The grass crunches under your hiking boots as you make your way across the arid terrain on an African safari. A faint hissing sound catches your attention. You stop. An intense pain travels from your ankle up through your left thigh as you see a snake disappearing in a cloud of red dust. But was it brown with black stripes—or black with brown stripes?
Not being able to describe the snake that bit you can cost you your life. That said, very few people are able to do so, which is why snake bite victims rarely receive the best anti-venom treatment—resulting in more than 100,000 deaths and 400,000 disability cases every year.
This year’s team of DTU Biobuilders has decided to solve this problem once and for all. Across several fields of study, 11 engineering students have spent two semesters developing an apparatus which—by means of a blood sample—can identify the snake responsible for the attack.
“Our particular focus is on those areas where snake bites have the greatest impact. If a family father in southern Africa receives the wrong anti-venom and becomes disabled, it affects not only him but all the people he has to support,” explains Ivan Doudka—who in addition to being involved in DTU Biobuilders—is studying electrical engineering.
The team must prove that they can trace different snake venom in the blood before presenting their research findings in November at the world’s largest synthetic biology competition—iGEM in Boston, USA.
The iGEM competition has grown from a closed biology competition at the prestigious American university MIT into a worldwide event accommodating more than 300 teams from different universities in over 30 countries. DTU’s team will compete against these universities at a spectacular finale—The giant jamboree—as the iGEM calls it.
“It’s great that we get the opportunity to compare ourselves with the best universities in the world and show that DTU can measure up against the best,” says Line Meyhoff Aastrup, who in addition to being involved in DTU Biobuilders is also studying bioinformatics and systems biology.
Every DTU team since 2009 has won at least one gold medal at the iGEM in Boston for their work. Students from the University of Southern Denmark and the University of Copenhagen are also participating in this year’s competition.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how our project measures up to those of the other teams—but I’m also a bit nervous about the limited time we have to reach all our targets within the deadline,” says DTU Biobuilders team member Kostas Kalogeropoulos who, like Line, is also studying bioinformatics and systems biology.
“We get the opportunity to compare ourselves with the best universities in the world and show that DTU can measure up against the best.”
Line Meyhoff Aastrup, DTU Biobuilders
Every year sees a new team of DTU Biobuilders, and all students can register for the project. The team often draws students from very different study programmes and this diversity is no coincidence.
“Everyone brings something unique to the team. Some are great at lab work, while others are masters at analysing DNA sequences. This enables us to develop a better product,” says DTU Biobuilders team member Chrysillis Magaard Polhaus, who is studying human life science engineering.
However, according to team member and MSc student in biotechnology engineering, Cathrine Agnete Larsen, it is not only product development that benefits from this diversity:
“When you work so closely together throughout a long process, you learn to exploit each other’s strengths and compensate for weaknesses. You also learn to trust your colleagues and believe in their ability to do the assignment for which they are responsible,” she says.
Source : DTU