Heidelberg Team Shines at MIT

11 11 2008
“Ecolicence to Kill” project: Heidelberg team wins more prizes than anyone else at the international iGEM competition in Boston
The efforts were considerable, the rewards sensational. At the presentation of the awards in the prestigious international iGEM competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, the team from Heidelberg – participating for the first time – was up on the platform more often than any of its rivals. The young researchers snapped up three special prizes and a gold medal for the scientific quality of their project. Under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Roland Eils and Dr. Viktor Sourjik, the 16 students had been working for four months on the project “Ecolicence to Kill”. The aim of the project was to genetically re-engineer bacteria to get them to track down and exterminate other pathogens or tumour cells.

The international Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition for synthetic biology was first organized in 2005. This year, it attracted a highly competitive field of 84 young research teams, including participants from world-leader universities such as Harvard, the California Institute of Technology, Cambridge and Tokyo. At the grand finale on 8/9 November, all the teams presented the results of their projects at MIT in Boston.

The team from Heidelberg University and the German Cancer Research Centre (Heidelberg) was resoundingly successful, winning no fewer than three special prizes – awards for best project presentation and best scientific poster, plus the Human Practice Prize for outstanding achievements in the dialogue with the public. In addition, the Heidelberg students were one of only 16 teams receiving a gold medal for the scientific quality of their projects.

Over the previous four months, the young researchers had been working on a project called “Ecolicence to Kill” supervised by Prof. Dr. Roland Eils (German Cancer Research Centre and Heidelberg University) and Dr. Viktor Sourjik (Centre for Molecular Biology, Heidelberg University).

Synthetic biology is a relatively new branch of science in which findings from the molecular life sciences are combined with engineering approaches to modify organisms in such a way that they can act as biological machines performing new tasks. Since July of this year, the team of 15 students from Heidelberg and one student from Darmstadt Technical University had been figuring out a way of re-engineering common-or-garden E. coli intestinal bacteria into a killer-prey system. They succeeded in breeding killer strains able to systematically destroy prey bacteria. The prey bacteria themselves were altered to release a specific attractant that the killer bacteria could recognise. The plan is to develop medical applications on the basis of this artificial killer-prey system, in which the killer bacteria systematically track down and exterminate pathogens or tumour cells. Initial successes in attacking tumour cells have already been achieved.

“Ecolicence to Kill” project: Heidelberg team wins more prizes than anyone else at the international iGEM competition in Boston  

The jury attached particular importance to the dialogue with the public. In order to allay the misgivings many people have about synthetic biology and genetic engineering, the Heidelberg students carried out a number of activities, including surveys, information sessions in the Old Town of Heidelberg and a practical introduction to the project for a school class. For these activities the Heidelberg team was awarded the Human Practice Prize. The public relations work by the Heidelberg team was singled out for special praise and described as a standard by which future iGEM projects could be measured.

The team’s findings and a list of the numerous sponsors, without whose assistance participation in the competition would not have been possible, can be found at

More pictures can be requested from Dr. Jan Eufinger (

Please address any inquiries to
Public Relations Office
German Cancer Research Centre
Im Neuenheimer Feld 280
D-69120 Heidelberg
Phone: +49 6221 422854
Fax: +49 6221 422968

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Public Information Officer
Heidelberg University
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542197

Irene Thewalt
Editor: Email
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