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Vilnius University Students Achieve Second Place at iGEM: Pioneering Advances in Synthetic Biology

Vilnius University Students Achieve Second Place at iGEM: Pioneering Advances in Synthetic Biology

Students from Vilnius University made an impressive mark as the International Runners-Up at the iGEM Synthetic Biology Competition, firmly establishing Lithuania’s presence on the global stage of this prestigious event. This year marked the ninth consecutive participation of VU students in the competition, coinciding with its 20th anniversary. Held in Paris from 2nd to 5th November, the Vilnius-Lithuania iGEM team showcased their ‘Exullose’ project and secured the remarkable position of second place among more than 400 teams hailing from over 60 countries.

Their outstanding performance surpassed teams from distinguished institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Oxford.

Matas Rarivanas, the team leader, expressed pride in VU students’ consistent success, noting that it was the third time Vilnius University participants had clinched a top-three position. Previously, in 2017 and 2020, the Vilnius-Lithuania iGEM team had been recognized as the world’s best. These achievements stand as a testament to Lithuania’s potential in nurturing high-caliber students and advancing life sciences.

Beyond securing second place, the Vilnius-Lithuania iGEM team earned the coveted gold medal for ‘Excellence in Synthetic Biology,’ ranking in the top five for their biomanufacturing projects. Additionally, they received accolades in various categories, including the best collection of biological parts, outstanding educational activities, inclusivity, exceptional presentation, and an exemplary ‘Wiki’ page.

The focus of their project this year was bacterial cellulose, a polymer produced by bacteria coexisting with fermented Kombucha tea fungus. Their ‘Exullose’ project aimed to develop a biological system to manufacture materials based on bacterial cellulose with enhanced properties compared to conventional plant-derived cellulose.

Throughout the project, the team successfully created three bacterial cellulose modification systems. One system aimed to produce a bacterial cellulose polymer combined with chitin or chitosan, widening its applications in biomedicine. Remarkably, this system not only ensured sustainability but also reduced the manufacturing costs of bacterial cellulose and chitin polymers by 20 times. Another system involved staining bacterial cellulose during its production, illustrating an eco-friendly approach to avoid textile industry pollution caused by dyes. Moreover, the team managed to create a biodegradable material with plastic-like properties—an amalgamation of cellulose and polyhydroxybutyrate produced by bacteria, offering a potential sustainable alternative for food packaging.

In addition to their scientific endeavors, the team focused on scientific communication and public engagement. Their initiatives such as ‘Menas x Mokslas’ (Art x Science), the publication ‘Įvadas į sintetinę biologiją’ (Introduction to Synthetic Biology) in Braille, and outreach programs across Lithuanian cities and towns successfully reached nearly 25,000 individuals, emphasizing the team’s commitment to interdisciplinary collaboration and community involvement.