School of Computing

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Newcastle Students Win Gold Medal in iGEM competition

Cross-faculty student team competed against Oxford, Harvard, MIT and 300 other teams from across the world at the Boston Synthetic Biology competition.

iGEM is an annual competition that aims to introduce students to the field of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is the engineering of organisms to produce novel functions, with uses in areas as diverse as medical diagnostics and treatment, environmental cleanup, and biomaterials production.

The competing teams worked throughout the summer to build genetically engineered systems using standard biological parts called BioBricks. Work was done inside and outside the lab to create sophisticated projects that aim to create a positive contribution to their own communities and the world.

Declan Kohl, Sophie Badger, Jack Cooper, Lais Cristina Takiguchi, Michaela Chapman, Anna Walsh, Jessica Birt, Valeria Verrone, Bradley Brown, Evangeline Whittaker, Shriansh Vyas, Marcia Pryce, and Zoe Wilson made up Newcastle's team of students from the School of Computing, the School of Engineering, the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, and the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences. The team worked under the direction of Prof Anil Wipat, Dr. Tom Howard, Dr. Dana Ofiteru, Dr. Angel Goñi-Moreno, Dr. Jem Stach, Dr. Jon Marles-Wright and with the help of several advisors (Wendy Smith, Michael White, Alice Banks, Colette Whitfield).

Development of diagnostic biosensors

The team had the ambitious goal of establishing a new approach to the development of cellular biosensors. They created the 'Sensynova Biosensor Development Framework'. This framework separates each module of a traditional genetic single cell biosensor into individual cells which communicate via quorum sensing molecules. This separation creates an off the-shelf set of well-characterised cellular modules that can be mixed to form new biosensor applications and configurations. This approach also enables biosensor variants to be made and tested without the need for long and tedious genetic cloning steps. Mixing different ratios of the modules allow the response characteristics of the sensor to be tuned systematically and easily. Computational modelling was used to optimise the ratio of the biosensor components. The long term goal is to speed up the development of diagnostic biosensors for a variety of medical, environmental and agricultural applications.

The project was a challenging interdisciplinary learning experience, taking computer science students into the laboratory, and introducing biology and chemical engineering students to molecular biology, computing and mathematical modelling.

The team also considered the social and ethical dimensions of their work, resulting in the production of two new reports: A Corpus Based Investigation Into Science Communication and Breaking down the barriers: How should we communicate SynBio to the public?

Another bonus for the team was their nomination for four awards. Each category they were nominated in put them in the top five of the 313 teams from around the world: including Oxford, MIT, Harvard and Stanford. The team was nominated for awards in the following categories; Best Poster; Best Human Practices; Best Parts Collection; and Best Novel Measurement.

Ongoing Success

This is the latest success in Newcastle University's world class work in Synthetic Biology. Last month, Dr Angel Goni-Moreno won an EPSRC First Grant for SynBio3D, a project that will change engineers' understanding of synthetic biological systems, and Prof Nat Krasnogor continues to lead the £4.4m Synthetic Portabolomics project.

Overall, the students had a fantastic experience and learnt a huge amount from this unique interdisciplinary experience and would like to thank their schools for funding: especially the ICOS group; the School of Computing; the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, the School of Engineering, Royal Academy of Engineering, and the SAgE faculty. The team was also supported by a grant from the BBSRC and Wellcome Trust.

Full details about the project are available at http://2017.igem.org/Team:Newcastle.

The 2017 Newcastle University iGEM team

published on: 17 November 2017