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  • UG students from MIT, Manipal claim to solve mercury poisoning, win a Gold medal at Synthetic Biology’s Largest Innovation Event.

    Published on November 28, 2020

    Manipal BioMachines (MBM), a synthetic biology research team from Manipal Institute of Technology, Manipal Academy of Higher Education bagged a Gold Medal on their first attempt at the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM 2020). The result was announced at the iGEM Giant Jamboree, which was hosted virtually from 13th to 22nd of November 2020.

    The iGEM Foundation is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology and applied biotechnology. They encourage such scientific innovation through an annual competition which brings together more than 6,000 participants from various disciplines, across the globe, to explore and create unique applications of synthetic biology with the mission to bring positive contributions to their communities and society at large.

    The teams had to submit videos, a poster and a website documenting all information related to their project within stringent deadlines. The competition took place over the summer of 2020, and 249 teams participated from 36 countries. It included teams from well-renowned universities like Harvard, Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michigan State University, Indian Institutes of Technology, and Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research.

    For this year’s project, they chose to find an effective, long term and novel solution to methylmercury poisoning – nicknamed as “Breaking Bond.” Humans are exposed to methylmercury primarily through fish contaminated with it. This may result in neurological problems including muscle weakness, narrowing of vision and damage to hearing and speech. Currently, there are no effective methods which deal with this problem.

    By designing a probiotic pill which converts methylmercury to elemental mercury – which is less toxic in the gut, we hope to provide a solution to methylmercury poisoning to a large number of people, both in terms of cost as well as usability,” added Varun Udaya Kumar, the team leader of Manipal BioMachines.

    The team worked on designing experiments to obtain the proof of concept for their probiotic bacteria keeping in mind the conditions in the gut environment. The team also carefully planned the aspects of the real-life implementation of their project including the capsule manufacturing process amongst other things and constantly improved upon all the aspects by taking into consideration inputs of various stakeholders like doctors, engineers and researchers. A small-scale hardware device was also designed by the team which can simulate the gut conditions. Beyond the technology, the team was also evaluated on teamwork, responsibility, entrepreneurship, collaborations, safety and more.

    The team started their journey in March this year, and with the pandemic and lockdown – MIT, Manipal’s first-ever journey to iGEM was filled with hurdles. The team was locked out of labs and did not have a single physical meet-up since the project was officially recognized. Despite all challenges, the team emerged triumphant with a Gold Medal at iGEM 2020.

    “This year’s Giant Jamboree was a spectacular display of hard work and ingenuity. These students are showing the world what’s possible when we fearlessly tackle tough problems and open our minds to new applications of engineering biology,” said Randy Rettberg, co-founder and president of iGEM. “Many of the projects presented at iGEM will serve as the foundation and inspiration for important research, influential companies and international interest to come – these participants are most certainly tomorrow’s leaders.”

    The team of 21 students was led by Varun Udaya Kumar, Niyati Sanghvi, Soumodeep Sarkar, Adithi Somayaji, Shravan Balasubramaniam, and Sanya Lakhotia amongst other student members. They were mentored by Dr Ritu Raval and Dr Praveen Kumar, Associate Professor and Assistant Professor – Senior Scale at the Department of Biotechnology, MIT, Manipal.