Science - August 31, 2017

Wageningen iGEM team off to Boston

Stijn van Gils

The chance of a field test sometime soon for tropical diseases has improved. This is the idea that has won the Wageningen student team taking part in iGEM, the international competition for synthetic biology, a place in the final in Boston.

Four members of the Wageningen iGEM team (from left to right): Bart Scholten, Niek Savelkoul, Linda van Oosten and Sabine van Oossanen. © Photo Stijn van Gils

The ten Master’s students want to develop a rapid test for reliably identifying diseases such as Zika or sleeping sickness. The test should be accessible and cheap so that it can be used in poor communities as well.

The students are using genetically modified E. coli bacteria as an ‘alarm bell’, explains Bart Scholten. ‘We modify a gene in the bacterium to make it respond to the presence of a specific disease. Then we let a reaction in this gene cause another gene to be activated. This makes the bacterium slightly fluorescent, which you can see with a LED light. If we want a test for another disease, all we have to do is modify the first gene again.’

The jury was basically enthusiastic, but did mention some areas for improvement. ‘We will be presenting our idea in America, where the story behind it will be very important. So we have to do more to sell our idea,’ says Niek Savelkoul. More has to be done on the science as well. ‘For example, we have to think about how we can keep the bacteria alive at high temperatures too.’

The students will be working hard over the next few months to finish the lab work and find sponsors. They have also set up a crowdfunding project (see