iGems 2015

The iGEM team for 2015.

Undergraduates win gold with a new method to eradicate Bovine Tuberculosis

Bovine Tuberculosis (bTB) is arguably one of the biggest stressors on the farming community and the available methods for its eradication remain a controversial subject.  With the number of reported cases on the rise over the last 10 years and as pressures on cattle farming increase, the removal of bTB has become more important now than ever. With the aid of those at the forefront of the disease, a product developed by a team of Exeter undergraduate students may go some way in aiding its eradication, something which has landed them a Gold Award at this years ‘Giant Jamboree’ in Boston.

Considering the economic cost of bTB in the UK and across Europe, it may be surprising to hear that a vaccination to bTB does in fact exist. The BCG vaccine can proved immunity to the disease but as it interacts with the skin test used on cattle, if it is used there is no way of identifying infected vs immune individuals. As a result, the vaccine is banned across Europe and farmers are reliant on the skin test but this leaves around 20% of infected animals undiagnosed and able to spread the disease throughout the herd. Not only is this damaging to the farmer but cost the UK tax-payer around £36,000 a year.

Over the summer months, an interdisciplinary team of 11 undergraduate students spanning physics, biochemistry, natural and biological sciences begun developing a new methodology that may someday play a part in eradicating bTB.  Under the guidance of post-doctoral researcher Paul James, the initial stages of the project involved discussions with those directly affected by bTB as well as gaining a better understanding of the public perception on the extent of the disease.  “Meeting with vets and farmers at the beginning of the project allowed us to understand as a team the extent of the problem of Bovine TB in the UK, particularly the South West. The disease causes challenges to farmers in ways that are different to the challenge it causes to vets. Making sure we were aware of the main groups involved and how TB affects each of these groups specifically meant we identified exactly how bad the problem was” the team says.

The team developed a method that involves taking a blood sample from each member of the herd and by using a simple colour test, effectively and relatively quickly identifies infected individuals so they can be prevented from spreading the disease.  They also hope that by using small electronic stickers on identification ear tags, farmers will be able to store important information about each cow reducing the chance of human error when using the test. After the blood samples have been tested, the cows simply need to walk in front of a scanner to distinguish if they were the disease-free members of the herd.

The method uses a genetic test called a “toehold switch” that is able to activate gene expression in response to a specific RNA sequence. The team aimed to design the switch to respond to RNA specific to bTB and produce a colour output that would show the presence of bTB in the animal. The team tested this method in the lab using modelling techniques to stimulate the expected conditions that might occur in real-life. “Modelling was a fundamental part of our project, it allows us to not only test the system rigorously but also provide a visual output to make it easier to see what was going on.” They were then able to show this visual information to their stakeholders and academics at the university who assisted with the project.

The project was run under iGEM (the international genetically engineered machine foundation), which aims to educate the next generation of scientists and develop the field and public understanding of synthetic biology. At the end of September, the students went to Boston to present their research at the Giant Jamboree with over 270 teams from Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas all with a range of projects in synthetic biology and it was here that they were awarded a Gold award.   

But Boston was not the only place where the project has been recognized and there is a high chance that the test could be used in the future.  “The potential for this system in the management of bovine TB (bTB) has already been identified by key stakeholders, including George Eustace MP, the head of DEFRA, and Michael Ross, the managing director of Saved and Safe (a company involved in developing management strategies for bTB) who described the idea as a “game changer”. While there is some way to go in making this test the norm, Dr Paul James has continued with the project and we are a step closer to making bTB a thing of the past.

Article written by Amy Foreman, Biosciences Press Gang.

Date: 11 November 2015

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