This gold-winning team at iGEM created a way to prevent pharmaceuticals from washing into waterways

Published Nov 20, 2018

A team of students has won gold medals in a major global competition by developing a method for cleaning antibiotics and drug residues from wastewater – before it’s released into rivers and seas.

The multidisciplinary team, comprised of students from KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Karolinska Institutet and Konstfack, tapped into the power of an enzyme which forest mushrooms use to break down wood. Their idea and prototype were submitted in the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition (iGEM), which is held annually by an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to synthetic biology. 

The team included, from KTH, Nuha Salem, Marit Möller, Nicolai Dorka, Vilma Lagebro, Darko Mitrovic, Emma Larsson, Matilda Carlqvist, Martin Axegård, Marina Martínez Hernández, Josephine Berg and Victoria Chu.

Approximately 350 teams participate in iGEM, which begins each year during the summer months and wraps up in the autumn with a major event in Boston. The iGEM Stockholm team won gold in the categories, Best Environmental Projects and Best Integrated Human Practices, which involve how the project affects community needs and how to deal with aspects such as sustainability and ethics.

The team focused on the Baltic Sea’s problems with the release of antibiotics and drugs from wastewater. They altered the properties of an enzyme called laccase, so that it would break down antibiotics instead of wood – and named their product Biotic Blue. Then, they demonstrated how the product can be implemented in wastewater treatment and proved that it could reduce toxicity.

Several different methods were used in the team’s project, including as quantum mechanical modeling of the enzyme, rational design, synthetic biology to create a new DNA, as well as 3D printing of the actual prototype of the process.

In order to activate the results, the students worked out a business plan and a patent strategy for Biotic Blue, in collaboration with KTH Innovation.

Part of project required community outreach, so the team spread its knowledge about bacteria and antibiotics through direct engagement activities on the street, as well as a children’s book and a board game, says the team’s supervisor, Johan Rockberg, a lecturer at KTH.

“They created a ‘lab on a wheel’ and met directly with people on the street to talk about synthetic biology and let them isolate their own DNA with simple means we have in our own homes,” Rockberg says.

The team also published a children's book, "Charlie and the magic microscope", which has been distributed to libraries and hospitals in Stockholm, as well as in the UK. And they created a board game to spread knowledge about synthetic biology and what can be achieved with these methods, he says.

One strength of the team, which the judges of the competition highlighted in particular, was how well everyone involved in the team were active in all parts of the project. The judges also cited the students’ passion for the task and curiosity.

"I'm incredibly proud of this year's team. They truly deserve the honor. They chose their project idea themselves and refined it. They identified the researchers and experts they needed help from, and connected with advisors who could help in solving details of the big task. And they sought sponsorship to run the project, collaborated globally with other students and researchers, and as a team worked hard with simulations and experiments in the lab during the summer here at AlbaNova. Our supervisors are very happy to host iGEM Stockholm at KTH for the fourth consecutive year and congratulate our amazing students from KTH, KI and Konstfack,” he says.

Håkan Soold

Read more about the team iGEM Stockholm and its results.

iGEM Stockholm is comprised of the following students:

Chris E. Garcia, KI, Nuha Salem, KTH, Andreas Metskas, KI, Blanca Campaña López, KI, Stamantina Rentouli, KI, Els Alsema, KI, Puck Norell, KI; Marit Möller, KTH, Nicolai Dorka, KTH, Vilma Lagebro, KTH, Darko Mitrovic, KTH, Emma Larsson, KTH, Matilda Carlqvist, KTH, Martin Axegård, KI och KTH, João Ramos, KI, Marina Martínez Hernández, KTH, Hanna Norbäck, KI, Josephine Berg, KTH, Victoria Chu, KTH och Simon Skinner, Konstfack.

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