We’ve been involved in a multitude of collaborations throughout the summer, organised meetups, mentored other teams, and formed a partnership with the Manchester and Hainan team which we elaborate on here.
UK iGEM meetup
We organised the only UK iGEM meetup in June 2020. All UK high school and unviersity teams came, and we had 65 attendants in total. The event lasted 3 hours. We gave all teams 10 minutes to present their project, and then other teams could ask questions. Following this, we divided teams into breakout rooms which we had arranged beforehand according to which teams were most similar, further give them a chance to foster collaborations.
Overall, it was great to meet the other UK teams despite the pandemic. Although it was a learning curve to using breakout rooms (which did not always go smoothly), it was especially rewarding to get positive feedback from the other teams after this event. We hope that through this, we managed to provide other UK teams with a chance to meet despite the pandemic and hopefully enabled some collaborations. For us, this meetup was especially important as it was the beginning of our long-term partnership with the Manchester team.
Moreover, we all had a chance to present our work so far, allowing us to practice presenting to a smaller group before presenting our work at the jamboree. This was the first time we ever presented our idea to a wider audience, so it was significant in making us more confident in our idea and ability to present as a group.
Paris Bettencourt iGEM 2020
The collaboration with the Paris Bettencourt team was first founded early in June when we discovered a post on the iGEM collaboration list mentioning their project focus of the skin microbiome. Naturally, our probiotic sunscreen fitted in perfectly with their project. Additionally, a week previous to the meeting, we had been researching the abundance and diversity of microflora on the human skin to inform macroscopic modelling of our application. Finding a team to support previous and future research would be fantastic!
Attendance of this event led to subsequent collaboration meetings where the scopes of both projects were discussed. Paris Bettencourt initially offered their wet lab capabilities to test our sunscreen on a synthetic human skin environment, a project to pursue following wet lab success in 2021. This avenue has a lot of promise as after discussion with Dr. Les Firbank and a Professor in Dermatology, in vivo trials could hold up the potential of our product entering the cosmetic market. Collecting additional data in a synthetic skin environment may reduce time spent in clinical trials. The information gathered is also invaluable to informing the macroscopic modelling aspect of our project. Inclusion of specific bacterial species into our model simulations would improve the accuracy of probiotic behaviour and interactions when present on the surface of the skin.
In return, the Paris Bettencourt team required skin microbiome samples from willing volunteers of the team to assist in their human practices project. This involved the comparison of skin microbiome samples of people restricted by COVID-19 regulations and those without. Scotland was one of the last countries in Europe to remove strict lockdown restrictions increasing the validity and importance of the samples we provided to their study. From the data collected, individuals taking part in the study got to observe the species distribution of their own personal microbiome. As family and friends were encouraged to take part, this hopefully increased science capital amongst the general human population, in parallel with the ‘Antibiotics Under Our Feet’ project.
We were also given the opportunity to run a workshop at the Global meet up organised by Paris Bettencourt and other Parisian teams (iGEM IONIS, Paris Saclay and Paris Sorbonne).
In the workshop we put forward three hypothetical probiotics that could be created using synthetic biology. These ranged from therapeutic applications (the treatment of eczema) to purely cosmetic (anti-aging treatment). These scenarios were designed to stimulate discussion on a variety of topics surrounding the idea of probiotics.
Use of a topical probiotic on face that will produce retinoids/hyaluronic acid (acne treatment) using E coli
This gene circuit includes a kill switch that will result in the death of the bacteria after a certain amount of time.
