After a research internship with the guide of IBioBA scientists, three former students of the Pestalozzi school in Buenos Aires, obtained Third Place in the Biology category and the special mention Thinking Safety in the German competition for secondary students Jugend Forscht (‘Young people investigate ‘).

While Irina Zantleifer, Inés Pedemonte and Agustina De Luca were in their final year at the Pestalozzi school in 2020, they were selected to carry out a research internship at the IBioBA within the framework of the agreement that our Institute has with this school.

Based on the guidance of the researcher Patricio Yankilevich, head of the Bioinformatics platform at IBioBA and of the biology professor of the students Marco Kadi at school, the students developed an investigation on the SARS-CoV2 genome framed in bioinformatics from experiments which consisted on the use of databases and algorithms. BAsed on their exhaustive work, in addition to the Third Place in the Biology category, they also obtained the Thinking Safety special mention for being a 100% environmentally friendly study.

Since 2016 IBioBA researchers coach and preparestudents selected for research project and to participate in the contest. So far all the internship teams have stepped onto the Contest podium and the 2021 edition was not an exception. “This activity leaves an early mark on students associated with a passion for research. With this project they acquire their first tools associated with scientific thought and experimentation”, reflects Yankilevich.

Moment when the award was announced.
Moment when the award was announced.

The questions and the answers

Unlike previous editions, this time the research was carried out virtually. This fact presented them with important challenges related to the selection of research tools and the work dynamics that guarantee the level that this rigorous German competition for secondary students demands.

The investigation consisted of four parts:

  • The first focused on studying the origin of SARS-CoV2 in which they compared the sequence of its genome with respect to Betacoronavirus from other species.
  • In the second part, they investigated the genetic differences between SARS-CoV2 and SARS-CoV from the 2003 epidemic, with special attention to the Spike protein.
  • Third, they focused on virus mutations in Germany and their possible impact on spread.
  • And finally, they analyzed the PCR detection mechanism as a diagnostic method.

The comparative research between genomes led them to conclude that the SARS-CoV-2 genome presents the greatest similarity to a Bat virus (RaTG13), and within the group other nearby viruses are from Pangolin, MERS-CoV and SARS- CoV. Secondly, they detected that the percentage of identity between the SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV genomes is 80%, although if only the sequences of the spike proteins of each are compared, a greater number of mutations are observed and, therefore, a lower percentage of similarity. This could explain the differences in the infection mechanism and, therefore, the greater spread of the new virus. In relation to the third approach, they observed that mutations in the spike protein gene had a much more significant influence on the spread of the virus than mutations in other genes. Lastly, they validated that the sequences used for PCR diagnosis are found only in the SARS-CoV-2 genome and not in the other Betacoronaviruses or in the human genome, which is the basis of their efficacy as a diagnostic method.

Inés Pedemonte, Irina Zantleiger and Agustina De Luca.
Inés Pedemonte, Irina Zantleiger and Agustina De Luca.

The protagonists

The three students are clear about two things: their vocation is within the field of medicine and that the research process is highly challenging. This experience is “a unique opportunity to see and experience what it was like to work in a laboratory,” says Irina. It allows them to know the scientific work from their own experience, use the same tools as researchers, ask the same questions and, logically, reach solid conclusions. In relation to this point, the researcher Patricio Yankilevich points out that “the students quickly enter the subject and reach a very high level of work, close to PhD students working at IBioBA, which ultimately allows the entire group to address important current problems of scientific research.”

For her part, Inés considered it a “very exciting and at the same time intriguing experience”, and added in relation to investigating in the context of the pandemic: “we were able to find a way not only to carry it out, but also to take advantage of the possibilities that this modality has”.

“We had different challenges and learning moments. We had to acquire a lot of scientific, biological and technological knowledge so I consider that every effort was worth it ”, Agustina concluded about her research experience at IBioBA.

This iniciative is part of the IBioBA bases. As partner research institute of the Max Planck Society dedicated to basic research at the service of the community, it complements its research activities work with actions dedicated to the communication of science and the awakening of scientific vocations based on the exercise of scientific practice.