Silver medal success for first King’s College London iGEM team

We’re always banging on about entering competitions – not the ones where you can win a holiday or meet & greet packages with a celebrity (though we’ve nothing against those!) but instead ones where you can either directly or indirectly use your experiences and skills to benefit your career plans. So it’s great to be able to share this piece written by a member of staff from the Faculty of Life Sciences and Medicine about a very impressive performance from a group of King’s students…..

A team of undergraduate students from the Faculty of Life Sciences and Medicine has been awarded a silver medal at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. Each year around 6,000 students in more than 300 teams from universities, colleges and schools across the world give up their summer to design and realize an iGEM synthetic biology project. They present their work at a four day ‘giant jamboree;’ in Boston, Massachusetts.

To gain their medal, the 15-strong KCL team, the ‘3-prime suspects’, designed and built a set of standard DNA parts that can be used to construct a library of small RNAs (sRNAs). sRNA molecules regulate gene expression in bacteria, and hence can be engineered to produce novel therapeutic tools. The team proposed that their engineered sRNAs could be used to combat bacterial infections by targeting genes involved in the development of antibiotic resistance. The competition judges praised the novelty of their idea and clean design of the project, particularly noting how well they had done for a first-time team. More information can be found on the team Wiki which was also highly rated by the judges. Inclusivity was one of the team’s concerns and the judges commended the guidelines they developed for their own and others’ use on making their materials dyslexia-friendly.

Besides the lab work, iGEM teams are responsible for outreach and publicity for their project, and the ‘human practices’ element of the competition requires them to address issues such as public education, ethics and sustainability. The KCL team engaged with communities in London, Spain, Poland and Kenya to explore their attitudes to antibiotic use in medicine and agriculture and their awareness of antibiotic resistance as a threat to human health. The students also designed and delivered education sessions for London secondary school pupils, whose teachers were delighted with the activities and have asked for an annual repeat of the event.

The team was guided by Dr Anatoliy Markiv and Dr Alison Snape, both from the Faculty’s Centre for Education.  The team benefitted from financial support from the Faculty to pay the competition entry fee, but additional fundraising was a major challenge as the students had to raise money to pay their expenses and to find sponsorship for laboratory supplies. Student team captain, Marcos Vega-Hazas Martí said “We are delighted to have formed the first KCL iGEM team.  As well as developing our research, teamwork and entrepreneurial skills, through iGEM we have met leaders in the synbio field, including researchers, media representatives and employers. We are immensely proud to have shown them the potential of King’s students to contribute in this area.”

Team member Josephine Eum added “It has been a truly invaluable experience to work in the lab, to be a bridge between the public and the scientists and to be part of the big synbio community – engineering the future. We truly hope there will be an ongoing commitment from the College to support future iGEM teams.”

Publicity and recruitment for the 2019 iGEM competition will start in early December – look out for further information.