The Slovenian Team Proves its Excellence Again by Winning MIT's Competition for Preparing a Cell Biosynthesis Assembly Line
Cambridge, 8 Nov. 2010 – The Slovenian team of students (the fifth so far) again won the Grand Prize for the competition of research projects in the category of synthetic biology at the renowned MIT University in Cambridge, USA. The interest in the competition is growing world-wide; this year's competition was attended by 130 teams from all over the world, topping all previous years, with participant teams from the world's most prestigious universities such as Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Imperial College, ETH and Cambridge, which won last year. Slovenian teams have had the greatest success at competitions since 2006, being a third-time absolute winner in the contest.
This year, their project was entered in the area of New Applications. The team members were convinced that their invention would cause a revolution in the field of synthetic biology. The idea on which the project is based on was lucidly demonstrated in a minute-and-a-half video with an intelligible-to-all explanation of the idea. They devised a kind of assembly line for the production of selected compounds in bacterium cells. The cells of various microorganisms, plants and animals synthesize thousands of different compounds. To be synthesized, each of these compounds requires a considerable number of enzyme-catalysed steps, typically more than five. The Slovenian team's original idea was to link the enzymes involved in the synthesis of a compound into a precisely determined sequence by binding them to the DNA double helix. In this way, the DNA sequence acts as a programme that precisely determines the sequence of the bound enzymes and hence also the sequence of reactions that lead to the formation of selected compounds, which are produced in such modified bacteria. The idea has an extremely broad potential, particularly for the manufacture of medicines, biofuels and also other useful compounds. The team members proved that the idea was practicable using the example of violacein, a purple-coloured compound with anti-tumor action. Cells into which the DNA programme was inserted achieved a six-fold increase in violacein production. Another important additional benefit of this inventive approach was observed; increasing the target compound production also prevented the formation of by-products. Besides improving biosynthesis, their approach has interesting potential for information processing.
The team leader Prof. Roman Jerala says: "About a year ago, a team from the University of California, Berkeley, reported inventing a protein scaffold that helped improve antimalarial drug production by almost 100 times and the technology is also used to produce biofuels. We believe our approach has important additional benefits, since it is the only one that allows you to link as many as ten or more enzymes into a biosynthetic chain."
Project participants included students of biotechnology, biochemistry, microbiology, biology, medicine and, as a first this year, also computer science. The team was mentored by researchers from the National Institute of Chemistry, the EN-FIST Centre of Excellence and the University of Ljubljana. The director of the EN-FIST Centre of Excellence, Dr. Matjaž Polak, who also accompanied the team to the competition, feels that: "This project is an important success for our centre of excellence, since it pooled the interdisciplinary expertise of mentors who hadn't collaborated before. It should also be stressed that our new biosynthetic approach has been protected by applying for a patent jointly with the National Institute of Chemistry, because we believe the development of an extremely promising technology is at stake. This platform is interesting for our industry partners and without doubt also for other high-technology companies abroad."
The team members were the students Tina Ilc in biochemistry, Tina Lebar and Tjaša Stošicki in microbiology, Nejc Tomšič in medicine, Jernej Turnšek in biotechnology, Matej Žnidarič in biology and computer science students Jure Bordon, Rok Češnovar, Mattia Petroni and Rok Pustoslemšek, while mentors included Monika Avbelj, Rok Gaber, Dr. Tomaž Koprivnjak, Dr. Mojca Benčina, Jerneja Mori, Dr. Irena Vovk, Vesna Glavnik and Dr. Roman Jerala of the National Institute of Chemistry, the EN-FIST Centre of Excellence and the Faculty of Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Dr. Gregor Anderluh and Vesna Hodnik of the Biotechnical Faculty and Dr. Miha Mraz, Miha Moškon and Dr. Nikolaj Zimic of the Faculty of Computer and Information Science at the University of Ljubljana.