UCL's teams have won several awards at the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) undergraduates' competition for science, engineering art, design, mathematics and public engagement.
UCL Biochemical Engineering, with the support of the UCL Faculty of Engineering Sciences, has hosted UCL teams’ participation in the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition since 2009, providing full laboratory facilities and sponsorship.
The iGEM competition is an annual activity in which undergraduate and postgraduate university students from different degree programmes are encouraged to form teams and develop their laboratory, computer and communication skills through exploring a project of their choice, with clear links to synthetic biology and biochemical engineering. UCL students can apply to join an iGEM team during any year of their degree course but most often UCL iGEM team members have completed at least one year of undergraduate study.
Synthetic biology has a recently emerged as an academic discipline that forms the philosophical underpinning of the iGEM competition. It can be defined as the application of engineering principles to biological material in order to design biological devices that do not exist in nature. From around 2005 onwards the retail cost of DNA synthesis and DNA sequencing has continued to fall significantly. This has created favourable conditions for the expansion and development of the discipline of synthetic biology. Low cost synthesis, or ‘writing’, of DNA gives synthetic biologists capabilities for assembling DNA at scales that were previously impossible. This has led researchers to assemble the entire complement of DNA needed to control a living cell, known as a cell’s genome, and use such designed, synthetically originated DNA to generate an entirely synthetic organism.
Synthetic biology staff members from across UCL support iGEM students through regular meetings and providing feedback on student project proposals and presentations. Below are details of three of the successful iGEM teams hosted at UCL Biochemical Engineering.
Genetic modification of microglial cells
The 2013 team ‘Spotless Mind’ proposed the use of re-designed microglial cells to address Alzheimer’s disease. Natural microglial cells patrol brain tissue and help maintain the healthy function of neuronal cells. In Alzheimer’s disease, it has been suggested that microglial cells detect and migrate to plaques (regions of damage) associated with the disease, and, upon encountering plaques, bring about harmful inflammation. Engineered microglial cells would be modified such that, upon arriving at plaques, they would secrete factors that suppress harmful inflammation.
Enabling this project involved identification of a stable microglial cell line, SV40 (Applied Biological Materials, Richmond, Canada) and establishment of links with the UCL Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology to explore use of a NucleofectorTM device (Lonza, Amboise, France) for the team to attempt genetic modification of the microglial cells.
Gut on a chip
The 2015 team ‘Mind the Gut’ explored routes by which engineered pro-biotic bacteria (EPB) could be used to detect chemical signatures in the human gut that signal different mood states in the brain. Compounds that improve mood would then be produced by EPB in response to those chemicals. The team sought to mimic the environment in which EPB would interact with human gut cells. A step towards this was to reconstruct a microfluidic gut mimic device, working extensively with Ya-Yu Chiang in the laboratory of Professor Nicolas Szita.
Biohacking and the laptop laboratory
The 2012 team, ‘Plastic Republic’, explored the feasibility of designing a bacterium capable of persisting in the world’s oceans and degrading waste plastics. As part of the project students initiated contact with members of the public who use the ‘London BioHackspace’ community laboratory in Hackney, East London. This collaboration represents somewhat of a landmark in synthetic biology as it led members of the BioHackspace to design and assemble their own BioBrickTM (serial number BBa_K729016), which became the first ever BioBrickTM submitted to the iGEM Registry of Standard Biological Parts by members of the public.
The do-it-yourself ethos of the BioHackspace led a group of 2012 UCL iGEM alumni to found the company Bento Bioworks Ltd (https://www.bento.bio), which has developed a laptop-sized molecular biology laboratory for retail to the general public. Bethan Wolfenden and Philipp Boeing were 2012 UCL iGEM team members and used the 2013 iGEM Entrepreneurship (iGEM-E) competition to take the first steps in founding Bento Bioworks Ltd, then known as Darwin Toolbox. Like other UCL iGEM alumni, Philipp and Bethan have been closely involved in the design and implementation of subsequent UCL iGEM cycles, partnering with team members and supervisors to develop iGEM training and teaching. They also contribute a guest lecture on the UCL Bachelor of Arts and Sciences course, BENG3071 Open Source Synthetic Biology, presenting case studies drawn from their experiences with Bento Bioworks, synthetic biology and iGEM.