Doc Bernds FutureLab

Combat multi-resistance with a paper strip.

A GIP travel grant was awarded by the GIP XOLLX Future Lab team to the iGEM team at Goethe University Frankfurt based on the exceptional public engagement, innovative potential of the project and excellence in interdisciplinary scientific work.

“Hey, let’s have a beer.” – a lot of word of mouth was used when recruiting the iGEM team at Goethe University Frankfurt. But biophysicists, chemists, computer scientists and biologists quickly sat around the table to tackle one of the most difficult challenges in modern medicine - antibiotic resistance. In particular, experts like Jim O'Neill have warned that multidrug-resistant germs could surpass cancer as the leading cause of death by 2050. While a definitive solution remains elusive, antibiotic resistance occupies a prominent place on the life sciences agenda.

This year, the Frankfurt iGEM team dedicated itself to developing innovative methods for detecting antibiotics in water. Their work spanned two critical areas: sewage treatment plants, with a focus on wastewater, and the medical sector, particularly hospitals. The latter proved crucial, as the constant interaction of microorganisms with antibiotics significantly increased the risk of resistance development and posed an immediate threat to patients and the general population.

The idea was to build a cell biosensor on a strip of paper that could be used for rapid detection - similar to a pregnancy test. The innovative aspect is to immobilize a modified microorganism on a paper strip. This microorganism, which consists of a cell, is synthetically modified so that the detection of antibiotics occurs inside the cell and we only see the color change on the outside.

Building such a complex biological cycle in an organism is not an easy task. Bioinformatics plays a central role here and provides the basic support required for implementation in the laboratory. Such projects are based on state-of-the-art bioinformatics methods, including simulation of protein binding dynamics, prediction of genetic interactions between individual components and molecular modeling of signaling pathway elements. Just a few years ago this would have been hard to imagine. Especially not with the resources of the students.

 “These are such exciting solutions to such difficult problems” – but they are rarely discussed, explained a team member. The level of support and openness to synthetic biology within universities remains limited, and external receptiveness is no different. “It’s difficult to get people on the phone. We mainly work with sewage treatment plants, and even there, rejections are not uncommon. However, local, small bodies are often enthusiastic and support our ideas where they can,” explains a team member. Resistance to the term “synthetic biology” from the general public and academia led the team to adapt the design. Instead of dipping the paper strips directly into water, water samples are taken—a modification that alleviates concerns surrounding genetically modified biology applications making their way from the lab to the real world. “But just the statement that something genetically modified comes from the laboratory into an application outside causes an outcry,” mentions a team member.

Nevertheless, there is optimism in the air. “I think that will change. I'm sure that will change." The iGEM Team Frankfurt is not alone with this point of view. Today's scientists consider education and communication as an essential part of their work and actively participate in discussions and immersive explanations. The Frankfurt students show how active this process can really be. School visits, interviews, collaborations with sewage treatment plants, dialogues with experts, students and anyone who wants to listen about the pressing challenges of our time - this is what innovative science looks like.