In conversation : iGEM IISER Kolkata

“Our proposal to develop a cheap, portable, easy to use colorimetric detection kit for subclinical bovine mastitis and an intramammary injection-based means of treatment will go a long way in democratising the benefits of science for the masses.”

Team iGEM, IISER Kolkata

Amidst the increasing popularity of the iGEM synthetic biology competition, Indian teams are making a commendable effort to bring several innovative ideas to the global front. Here we interview this year’s iGEM team from IISER Kolkata about their experiences and journey so far.

The rise of synthetic biology has evoked mixed reactions from the masses. While the Synbio proponents hail the discoveries in the field, the opponents have a view that “Humans are breaching their limits and trying to become God”. What is your take on this aspect?

The rise of synthetic biology as a game changing area for future scientific innovation certainly comes with its own risks and challenges. One may argue that there is no scope for improvement in science without taking the necessary risks associated with an issue. However, experiments performed in the lab should adhere to ethical guidelines . Synthetic biology is a boon if we can harvest its immense potential to solve a number of problems ranging from disease to agricultural output and climate change. Rather than believing the view that “Humans are breaching their limits and trying to become God”, synthetic biology can be envisioned as a tool to solve several problems and improve human and non-human lives while being  responsible and ethical with our work.

iGEM strives to promote research at different levels and encourage students to come up with practical solutions to real-life problems. What is the goal of your project for this year’s competition and how did your team brainstorm and narrow down on the idea chosen?

The iGEM team of IISER Kolkata is currently working on developing a method to diagnose and treat subclinical bovine mastitis. We aim to diagnose bovine mastitis at the subclinical stage (being almost invisible without any noticeable symptoms, this stage is often undetected, leading to advanced levels of infection) using a real time sensor. Our treatment method (expected to work for bovine mastitis at any stage) would be an antibiotic-free means of treatment.

We came upon this idea when one of our teammates had a conversation with his milkman whose cows were falling sick, producing less milk and had swollen udders. Through collective brainstorming and researching on the basis of the observed condition of the cows, we came across bovine mastitis and subsequently arrived on the idea.

Curiosity-driven research, even with all its awe-inspiring charm can often hit a roadblock without the backing of the all-powerful sponsors. How did you go about garnering funds for the project?

For the required funding of our project, we approached different scientists and dairy corporations and communicated our aims and benefits of our idea. We also plan to get in touch with e-commerce companies and entrepreneurs with start-up ideas for sponsorships to ensure our product reaches the masses. iGEM also has several partner organisations which shortlist teams to fund their research. Our team is one of the recipients of the grant provided by Promega Corporation for iGEM teams to fund their research.

The iGEM journey is a mosaic of new experiences quite different from the usual lab work science students encounter during their formal courses. How do you think participating in a research intensive competition like iGEM impacted your scientific thought and mettle?

Participating in a research-intensive competition like iGEM is an exciting and dynamic journey with its own share of challenges and opportunities for all of us as a team. The enthusiasm of solving a real world issue incentivises every one of us to push our boundaries when it comes to learning and developing new skills as a team for iGEM. In contrast to formal courses involving laboratory work, iGEM gives us a special opportunity to chalk out our own experiments; which not only impart a real-life working experience in a lab but also help in learning several complementary skills. These include communicating with our collaborators to engaging in grassroots work as we reach out to our stakeholders in human practices. There is also a continuous exchange of information and knowledge in the team as members who work in dry and wet labs collectively undertake discussions, thereby complementing each other’s scientific mettle.

One of the striking features embellishing iGEM projects is the need to make them responsible and good for the world throughout the project lifecycle. What are the human practices being taken up by the team? How did the team try crafting their human practices to be effective in the wake of a global pandemic?

We have a dedicated team working in human practices who make sure we reach out to our stakeholders in the most efficient way. Our human practices plan is a 4-step approach where the first step is understanding the problem by interacting with our stakeholders, which include veterinary doctors, researchers and large and small scale dairy farmers. We have collated inputs from all these stakeholders and incorporated it in the designing of our project which is the second step. The third step involves integrating the advice of wet and dry lab experts in our project followed by the fourth step, which is to go back to our stakeholders and convey our results and ensure efficient scientific communication. In order to educate people about synthetic biology as well as bovine mastitis, we have circulated a survey amongst university students and also conducted a mini summer school for high school girl students teaching them about synthetic biology.

What are the practical implications of your conceived idea?

Our project aims to tackle a major and persistent issue faced by the dairy industry. This disease also renders the animal futile for domestication if the infection is not treated in due time leading to the culling of the cows in the greater financial interest of the farmer(s). In addition to that, the massive and unnecessary use of antibiotics in the dairy sector leads to the evolution of antibacterial resistance in cows which could affect treating bovine mastitis. The antibiotics also directly pass on to milk and milk products which are consumed by humans, leading to evolution of antibacterial resistance in humans as well. Developing an antibiotic-free means of treatment is not just a step to treat bovine mastitis in particular but a greater step in the quest to treat bacterial diseases without a necessary dependence on antibiotics.

What do you think are the major milestones and challenges to be crossed in bringing your idea to fruition in the future?

For understanding our project at a more grassroots level we have interviewed some veterinary doctors and scientists. Scientists have mentioned that when they approached the milkmen and small dairy farmers for sample collection, most of them denied permission to take samples from their infected cows. To them, it’s a fear that while collecting samples the cow may be harmed. So awareness is what our team is working to achieve. Other than that as per the small dairy farmers, the cost for curing bovine mastitis using antibiotics is quite high. So we plan on making a low-cost detection kit and treatment method.

What, according to you, are the benefits and other perks that students can obtain by participating in iGEM? How do you propose to popularise this competition among the mainstream scientific institutes and universities in India?

A student participating in this competition is exposed to each and every field of synthetic biology. Being exposed to all these fields helps one to grow as a budding scientist. Science is not all about experiments and data collection especially when one is working with GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms); one needs to take care of biosecurity and biosafety. This competition as a whole helps a participant to understand the vastness of synthetic biology and teaches you to harness its power for the betterment of mankind.

iGEM competition has gained a lot of popularity since its conception and a lot of centrally funded Indian institutes already participate. More popularity can be achieved by social media platforms, blogs, and workshops by participating teams. The initiative of the Next-Gen Scientists foundation to bring this competition into the limelight is really commendable.

Finally, what would be your message to students who are looking forward to participating in the upcoming editions of iGEM?

iGEM is all about exploring and understanding the interdisciplinary facets of synthetic biology. One gets to learn a lot of things other than the specific role for which you joined the team i.e., there are members who have exemplary expertise in the dry lab but have learned wet lab skills. It is one of the best ways to learn about science and solve real-life problems and a beautiful research experience one might get to explore even during their undergraduate years. It is going to be a roller coaster ride that you will enjoy every bit of and will cherish.

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