Aalto-Helsinki 2020


An integral part of iGEM has been communicating science to the general public. Especially nowadays, an effective and engaging dialogue is important. The main three areas of our team's educational efforts included synthetic biology, wastewater treatment and pharma disposal. Our target audience varied from primary school children to stakeholders in the field of biotechnology. We have organized workshops, participated in seminars and symposia, as well as developed an antimicrobial resistance awareness campaign and an informative mobile game.


Synthetic Biology Course

Synthetic Biology course at Aalto University aims to familiarize students with the field and to show various approaches that utilize synthetic biology to introduce improvements. We had the pleasure of hosting one lecture, where we talked about what iGEM is and what are its goals. We also shared the goal of our project and talked about our experience and difficulties we came across while designing a genetically engineered tool “from scratch”. We also asked for feedback on our project, suggestions for improving the project, what idea they would have for such a competition and much more.

IBISBA 6th-Month Consortium Meeting

IBISBA (The Industrial Biotechnology Innovation and Synthetic Biology Accelerator) aims to, in their own words, ‘support and accelerate the uptake of industrial biotechnology as a key enabling technology for advanced manufacturing’. We had a pleasure of presenting and discussing our project to professionals from both academia and industry, who are working in the field of biotechnology, as well as answering questions regarding SINISENS and synthetic biology in general. Other attending iGEM teams were Wageningen UR 2019 and Paris 2020.

Presentation at iGEM Symposium: Global Goals using Synthetic Biology

In August we had another opportunity to present our work: we participated in the Global Goals Symposium organized by Leiden iGEM team. The idea behind the event was to present how our teams decided to tackle different issues using synthetic biology. Along with us there were two other iGEM teams presenting their projects: the FCB-UANL team from Mexico, who attempt to produce an eco-friendly substitute of the traditional foam used to put down fires, as well as the Rochester team (a.k.a. Team UteRus) from the USA, who is trying to make finding biomarkers for endometriosis easier. We were very happy to have a discussion regarding our project and the effect it may have on the world.


As with most issues, the best solutions are the ones tackling it at its source. When it comes to the presence of pharmaceuticals in water, as we learnt during our meeting with Paula Lindell from Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority, it is also the result of improper disposal and usage. As is usually the case, prevention is better than the cure: the best solution to the problem would be preventing pharmaceuticals from ending up in wastewater in the first place. After meeting the Indian iGEM team IISER Pune, our attention was also brought to the differences in regulations regarding pharma disposal in different countries and that this information is not always easily accessible. For that reason, we have created an interactive map containing information on official guidelines for drug disposal around the world.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified the spreading of antibiotic resistance as one of the biggest threats to global health [1]. As a conclusion from the above, improper disposal of pharmaceuticals is one of the important contributors to them ending up in the wastewater and that the knowledge regarding proper disposal is often limited. This also contributes to the development of antibiotic resistance. We wanted to address this issue by spreading awareness of antibiotic resistance and safe drug disposal. Therefore, we developed materials for a campaign, which included flyers, an animated video and an informative website. A Finnish pharmacy distributed the campaign flyers, and we spread the campaign video on social media. You can visit our campaign website here, where we share the several actions we can all make to prevent the spreading of antibiotic resistance.

Figure 1. Flyer of our campaign to raise public awareness about antibiotic resistance.


Fix the Flow is a strategic and informative tower defence game aimed at younger people to educate them about wastewater treatment process and synthetic biology. The idea of the game is to acquire cleaning equipment and different types of bacteria in order to clean contamination from wastewater (Fig. 2). As the game progresses, the difficulty level rises so the player needs to upgrade the bacteria with new plasmids to keep up with the oncoming trash and pollution.

Figure 2. Preview of Fix the Flow, the game app developed by Aalto-Helsinki 2020 iGEM team.

During early stages of the ideation the coronavirus situation and its extent was still very uncertain. We wanted to create something that would be safe to use and keep social distancing in mind. We thought a mobile app could be an option, not only because it would teach people within comfort of their homes, but also since many people are turning towards their phones to pass time during a quarantine. The main focus of the app came to mind after a meeting with Paula Lindell from Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority, which highlighted that many people are not aware how the treatment process actually looks like, which ends up with many things, such as pharmaceuticals or diapers, being disposed improperly. We thought it might be helpful to transform this rather unattractive topic into something more exciting and approachable. Following the iGEM goal of promoting synthetic biology among the general public, we also wanted to show how microorganisms can be used in the industry, as well as highlight the fact that they can be improved using biotechnology.

