How Opentrons Fostered Collaboration and Innovation at iGEM 2019

Biology and engineering students from all over the world gathered at the iGEM Foundation competition in Boston to demonstrate the power and capabilities of synthetic biology on the world at large--with Opentrons' help.

On Halloween, the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation held its annual student synthetic biology competition in Boston, Massachusetts. Biology and engineering students from all over the world gathered to showcase projects they’ve been working on for months to demonstrate the power and capabilities of synthetic biology to make lasting social impact in their communities and the world at large.

Opentrons values that mission and commitment—so much so that for the second consecutive year we provided ten iGEM teams with an OT-2 pipetting robot as well as access to the rest of our open-source tools. From water purification projects for subtropical climates to the creation of new biomaterials from sea-life, student teams from all over the globe worked together to advance synthetic biology.

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Collaboration is Key: Working Together to Reproduce Results
Each iGEM 2019 project was a collaborative effort, requiring teams to work outside their comfort zones for the sake of scientific progress. It was a unique, incredible learning experience—and it bore fantastic results.

One of the most ambitious projects came out of University of California Davis. Using the fluorescein dye and microspheres from iGEM’s standard distribution kit, the UC Davis team designed a serial dilution protocol to be run both manually and with the OT-2. They then shared this protocol with seven other schools and asked them to report their results for each version.

"It was a good way to test the precision of the OT-2," said Jodi Jacobs, UC Davis team member genetics and genomics student. By soliciting outside feedback, UC Davis was able to measure their experience of the OT-2’s performance against other schools, giving them a better rubric for their results while creating exactly the kind of interdisciplinary collaboration iGEM thrives on. Plus, given the consistency of the results received from other teams, "the robot did pretty well," according to Jacobs, "and we really enjoyed using it." So much so she told us that "we’re actually teaching a new team in our lab space to use the OT-2 for ELISA assays." This new team is comprised of young scientists who don’t have a lot of pipetting experience, making a pipetting robot like the OT-2 a welcome addition to the lab. "They’re really excited," Jacobs said. "Having the Opentrons robot is really great."

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Growth Mindset: Transforming Setbacks into Opportunities
Other teams learned valuable lessons about how executing experiments includes factors beyond lab protocols. ITESO Universidad Jesuita De Guadalajara, for instance, discovered the importance of advocation. Their academic institution had never participated in iGEM before, so in order for them to do so they had to demonstrate the importance of their project to key stakeholders to gain both funding and an instructor—without which they would not have been able to participate.

Once they’d secured that fundamental support, the ITESO team proceeded with their project: cleaning brackish water with cyanobacteria in order to mitigate the release of carbon dioxide and, hopefully, slow climate change. It was an ambitious project, and while they were not able to make as much progress as they wanted—and were not able to fully integrate the OT-2 into their lab setup—the team still built strong bonds with their global peers and were inspired to continue advocating for change within their community.

That spirit is what iGEM is all about.

Leiden University was also able to rally together and troubleshoot setbacks. Each morning, the team gathered to discuss and distribute daily tasks, as well as review challenges from the day before. Team Lieden’s project, which focused on creating new biomaterials from suckerin to treat burn victims, taught them that setting realistic expectations is as important as working towards an inspired vision. Science manager Jo-Anne Verschoor of Team Lieden explained how overconfidence thwarted their project’s cloning efforts. Instead of using the recommended plasmids sent in their iGEM distribution kit, Lieden opted to use their own, because "the iGEM plasmids are very good for cloning but not good for production." The team struggled unsuccessfully for weeks, before returning to the original plasmid, which worked immediately. This took a lot of time and troubleshooting, leaving Team Leiden little room to redesign their experiments around automation. However, they did manage to successfully participate in UC-Davis’ collaborative measurement project.

Celebrating iGEM Successes
Out of the ten teams that Opentrons sponsored, seven walked away with medals or track prizes acknowledging the excellence of their work:

GOLD MEDAL WINNERS:

  • Ocean University of China
  • University of Lethbridge

SILVER MEDAL WINNERS:

  • New York University
  • University of California Davis
  • Leiden University

SPECIAL PRIZES:

  • Best Manufacturing Project Track Prize (Overgrad)—Leiden University
  • Best Foundational Advance (Undergrad)—National University of Singapore
  • Best Part Collection (Undergrad)—National University of Singapore
  • Best Foundational Advance Project Track Prize (Overgrad)—Delft University of Technology

We are very proud of them, but we are truly proud of all of our teams for the ambitious scope of their projects:

  • Cairo University who aimed to develop sustainable microbial and cell-free desalination systems in order to help provide Egypt's growing population with safe drinking water.
  • Victoria University of Wellington who hoped to create an efficient, safe, and sustainable enzymatic fuel cell by engineering E. coli to overexpress enzymes of interest and improve their function.
  • Ocean University of China who worked to create modularized riboswitches so that gene expression in engineered systems can be more easily tuned and regulated.
  • Leiden University who wanted to express suckerin proteins from Humboldt squid in E. coli and use them to create versatile, flexible and strong new biomaterials.
  • Universidad Jesuita de Guadalajara who hoped to improve the photosynthetic activity of cyanobacteria, with the aim of increasing their ability to sequester atmospheric carbon and produce economically valuable metabolic intermediates.
  • University of Lethbridge who aimed to develop a recombinant insulin-producing algae strain that can be dehydrated and consumed orally. This could provide a viable, low-cost and readily-available alternative to current insulin manufacturing and delivery methods.
  • University of California Davis who planned to expand the foundational tools available for mammalian synthetic biology, both by thoroughly studying and characterizing the existing promoters in the iGEM distribution kit and by adding new parts to enable effective engineering of mammalian systems.
  • Delft University of Technology who focused on designing a novel in-vivo orthogonal replication and transcription platform which could enable more efficient directed evolution in a wide range of bacterial species.
  • National University of Singapore who hoped to extend the productive lifespan of E. coli to improve its effectiveness in the biomanufacturing of engineered proteins.

Embodying iGEM’s Spirit At The Opentrons Workshop
Opentrons also held a hands-on workshop at iGEM’s Giant Jamboree. Director of Strategic Initiatives Kristin Ellis and Senior Software Manager Toma Morris lead participants in a walkthrough of the Opentrons’ OT-2 liquid handling robot’s flexibility and customizability. After explaining the OT-2’s open-source programming options and introducing other standout features—like its new thermocycler—Ellis offered participants an opportunity to do a hands-on open-source project: create custom plate art using Opentrons’ Protocol Designer. Ellis asked for a show of hands for attendees with computers on them and nine hands popped up; the students split into groups and used the Protocol Designer to learn about designing automated protocols and create custom plate art they could pickup at the Opentrons booth later that day.

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Continuing To Inspire
We’re thankful for these teams and the iGEM Foundation, who inspire us to continue our work in creating low cost lab automation solutions for biologists. By supporting synthetic biology and its emerging leaders with accessible technology, we are empowering the next generation of scientists to collaborate, innovate, and advance the frontiers of biology. We look forward to seeing what all of these students accomplish next!

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Curious how automation could work in your lab? Schedule a free consultation call.

All photos credited to iGEM Foundation and Jacob Knight.