Best in the World: VU Students Beat Their Peers from Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford Universities

November 17, 2017

A team of students from Vilnius University (VU), who called themselves Vilnius-Lithuania iGEM, rewrote the history of Lithuania’s life sciences. Although participating for only the third time, the VU students managed to win the main prize of the prestigious and biggest international competition of synthetic biology iGEM, leaving more than 300 teams from the world’s strongest universities in the dust.

The awards of the main prize and gold medal were supplemented by nominations in eight additional prize categories, three of which went to the Lithuanian team.

The Vilnius-Lithuania iGEM project was admired not only by the commission of judges but also by other contest participants, as well as synthetic biology scientists. The Lithuanian team developed a flexible quality management system of different plasmid group copies, which they called SynORI. Plasmids are circular DNA structures that carry assorted genetic information to microorganisms and change the functions of cells; for this reason, plasmids are widely used in biotechnology.

The system developed by the VU students will not only facilitate the conditions for conducting daily experiments with plasmids but will also be adapted for use in the pharmaceutical industry to create complex metabolic pathways, or to produce biotechnology products, for instance compound proteins.

“This is a huge affirmation for Lithuania. A small country managed to outrun the world’s best universities – Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Heidelberg. Our team made the name of Lithuania sound the loudest and mentioned most frequently in the world of synthetic biology; we therefore hope that in the future it will be easier to attract investments from large foreign companies in the scientific field to our region,” the members of the team said.

“Having received the support of iGEM teams from all over the world and the interest of large synthetic biology companies, we now expect that this project will not be left lying in a drawer but will be developed at the commercial product stage. The SynORI project of the Vilnius-Lithuania iGEM team is especially attractive and necessary for the advancement of synthetic biology science,” Gabrielius Jakutis, the head of the team, noted.

Since it was set up, the Vilnius iGEM team has been supported by the biotechnology company Thermo Fisher Scientific. It has provided the team with all the reagents that are being developed and produced in Vilnius and needed for scientific experiments. The company’s researchers also help the Vilnius iGEM team by consulting it on different research questions on an annual basis, and the financial support provided allows the team to go to the final event in Boston. Traditionally, the Vilnius iGEM team visits the company’s headquarters in Boston straight after the awards ceremony; this year, the students from Lithuania were also congratulated by the company’s top management.

The students were also sponsored this year by Interlux, an advanced medical technology company, and Biotecha, a company that offers laboratory research solutions.

Once the competition ends, the team members will not go their separate ways. Most of them are in the final year of their Bachelor’s or Master’s studies, so first they need to graduate. Then, as the team put it, the time may come for the first synthetic biology start-up in Lithuania.

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Aistė Žebrauskienė
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