The 2021 version of the iGEM competition in synthetic biology is now starting for Wageningen University & Research. Recent editions of the competition have attracted over 350 teams from universities and schools across the world, equating to approximately 5000 students. In the past ten years three WUR teams have finished second place in the worldwide competition. Previous Wageningen teams engineered systems that allow banana strains to fight off fungi, kill mites that infest and destroy beehives, act as biological diagnostic tools for infectious diseases, and provided plants with systems to fight infection.
This year the WUR iGEM team consists of ten bachelors and masters students, supported by a team of supervisors in the Laboratories of Microbiology and Systems & Synthetic Biology. In this edition of iGEM, the team aims to reduce toxic gas release from farms with Cattlelyst, aiding efforts to slow climate change. Whilst everybody involved would love to win the competition, the greater aim of the team is to prove the scientific principle that an engineered biofilter is an efficient, sustainable, and socially responsible way to reduce climate change-causing gas emissions from farms.
Sanne van Doorn of the Cattlelyst project: “We propose a solution to reduce the impact of gas-emissions from livestock. The livestock sector releases methane, a gas with a global warming potential 30 times higher than carbon dioxide. Additionally, dairy farms are among the greatest contributors of increasing levels of ammonia and reactive nitrogen species on Earth.” Van Doorn continues: “This excess of nitrogen has disastrous effects on the planet, leading to soil acidification and demineralization and loss of biodiversity.
The WUR iGEM team is developing the first ever bio-filtration system specific for removing both ammonia and methane from cattle sheds. The biofilter will harness synthetically optimized bacteria, engineered for living off the released ammonia and methane and converting the gases into harmless forms. Delielena Poli from the team adds: “Cattlelyst aims at relieving the impact of the livestock sector on the environment while at the same time helping the farmers to comply to pressing regulations.”
To offer a well-rounded solution, the Cattlelyst team will reach out and communicate with societal stakeholders and integrate computational analyses with experimental validation to test the robustness and safety of the final bio-filter.
The iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) foundation plays a role in collating and distributing tools required for synthetic biology research. In addition, it organises an annual international competition as a means of training the next generation of synthetic biologists. Synthetic biology is an emerging scientific discipline that aims to explore the potential of biological engineering to solve societal problems. Biologists are brought together with computer scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and social scientists to tackle research questions in an innovative, sustainable, and socially-responsible manner.