The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM), an event in which students from around the world compete for research ideas and results in the field of synthetic biology, was held in France from November 2-5, 2023, and a team of Japanese junior and senior high school students won.
The team, called “Japan-United,” was headed by Kaisei Otake, a sophomore at Musashi Senior High School, and consisted of 23 students from various public and private junior and senior high schools, who were advised through social networking services by Tatekyo Tatekyo, founding scientist of Orisilogenomics and Professor Masayuki Suetsugu of Rikkyo University’s Department of Life Science, Faculty of Science.
Japan-United has studied and developed a method to produce carotenoids and terpenoids, such as crocetin, crocin, and picrocrocin, using E. coli bacteria. These three substances are contained in saffron, a flowering plant of the iris family, and have been reported in several studies to have antidepressant effects and to have fewer side effects than existing antidepressant drugs. Japan-United has developed a business plan to produce saffron from E. coli and use it as a food to prevent depression.
First, Japan-United modified the genes of a common E. coli strain, BL21, to express enzymes that synthesize three substances. Although they could not detect the synthesis of crocin, they succeeded in synthesizing crocetin and picrocrocin.
The team also planned to take the metabolites from E. coli bacteria in their entirety in order to reduce the cost of extraction and purification from E. coli before using the produced substances as food. First, the team changed the E. coli strain to Nissl1917, which is already in practical use as a probiotic. Furthermore, by removing the chromosomes from the E. coli, they succeeded in making it lose its proliferative potential. This created an E. coli strain that is edible and may avoid compliance with the Cartagena Act because of its lack of proliferative potential. As a result, they were able to maintain the plasmid that produced the three substances of interest in strain Nissl1917 and produce carotenoids, although they were unable to accurately identify the substances.
Despite the immaturity of the results of this research, the team won the Grand Prize, the overall winner in the high school student category, during the iGEM event. 400 teams from 66 countries participated in the iGEM event in November 2023. The fields of synthetic biology and biomanufacturing have been the talk of the town recently, and the enthusiasm is spreading to the youth.