Roger Monfort, Alberto Coronado, Adrián Requena, Carolina Ropero, Carlos Andreu, Tzvetelina Ilieva Anguelova, Marc Martínez, Héctor Izquierdo, Blanca Madorrán and Joan Casado have won a prize at the synthetic biology 2018 iGEM competition. Photo: Roger Monfort/UPV

“Printeria” es un aparato capaz de imprimir en el ADN de una bacteria. Foto: Roger Monfort/UPV

Printeria, a ground-breaking bio-printer developed by UPV students

Ten students at the Universitat Politècnica de València have won the world’s chief synthetic biology competition for their revolutionary genetic edition project.

A team made of ten students at the Universitat Politècnica de València (UPV) have won a prize at the synthetic biology 2018 iGEM competition, a landmark in the field of modern science in Spain. 343 teams from all over the world participated in the competition with their sophisticated projects.

The team from Valencia’s project was Printeria, a machine able of printing genetic circuits on bacteria. The device is as easy to use as a desktop printer. With a multitude of possibilities in the medical, artistic, educational or industrial fields, it could be a game changer in the field of genetic edition.

In addition to the first prize, Printeria earned a number of special awards: Best New App, Best Software, Best Hardware and Best Modelling.

‘We were very excited before the competition. We knew we would not go unnoticed, but the award came as a big surprise,’ said Roger Monfort (Castellón de la Plana, 1997), who spoke on behalf of the multidisciplinary student team from Valencia.

The members of the team were Roger Monfort, Alberto Coronado, Adrián Requena, Carolina Ropero, Carlos Andreu, Tzvetelina Ilieva Anguelova, Marc Martínez, Héctor Izquierdo, Blanca Madorrán and Joan Casado, who are students in disciplines like Biotechnology, Biomedical Engineering, Computing Engineering, Industrial Technology Engineering, Electronic Engineering, and Arts.

- You have won the 2018 iGEM competition, beating teams from top universities like Harvard, Yale, Oxford or Cambridge. How do you feel about being the winners?

- We still cannot believe it! We are really proud of our work. We overtook these top universities, which have got much more support than we have. It was all very rewarding and now we are more motivated than ever. We are even considering the possibility of starting an enterprise.

- How does your award-winning machine work?

- We usually describe it as a desktop printer because… it is actually a printer that instead of ink cartridges it uses the elements required to synthetize DNA: water, enzymes… Our ‘cartridges’ contain the components required to print DNA into bacteria.

The computer has an intuitive software that anyone can use. You decide what type of bacteria you want to obtain. You can make peppermint-smelling bacteria, blue bacteria, microorganisms that produce insulin… You just press ‘play’ and the machine starts working like a desktop printer. It picks the elements, proceeds with the biochemical reactions and inserts the DNA into the bacteria.

At the end of the process, we get a test tube with tailored bacteria growing in it and expressing what we entered in the software. If we want blue bacteria, they will turn blue.

- What are the biological applications of Printeria?

- Well, it has a whole host of applications: industrial, medical… A few days ago we were talking about what our device could be used for, and we came up with a large number of ideas. We could apply Printeria in bioremediation of heavy metals by using bacteria, in insulin or antibiotics production, or we could produce plastics completely synthetized by bacteria, or medicines. Actually, pharmaceuticals manufacture drugs from genetically modified bacteria, but they will not tell.

- How long did it take you to develop the project?

- I think we did it surprisingly fast. It took us four months over the summer (he laughs). But I did not see my family during those summer months; well, my colleagues did not see their families either. We would work all day long, even at night sometimes.

- Can you describe the iGEM competition?

- Normally, it is a three-day event. It takes place at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston, USA, and is sponsored by the MIT. During three days, all the teams present their projects before a judging panel. Then the judges ask questions. You can display a poster that can come in handy. Finally, they fill in a form with your score.

The finalists – the teams that get the highest scores –  are announced on day three. They present their project one more time before the whole iGEM, all the judges and the students. The top three receive the first, second and third prizes.

- Your prize is an achievement of Spanish science, especially since your device is more competitive in terms of costs as compared to other devices. Do you believe your project provides evidence that you can make significant science progress on a tight budget?

- Of course you can do research without spending large sums of money. However, having sponsors saves time, because you do not need to go out there to raise funds. Sometimes we did not have money to buy supplies. The less money you have the more time you waste.

Anyway, you can do research with few sponsors. Definitely. We have talented scientists in Spain. And we must learn to trust and support them.

- What is your opinion of the science made in Spain?

- I believe we have world-class scientists. The only problem is lack of confidence; I mean, we do not have confidence in our scientists. Spanish scientists should get more financial support from Spanish corporations. There are scientists with great ideas in our universities. Only with more sponsors will we be on a par with the world’s best countries in science, like the USA. Their projects in the competition had been carefully developed, they were excellent, including those that did not get any prize.

- What is the opinion of scientists from other countries of the science made in Spain?

- They think it is good. Nobody looked down on our project. But they know our funding level is not that high. They consider we are good scientists but they know our budget is lower than theirs.

- Tell us about your upcoming projects…

- We already have Printeria! Our next step should be to capitalise on the media buzz around the prize. We want to find sponsors here in Spain, because we want to develop our project here as well as in other countries. We would like Printeria to be a business based in Spain, if possible.