Equipe Igem Sorbonne Université 2022

Sorbonne University, one of the top French teams in the iGEM

With a gold medal, a grand prize and two nominations among 356 teams, this year again the iGEM team of Sorbonne University has been successful in the largest international student competition of synthetic biology.

"For a first in Paris and after two years of distance learning, it is a great satisfaction and a great success for the team members and their supervisors," says one of the supervisors, Marco Da Costa, an academic researcher in the developmental biology laboratory at the Paris-Seine Biology Institute. For a year, twenty students from the Faculty of Science and Engineering have been involved in this international competition dedicated to synthetic biology.

The iGEM Sorbonne University team, composed of students in the master's programs of molecular and cellular biology, bioinformatics and modeling, integrative biology and physiology, and innovation management, as well as a student in a life sciences degree program, defended the NAWI ecological project. This project aims to genetically modify a micro-algae to make it edible in order to alleviate the problems of iron deficiency that are relatively widespread in the world. It also responds to issues of sustainability of agricultural and food systems related to overexploitation of resources. This is both a human and scientific adventure, as Marco Da Costa, who has been supervising the students since the beginning of the iGEM1 adventure at Sorbonne University, points out: "In 2016, a few students heard about this competition. They created the Abiosup association to raise funds and asked me to be their supervisor. Working in the field of biotechnology and always attracted to educational innovations, I immediately wanted to get involved in this experience."


Created in 2003 by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the iGEM competition gives the student community the opportunity to push the boundaries of synthetic biology by tackling environmental, medical, agri-food and other problems. Each year, close to 7500 people spend their summer designing an innovative biotechnology project that they then present at the annual Jamboree.

A project-based competition

With Marco Da Costa, Frédérique Péronnet, Pierre Crozet and Guillaume Garnier, there are now three biologists and a doctoral student in mathematics to help students in this competition that requires a real personal investment. In just a few months, the candidates must carry out a project ranging from the search for funding to communication, including laboratory experiments and the implementation of scientific mediation actions. This is an opportunity for them to develop numerous skills. In addition to experiments to demonstrate the feasibility of their concept, this year the students developed a website, a NAWI TV channel and a comic strip to raise public awareness on social networks. "They have also carried out practical work in primary and secondary schools, created activities for the Fête de la science (the Science Festival) at the Cité des sciences et de l'industrie, organized several seminars on their project on the campus of the Faculty of Science and Engineering, as well as a mini congress with French iGEM teams working on modeling; all initiatives that count in the evaluation of their candidacy," explains Marco Da Costa.

And to meet the expenses related to the competition, the team had to find sponsors and funding. They were able to count on the support of the FSDIE2, the Laboratory of Quantitative and Computational Biology and CVEC3. "It's a lot of pressure for the students. They have to be very reactive to respond to calls for tender while continuing to follow their university courses and carry out their internship," emphasizes the supervisor.

The Giant Jamboree in Paris

The work paid off, during the Giant Jamboree in Paris on All Saints Day. A large gathering where each of the 356 teams came to present their project to an international scientific jury. “For three days, the students experienced a real American-style show that brought together several thousand people from around the world. These three days at Paris Expo Porte de Versailles marked the end of this magnificent adventure, which is one of the most enriching experiences of our curriculum," says Elio El Ghoul, a student in bioinformatics and modeling and president of iGEM Sorbonne University. “Our determination and strong team spirit paid off with the public and the jury, as we returned with a gold medal, a grand prize and two nominations."

An experience that the students will not forget and that could open new professional perspectives for them. "This competition represents for us a first approach to research and project creation. It is also a way to develop new solutions that respond to the challenges of tomorrow through synthetic biology," emphasizes Elio El Ghoul. Some iGEM projects have already given rise to startups in the United States and many former iGEMers now work in biotech or genome editing companies.

1 iGEM: International Genetically Engineered Machine competition

2 FSDIE: Fonds de solidarité au développement des initiatives étudiantes (Solidarity fund for the development of student initiatives)

3 CVEC: student and campus life contribution