An Imperial team have been crowned winners of the iGEM competition - an international student prize for synthetic biology.
The team took the grand prize and five major prizes at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, beating over 295 other undergraduate teams from universities all over the world with their cell co-culturing project, ‘Ecolibrium‘.
The team involved twelve students from the Departments of Bioengineering and Life Sciences and is the first iGEM team from Imperial to win the prestigious award, which was presented at the iGEM Jamboree event in Boston on Monday 31st of October 2016.
The team’s synthetic biology project, Ecolibrium, is focused on developing a framework for engineering co-cultures.
Ecolibrium is the result of a very creative and balanced team that has worked hard to develop an innovative project at the intersection of biology and engineering. Their work opens up exciting possibilities and novel applications by enabling the reliable engineering of designer co-cultures.
– Dr Guy-Bart Stan and Dr Karen Polizzi
Lead Academic Supervisors of the Imperial iGEM team 2016
Co-culturing is a process where different types of cells are grown together. Natural microorganisms exist as communities, where they form sophisticated networks of interactions. Co-culturing allows such networks to be explored and exploited for synthetic purposes such as engineering the human microbiome or the biosynthesis of metabolites through co-operation between bacteria, each housing part of a complex metabolic pathway.
Co-cultures are difficult to engineer because different cell types have different growth conditions. Cells growing at different rates typically overtake one another, leaving a single cell type in the culture.
Ecolibrium provides a novel technology that can be used to stably maintain the co-existence of different cell types at pre-defined ratios. This is the first time that such an operation has been attempted at iGEM.
The judges in particular singled out for praise the design aspect of Ecolibrium and how computer modelling informed the optimisation of the design in the wet lab.
As well as the project itself, the team also undertook a range of educational and public engagement work including a mobile game, ‘Go Culture’, which is free to download both on Apple and Android devices – as part of their work to introduce the concept of microbial co-cultures to a wider audience.
The aim of the game is to collect different types of microbes and co-culture them, demonstrating that, despite negative perceptions, microbes and bacteria are very useful to humans.
In order to further explain the complex foundational science behind their project, the team also developed a visual communication guide based on their experience to communicate their work to a non-specialist audience and support the work of future iGEM teams.
The winning team members included Lisa Asher, Alice Boo, Akashaditya Das, Jonathan G Li, Carys Moller, Teal Carter from the Department of Bioengineering and Akash Bhattacharjee, Stefan Grossfurthner, Alyssa Henderson, Henry Lloyd-Laney, Rachapun Rotrattanadumrong and Aditi Satija from the Department of Life Sciences.
The iGEM project was part of the work of the Imperial College Synthetic Biology Hub, of which Professor Richard Kitney and Professor Paul Freemont are the Co-Directors.
This is a phenomenal achievement for the team and for the College. The standard at iGEM is incredibly high.
– Professor Richard Kitney and Professor Paul Freemont
Co-Directors, Synthetic Biology Hub
The principle supervisors of the team were Dr Karen Polizzi from the Department of Life Sciences and Dr Guy-Bart Stan from the Department of Bioengineering with senior advisors Professor Richard Kitney from the Department of Bioengineering and Professor Paul Freemont from the Department of Medicine. The students were also supervised and guided in the laboratory throughout the project by Nicolas Kylilis and Dr Kirsten Jensen from the Department of Medicine. The team was also actively supported by Dr Rob Smith from the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King’s College London.
Professor Richard Kitney said: “This is a phenomenal achievement for the team and for the College. The standard at iGEM is incredibly high. The students were up against 295 teams from MIT, Harvard, Yale and other top universities from all over the world. All the students worked extremely hard over the summer to get to Boston and in winning they really knocked the ball out of the park.”
Professor Paul Freemont added “That the success is the culmination of a lot of hard work from the students and their advisors. Imperial has had teams at the iGEM competition since 2006 with many of the projects leading to new research projects. It is really special for everyone involved to win the competition having been runner-up several times”
Dr Guy-Bart Stan added: “It has been a privilege to work closely with such talented students, and to see them grow and achieve their dream. The success of the Imperial iGEM team showcases what can be accomplished over three months through truly collaborative, multidisciplinary and fun work, which embodies the core foundations of research and innovation at Imperial College.”
"The students truly deserved it. They worked very hard over the summer” commented Dr Kirsten Jensen from the Department of Medicine. Dr Karen Polizzi from the Department of Life Sciences agreed saying “This is an excellent example of the power of interdisciplinary research and teamwork”.
Nicolas Kylilis added “It is amazing what the students have achieved over such a short amount of time. They started this project with minimal training in engineering biology. Now, four months later they have become highly-skilled synthetic biologists. The recognition by the Synthetic Biology community at the iGEM competition speaks volume of their quality of work.”
In addition to being overall winners at the iGEM Jamboree in Boston the team won Gold Medal plus five major prizes, including “Best Foundational Advance Project”, their competition category, “Best Poster”, “Best Wiki”, “Best New Basic Part”, and “Best Education and Public Engagement”.
Alice Boo and Carys Moller from the Department of Bioengineering were two of the members of Imperial’s iGEM team.
Carys said: “iGEM is a very important competition for Imperial. It was a lot of work and we all put a lot of hours into the project, and because it was our idea and our project it was really rewarding.
Alice added: “Some teams start with an initial project brief from their supervisors but with our project, we started from scratch and developed it ourselves. It really adds to the feeling of success.”
“The Jamboree was intense, some of the teams in the competition are very competitive. It’s great to see what other students are working on too.”
Carys said: “There were some brilliant ideas from all over the world so to win was fantastic. There were some teams from high schools doing some amazing things too. After the competition we went and got some Boston lobster to celebrate!”
Congratulating the team Imperial’s Provost James Stirling said: “This is a wonderful achievement, and the iGem team should be incredibly proud. Our students fought off very strong competition from around the world, and our repeated success in this competition demonstrates the excellence of our students: not only do they excel in their core disciplines, but they are also are able to develop their innovative ideas and showcase their talent.
"On behalf of the College I congratulate everyone involved, both the students and the staff who have helped and supported them, and I look forward to celebrating their achievement with them later in the term."
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