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iGEM Science in Norwich

30.09.15

Synthetic Biology

An innovative project which engineers dietary carbohydrates to prevent colon cancer has won gold in an international competition.

The Norwich Research Park-based team, called House of Carbs, was also a finalist for two other prizes.

The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition is an annual event bringing together thousands of students in hundreds of teams from the world over. Each team applies synthetic biology techniques to solving real-world issues, ranging from healthcare to energy.

igem

The NRP-UEA team is made up of six students – Kieran Rustage, Farhan Mitha, Mark Elms, Leda Coelewij, Josh Thody and Flavia Valeohave (John Innes Centre – JIC). They are instructed by Richard Bowater (University of East Anglia), Nicola Patron (TSL) and Mark Banfield (JIC), and advised by Pilar Corredor-Moreno (TSL), Eleftheria Trampari (JIC) and Sibyl Batey (JIC).

An important part of the project, alongside lab work, is to explore the morality of their science, and to open a dialogue with the public to gauge perceptions of their work. Their first outreach event was the Science in Norwich day, as Kieran Rustage explains.

At the end of May (back before the mania of plasmid preps, digests and ligations) our team took part in our first major outing as iGEMers. We had been invited to take part in the annual Science in Norwich day, run by the Science Outreach in Norwich (SOIN) group, held in the spectacular Forum in the heart of the city. The event involved dozens of teams of scientists from various organisations and groups creating exhibitions of their work to display to the general public. We were fortunate enough to be one of these groups of scientists, and it was great to be part of an event that aims to bring about closer relations between the people of Norwich and the scientists on their doorstep.

The event itself came very early in the iGEM process for us, and certainly before any lab work had been embarked upon. Despite our lack of physical work at this point, it was a fantastic opportunity for us to talk to curious members of the public about the weird and wonderful world of iGEM, and about synthetic biology and genetic modification in general. This was particularly valuable to the undergraduate portion of our team, for whom this was our first real experience of science communication to the public. It was also a great way to begin to bond further as a fully-fledged team, having previously only met a handful of times to discuss project ideas.

The day began early with the setting up of our stand, and the team were excited to get their first iGEM t-shirts. The stand itself revolved largely around disseminating information on iGEM and teaching those who were interested about how common modified carbohydrates were (being found in everything from paint, to yoghurts and sweets), and how we hoped to modify them into a product that could prevent colon cancer. As the day was largely family orientated we also took along a variety of fun activities that were made using starch and carbohydrate. The edible play-doh and giant starch bubbles were an instant hit with the kids (big-kids like us included). It was fantastic to see the children enjoying themselves, and learning new things at the same time. It was equally rewarding for ourselves to see just how positively science on issues such as GM can be received when it is demystified, and being used for a good purpose.

The day was very busy, and we felt it had been hugely successful, despite leaving many of us with sore feet! Being hosted alongside world-class scientists from institutes such as the John Innes Centre and the Sainsbury Laboratory was a huge privilege. In a few short weeks our team had gone from sitting in lectures learning about the wonders of  science and the discoveries going on all around us, to being part of it, even if just a small part for the moment. All in all, it was a great event to give us the impetus and inspiration to go on and pioneer our small share of science.