Undergraduate students from Trinity College Dublin are hoping to build an anti-malarial ‘biobrick’, which could pave the way for easier and cheaper production of the effective drug ‘artemisinin.’ Their endeavour forms Trinity’s entry to the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, which challenges students to come up with unique applications using synthetic biology.
Student teams taking part in iGEM must try to build systems that can be operated in living cells, generate new ideas in the field of synthetic biology, and help build a community of young, motivated scientists interacting with the general public. The main goal of the competition is to produce biobricks; these are essentially DNA fragments that have been modularised and conformed to assembly standards, which means they are easily integrated into new biological systems.
The Trinity team will re-engineer the production of artemisinin in E-coli to provide a cheaper option with which to fight malaria. The disease is caused by the parasite, Plasmodium, and is transmitted in the bites of Anopheles mosquitoes that have picked up the parasite from other recently infected animals they have fed on.
When left untreated, malaria can be fatal, disrupting proper blood flow and impeding the functions of vital organs in the body. The disease claims over 600,000 lives a year. This Saturday, April 25, is a date of significance as World Malaria Day.
The majority of artemisinin currently comes from plant extraction and more recently from production in yeast cells. However, production costs can vary greatly and many sufferers cannot afford the drug. The Trinity team will use the principles and tools of synthetic biology to design and provide a vehicle for cheaper, more stable production.
The team made up of 10 undergraduate and three graduate students from scientific backgrounds, will work through the summer before attending the World Championship in Boston at the end of September. It is here that they will, along with around 300 other teams from universities dotted around the globe, present their findings.
Professor of Neurogenetics at Trinity College Dublin, Mani Ramaswami, will act as academic supervisor and provide insight, guidance and lab space.
He said: “’Synthetic biology and metabolic engineering are multidisciplinary fields, that offer opportunities to team geneticists, microbiologists, biochemists, chemists and engineers with end users in clinics, agriculture and industry. Its potential impact on society is likely to be tremendous. The iGEM project put together by Trinity students offers a light and engaging opportunity for college staff in the different specialised areas to participate in this field, contributing nothing more than their their energy and intellect.
“I am delighted to have a chance to enter the field and am excited to help the Trinity iGEM team develop potentially improved methods for production of artemisinin, the front line anti-malarial drug, whose previous semi-synthetic production supported in part by the Gates Foundation, has been so far the most visible success of synthetic biology. I am optimistic that this iGEM project will lay down a blueprint that can be used by college staff to develop new synthetic biology research proposals and projects.”
Undergraduate student in Trinity’s school of Biochemistry and Immunology and team coordinator, Ben Wilson, has been instrumental in getting the project off the ground. He added: “Everyone on the team is really excited to be embarking on the project. It is a fantastic opportunity to not only become engaged with such an exciting field of science, but to help make meaningful progress in a cause as important as the eradication of malaria. I hope that our participation will pave the way for other students to engage in the competition and synthetic biology in years to come.”
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) organised the first competition in 2004 between teams from five universities in the US. In 2012, iGEM became an independent non-profit organisation located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US.
Trinity Team Members
Member Instructors: Dr Matthew Carrigan, Jennifer Lorigan, Killian Hanlon
Undergraduate Team Members: Ben Wilson, Patrick King, David Fallon, Arnas Petraukas, Daire Gannon, Emma Cooke, Remsha Afzal, Zaneta Najda, Marlena Mucha, Anya Aleshko.