Synthetic biotechnology is still a new field and much needs to be done. An undergraduate team from IIT Madras has won a gold medal at the Asian Jamboree of iGEM 2013 for their project on combating Shiga toxins.

A team of eight students from IIT Madras has won a gold medal at the Asian Jamboree of the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition for 2013, held at Hong Kong. Stirred by the effect of Shiga toxins in humans, they decided to work towards engineering an organism to counteract Shiga toxin. Shiga toxins are produced by bacteria known as Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia Coli (STEC). These bacteria enter the gut of cattle and form a biofilm, causing diseases in them. The primary route for these toxins to enter the human system is through consumption of unprocessed meat, milk etc.

The disease has claimed over one million lives so far and there is no available cure either. “We came up with this idea in 2012 itself. The global epidemic of Shiga toxins came up and there were 10,000 deaths reported from eating hamburgers. Since India is the largest exporter of beef, we felt addressing this problem would be impactful,” says Mayank Choudhary, one of the team members.

They had several ideas to start with and zeroed in on genetically engineering bacteria that would produce antitoxins pretty soon after they took up the challenge. It took them two months to define the problem and another two to design the experiment and the rest of the time they spent on experimentally verifying their observations and optimising it to get the best yield. “Since it was a novel approach towards neutralising the toxin, we had to design our own way of visualising and making sure the working of the system,” says Mayank.

The student members of the team — Namit, Nandita, Mitan, Kanishka, Mayank, Nishita, Rohan and Aman — all belong to the fourth-year of B.Tech. in the department of biotechnology. Most of them will be graduating this year and some are going to spend one more year for their dual degree programme.

Best human practices

Apart from the experimental side of the project, they have addressed practices. They held seminars, lectures, demonstrations, etc to create awareness about the Shiga toxin problem among freshers and sophomores in IIT Madras. As Mayank says, “Some of us will pass out this year and we need volunteers to carry on the project next year.” The work was demanding and included daily meetings. There were weekends when the team just stayed in the department to finish the work.

The work was not without a public interface. To promote awareness among meat sellers, they made a “Red Book” which had notes of precautions and preventive measures in handling meat, and handed out copies of this book, translated into Tamil, to butchers and meat vendors in Velachery and Taramani.

The research was funded by alumni of IIT Madras, IC&SR and the department of biotechnology development fund of IIT-M. Their faculty guides were Dr. Nilesh Mohapatra and Karthik Raman.

Apart from the gold medal they were given the best human practices award.