions, and it is in everyone's interest to create as many solutions for widespread use as possible. Students from IFB UG and MUG have already received help from teams from France and Sweden.  'We are support for each other, not competition,' adds Julia Karasińska.

In biology, 2+2 equals three to five

In addition to the research part, the competition's requirements include so-called human practices, i.e. activities related to promotion and education. As part of these activities, the IFB UG and MUG team conducted workshops for high schools in Gdańsk on synthetic biology, consulted their project with experts and the public, and researched the potential commercialisation of project results. The young researchers' activities can be followed on the team's Instagram.

Adam Gackowski i Julia Karasińska

Adam Gackowski i Julia Karasińska

For their activities - reagents, research, but also the entry fee for the competition - the students have received much support from external institutions, including the Foundation for Polish Science, the Gdańsk Foundation for Economic Development, SnapGene and A&A Biotechnology, BIOKOM, the Pomeranian Voivodeship Government, IDT and New England Biolabs. The project was also funded by the Rector of UG and the Rector of MUG, and the Intercollegiate Faculty of Biotechnology UG and MUG provided the researchers with a laboratory and support. The team's supervisors are dr hab. Robert Czajkowski, prof. UG, and dr Katarzyna Węgrzyn.

The IFB UG and MUG students still have two months of research work ahead of them, during which they will, among other things, test the effectiveness of phthalate-degrading enzymes under given conditions. ‘My favourite biological proverb is that in biology, 2+2 equals three to five. Even if everything looks perfect on paper, we still need to verify it in reality,' says Adam Gackowski.

The finished project should be submitted by the end of September this year. The students are currently looking for sponsors to participate in the competition's final, which will take place in early November in Paris.

EDC-Seas project is supported by Samorząd Województwa Pomorskiego and Miasto Gdańsk.

text Marcel Jakubowski/ Zespół Prasowy UG, photo Marcel Jakubowski, iGEM UG