The towers and type of pollution in the game are based on techniques used in modern wastewater treatment plants. First enemy the player comes across is litter. The towers effective against this contamination are filters, which are usually the first step in most wastewater treatment plants. The following levels (flushes) introduce phosphorus and nitrogen: compounds essential for many important organic compounds, such as DNA and proteins. They are commonly used in fertilizers. This makes their efficient removal crucial, as they can lead to the eutrophication of natural waters [2]. The tower used to remove phosphorus from wastewater is a ferrous sulfate machine, which causes phosphorus to precipitate [3]. Nitrogen is mainly targeted by denitrifying bacteria: ammonium is first turned into NOx. This makes it easier for the denitrification bacteria to turn it into N2, which is then released into the atmosphere [3]. Final enemies include heavy metals and pharmaceuticals. Their main characteristic is persistence in the environment. We also highlighted the fact that certain types of pharmaceuticals, such as antibiotics, have an additional negative effect: they may lead to development of antimicrobial resistance. To combat this type of pollution, the player uses modified bacteria that can degrade, transform or take up these compounds from wastewater. Although this method is not the usual approach to remove this type of a contaminant, some facilities do use it [4]. Moreover, it seemed more exciting and suited the game’s synthetic biology theme better. The defensive towers can be purchased with nucleotides and upgraded using plasmids.

Figure 3. QR code to download Fix the Flow or play it in the browser.

The reason we aimed the app at younger people (around 12-15 year old) is that we wanted to spark up interest in synthetic biology relatively early on. We also thought that showing various uses of microorganisms and their transformation could help to warm up a somewhat villainized image of genetic engineering. One of the issues concerning exploring the field of synthetic biology is the fact that many materials are only available in English. This makes it more difficult for younger people who are not native speakers of the language to access such information, since they most likely do not have sufficient vocabulary yet. In order to make our app more accessible we decided to make it available in 13 other languages: Finnish, Swedish, Spanish, Catalan, Polish, Slovenian, Czech, Russian, German, Italian, Brazilian, Portuguese and French (special thanks to our translators). Moreover, we ensured its availability by publishing a free mobile version of it to Google Play Store and Apple's App Store. In addition, the game can be played on any computer in a browser (Fig. 3).

Try Fix the Flow in your Browser

Before releasing the final version of the game, we did two testing rounds. In the first testing round, we asked for feedback on several areas:

  • Was the text approachable?
  • Was the text clear?
  • Did players feel like they learnt something?
  • Was the user experience enjoyable?

Based on this feedback we learnt that although players generally felt like they learnt about synthetic biology, the language used to convey this information was not very engaging. Based on that we re-wrote several sections of the game.

There were also several bugs detected by testers during the first beta test, such as one major upgrade not working for some towers due to small logic problem, not being able to rotate ferrous sulphate machine because rotate button being out of screen bounds, and global high score list not working as intended.

After doing the necessary changes to the first beta version, we released a second beta version tested by the members of our team. This second testing round was made to ensure the bugs were fixed and to release the app in different languages and check them. We have also gotten feedback from the Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority (HSY) regarding a few details of the wastewater treatment process.


Heureka Workshops

We collaborated with Heureka, a Finnish science center for people of all ages. Together we organized three interactive workshops. Our goal was to spark an interest towards synthetic biology, as well as to familiarize the guests with the processes taking place in wastewater treatment plants. All Heureka visitors were encouraged to ask questions.

1. Draw your own bacteria!

The idea of the workshop was for guests to get creative and draw their own bacteria on shrinking plastic, so they can be turned into keychains. It was definitely our most popular workshop and kids were very excited about it.

2. DNA extraction

In this workshop, we wanted children to feel like actual scientists and let them extract DNA from kiwis with a few simple steps. We also took this opportunity to talk about DNA structure and cell biology, as they are key elements required to get into biotechnology.

