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Bielefeld students working on a system to counter viruses such as Zika

Published on 6. September 2016, 11:51 h
iGEM team entering the international competition in Boston  

Pathogens such as the Zika virus regularly impose new challenges on modern medicine. With their great adaptability, viruses are particularly difficult to diagnose and treat. A team of eleven students attending different natural science courses at Bielefeld University is carrying out research on generating proteins to counter viruses such as Zika. The group is taking this idea to the 2016 iGEM competition in Boston, USA. iGEM stands for ‘international Genetically Engineered Machine’ and is the most important non-commercial competition in synthetic biology. From the 27th to the 31st of October, 300 teams from more than 30 nations have developed projects with which they will be competing in various categories.

Das iGEM-Team Bielefeld-CeBiTec 2016: Judith Kampa, Pascal Schmidt, Carsten Hain, Mikail Sahin, Sebastian Perez Knoche, Niklas Hoffmann, Marten Linder, Marius Schöller, Bianca Frommer, Cassandra Königs und Fabian Roeloffs (nicht auf dem Foto).Foto: Team iGEM Bielefeld-CeBiTec
The 2016 Bielefeld-CeBiTec iGEM team (from left): Judith Kampa, Pascal Schmidt, Carsten Hain, Mikail Sahin, Sebastian Perez Knoche, Niklas Hoffmann, Marten Linder, Marius Schöller, Bianca Frommer, Cassandra Königs, and Fabian Roeloffs (not shown). Photo: Team iGEM Bielefeld-CeBiTec
The Zika virus can trigger severe malformations in unborn babies and lead to developmental disorders. Being particularly adaptable, the virus represents a major challenge for diagnosis and treatment. Students at Bielefeld University are developing a system to tackle this: In an evolutionary process, antibody-like proteins are generated that the team has called ‘evobodies’. Antibodies are proteins occurring naturally in the human body that bind pathogens and help to fight them.  In industry, they are often harvested from animals; and in science and medicine, they are used for diagnosis and treatment. Instead of using animals, the Bielefeld team working with Professor Dr. Jörn Kalinowski and Professor Dr. Kristian Müller is producing the proteins with the help of bacteria. Because bacteria reproduce very rapidly, antibody-like proteins can be generated more quickly than in animal cells. This enables scientists to respond more quickly to adaptable viruses such as Zika. In addition, no animals are harmed by the procedure.

In the laboratory, the project breaks down into the following steps:
First, the students cultivate a great number of bacteria that produce a range of randomly composed evobodies. To further increase diversity, the different evobodies are changed at random. When an evobody and a target protein (e.g. an envelope protein of the Zika virus) bind, that particular bacterium gains a growth advantage. As a result, the only remaining bacteria are those that form functioning evobodies against the target protein. The DNA coding sequence of these evobodies is then ascertained and can be used for their biotechnological production.

Since 2010, young researchers from Bielefeld University’s Center for Biotechnology (CeBiTec) have succeeded in gaining various gold medals and awards at the iGEM competition in Boston. They have beaten renowned institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, and Imperial College London. Last year’s team developed a biosensor to detect date rape drugs and heavy metals that was nominated in various categories including a medal for the best environment project. ‘Working in CeBiTec allows us to do research on fascinating projects using the latest methods,’ says Sebastian Perez Knoche, a member of the current team. ‘Professor Kalinowski and the members of last year’s team are naturally pleased to help us with any questions we have.’

This year’s team contains eleven young bachelor and master students of ‘Biochemistry’, ‘Bioinformatics and Genome Research’, Genome-Based Systems Biology’, and ‘Molecular Biotechnology’. Alongside laboratory work, the team also has to carry out public relations work, supervise the CeBiTec-Schülerakademie (a learning project for secondary school students), model the biological system on the computer, and engage in dialogue with experts. Because participants have to finance the trip to Boston themselves, they need to solicit sponsorship money. This is the first year that students are trying to solicit sponsors for their project over a German crowdfunding page.

Further information is available online at:
The Bielefeld iGEM team: www.igem-bielefeld.de
Crowdfunding (with information video): www.startnext.com/en/evobodies
Official team Wiki: http://2016.igem.org/Team:Bielefeld-CeBiTec

Posted by LThomßen in General
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