The Freiburg Bioware Team, an important part of the Excellence Cluster bioss, has done it again: one gold medal and two special prizes at the iGEM (international Genetically Engineered Machine) competition, the largest event in the world for undergraduates in synthetic biology. Research group leaders Junior Professor Dr. Kristian Müller and Dr. Katja Arndt entered the competition with two teams this time, made it to the finals, and demonstrated with the Bioware Team and the Software Team that they rank among the top six talent shapers in the world for biotechnology research. They won the special prize for "Best Poster" and - an achievement they are especially proud of - the special prize for the "Best New BioBrick, Engineered," i.e. the best genetic brick, the main scientific focus of iGEM.
Last year Freiburg placed second in the finals and won a gold medal with a system for switching processes within cells on and off from outside. Three years ago Freiburg became the first German team ever to participate in the yearly competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston.
The current Bioware Team, 14 fifth to ninth semester undergraduates supervised by three doctoral students, developed an innovative "gene cutter" which can simplify the process of separating and binding genes. The concept convinced the jurors and the team distinguished itself in the company of 1100 students in 112 teams from the best universities in the world.
The promising new field synthetic biology has the goal of assembling genetic building blocks, i.e. DNA molecules, first into simple patterns and then into increasingly complex structures. For the iGEM competition, students create gene sequences with a defined function. The Bioware Team’s "gene cutter" can help accelerate the development of environmentally friendly biotechnological processes, biopharmaceuticals, and biofuel. The gene sequences, BioBricks, are entered into a publically accessible database.
The conventional method for separating and binding genes is through the use of certain proteins, so-called restriction enzymes. This technique is very difficult to realize with highly complex gene sequences. The Freiburg Bioware Team thus developed and tested a new method for identifying gene sequences and separating them with a "molecular cutter." To do so, the team constructed a new enzyme consisting of a DNA cutting domain and a recognition domain for a chemically modified piece of DNA. These pieces can be produced inexpensively and programmed to recognize any genes. The combination enables the manipulation of genes both inside and outside of organisms - a new and innovative path for the entire field of synthetic biology. The Freiburg team successfully demonstrated the process in bacterial cells by splitting a viral genome as well as in a test tube.
The pioneering spirit of the young scientists from Freiburg went even further. Three mathematics and biology students entered the competition with a different and completely new topic: The Freiburg Software Team developed SynBioWave, a software program which bioscientists can use to communicate from lab to lab over the internet in order to plan and analyze experiments.
The basis for SynBioWave is the new Wave platform by Google. The software, touted on the internet as the next big thing in online communication, enables real-time communication, a review function, and the integration of external programs, so-called wave robots. The Freiburg Software Team expanded on the new technology and programmed wave robots which read biodatabases and manipulate gene and protein sequences. In addition, the students networked the wave robots with one another and published an interface which enables bioscientists to create their own wave robots.
The team’s open source project supports constitutive principles in the life sciences as well as classical genetic engineering projects. Google Wave will be available on the market in a few months. The transformation for scientific communication made possible by the diligent young software developers opens up excellent opportunities for future research.