The Warwick iGEM Experience 2017

This is a guest post by Elsita Jungkurth, a member of the iGEM 2017 Warwick Team. You can read more about their project on their wiki or follow them on Twitter. You can see our liveblog of the event here.

Enough theory.

Those were our thoughts when we applied to iGEM last year. Despite the fact that most of us did not have a clear idea of exactly what Synthetic Biology entailed, we were keen to learn and dedicate our summer to familiarise ourselves with this innovative interdisciplinary branch of Biology.

In order to come up with an idea, we set out to look into potential fields and applications of SynBio. As expected the list was quite extensive. Nevertheless, we stumbled upon a video with a very provocative title: “Spinach Leaf Transformed Into Beating Human Heart Tissue”. What we had come across was the impressive work carried out by researchers at Massachusetts’s Worcester Polytechnic Institute, who had cultured beating human heart cells on spinach leaves using its cellulose scaffolding in order to create a mini-version of a beating heart. Fascinated by this elegant way of tackling the lack of organ donors, and bearing in mind that our team consisted of a few engineers, we delved into the field of regenerative medicine and the use of cellulose as a biomaterial.

3D Printer

Soon we would come across previous iGEM teams that had focused on 3D printing such as TU-Munich 2016 and TU-Darmstadt 2015. We initially intended to use a light-activated transcription mechanism by introducing an unnatural amino acid. However, this approach would not turn out to be feasible and after consulting experts from our department we decided to use light-inducible promoters to manipulate gene expression instead.

Our plan manifested into creating biocompatible surface coatings for bone implants by developing a 3D printing mechanism which would use bacteria expressing extracellular cellulose as our bio-ink. Now to be completely honest with you, I’m not entirely sure how we settled for bone implants in particular, but I suspect it is because Amy and myself grew fond of Fred here.

Elsita and Amy with Fred, their inspiration.

During our time working on this project, we faced several challenges as a team. Challenges that were not solely based in the lab. Participating in iGEM gave us the opportunity to get a taste of what it is like to be part of a research team by confronting us with unfamiliar procedures, unforeseen obstacles and failures. In the words of Albert Einstein: “If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?

Nevertheless, I think our greatest achievements were due to endeavouring to move away from a one-way dialogue with the public and make a conscious effort to make the science behind our project easily accessible to a wide range of audiences. With our presence in events such as the New Scientist Live Exhibition, talks at the local Café Scientifique and our lab-based A-Level Day, we aimed to address scientific misinformation and encourage questions. We managed to initiate debates that promoted understanding and transmitted our genuine enthusiasm for science.

The Warwick team taking part in various outreach events

To conclude, no, our iGEM experience was not as we had imagined it to be, but it gave us invaluable insights and emphasized the importance of perseverance: a trait that has always been a necessity as a scientist.

 

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