iGEM 2017

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Published on: November 17, 2017

The giant jamboree that marks the end of the 2017 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition was again held in Boston, USA in mid November. This unique event brings together up to 3000 students who present, demonstrate and discuss the novel research projects that they have worked on for the past year. These synthetic biology projects can be on any conceivable (safe) topic and are usually supported by academic institutions who, along with a range of sponsors, supply teams with up to £50K to fund the research, registration costs and transport.
The overall number of iGEM teams continues to rise with 295 having their entries finally accepted in 2017. Perhaps notably, 2017 is the first in which the number of Chinese teams was greater than those from the host nation. The number of UK teams has remained static over the past three years, with the identity of competing institutes often changing, no doubt caused by the high financial cost and time commitment needed to support projects and to send a group of students to Boston. Only Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Kent, Oxford, Sheffield, UCL and Warwick have supported teams in each of the past 4 years since the final jamboree moved to Boston.


The number of projects entered in the ‘Environment Track’ again increased this year and it was notable at this jamboree that there was an increased focus on ideas that involve plant science. Although this hasn’t translated into a significant increase in the number of projects that are actually working WITH a plant synbio chassis, there is certainly an increased focus on finding solutions to global and local challenges that use plant-derived solutions. An example of this is from WashU St Louis whose project’s ultimate goal was to improve plant resistance to damaging UV-B radiation. Although they discussed a possible collaboration with the Cardiff_Wales team who were using transient tobacco expression system as their experimental chassis, their work did not progress further than characterizing their gene circuit in E.coli, which provided resistance to UV-B in that system. This type of project was more common than ever before, where bacterial synthetic biology was used as a starting point to tackle global problems that might ultimately involve plant science.


However it was again pleasing to learn about some outstanding plant synbio projects. The plant synthetic biology lab in Valencia led by Diego Orzaez again excelled in this area, building hardware to monitor changes in plant growth in response to stress, a PlantLabCo software tool and also developing a root-expressed red-light sensor. Information about each of the Valencia projects from the past 4 years can be found here.

Arguably the most impressive plant project, and eventually winner of the Plant Synthetic Biology track, was from the UESTC-China team who had generated stably transformed tobacco plants expressing three biosynthetic enzymes. This Phytoremediation-based project was designed to remove the industrial atmospheric pollutant TCP. Lab experiments showed that transgenic leaf extracts were able to convert TCP to glycerol, demonstrating clear proof of concept. However during questioning the challenge of this (and many other) iGEM project was clear; the issue of scalability. How many tobacco plants would be needed to effectively reduce pollutants and where would these plants be grown? These questions were beyond the scope of this project and yet due to the required extra investment and future research time needed to provide satisfactory solutions they might remain forever unanswered.
Elsewhere it was great to learn about the project from SECA-NZ who had managed to stably transform Arabidopsis plants with a frost-responsive gene from an Arctic plant, not an insubstantial task for a 6-month project!!


iGEM is a fantastic breeding group for innovative, with the competition allowing students to gain research and project management skills that set them on the path to careers in research or entrepreneurship. Synbiobeta is a partner sponsor of the event and during his final address iGEM president Randy Rettberg encouraged iGEMers to go out and ‘find the money’. iGEM also very strongly encourage responsible innovation so hopefully these messages can be successfully interwoven in future projects that the iGEM students will develop.



With UK synthetic biology heavyweights Imperial College (the 2016 overall winners) and Cambridge University absent from the 2017 competition, the UK community looked to others to pick up their slack….and they did so with some significant success! University teams from Exeter (overgrad Environment, Applied Design), Glasgow (undergrad, Food and Nutrition), Oxford (undergraduate Diagnostics), Edinburgh (overgrad Therapeutics) and Kent (undergrad Poster) all won ‘Track awards’ whilst Newcastle OG, Edinburgh UG, Manchester OG and Cardiff UG were also nominated for awards. This strong showing is only possible due to the matched funding that many teams receive from the BBSRC, SEB, Welcome Trust and Society of Microbiology.


iGEM is what it is, a tremendous international melting pot of ideas that is a fantastic experience to all those who participate. The competitive element can be challenging to assess with all teams judged equally with no consideration as to the level of institutional support, available financial resources, team size or length of project. Winning a medal or prize is ultimately a test of those parameters that might sit outside the actual research project so each team should take pride in what they have achieved within the limits of their ambition.

 

The experiences gained by being involved in a nine-month (or more) multi faceted research project that culminates in a global conference are not found easily elsewhere!



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