Our frequent team collaboration activities are diverse and we used a range of formal and informal communication and engagement channels to connect.
iGEM x SDG Impact Challenge 2021
In light of Free Coli's extraordinary potential to reduce inequity and advance the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, it was a perfect fit for us to collaborate with TAS_Taipei and a host of other international teams through TAS_Taipei's iGEM x SDG Impact Challenge 2021. While our human practices work looked to target multiple SDG goals, we focused on the role Free Coli could play in SDG 4.3 for the Challenge.
"By 2030, substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship."
Our design for a naturally transformable lab strain of E. coli will provide a cheaper, more efficient and safe host organism for synthetic biology to enable greater use in secondary and tertiary education around the world. The iGEM x SDG Challenge 2021 facilitated collaboration between teams by allowing each team to assign tasks to other teams for completion. We asked other teams in the challenge to complete our USyd iGEM Genetic Engineering Attitudes and Accessibility Survey to assess attitudes about the safety and usage of synthetic biology and genetic engineering, and to better understand community perceptions of accessibility barriers in synthetic biology.
Our survey was also written and distributed in the hope that a better understanding of the relationship between education levels and attitudes about the safety, usage and accessibility of synthetic biology would enable more targeted tailoring of our education and outreach content. Although survey entries were anonymised for ethical reasons, several teams within the challenge informed us they completed the survey.
To fulfil our obligation to advance the SDG work of other teams within the challenge, our team completed the William and Mary 2021 team's iGEM Orthogonality Survey. We also distributed NTU-Singapore's educational website to regional Australian communities with limited access to education.
Our global collaboration in service of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals culminated in the iGEM x SDG Impact Conference held on 19 September. We joined the following teams for an evening of presentations and discussion:
- Moscow City
- CCU Taiwan
- ATG x iGEM UMA
- William and Mary
- Tu Darmstadt
- iGEM Aachen; and
Australasian Synthetic Biology Challenge 2021
Our active participation in the regional Australasian Synthetic Biology Challenge was in close alignment with iGEM's values and visions. The Australasian Synthetic Biology Challenge was open to all students from Australia and New Zealand. We were contributing to the creation of a dynamic, varied, and connected synthetic biology community in Australasia by participating in this challenge. The goal of the challenge is to provide a framework for student teams and their mentors in academia and industry to use synthetic biology concepts to solve real-world challenges. The Australasian SynBio Challenge seeks to serve as a catalyst for scientific innovation in order to spur future investment in Australasian Synthetic Biology. By incorporating SynBio ideas into the Australasian university curriculum, we wanted to promote training in Synthetic Biology. Participants such as our team in the challenge were actively working in groups to solve real-world challenges. The teams were linked to a network of Synbio researchers in academia and business. By strengthening these professional ties, the challenge competition aims to get closer to a robust bio-economy capable of addressing some of the world's most pressing issues.
The challenge's idea is simple: universities across Australasia can join a team or several teams to collaborate on developing and progressing an original synthetic biology project that is both creative and scientifically viable. Undergraduate and Master's level research students may participate in the team. As a challenge team, we were exposed to the grand resources to seek input on our project ideas from experts in the area before entering the lab and creating and testing your biological creations. Throughout the process, we had the opportunity to learn from other team members as well as from a larger synthetic biology network in order to advance our research. Our team was exposed to opportunities not only to improve scientific abilities, but also to explore the project's wider social, cultural, environmental, and economic consequences.
The concepts behind synthetic biology have been present since the birth of molecular cloning techniques, but they are only now becoming a reality due to major cost reductions in two crucial technologies: DNA sequencing and DNA synthesis. Synthetic biology is a field that combines biology, chemistry, computer science, and engineering. This fusion of approaches allows us to approach biology in a more engineer-like manner, abstracting down (but still appreciating!) the intricate interconnectedness of biological systems and treating genes, proteins, and cells as discrete parts and components that can be re-assembled and re-engineered to create new systems with novel functions. It is a discipline that strives to not only deliver sustainable, bio-based answers to some of our most pressing issues, but also to push the boundaries of our knowledge and comprehension of the world around us.
May 5th 2021
Wrays, the Challenge sponsor, organized a seminar to educate teams on intellectual property and patent law in biotechnology during the first session of the Challenge. Teams were advised on how to handle and protect any intellectual property generated by this Challenge.
May 18th 2021
Design Extravaganza was the first major event of the Challenge season, in which teams exhibited their ideas and announced their projects for the first time. Expert reviewers from the field were on site to offer guidance and criticism to assist each team in tailoring their ideas.
Mentoring took place mainly from late May to late July before the seminar series of the challenge sponsors such as IDT, Twist and NEB. We also took advantage of the ample opportunities to learn about the commercialisation of our project. As our team worked on our projects, we took the time to consider what the final objective of our effort may be. It significantly educated our team in what it takes to start a business and build a business model.
14th October-15th October
The final showcase of each team's project took place over two afternoons and concluded the Challenge. All the teams presented for 10-12 minutes, followed by audience Q&A. Team pitches were also held, and guest speakers discussed Synbio possibilities in Australasia as well as different career paths. It was bittersweet to see our project stems from the beginning of ideation to this phase's finish line. However impacted by COVID-19 lockdown, our test phase involving laboratory work was unfortunately prohibited, we remained hopeful for the continuation of this ambitious yet promising project in Phase II next year.
Collaboration with UNSW Sydney
At a regional and local level, we engaged with the UNSW team via email, Zoom and Facebook messenger. These channels include our informal chat, documented project progress, results, troubleshooting, planning and inviting feedback and comments through engagement and perception surveys. Key internal project progress is made available on a lab notebook platform such as LabArchive and documents the various planned communication activities. This also includes engagement via Google Doc, email consultations, Canva slide designs and so on.
In July 2021, we attended the Biodiversity Symposium hosted by UNSW iGEM team which focused on the environmental protection and application of synthetic biology in solving global climate issues such as ocean acidification, ocean pollution by plastics or algae bloom and so on. A total number of 5 international teams participated in this event of which Stony Brook, New York sparked our interest in furthering team collaboration.
Collaboration with Stony Brook, US
At an international level, we engaged with the US Stony Brook iGEM team over email and Zoom primarily, with freely accessible online third-party platforms such as Google drive to document our engagement and partnership.
Stony Brook focused on microcystinase in targeting degradation of microcystin — a hepatotoxin and carcinogen which is abundant in harmful algal blooms due to climate change and frequent commercial agricultural fertiliser use. They aimed to create recombinant membrane protein MlrA and MlrC which could cleave the microcystin and degrade it into linearized peptides. Since they would be designing membrane anchoring proteins similar to what we would be creating, we were really interested in their research and learn more from their wet-lab as well as dry-lab designs. From early August to late October (01/08 - 24/10), we held bi-weekly collaboration meetings to check in on each other and to address and troubleshoot project issues as well as providing insightful solutions bouncing valuable ideas to each other. We have also creatively made intellectual contributions within and outside the scope of our projects in the context of synthetic biology in the format of journal club as well as journal critique.
From Acineobacter balylyi to Sphingomonas sp., from natural transformation to cyclic-peptide degradation, from COVID Delta variant identification to low-cost CRISPR based COVID-testing kit… We didn’t limit ourselves by diving into our own project work but cared more deeply in appreciating the vastly diverse range of the synthetic biology research covering areas such as medical translational research, environmental protection, scientific foundation and so on.