Gold to this year’s iGEM team for modular biosensor


Team iGEM Uppsala 2020. Foto/bild: iGEM Uppsala

For the 10th consecutive year, the iGEM Uppsala team has been awarded gold in the iGEM Competition. This year’s entry NANOFLEX is a modular biosensor that could be adapted to detect and diagnose a variety of things at the cell level.

The world championship in synthetic biology or the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation’s competition was first held in 2004 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA. The competition is open to students at different levels and in different academic fields. The most outstanding entries are registered and saved for future research. This year’s competition was held in November online on account of the situation with the novel coronavirus. In addition to a gold medal, which many entries receive, the iGEM Uppsala team was awarded a prize for the best application project of the year.

An analysis tool accessible to anyone

NANOFLEX is a cellular biosensor that can detect caffeine, the stimulant in coffee by producing a red color. It could, in principle, be adapted to analyse anything including small molecules, chemicals, contaminants, allergens, and large pathogens. Normally, these kinds of analyses require complex equipment, personnel and time. Using cells instead of complex equipment saves both money and expertise. When you use NANOFLEX for analysis, you can read the result with the naked eye.

Team iGEM Uppsala’s project managers Blanca Valero Martínez and Ruta Upite are pleased with the final result of the project.

“Our aim was to offer an accessible tool to analyse and detect targets at the cell level.  With the colour change of the solution you can easily read the test result. This makes detection and diagnosis with NANOFLEX accessible to anyone,” says Blanca Valero Martínez.

Flexibility with interchangeable nanobodies

There are already many types of tools available today that use cellular biosensors. What makes NANOFLEX special is a modular way of detecting what you want to analyse using interchangeable nanobodies. Nanobodies are smaller versions of antibodies from camelids , and NANOFLEX could in theory detect and diagnose anything that is bound by a nanobody. Nanobodies also have many other benefits, such as being easy to clone and manipulate.

Useful in many areas

“The flexibility of NANOFLEX arises from using nanobodies as receptors. The synthesis of new nanobodies would allow the cellular biosensor to have a wide field of potential applications. For example pharmaceutical evaluation, screening for environmental toxins and diagnostics,” says Blanca Valero Martínez.

One use that this year’s iGEM Uppsala team was aiming for is detecting tuberculosis. The disease can be latent and therefore very difficult to detect. Today, advanced analyses and equipment are required to detect TB, but with the aid of cellular biosensors, tuberculosis might be detected more easily and faster.

Sara Helperin