Genes in Space, the five finalists: Matteo, Wilson and Akio

Despite being in different grades and No character style: different ages, three Cranleigh Abu Dhabi pupils - Matteo Sottocornola, Wilson Huijsmans and Akio Shirali – have teamed up to create an experiment idea they hope will help astronauts produce their own medicines in space.

From left, Akio Shirali, Matteo Sottocomola and Wilson Huijsmans. Antonie Robertson / The National
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ABU DHABI // A friendship that began in a high school library more than a year ago has become a winning partnership, with a final-five spots in Genes in Space.

Despite being in different grades and different ages, three Cranleigh Abu Dhabi pupils – Matteo Sottocornola, Wilson Huijsmans and Akio Shirali – have designed an experiment they hope will help astronauts to produce their own medicine in space.

Their mutual love of science and desire to study astrophysics resulted in Matteo, 15, approaching his teammates after learning about the competition in The National – three weeks before the submission deadline.

Initially, the three substituted their library lunch time chats for developing their idea but soon realised they needed more than the hour available.

After explaining the situation to their parents they were allowed to meet at each others’ homes where they worked into the morning hours.

“We were split into two rooms at night but we continued working on the project together through Skype,” said Akio, who at 13 is the youngest and most animated of the three.

Their experiment idea proposes editing the genes of certain fungi so they can increase the rate of proteins it produces to create antibiotics, such as penicillin, in space.

“Take Mars One for example,” said Wilson, 14, referring to the proposed mission by an organisation based in the Netherlands to land the first humans on Mars by 2026.

“They might run out of medical supplies but if they can produce their own penicillin then they wouldn’t need to bring any in the first place.”

After hearing his team was one of the five finalists, Wilson said he had to find a quiet place. “I had to remove myself from my siblings and take it all in.”

After calling Akio to tell him, Wilson said he heard a pause and then what sounded like cats screeching on the rooftop.

“I screamed my head off and started jumping uncontrollably,” Akio said.

Matteo’s reaction was typically more subdued. “I didn’t react like them but internally I was very happy,” he said.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to receive the mini-PCR machine for our school and have access to professors from Harvard and MIT. We learnt a lot already but I’m sure that will be taken further.”

Their mentor said her input was barely needed. “It was all them,” said Sarah Groves, a science teacher at Cranleigh. “Wilson did ask for the entire human genome and I told him that was a rather large request.”

Ms Groves said she was at first surprised by the boys’ success. “But I shouldn’t have been because their enthusiasm shone right the way through.”


Genes in Space: Full coverage

Profiles: Meet the five finalists for Genes in Space

In pictures: UAE pupils get chance to fine tune their entries

National Editorial: More than a contest

A step closer: Eight UAE pupils among final five