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Pass the Irn-Bru, please: a student’s perspective on iGEM

Sam Ireland, University of Edinburgh

By Sam Ireland
University of Edinburgh

As a student, you are always on the lookout for opportunities to widen your experience outside of the lecture hall.  So when the chance came along to participate in something like the iGEM competition, the annual showcase of student-driven synthetic biology projects, there was never any question of turning it down.

The Jamboree itself, so long awaited, has been one fantastic event after another. I’ve been able to listen to the FBI talking about biosecurity (and getting us all to take an oath to safeguard science), meet teams from all over the world working at the cutting edge of synthetic biology and, of course, give a presentation on our iGEM project to some of the leaders in the field.

And then there’s the projects themselves – some have endeavoured to bring Synbio solutions to problems like cystic fibrosis diagnosis and water pollution, while others have demonstrated the very real entrepreneurial potential of synthetic biology. Every project I’ve seen has been an ambitious bid to change the world in a very real way for the better.

For us, the iGEM project began back in February. At Edinburgh, the team was bolted together over a five day ‘sandpit’ where we all got to know each other, gave practice pitches, and developed a pretty cool sounding project to make bacteria that could detect radiation and send them into space to do… something. I guess we were going to cross the ‘Edinburgh doesn’t have a space station’ bridge when we came to it.

University of Edinburgh iGEM team logo

Anyway, a few weeks later, once we’d decided that probably wasn’t going to happen, we set to work on our actual project. iGEM has different ‘tracks’ – categories such as ‘Energy’ and ‘The Environment’ into which the projects fall – and we decided to enter the ‘Foundational Advances’ track. This is for projects that aim to introduce something benefitting synthetic biology as a discipline, something that can underpin a wide variety of other projects. We ended up trying to build a new system for wiring bacteria together, to massively increase their productivity as a consortium rather than as individual strains.

What did we learn over the fourteen weeks we spent trying to accomplish this? Well, first of all, it turns out that building a fundamental advance that will radically transform the whole field of biotechnology is quite tricky when you’re a team of ten undergrads based in an abandoned teaching lab, with a time limit of three months. Needless to say, we didn’t quite achieve all we set out to.

But we also learned that that’s all part of what they call the ‘iGEM experience.’ From every interaction we had with our fellow teams around the world, it became pretty clear that each team went through the ‘nothing works; what the ! are we going to do’ phase. Quite a nice primer for life in science in general, I gather.

What else did we learn? One of the more important things was just how difficult – and how important – it can be to communicate what you are trying to achieve to a non-technical audience. In many ways we gave ourselves a particularly hard task here as a Foundational track team. Anyone can see how bacteria that clean up heavy metals could be useful, even if they don’t understand all the science. It can be somewhat more challenging getting them to see why they should care about a novel intercellular communication system for industrial strains of bacteria. In the end, we made a decent attempt with a cutesy, whiteboard animated video about ‘Brian the Bacterium’ who just wants to learn how to chat to his bacteria friends.

I can’t possibly list all of the other great boons the iGEM project gave us – the valuable lab experience, the prestige of having such a project on the CV (no small thing in the increasingly competitive graduate world), the contacts you are able to make with likeminded, intelligent people all over the world, and honing your presentation skills with talk after talk. And all that is to say nothing of the great experiences you get to have, such as traveling to Boston, getting to try out real, open-ended science, and the very real sense of comradeship that forms among the team. It’s not possible to stay up until 5am as a team, frantically working to the ‘wiki-freeze’ deadline, powered only by Irn-Bru, without real bonds of friendship forming.

These are the benefits that the iGEM movement brings to its participants, but there are yet greater benefits for the wider world to come. Synthetic biology is moving at a lightning pace, and the world is already starting to benefit. An arsenic biosensor, which was started as a 2006 Edinburgh iGEM project and has been transformed into a deployable tool in the developing world, is just one example. Perhaps the greatest benefit I will reap from all this in the future, is the pride at having been able to be here at the start of it all.

About me:

I’m a Biology student in my final year, specialising in Biotechnology at the University of Edinburgh.

My interests within the team are in the communication of our project. I also have an interest in the modelling side of things, but unfortunately in this case my interest far outstrips my skills so I’m just a curious onlooker when it comes to that part of the project.

Information on our team and project can be found here.

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