The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to education and competition, the advancement of synthetic biology, and the development of an open community and collaboration.
Every year iGEM run a competition, which comprises of international teams, predominately of synthetic biology students. This competition brings together young scientists from around the world and addresses global challenges through the engineering of biological parts.
The iGEM foundation which began at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Boston, USA and is an independent, non-profit organisation dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology, education and competition, and the development of an open community and collaboration.
The annual competition, held in Boston, USA, began in 2004 with just 5 teams but this year brought together nearly 6000 students in over 400 interdisciplinary teams from 45 different countries.
Teams use the principles of synthetic biology, the “Engineering of Biology” to design parts, devices or systems to solve real-world problems, such as antibiotic resistance and climate change. Projects range from creating “spider silk,” to diagnosing vine diseases!
Some teams have even gone on to start successful businesses.
The best parts of every project are submitted in the form of a “BioBrick” to the iGEM Biobrick registry for use by others.
During the summer vacation 2019 a group of undergraduate students from the University of Nottingham sought to build upon the medal winning success of two previous Nottingham iGEM teams.
This year’s team designed and conducted a novel scientific research project for the prestigious and internationally renowned “iGEM competition” (international Genetically Engineered Machine).
The project developed a new system that can “sniff out” when food preservation and packaging methods fail, allowing the growth of dangerous Clostridium botulinum bacteria. These bacteria can cause a type of food poisoning which may result in paralysis or even death.
Team Nottingham 2019 travelled to Boston, USA to present their work at the iGEM jamboree and can now proudly boast a Gold Medal along with nominations for ‘Best Food and Nutrition project’ and ‘Best Human Practices’. Team Nottingham 2019 can now add its gold success to the medals of previous teams: Team 2017 (Bronze) and Team 2018 (Gold).
Nottingham’s team of 10 undergraduate students was drawn from the Schools of Life Sciences, Mathematics and Computer Science.
Team leader Saniya Crouch was aided by:
- James Abbott
- Jacob Gausden
- Alice Hodson
- Millie Johnson
- Fiona Kemm
- Marta Marcheluk
- Mohamed Rahman
- Yaseen Tengur and
- Daniel Vaughan
The iGEM Team 2019
For the duration of their project they were embedded within BBSRC/EPSRC Synthetic Biology Research Centre (SBRC) at Nottingham, under the overall guidance of Prof Nigel P Minton (PI) and Dr Ruth Griffin (CoI) and under the close supervision of a dedicated multidisciplinary team comprising of:
- Louise Dynes
- Jacque Minton
- Dr Carmen McLeod
- Dr Maria Zygouropolous
- Francois Seys
- Dr Andrew Dempster
- Dr Thomas Millat
- Dr Nicole Pearcy
- Dr Rupert Norman
- Dr Jon Humphreys and
- Dr Terry Bilverstone
The team’s project “Notox” aimed to provide a cheaper and faster alternative to current food testing methods for preventing botulism, a deadly type of food poisoning, caused by Clostridium botulinum. Outbreaks of botulism are rare but can result in high morbidity and mortality rates. Therefore, even a single case of foodborne botulism is sufficient to evoke a public health emergency and can put food companies out of business.
Team Nottingham designed a ‘proof of concept’ project by engineering a safe strain of bacteria which could be injected into the packaged food to be tested. This safe strain produces volatile acetone rather than toxin if the food packaging methods fail. The acetone gas can then be simply and quickly detected using an electronic nose also designed and made by the team.
Human Practices and Public Engagement
Keen to embed human practices at the centre of their project, the team sought the advice of academic experts, public health professionals, food industries and last but not least, the public. Comments were taken on board and integrated back into the project.
So impressed were the judges, they awarded the team a special nomination in this category.
Informing and educating the public was also an important focus of the team which participated in a number of activities to communicate the project to the local and wider community:
- they provided demonstrations at University of Nottingham workshops and open days;
- made an educational board game;
- produced and distributed food safety posters;
- were featured in local newspapers and
- interviewed for broadcast by BBC Radio Nottingham.
They also promoted their project via a range of social media platforms and will shortly have their work published by the Microbiology Society’s prestigious “The Biologist”.
Massive congratulations to you all. What a wonderful achievement - gold and two nominations! You have all done the SBRC proud!
iGEM has given our team the opportunity to contribute to the rapidly developing synthetic biology field at such a young age, by developing a project which is able to tackle real-world issues. It has given me a realistic insight into the 'life of a scientist' and has inspired me to pursue a career in the lab. However, the real benefits to my career are all of the skills I gained along the way such as lab work, problem-solving, presentation, and many other skills which will benefit any career I choose, whether it is inside or out of the lab.
What the Judges said:
- “You engineered a pathway into an organism with 4 genes. This is very impressive for such a short amount of time. Congratulations!”
- “Great presentation, the team shows great energy, the answers to the questions of the jury have always been very clear and on point….”
- “The team did a good job engineering the non-toxic surrogate strain and when they finished (sic) the rest of the optimization experiments for sure they will have a positive impact in the area of the food industry.”
Nottingham’s iGEM team was generously supported by the University of Nottingham’s Research Priority Area in Industrial Biotechnology, through grant funding from:
- Wellcome Trust
- Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
- Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
- National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) via the Nottingham Digestive Diseases Centre
Generous cash donations were also received from Porton Bipharma Ltd and Don Whitley Scientific Ltd and through in-kind support from:
- The Twinkle Factory
- New England Biolabs
We are also grateful for the support given by the following collaborators:
- University of Oxford
- Newcastle University
- The University of Sheffield
- The University of Manchester
The aim of the Nottingham iGEM 2018 team’s project, called Clostridium dTox; it’s not so difficile was to engineer a C. difficile bacteriophage (phage), to produce factors that would suppress toxin production. They demonstrated that the latest gene-editing techniques could be used to repress expression of both toxin genes (tcdAand tcdB) by targeting their mRNA.
The ultimate goal is a C. difficile-specific bacteriophage therapeutic which stops toxin production in those cells that are infected with the phage, converting them into health-promoting probiotics. Unlike antibiotics, phage cause no collateral damage to the native gut microbiome.
The 2018 team was awarded a prestigious Gold Medal at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in Boston, USA.
The team was also nominated at iGEM for ‘Best New Composite Part’. A composite part is a functional unit of DNA consisting of two or more basic parts assembled together.
For the duration of their project the team were embedded within BBSRC/EPSRC Synthetic Biology Research Centre (SBRC) at Nottingham.
Read more about the project: Clostridium dTox; it’s not so difficile
This is the first year the University of Nottingham has taken part in the iGEM competition, the team is interdisciplinary comprising of biologists, engineers and computational scientists from around the University.
The team's project looked at transforming bacteria with a unique array of existing iGEM systems to produce a unique signal of secondary metabolites, initially using fluorescence as a proof of concept. Eventually, using the system to produce a unique and random configuration of products, as their "key". In order to produce this randomness, alteration of the activity/presence of promoters associated with these metabolites were applied using one of a few methods which were considered by the team.
The team worked over the summer months at the BBSRC/EPSRC Synthetic Biology Research Centre (SBRC) at Nottingham with the final product being presented at the annual Giant Jamboree in Boston, USA in November 2017.
Read more about the project: KEY.COLI