Student Focus
“One that no one regrets and everyone will remember”
An amazing
In 2014, the Biochemical Society helped fund students taking part in the iGEM (the International
Genetically Engineered Machine) competition. This synthetic biology competition allows university
students to work in teams to solve real challenges by building genetically engineered biological
systems using BioBricks, from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. Each team has to manage
their own project, secure funding and advocates their research. In 2014 iGEM celebrated its tenth
anniversary, which meant that all teams had the opportunity to present their accomplishments at the
Giant Jamboree in Boston, MA.
Lewis Moffat (iGEM team, University College London, UK) and Jessica Martyn (iGEM team, Dundee,
UK) took part in the competition. They have written accounts of their experiences throughout the
project and what they gained from taking part.
Lewis Moffat (iGEM team, University
College London, UK)
In February 2014, we first met as a team. It’s strange to
look back now to when we sat there in the coffee shop
introducing ourselves and getting to know each other,
everyone slightly nervous and unsure. We were all
coming from such vastly different backgrounds with
such vastly different ideas about what we as a team
would be doing over the summer. It is strange because, in
the last 10 months, we have become such good friends,
lab partners and coding buddies that anything different
seems wrong.
iGEM team, University College London, UK
34 February 2015 © Biochemical Society
We were originally organized through an application
process curated by the previous team’s members and
supervisors from the Department of Biochemical
Engineering. After the applications, we began meeting
together with the supervisors to decide on the project,
sifting through each team members’ proposal and whittling
it down to one. From there we began work and prepared
for what we knew would be an intense summer of synthetic
biology. Around this time, we began meeting socially
outside of team meetings and really got to know each other,
and those in the department who were supporting us.
Looking back, it was most likely that these non-meetings
that allowed the project to really grow and blossom.
Student Focus
The aim of the project was to create a holistic
approach to the bioremediation of azo dyes. Azo dyes
are the most commonly used synthetic dye, found in
most modern clothing and beauty products. Not only
are they cheap, but also they bind extremely well to
different materials. The only downside is that when azo
dyes inevitably leak into waste water from the factories
they’re produced in, they naturally breakdown into toxic
by-products. Over the course of the last summer, our
team not only genetically engineered an E. coli strain
to safely break down azo dyes into commercially usable
products, but also designed an entire bioprocess facility
that could be attached to existing factories to perform
the bioremediation. On top of this, we hosted and ran
several events to spread understanding about synthetic
biology and biochemistry, and how it could be used to
improve the environment and the lives of others.
If there was a consensus to be had it would be that the
experience with iGEM was unbelievably enriching and
fun. For many of the undergraduates on the team, it was
career-changing. Many of us worked in areas completely
outside our comfort zones, a highlight for many. Also, the
Department of Biochemical Engineering and our other
advisors were incredibly supportive and helpful in guiding
us to becoming an iGEM team, which we will always be
grateful for. All in all, it was an amazing experience, one
that no one regrets and everyone will remember.
Jessica Martyn (iGEM team, Dundee, UK)
My name is Jessica Martyn and I was one of the
microbiologists from the Dundee iGEM team from
2014. The Dundee iGEM Team of 2014 were an
interdisciplinary iGEM team of students who spent
the summer working on the ‘Lung Ranger’, which they
hoped would allow faster and more targeted treatment
of infection for cystic fibrosis patients. Cystic fibrosis
results in the production of highly viscous mucus in
the lungs that can be colonized by bacteria, resulting in
repeated respiratory infections.
The Lung Ranger is an E. coli chassis that has
been engineered to emit light when either of the most
aggressive lung pathogens Pseudomonas aeruginosa or
iGEM team, Dundee, UK
Burkholderia cenocepacia is detected in the sputum. The idea of the biosensor was
made accessible to the patients and the doctors through a device we called the LASSO
(Light Amplifying Signal Sensing Object). The LASSO was built to rapidly detect and
quantify the light emission, allowing a quick and sensitive diagnosis of the presence
of these pathogens.
The team worked closely with members of the cystic fibrosis community
in Ninewells Hospital this last summer, where we had the opportunity to meet
with patients and discuss their particular issues and needs. Our project became a
collaborative endeavour between researchers, healthcare practitioners and patient
groups. Ms Lawrie MacDougall, a Cystic Fibrosis Clinical Nurse Specialist based at
Ninewells Hospital said “we have absolutely enjoyed having the iGEM team on board
with this project development. Their enthusiasm, passion and genuine interest in the
patients they have met and interviewed is both inspiring and heartwarming”.
The Lung Ranger project picked up Best Health and Medicine track at the 2014
iGEM Giant Jamboree. Additionally our work with the cystic fibrosis community
throughout the project was also recognized and the team won best Advance Policy and
Practices prize (undergrad). In addition to this, we won the iGEMers award, a prize
voted by the other teams for the best project.
I think the true influence of doing something like iGEM is something that we will
be probably not be able to see until later in our careers. Undoubtedly, the benefits to
me as a scientist are innumerable, from the added basic skills set, working with a team,
science communication both within the community (poster and presentation), to the
external community (cystic fibrosis community and public) and the added benefit of
collaborations with my field of microbiology.
With regard to our specific project, the time we spent going to see the cystic fibrosis
patients made the effect of what we were trying to do very real. It is not every day
that the work that you do could potentially have a tangible result on people. iGEM
has the exceptional ability, certainly at the undergraduate level, to foster an experience
like this. We got to see the whole (albeit short) story of a project, from the initial
idea at the beginning, to the cloning and characterizing stage of building as we did a
synthetic biosensor, right through to a device that could pick up the light emitted from
the biosensor. Interwoven through all of this, we had that communication with cystic
fibrosis patients making a product for which there is a need.
February 2015 © Biochemical Society 35