Inter-disciplinary team of NUS students clinch 3rd place in global synthetic biology competition

An inter-disciplinary team of nine students from NUS’ College of Design and Engineering (CDE), School of Computing (SoC), Faculty of Science (FoS), and Duke-NUS Medical School did the University proud by clinching the third place in a global competition held in Paris on 3 November 2023. The annual event, known as the international Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition, brought together more than 6,000 participants to commemorate, celebrate, and chart the progress of the field of synthetic biology.

The NUS team was also the best performing team from Asia, in a crowded field that received entries from 167 undergraduate teams, including those from other top universities in the world.

The team’s project leveraged the momentum generated from two leading innovations in recent times: RNA vaccines and breakthroughs in machine learning technologies. Their winning submission, named OTTER (Optimised Technique for swiTch Engineering and Ranking), is an AI-empowered platform that is designed to predict how RNA molecules interact with each other in the cell. It can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of different classes of RNAs, such as RNA switches, and identify RNA sequences that can inactivate or deactivate specific genes with greater precision.

This project was an extensive collaboration between the disciplines of artificial intelligence, engineering and biology, and it required students with diverse skillsets in coding or wet lab experiments to work closely with one another. The NUS team interviewed various experts and specialists for their domain expertise, and honed their presentation skills by giving talks to other NUS students and kindergarten students on the topic of genetic engineering.

Their efforts paid off on all fronts. The team successfully developed and trained a deep learning model that allows users to automate the design and analysis of RNA tools. Their project, which took shape over the course of the year, was also conferred the ‘Best Foundational Advance’ prize and the Gold Medal Award. The project was also nominated for Best Wiki, Best New Composite Part, Best Presentation and Best Model.

“This is a showcase of our world-class multi-disciplinary education and research. The students have worked very hard the whole year and their work has impressed the judges. The students have competed with the best in the world and have done us very proud,” said Associate Professor Poh Chueh Loo from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at CDE, the NUS Synthetic Biology for Clinical and Technological Innovation (SynCTI), and the Lead PI for this project.

The NUS team was also mentored by Associate Professor Jimmy Chih from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at CDE, with support from scientists at SynCTI, including Associate Professor Matthew Chang, Associate Professor Yew Wen Shan, and Assistant Professor Julius Freden. The team was also supported by BioMakerSpace@CDE and NUS iGEM alumni.