06.11.2013

Argentine Synthetic biology team was honored at an International Competition

Representatives of our country presented a project in the international competition held in Boston, USA, which was honored as the best theoretical model.

Argentine Synthetic biology team was honored at an International Competition

SensAr device scheme.

An interdisciplinary team of teachers, students and graduates from the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), submitted on Monday a pollutants in water biosensor, as part of the 2013 edition of the world's synthetic biology competition organized by the IGEM foundation (International Genetically Engineered Machine) in Boston, USA. The project was honored as the best theoretical modeling, an award which became the first distinction for a Latin America team in the international competition.

Nadra: "After organizing the team, we evaluated the different pollutants and the affected populations and we ended making census of the arsenic, because we had, among other reasons, the manner to measure it in the laboratory and because it is the main natural pollutant that makes undrinkable the water drank by about 4,000,000 Argentine people".

Using tools of synthetic biology, the project involved the design of a prototype for detection of arsenic in water. The team was led by Mr. Alejandro Nadra, researcher at the National Council of Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET) and professor at the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), together with a working group composed of graduates and students of various careers, including biology, computer science, physics, chemistry and industrial design who started at the beginning of this year to work on the initiative. About the emergence of the idea, Alejandro Nadra reported that "we realized that we had the biotechnology to make a cheap biosensor, easy to use, for a regional problem and with high social impact". "After organizing the team, we evaluated the different pollutants and the affected populations and we ended making census of the arsenic, because we had, among other reasons, the manner to measure it in the laboratory and because it is the main natural pollutant that makes undrinkable the water drank by about 4,000,000 Argentine people" Nadra concluded.

Argentina is one of the countries with more arsenic in their water, a situation shared with the United States of America and India, where the population exposed to pollution is very high. In our country, the central and northern region has concentrations of arsenic in their water. The knowledge of the arsenic levels can reorient consumption patterns, shifting the wells, making them deeper, showing the need for a filtration system to make water drinkable.

The device, called SensAr, is cheap and easy to use; their results can be interpreted without need for specific training. In this regard, Nadra said that “we did the test in the laboratory and it worked”. Now we are making the prototype and thinking how to scale it along with a group of designers with whom we collaborate. We have a physical model of the device, but we still do not combine the biological part with the case".

About the use, the researcher said that "user should place a few drops of the water to evaluate in a cup and clean water in the reference cups. After a few hours, the reference cups color at a level proportional to the level of arsenic: white if the water has tolerable levels or absence of arsenic, pink if the water has intermediate levels and red if the water is not drinkable. Ideally, a image-based instruction will be enough to make the measurements It should be as simple as a pregnancy test or a chlorine for pools test".

In addition, the same device, with minor modifications, can be used to detect other contaminants like lead, cyanide, nitrite and nitrate, among others.  

Thanks to the support from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovation, the team traveled in the first instance to the Latin America regional competition, held in October at Santiago de Chile, where the project won the second prize, gold medal and qualified to attend the international competition. The funding of the Science portfolio, also allowed three students and a supervisor to travel to present the project at the headquarters of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston.

"Qualifying to attend the international competition and obtaining a gold medal was our maximum realistic wish. The international competition is highly competitive where teams from the best universities in the world with years of experience in synthetic biology lines participate. In that context, being selected as one of the three best projects was a dream with little chance to come true, but seeing the enormous progress we have made in a few months we are filled with enthusiasm and optimism", Mr. Nadra, concluded. Nadra. 

What is synthetic biology?

It is a new discipline that combines engineering, biology and chemistry with the intention to modify and use living organisms as biomachines to perform functions not existing in nature.

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SensAr device scheme.

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