The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition has hundreds of student teams worldwide using synthetic biology — the practice of using existing biological systems for new purposes — to address significant problems in fields such as human health, agriculture, manufacturing, and the environment. Last year, UR iGEM Team UteRus, won multiple awards including the gold medal, best diagnostic, and the inclusivity award for their endometriosis diagnostic device. This year, UR Team Bio-Sphere has fostered an insurgent team we should all be keeping our eyes on.
Here’s Team Bio-Spire’s pitch: Sepsis is one of the leading causes of death in hospitals, resulting in nearly 270,000 deaths per year in the U.S. alone. Team Bio-Sphere is working on developing a wearable biosensor (with an accompanying app) to help monitor biomarkers within patient sweat and predict a risk of sepsis.
Team Bio-Spire has been working under the direction of Biology professor Dr. Anne Meyer since October 2020 (including 30-hour work weeks during the summer) to put together a team, complete development of the hardware for their idea, and prepare a presentation to give to a virtual panel in November for judging. “Our 12-person team is divided into roughly eight subteams, each with a few team members and a leader,” senior Amanda Adams, the team’s PR manager, noted. According to Adams, due to the variety of subteams working on the project, “there are many initiatives going on at once within [the] team, and it’s always exciting to learn about them during our weekly meetings when we come together to debrief.”
For a brief rundown of the subsets of Team Bio-Spire and what they do: On the science side of things, the wetlab team has been transforming DNA aptamer molecules in E.coli, synthesizing reduced graphene oxide to attach said aptamers to, and utilizing techniques such as asymmetric PCR (polymerase chain reaction) and rolling circle amplification to amplify certain strands of DNA. In addition, the hardware team is in charge of the actual manufacturing of the biosensor, which will function like a sleeve and utilize COMSOL (an analysis and simulation software) and microfluidics to collect, transport, and measure the changes in how sweat biomarkers bind to the aptamers.
Outside of the direct creation of the biosensor, there are multiple teams working to promote the Team Bio-Spire brand. The public relations team has been managing social media and press opportunities, and the fundraising team has been contacting various sponsors for equipment to develop their product, but there are other venues outside of typical promotion that teams have been focusing on as well. For example, the education team took the summer to focus on implementing outreach programs with local summer camps in the Rochester area.
“We’ve also gotten the chance to work with other iGEM teams as part of our collaboration initiatives on projects such as a scientific journal write-up and a children’s book explaining sepsis,” Adams said.
If iGEM interests you, applications open in October. According to the team, “iGEM is open to motivated students of any major and class year, and it’s really great to have people with a variety of skill sets,” so anyone is welcome to apply.
If you want to continue to follow and support Team Bio-Spire as they finalize their presentation and aspire towards more awards, you can check out their social media or their website, which is continually updating as progress is made. In addition, you can donate to support the program or join their upcoming virtual 5K fundraiser.