The 2021 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition, the world's largest open program in synthetic biology, took place online in early November. Competing were 350 teams made up of over 7,000 students from academic institutions across 46 countries. Teams from Japan represented seven universities, including Kyoto University, the University of Tokyo, and Gunma University. The event concluded on 14 November with KyotoU's iGEM Kyoto, comprised of 21 undergraduates, winning a gold medal.
iGEM Kyoto entered the competition with its FLOWEREVER (coined from "flower" and "forever") project; its goal is to reduce flower loss and 'enable people to enjoy flowers more'. The undertaking involved exploring numerous approaches to reduce flower waste, many of them aimed at minimizing production-phase losses from disease and insect damage. The possible solutions that emerged from these efforts include an RNAi-based insect control method targeted at Western flower thrips, an invasive agricultural pest. Based on discussions with a flower farmer in Kyoto, the team also devised a system for detecting viral infections in dahlias and other plants that utilizes an original device developed from RT-LAMP and CRISPR-Cas12a technologies. In addition, the students focused on infection diagnosis and developed a computer program that learns to detect infected leaves through image analysis. Based on this technology, iGEM Kyoto was nominated for a Special Award in the Best Software Tool category. The team also constructed a multi-step gene expression system applying asymmetric cell division in the bacteria E. coli to enable more efficient production of biomolecules, which are essential to achieving the FLOWEREVER strategies.
About the iGEM Competition
The iGEM Competition is held annually by the non-profit iGEM Foundation, founded in 2004 to advance synthetic biology research and education of high-school, undergraduate, and over-graduate students through an open community and friendly competition. Participating teams set their own goals, conduct experiments, and present their results through posters, Wiki websites, live lectures, and videos (since 2020). Awards are given based on the ingenuity and feasibility of the ideas showcased. In addition to working in the laboratory, team members are expected to engage the public and stakeholders in addressing the ethical, safety, and other issues associated with real-life applications of synthetic biology.
About iGEM Kyoto
iGEM Kyoto is composed of students from across the University working together on multidisciplinary research as part of the iGEM community. Its previous efforts include synthetic biology solutions to issues such as marine pollution caused by microplastics (2019) and pine wilt caused by nematodes (2018).
Although the 2020 team had to forego the competition due to Covid-19, this year's group of 21 students from five departments was able to participate thanks to generous support from senior student advisors, mentorship from the University's faculty, and advice from public-sector and industry experts.
iGEM Kyoto is now preparing for the 2022 competition and looking for new members.