Wetenschap - 3 mei 2012

Bio-hobbyists get their work published

A team of Wageningen students has their work accepted for publication in the scientific journal PLoS ONE. Last year, they took part in iGem, a competition to design new organisms.

flow_chamber3.jpg
flow_chamber3.jpg

Foto: .

For iGem, students are given standard components to design new biological systems; this discipline is also known as synthetic biology. Interesting enough, the article to be published does not describe one of these systems but a self-designed gadget. This achievement is a boost for the team, which was deeply disappointed last September when it was edged out of the contest in the iGem preliminary round.
The gadget designed by the students is a growth cell to cultivate and study bacteria under controlled conditions. The cell is a cheap alternative to the expensive and specialized equipment used by biologists. The design looks somewhat like a plastic brick with two chambers inside. The bacteria are grown in the upper chamber, while the lower chamber has a nutrient solution. The chambers are separated by a porous sheet which enables nutrients to pass through continuously but stops the bacteria from spreading.
Using the growth cell, the students constructed a luminous bacterial colony which flashes. The bacteria make the flashing possible by producing and breaking down light-giving proteins alternately. Little cavities at the bottom of the growth chamber separate the various colonies and enable them to be observed with a microscope over a period of time. The team hopes that their account about the bacterial flashing light will also be published.
Although the team is still puzzled as to why it was edged out of the competition, the students look back with satisfaction. 'It was a fantastic experience,' says Brendan Ryback. 'I have never learned so much in such a short time. It was the complete scientific process condensed into a few months.'
Their supervisor, Mark van Passel, an assistant professor in the Systems and Synthetic Biology Group, is also thrilled. 'iGem had taken up more time than expected, but it was very inspiring.' He is full of praise for the students who at times worked for seventy hours a week in the lab. And it's also all systems go for the 2012 team. Plans have been drawn up; the team has access to a lab and has also received a bit of financing. Van Passel: 'Things will get going one of these days.'

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