3. Fix the Flow

In this workshop we presented our educational mobile game, Fix the Flow (more about the game above). The game is aimed at younger people to educate them about the wastewater treatment process and synthetic biology. Due to the coronavirus restrictions we were not able to provide visitors with tablets to play the game, but they were able to download Fix the Flow on their own devices using a QR-code (Fig. 3) and continue learning at the comfort of their own homes.

Overall, the day in Heureka was a wonderful chance to interact with people and have a discussion about the potential of synthetic biology. We also got great feedback from the staff, who are experts in science education.

IBO Seminar

International Biology Olympiad (IBO) is a premier biology competition for high school students. Students from over 70 countries participate in the competition yearly. Our team held a training evening for the Finnish team of students who are being coached for the competition. The training included a presentation about synthetic biology, iGEM and our project as well as an educational quiz. We also had discussions about studying in the university and their future plans. In a ‘speed-dating’ session trainees had an opportunity to ask about majors studied by our team members and what exactly such studies are encompassing. After the training we were happy to hear students enjoyed the evening and gave us very good feedback. Some of the comments they made:

  • "An inspiring experience!"
  • "I got a lot out of the iGEM training evening, also considering my future studies."
  • "It was exciting to hear about the iGEM project and interview the team members."

High School Visit

We visited a biology class at Helsinki Normal Lyseum, a Finnish upper secondary school. We started the visit with an educational quiz and continued with a presentation. This presentation included the basics of synthetic biology as well as a summary of our project. The goal of the visit was to raise awareness of synthetic biology and encourage young students to study synthetic biology in the future.


Our team has created a step-by-step guide for designing ligand binding sites with the Rosetta software. The guide is aimed at people with little to no background in computational biology. We believe that future iGEMers will greatly benefit from this detailed guide when tackling Rosetta. The guide was peer-reviewed by two other iGEM teams. After corrections, it was published in the journal initiative of Maastricht 2020 iGEM team to make it widely available. To learn more about our modelling process and Rosetta visit our modelling page.


Aalto & University of Helsinki Events

To promote iGEM and the synthetic biology field we have participated in several orientation events for new students in the Faculty of Science, the Faculty of Medicine and the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Helsinki, as well as Advertisement events at Aalto, where we have discussed our project and shown our recruitment video (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. Promotional video of Aalto-Helsinki 2020 iGEM team.


One of the traditions associated with Finnish academia are overalls worn by students to various university-related events. Each student association (or in a case of technical universities - guilds) has their own overall colour. These overall are gradually covered in an increasing number of patches, which can be either purchased or given during student parties or other activities. The tradition of wearing overalls can be traced down to Sweden and its local sit-sit culture. In Finland, first overalls are thought to be worn by students of construction engineering of Aalto universities in the 1950s. In the 70s every guild in Aalto already had their own colour. In the next decade this wearing overalls had spread first to Vaasa, then to the rest of Finland. To continue with this tradition, we have designed our own Aalto-Helsinki 2020 iGEM patches and distributed them to Aalto and University of Helsinki students (Fig. 5 and 6).

Figure 5. Overall patches designed by Aalto-Helsinki 2020 iGEM team.

Figure 6. Overalls traditionally worn by Finnish students.

TEK (Academic Engineers and Architects in Finland)

TEK is a Finnish trade union for academic engineers and architects, which aims to promote the interests of its members in the labour market, as well as promote education and development of technology in Finland. Apart from becoming our sponsor, TEK has interviewed us and published an article about synthetic biology, iGEM competition and our team’s project in their magazine, which is available here.

Social Media

We have also been active on various social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn, where we shared our project’s values and progress we are making. In addition to that we have been writing a blog on our team’s website.


1. WHO’S top 10 threats to global health in 2019. (2020). Retrieved 27 October 2020, from
2. HELCOM (2018): HELCOM Thematic assessment of eutrophication 2011-2016. Baltic Sea Environment Proceedings No. 156. Available at:
3. We clean wastewater efficiently. (2020). Retrieved 18 October 2020, from
4. Langenhoff, A., Inderfurth, N., Veuskens, T., Schraa, G., Blokland, M., Kujawa-Roeleveld, K., & Rijnaarts, H. (2013). Microbial Removal of the Pharmaceutical Compounds Ibuprofen and Diclofenac from Wastewater. Biomed Research International, 2013, 1-9. doi: 10.1155/2013/325806

Special thanks to HSY for all their support

Kemistintie 1, Espoo, Finland