Our Shinescreen project first began in 2020, when the ocean surroundings of St Andrews (our university town) inspired last year’s Phase I team to use synthetic biology to benefit the marine environment. Following much research into the problems that aquatic ecosystems face, the 2020 team decided on developing a reef-safe, sustainable sunscreen. This decision was made in response to the finding that many commercial sunscreens contain toxic chemicals (such as oxybenzone and octinoxate); when these chemicals are released into the ocean, they increase corals’ susceptibility to bleaching, as well as disrupt their growth and reproductive cycles (Wijgerde, et al., 2020).
The concept developed by the 2020 team was as follows: Shinescreen (the reef-safe sunscreen) would make use of shinorine - a non-toxic, UV-A protecting molecule that is already naturally produced by marine organisms such as red algae and cyanobacteria. Shinorine would be overproduced by a probiotic, FDA-approved strain of bacteria (this being Nissle 1917 E. coli bacteria) as a result of synthetic engineering: in the end-product, customers would be able to apply these engineered bacteria to the surface of their skin, achieving UV-protection as a result.
While the 2020 team was barred from working in the lab due to Covid-19 restrictions, they made much progress towards designing their reef-safe sunscreen, to the extent of receiving a gold medal at the iGEM 2020 Jamboree for their efforts. The theoretically robust gene circuit designs, extensive modelling efforts, and Human Practice engagements of the 2020 team greatly inspired our new 2021 St Andrews iGEM team to continue this endeavour. We all felt that the creation of a reef-safe, probiotic sunscreen could have a real, significant, and positive impact on coral reef ecosystems and the surrounding marine environment.
With UK coronavirus restrictions easing significantly in 2021 (and our team subsequently gaining 10 weeks of laboratory access over the summer), our team now intended to implement the literary research and modelling carried out by last year’s team into our own lab work. Our team realized that we wouldn’t be able to test all the pre-designed Phase I components during our limited 10 weeks of lab access since the overall genetic circuitry was rather complex (consisting of the shinorine-producing system and kill-switch). We hoped to make significant progress on equipping our E. coli bacteria with our desired UV-protecting ability. Specifically, we hoped to clone the four genes of the shinorine-producing pathway (found in Anaebaena viriabilis, a cyanobacterium) into plasmids, transform these plasmids into E. coli cells, and then achieve expression of the four proteins involved in this pathway. We would then attempt to have our bacteria physically produce shinorine, before finally testing for UV protection. For more information about the laboratory research carried out by our Phase II team this summer see the ‘Laboratory Research’ page on our wiki.
In addition to laboratory research, our 2021 team also engaged in collaboration, outreach, and educational efforts to raise awareness of the positive impacts of synthetic biology worldwide. For example, we collaborated with the 2021 Manchester iGEM team, and two of our team members (Julia Ashley and Anna Mansson) appeared on an episode of Manchester’s podcast, ‘The Living Revolution’, to discuss the applications of synthetic biology in cosmetics. Our team also partnered with the 2021 KCL iGEM team, to produce a pre-recorded lecture for their Biologix competition, which was targeted towards 16-18-year-old students interested in learning about synthetic biology. Specifically, our lecture discussed the UN SDGs and how synthetic biology can be used to solve environmental challenges such as coral reef degradation caused by sunscreen ingredients.
Moreover, our team also produced educational material (discussing concepts such as DNA, synthetic biology, and coral reefs) for primary school children for use in both virtual as well as in-person workshops. These workshops formed part of Explorathon, a large biology event organised in Scotland. We also conducted a sunscreen survey to work out public opinion on synthetic biology and knowledge of the need for eco-friendly sunscreen. During our project, we have also conducted stakeholder interviews and worked on our entrepreneurial part of Shinescreen.
Wijgerde, T., van Ballegooijen, M., Nijland, R., van der Loos, L., Kwadijk, C., Osinga, R., Murk, A., and Slijkerman, D. (2020) ‘Adding insult to injury: Effects of chronic oxybenzone exposure and elevated temperature on two reef-building corals’, Science of the Total Environment, 733, pp. 139030, doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.139030