Unfortunately, the team struggled to make progress in the lab work. Few of the team members had any prior lab experience, and they were often held up by broken or missing lab equipment. They reached out to other teams on Twitter asking for help, and eventually set up Skype sessions with teams representing at least four different countries. According to the Makerere wiki, these conversations were productive for planning lab work, learning how to use equipment and navigating the complex requirements and deadlines associated with the iGEM competition. I later learned from other teams that the Makerere team would often end up giving more help than they received, usually by supporting other teams' projects with epidemiological or sociological research that was infeasible for teams outside of Uganda.
The team began cloning their genes on August 20, several months later than most teams begin experiments. They still lacked some of the necessary supplies, but they had assembled as much as it seemed they could. By late September, they were analyzing E. coli cultures to search for PETase and MHETase expression, but their cells didn’t seem to be producing the proteins. With only a month to go before the competition, the team began evaluating every step of the process.
“A lot of brainstorming, a lot of troubleshooting, asking, ‘Why is it not expressing as well as we want?’” Alex said. “We were getting results, just not very good results. We finally found what it was—most of the gene was wrong.”
Alex didn’t disclose many details about the issues, but he told me that an unnoticed error in one of their orders from another biotechnology company had derailed their experiments and left them with results far from what they were hoping for. He also mentioned that he was talking to a representative from the company to figure out how the order could be corrected so that the team could continue their project after iGEM ended.
When the deadline for adding information to their wiki page on the iGEM website arrived, the Makerere team had little data to report. In lieu of concrete results, they posted background information about pollution in Uganda and details about their collaborations and outreach. Having only raised enough money to send one team member to the Giant Jamboree, the team decided to send Alex to represent them in Boston.
And so, in late October 2018, Alex Kyabarongo left Uganda for the first time in his life, alone, to travel over 28 hours to Boston, Massachusetts.