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Synthetic Biology students win gold at iGEM Europe: now on their way to World Championships at MIT

10 October 2012

A team of UCL undergraduates have won a gold medal at the prestigious International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) Synthetic Biology competition in Amsterdam. The UCL team, called ‘Plastic Republic’, were also selected as of the 15 European teams advancing to the 2012 iGEM Synthetic Biology World Championships hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston this November. UCL will be joined in Boston by Edinburgh and Cambridge universities from the UK.

Supervised by Dr Darren N. Nesbeth (UCL Biochemical Engineering) and working in the Advanced Centre for Biochemical Engineering (ACBE), the Plastic Republic team set out to address the problem of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans using the tools of synthetic biology. With standardised genetic ‘parts’ (drawn from the ‘BioBricks’ format required for iGEM), the team investigated the possibility of engineering an ocean-dwelling bacterium that could sense plastic waste and safely degrade it or aggregate it for easier collection and disposal. As the project progressed, Carina Tran (2nd Year Architecture BSc, Bartlett School) proposed using the waste plastic aggregates as a building material and the Plastic Republic concept took shape: a synthetic island drawn together from ocean-borne pollution. Auctioning ‘land’ and naming rights to their proposed plastic beaches through crowd-funding website Sponsume raised the team £1,500 to pay for travel and public events to show their work to the world.

The team then took their project beyond academia to the general public in the form of a collaboration with the London Hackspace in Shoreditch. At the Hackspace UCL iGEM students shared their newly-learnt research skills with members of the public who work regularly on biology-based projects (known as ‘Biohackers’). A reciprocal collaboration event was also held at UCL Cruciform Teaching Laboratories.

The UCL iGEM 2012 team photo

Top from left: Carina Tran (Bartlett School of Architecture), Rhiannon Wilkinson (Medicine), Leonard Leong (Biochemical Engineering), Erin Oerton (Computer Science), Dr. Darren Nesbeth (Biochemical Engineering), James Rutley (Biochemical Engineering), Aurelija Grigonyte (Biochemistry), Philipp Boeing (Computer Science) Bottom from left: Martina Sebastian (Biochemical Engineering), Yeping Lu (Biomedical Sciences), Joanne Chu En (Medical Physics), Erick Ramos (Biochemical Engineering), Bouran Sohrabi (Biochemistry), Bethan Wolfenden (Biochemistry), Yanika Borg (Biochemical Engineering & Mathematics)

Philipp Boeing, (3rd Year, Computer Science BSc) who leads the Plastic Republic team and founded the UCL Synthetic Biology student society, said:

“We are thrilled to achieve a Gold Medal in Amsterdam and to have a shot at the World Championships at MIT. I really hope to build on our iGEM success by helping to establish a Synthetic Biology community at UCL amongst staff and students.”

Team member James Rutley (MEng Biochemical Engineering 2012) has started an EngD at the Industrial Doctoral Training Centre in Bioprocess Engineering Leadership within UCL Biochemical Engineering in partnership with the UCL Synthetic Biology spinout company Synthace. James commented:

“iGEM is an incredible experience and has been a great opportunity for me to apply rigorous engineering thinking to complex biological challenges. The summer of research has been very challenging but also great fun!”

Dr Darren N. Nesbeth and Prof. Eli Keshavarz-Moore (UCL Biochemical Engineering) have coordinated UCL participation in iGEM ever since they and Prof John Ward (UCL Biochemical Engineering) were first approached by undergraduates seeking to enter the international Synthetic Biology competition in 2009. Dr Nesbeth reflected:

“The competition from iGEM teams around the world intensifies each year as Synthetic Biology itself becomes increasingly established. One strength of UCL iGEM teams has always been the diverse range of disciplines from which students are drawn. Students from seven UCL Departments across four Faculties came together to achieve great things in iGEM this summer. I am sure this diversity will help us in Boston, and again for iGEM 2013.”

Keep up with the team’s journey through their ongoing documentary:

UCL context

UCL Advanced Centre for Biochemical Engineering is a globally recognised centre of excellence in linking bioscience insight to understanding of bioprocesses, enabling research discoveries to be directly translated into real healthcare outcomes. It has invested over £30 million in new facilities in recent years and has its own pilot plant facility for the scale verification of bioprocess performance.

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