A team of 8 students - five from UAB, one from University of Santiago de Compostela and two from University of Granada - coordinated by lecturers Juan Antonio Baeza Labat, Joan Albiol Sala and Pau Ferrer Alegre from the Department of Chemical Engineering will be participating in the 2009 edition of iGEM, the prestigious synthetic biology competition organised by MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). It is the first project by a university in Catalonia to enter this competition. The students are working on the development of a biosensor to control the quality of water treatment processes.
The best universities around the world participate in this annual competition in which students are given four months to design and build an innovatively functional biological system using recombinant DNA techniques and explaining its functions through mathematical models. MIT sends each of the participants one of its BioBrick (DNA sequences of defined structure and function) libraries, which can be combined - or can incorporate new ones - in order to introduce new biological functions according to the device being developed.
The project, which will be presented by UAB lecturers and students, aims to develop a synthetic genetic system that operates as a biosensor that detects trihalomethanes (THM). Trihalomethanes are byproducts and appear in the water treatment process when chlorine is added. These byproducts are formed when organic matter found in water reacts with the chlorine used as a disinfectant. These elements have been classified as carcinogenic and teratogenic and can have adverse effects during pregnancy. Their harmful effects have made it necessary to pass laws limiting the amount of these substances found in drinking water to a maximum of 100 µg/L, which has meant that millions of euros have been invested in constructing additional systems at different water treatment plants.
The analysis of trihalomethanes requires advanced analytical techniques which are not always available. That is why students at UAB have proposed to create a biosensor with which to detect thes substances. To achieve this they first designed a computer model of the genetic elements to be introduced into a microorganism in order for it to function as a trihalomethane biosensor. Once the theoretical validity is demonstrated on the computer, students will need to continue with the real implementation of the device by using one of the model biological systems available for their practical demonstration of its viability.
The project currently is being carried out at the Department of Chemical Engineering of the University, which has provided the necessary material and equipment for this research project. The UAB Vice-Rectorate for Research has also contributed with funding for the project.
At the end of October, the research group will travel to MIT in Boston to present their project. The only other group from Spain to have participated in iGEM was a research group from Valencia (UV-UPV).