Platinum award for UCL synthetic biology competition student project

19 January 2012

Thomas Deane, an A-level student and member of an interdisciplinary team from UCL, has been awarded an Exscitec Platinum Award for his work in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition in Amsterdam. Although Deane won the award, the achievement would not have been possible without the work of the rest of the UCL undergraduate iGEM team.

Supervised by Dr Darren Nesbeth (UCL Biochemical Engineering) the team of students – called ‘E. coili’ – set out to reduce the cost of manufacturing DNA medicines and gain valuable experience of research, public engagement and ethics.

Super manufacturing with supercoils

The team worked throughout the summer on the project, which involved genetically re-programming E. coli cells to ‘supercoil’ their plasmid DNA to improve industrial scale plasmid DNA manufacturing. See how this works in the video.

Plasmid DNA is becoming increasingly important as a therapeutic in genetic vaccination and gene therapy. The E. coili team worked to modify levels of DNA supercoiling enzymes in E. coli and also supercoiling target sequences in the therapeutic plasmids. This technology could ultimately be deployed in commercial plasmid DNA manufacturing, in order to boost productivity and quality while reducing production costs.

UCL Engineering sponsored the multidisciplinary student team:

  • Biochemical Engineering students Kinza Islam, Meng Li, Judith Albert, and Almaz Azlan
  • Computer Science student Philipp Boeing
  • Science and Technology Studies students, Louis Stupple-Harris and Anna Williams
  • Structural & Molecular Biology Research student, Kheng Tee
  • Biosciences student, Ejaj Intisar
  • UCL Medical School student Alfred Ho
  •  and the University of Westminster Art/Science PhD student Howard Boland

PhD students Oriana Losito (Structural & Molecular Biology) and Yu-Chia Wei  (Biochemical Engineering) also worked as instructors. The team worked throughout the summer using the industrial biomanufacturing facilities at the Advanced Centre for Biochemical Engineering (ACBE) before the iGEM Europe Jamboree event in Amsterdam in October. The team also organised two very successful public debates of the issues surrounding synthetic biology, at UCL’s Haldane Room and the Science Museum’s Dana Centre, a purpose-built venue for events exploring topical issues in science.

The UCL iGEM 2011 team

The UCL iGEM 2011 team - from left, standing: Yu-chia Wei, Philipp Boeing, Anna Williams, Alfred Ho, Louis Stupple-Harris, Kinza Isalam and Oriana Losito. From left, sitting: Almaz Azlan, Prof. Eli Keshavarz-Moore, Dr Darren N. Nesbeth and Meng Li.


Team member Alfred Ho (UCL Medical School) said:

‘iGEM was a great opportunity for me to see first hand the importance of research in the field of medicine. I also enjoyed meeting fellow students from all over the UK and Europe.’

PhD student instructor Yu-chia Wei, a second year PhD student with Dr Darren Nesbeth, said:

“Supervising this year’s UCL iGEM team has been a great learning experience for me. I also really appreciate the opportunity iGEM has afforded me to visit great cities like Seville for iGEM training, Amsterdam for the Jamboree and not forgetting Norwich for the UK universities iGEM get-together event!’

Dr Darren Nesbeth coordinated UCL’s iGEM efforts for the third year, supported by Professors Eli Keshavarz-Moore (UCL Biochemical Engineering) and John Ward. He summed up:

“2011 has seen student-led synthetic biology at UCL take great strides. Students from six UCL Departments, across four Faculties, along with A-level student Tom Deane and University of Westminster student Howard Boland, came together to work hard and learn new skills. Alumni from this year’s iGEM have founded the UCL Synthetic Biology Society which is already playing an active role in shaping and improving UCL’s iGEM activities going forward. It was also a great honour to be appointed to the iGEM Judging Panel for the first time, which gave me the opportunity to experience a different side of the competition. I anticipate great things for iGEM at UCL in the coming years!”

Additional financial support for UCL’s iGEM 2011 team was provided by Eli Lilly, Lonza Biologics and the Health Protection Agency, which are all partners in the Innovative Manufacturing Research Centre programme within UCL Biochemical Engineering, and also the Research Department of Structural & Molecular Biology.

For information about iGEM 2012, contact Dr Darren N. Nesbeth

Further Links

UCL Biochemical Engineering
More about Synthetic Biology


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