Designer blood from Tübingen, Germany

As the first iGEM project to receive a FutureLab travel grant from GIP AG, the project "Designer Blood" of the iGEM team Tübingen was selected.  

The award was made because of the great innovation potential and especially the use of AI technologies such as AlphaFold ( and other analysis and simulation software tools. The photo shows Wiktoria Palka, research assistant of the Futurelab of the GIP AG at the handover of the travel grant to the iGEM team Tübingen.

How students use synthetic biology to design blood

The iGEM team Tübingen, consisting of students from the University of Tübingen, is one of 19 teams from Germany taking part in this year's iGEM Competition and developing SynBio-based solutions. In an interview with Julian Borbeck, bachelor student of bioinformatics, and Anne Prowald, master student of biochemistry, I learned more about their research project and the challenges involved.

The point at which innovation emerges

The iGEM Competition is an international competition in synthetic biology where students from different universities and research institutions around the world can develop innovative solutions in areas such as medicine, environmental protection, food production and energy. Teams use standard biological building blocks and tools such as DNA sequencing and bioinformatics to modify existing biological systems or design new ones to enable useful functions. Participants: will have the chance to showcase their skills in an interdisciplinary setting, and present their projects at the major iGEM conference in Paris in November.

"That's also where innovation comes from at iGEM, you just have the exchange between disciplines," Julian tells us.

Designer blood from Tübingen

The main focus of the iGEM team Tübingen is to convert blood groups into each other. Blood groups in humans occur in the facets A, B, AB and 0. What distinguishes them are glycoproteins: proteins that carry a sugar chain, populated with a specific combination of sugar residues that make the blood groups unique. These glycoproteins decorate the surface of red blood cells, called erythrocytes, and thus define which blood type a person has.

Converting glycoprotein type A into the universally accepted type 0 is already possible. An enzyme is responsible for this, which modifies a sugar in the sugar chain. Now the goal of the iGEM team in Tübingen is to convert type B into type A. The problem: in the conversion from A to 0, a sugar is modified that occurs only once in the molecule. When converting B to A, a very specific position in the sugar chain must be selected and only the specific sugar must be modified. This high target specificity is a challenge for the young scientists.

In the "dry lab", i.e. the digital, bioinformatics "laboratory", potential enzymes are sought that can catalyze the desired reaction at the selected target sugar. These candidates are tested in a reaction simulation, and the most promising ones are sent to the "wet lab" in the next step, where they are analyzed in the laboratory using molecular biology methods. "The problem is ultimately that we rely on simulations in the dry lab. But it is still an unsolved problem in bioinformatics to predict the exact specificity and selectivity from an enzyme. The correlation between what actually comes out in the computer and what is seen in the lab is 60%." Therefore, the question is whether the results from the digital lab can be so easily transferred to the real lab. The best enzyme candidates identified digitally may fail in the real world. Thanks to AI-based protein structure resolution by Alphafold, workflows like the one in this project have become possible. Previously, access to experimental protein structures was tedious, expensive, and laborious. Now, such virtual screening workflows can be performed and tested in a reasonable time and project frame. Nevertheless, the challenge of implementation in the laboratory remains.

Cooperation and communication for sustainable solutions

In addition to scientific work, iGEM also emphasizes science communication and dialogue with society. The iGEM team in Tübingen is working in collaboration with the Tübingen Blood Donation Center to raise awareness of the current shortage of blood donations while developing and communicating a SynBio solution.

The team emphasizes that in Germany, engineering-biological fields are still predominantly viewed negatively, although change would be necessary to have fruitful discussions and work together on solutions. The iGEM team in Tübingen thus stands as an example of how young scientists are working to increase science communication and innovation in Germany.