Biochemical Engineering



What is iGEM?

iGEM & UCL Biochemical Engineering

International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) is an international science, engineering art, design, mathematics and public engagement competition.

iGEM is organised by the iGEM Foundation which was part of MIT until 2012 when it formed a not-for-profit spinout company which is still based near to MIT.  The organisation has grown every year since 2004 and there are now many 'flavours' of iGEM including iGEM-Entrepreneurship, iGEM Community Labs and iGEM-High School.

The iGEM Foundation fosters scientific research and education through organizing and operating the iGEM Competition, the premier student synthetic biology competition.
The foundation fosters scientific research and education by establishing and operating the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, a community collection of biological components. iGEM also promotes the advancement of science and education by developing an open community of students and practitioners in schools, laboratories, research institutes, and industry. iGEM has a long history of involving students and the public in the development of the new field of synthetic biology.

iGEM 2016

UCL iGEM 2016 is open for applications!! We need all sorts of people! Designers, computer scientists, biologists, economists, mathematicians, engineers... Help make this year's team the most interdisciplinary and win iGEM! Apply for this year's team through our iGEM 2016 Moodle page.

Get in contact!  Email the UCL iGEM coordinator Dr Darren Nesbeth: d.nesbeth@ucl.ac.uk

Check out our iGEM UCL Facebook page

iGEM past projects

Mind the Gut

Mind the gut logo

‘Mind the Gut’ developed synthetic biology tools to in future design and build probiotic bacteria capable of sensing and modifying mood to address mental illness. The project involved a microfluidic mimic of the gut and investigating the challenges of commercialising mood-altering probiotics. 

Millions of people worldwide suffer from mental health disorders and the consequences are severe for the economy, society and individuals. The WHO estimates that depression will be the most second-most important disease burden in the world by 2020, even surpassing cancer. Today already, there are an estimated 450 million people suffering from mental illnesses.

However, there is still only limited knowledge about the causes of many mental health diseases which makes patients face problems such as stigma, misconceptions and side-effects from medication. In recent years research has offered some insight into the connection between mental health and the bacteria inhabiting our bodies, the microbiom.

We therefore decided to dedicate our summer to tackle mental health problems, especially depression and anxiety using synthetic biology tools and targeting this connection. Our project is not only a proof of concept that mental health can be addressed with synthetic biology, we also found our project to be effective to reduce the stigma around mental health problems.

UCL's 'Mind the Gut' iGEM team won a Gold Medal plus Best Supporting Entrepreneurship Award as well being nominated for the ‘Best Composite BioBrick’ award at the iGEM Foundation awards held in Boston.

Full details of the project can be found at our 2015 UCL iGEM webpages

Coverage of 'Mind the Gut' by UCL Engineering

Azo Dye

azo dye

We are using Synthetic Biology to beat AZO DYE Pollution. Azo Dyes are the most common synthetic dye and are used everywhere, from food colouring to clothes. You're probably wearing clothes dyed with Azo-Dyes! But, when they get into waste water, dumped from textile factories, they're very toxic. Our team is engineering bacteria that break down these dyes by producing a group of powerful enzymes. These bacteria make the Dye colourless and safe for the environment.

The Problem: Azo Dyes in the Environment

Since their accidental discovery by Sir William Henry Perkin in 1853, azo dyes have become one of the most popular forms of synthetic colourant. These dyes are currently used in the industrial manufacture of a variety of products, ranging from clothing and upholstery to cosmetics and tattoo ink, as well as many others.

Although azo-dyes are widely regarded as a safe and stable form of synthetic colourant, some of them can take on dangerous properties after they have been broken down by enzymes in the guts of organisms.

In the textile industry alone, the global annual production of dyes amounts to a million metric tons. In many countries, the leftover dye effluent produced by industrial manufacturers is often not properly disposed of, or removed, during water treatment.

This results in the accumulation of azo dyes in water bodies where they are then ingested by aquatic organisms. Additionally, irrigation of agricultural lands with dye polluted water severely affects soil fertility and plant growth.

The products of this enzymatic breakdown have been found to be both mutagenic and carcinogenic, and have been linked to increased occurrences of several different forms of cancer if they enter the food chain. Despite this toxicity and it's potential effect on human health, little to no effort has been made to dispose of these leftover azo dyes more responsibly.

As a result, development of remediation technologies for treatment of dye containing waste waters has been a matter of major concern for environmentalists.

The Solution: Goodbye Azo Dye, UCL iGEM 2014

We have created an Azo-Remediation Chassis (ARC), a complete synthetic azo dye decolourising device in E. coli. The ARC harnesses several different independent enzymes that degrade azo dyes and their breakdown products. This allows the development of a bioengineered process preventing accumulation of carcinogenic azo dye products in industrial wastewater.

For more information on how we solved the problem of Azo Dyes in the environment, check out our 2014 UCL iGEM webpages.

Spotless Mind

spotless mind

With this project, the UCL iGEM team is taking a radical new step with synthetic biology. We intend to explore the potential application genetic engineering techniques on the brain, because it is the site of some of the most subtle, and many of the most devastating medical conditions. Alzheimer’s Disease is a neurodegenerative disease characterised by the loss of recent memory and intellectual functions. We have devised a genetic circuit for transfection into microglia, a novel chassis in which standard assembly has never been used, to boost their ability to break down senile plaques, which are associated with Alzheimer’s disease, as well as to support and protect endangered neurons from microglia-mediated neuroinflammation. 

Full information on our research can be found on the 2013 UCL iGEM webpages.  Check out our Gallery, which includes art work by our artists in residence. 

Plastic Republic

UCL iGEM proposes a synthetic biology approach for the bioremediation of micro-plastic pollutants within the marine environment, with emphasis on regions of excessive debris accumulation, such as the North Pacific ‘garbage patch’.

The intention was to engineer enhanced adhesive properties in Escherichia coli and marine bacteria Roseobacter denitrifican and Oceanibulbus indolifex, of the Roseobacter clade. To alter the composition and dynamics of resultant biofilms for the adhesion of micro-plastic pollutants, with an extended vision of creating mass aggregates, or ‘Plastic Islands’.

This included an attempt to demonstrate micro-plastic particle aggregation and several additional genetic components, including plastic degradation, salinity/osmotic tolerance in E. coli, bacterial buoyancy and novel active biological containment strategies, for an integrative approach to marine bioremediation.

Read about Plastic Republic on Wired, DVICE and Smithsonian!

Plastic Republic - Constructing An Island From Microplastic Waste

plastic island

Turning a Global Problem into a Valuable Resource: We Aim to Engineer Bacteria to Aggregate Tonnes of Microplastic Pollution into ‘Plastic Islands’, in order to Reclaim Plastic for Re-Use.

Our aim in this project was to construct a ‘plastic island’ using the principles of synthetic biology. In so doing we hope to provide a solution to one of the world’s major environmental problems – the North Pacific Garbage Patch.

The North Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest of many garbage patches identified around the world. The waste from these patches enters the digestive systems of resident organisms, which are affected either by the physical size of the plastic, or its toxicity from adsorbing organic pollutants.

We saw the merits of using synthetic biology to overcome this problem, especially as conventional methods cannot target the majority of the waste - microplastics. By ‘synthesising’ a new strain of bacteria, capable of detecting, aggregating, and buoying these elusive microplastics, the aim was to construct ‘Plastic Islands’ for

  1. Removal and Re-use
  2. Construction of a ‘Plastic Republic’

Please visit our Research page for more background and details on the above, and our Human Practice page page for how we aimed to encourage outside involvement in this project.

Check out our 2012 UCL iGEM webpages for full information on the project and our research.