What is iGEM?
The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation is a non-profit organisation that encourages advances in synthetic biology by fostering an enthusiasm for up-and-coming scientific research and laboratory techniques in the scientific and non-scientific community alike.
The Foundation has been hosting an annual synthetic biology competition since 2004 to promote education and further development in the field. The competition is open to high school, undergraduate and postgraduate teams, with the predominant category being undergraduate teams. Multidisciplinary teams work throughout the summer on producing genetically engineered systems, using a foundation of pre-registered parts called ‘Biobricks’, and work to improve these or create new registered parts. Teams are encouraged to use these systems to tackle real-world problems, ranging from environmental challenges to healthcare ones.
“aims to raise awareness of synthetic biology”
Alongside this, teams have a human practices division which focuses on conducting outreach programmes and working to raise money to fund the project. Often projects can involve complex, intricate science and technology and so human practices aims to raise awareness of synthetic biology and engage the public in a two-way dialogue.
In the autumn, a giant jamboree is hosted in Boston, USA where over 300 teams come together to present their work. At the jamboree, teams are awarded various prizes based on the quality of their work. Medals are given out dependent on criteria that each project fulfils and track awards are given to the best teams in different areas of synthetic biology, e.g. therapeutics, environmental, diagnostic. Specialist awards are also given out based on each team’s wiki page, modelling and human practices. The jamboree culminates at the award ceremony for the Grand Prize, which is awarded to the team with the best overall project.
What is ‘synthetic biology’?
This term gets thrown around quite a lot and can seem quite scary to those who are not familiar with the field. However, it is a helpful discipline which everyone will come into contact with at some point in their life. Synthetic biology is the collaboration of biology, chemistry, engineering and computer sciences to make biology more standardised and easier to engineer. This will allow ideas to transform into products much faster and more cheaply. Currently, there is a particular calling for synthetic biology in medical, energy and environmental sectors.
“this is an important issue across Europe, the US and Canada”
What is this year’s project about?
The Nottingham iGEM 2018 team are working on Clostridium difficile – the bacterium that is the leading cause of hospital and community acquired-diarrhea, particularly affecting those who are hospitalised and on a course of antibiotics. This is an important issue across Europe, the US and Canada, especially with the rise of antibiotic resistance.
Our project goal is to engineer a bacteriophage (a virus that only infects bacteria) to infect C. difficile and impose our genetic constructs on the bacteria. Resulting from the introduction of our constructs, we aim to express genes which will ultimately decrease the production of two of the toxins (TcdA and TcdB) that contribute to most of the disease’s toxicity. This will hopefully convert the pathogenic strain of C. difficile into a beneficial strain. In order to do this, we are using two different experimental approaches: antisense RNA and dead Cas9 (dCas9). Both these approaches will only target the hypervirulent strains, meaning there will be little to no negative effect on the resident gut microflora.
If you would like to find out more, you can find us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook on @nottinghamigem or keep updated on our project on our wiki page. We would love to hear your opinions!
Featured image courtesy of @nottinghamigem via Facebook.