Use of a topical probiotic that produces a weak steroid to treat inflammation/eczema
This gene circuit would have no kill switch, but we expect that the bacteria would be outcompeted by the native skin bacteria
Creation of a probiotic that produces anti-ageing molecules such as hyaluronic acid or Coenzyme Q10
Instead of using a non-native chassis, Staphylococcus epidermis, a common skin bacterium, would be used and this product would be expected to remain on the skin as a permanent member of the skin microbiome constantly secreting these antiaging compounds
Key topics of conversation was the necessity of a kill switch, and what form this could take. One particularly interesting concept mentioned was a bacteriophage kill switch. It was theorised that a lysogenic bacteriophage could potentially be used instead of a conventional kill switch. This was a concept we had not come across before, so it was a very interesting direction for the discussion to take. Our final scenario was the most controversial, raising the possibility of the creation of a permanent skin probiotic. We discussed the prospect of this probiotic being ‘contagious’, and how this could be minimised.
The attendees of the workshop generally had positive attitudes towards the use of genetically modified probiotics, both cosmetic and therapeutic. However, the iGEM community will no doubt be more open to synthetic biology alternatives to everyday products than the general public. Overall, the workshop allowed us to share some of the difficulties and concerns that we have come up against while developing our project, including the challenge of engineering a genetically stable kill switch, and the ethics of creating a genetically engineered probiotic.
Gaston day school
While our meetup was intended to cater for UK-based teams, Gaston Day School of North Carolina, United States, asked to join and of course we welcomed such a request. During their presentation, they detailed how they looked to engineer a formulation which could effectively prevent the spread of Kudzu – an invasive plant species that had devastating consequences for the ecosystem in many areas of the US. It was mentioned that they were having some difficulties with modelling, due to inexperience with the necessary techniques and mathematics involved. In one of our breakout sessions, we had a chance to discuss with them further: we were fascinated by the topic they choose to study and supportive of the environmental impact it could have. As a result, we offered our expertise to assist in development of their models. Following this, open correspondence was set up over email and regular video meetings were scheduled to provide continued help throughout their project, depending on their struggles from week to week. A thorough document was prepared detailing ideas for how they could use modelling to best inform their project. We provided suggestions on how to optimise their gene circuit: in particular how to handle the large cluster size of the phaselotoxin production cluster they were implementing and its potential toxicity to the chassis organism, E. Coli. In addition, we detailed how it could be possible to predict the impact of their proposed solution managing Kudzu spread by simulating the invasion process. This could be achieved by considering the macroscopic dynamics taking into account both the biology of how kudzu spreads but also any human action which interferes with the spread. By running simulations both with and without management strategies in place and comparing the area of land invaded by the kudzu in a set amount of time, the impact of their project to the large-scale effort could be forecasted. A simple agent-based model implemented in NetLogo was suggested to carry out the simulations.
Tianjin University, China
Again, in our search for ways to distribute the survey we discovered that the Tianjin University in China has an iGEM team. We contacted them asking for possible collaboration and soon got a reply. The TJUSLS iGEM team provided us with valuable support by distributing our sunscreen survey. Then, we invited them to attend our Synthetic Biology Forum at the end of August where they could learn more on the topic ‘Will GMOs shape the future of humanity?’.
University of New South Wales iGEM
The collaboration with the University of New South Wales iGEM team commenced in July when we contacted the team as we were looking to collect data from Australian residents for our Sunscreen Case Study survey. Their project also involved the prevention of coral bleaching; therefore, the collaboration came naturally. The UNSW team agreed to help us share the survey and we also shared insights of our projects, especially the environmental modelling aspects and the information about experts that we had been in contact with throughout the project. They suggested that we join a slack channel they had created, which included all the teams working on marine life conservation. In terms of the aspects of human practices, we agreed to share each other’s social media posts and they informed us that they were planning on organising a symposium later in the year to allow all the marine biology projects to share their work. We also discussed the possibility of creating a website to share educational videos on coral bleaching and to highlight the issues of coral degradation worldwide.
We continued to keep in contact with them throughout the summer, sharing notes and recordings from meetings that we had such as those with Prof. Firbank and Dr. Hennige. The UNSW iGEM team decided to host the virtual Marine Biology Symposium on September 24th and the St Andrews team shared the event poster through our social media to increase the public’s interest in the event and to provide the symposium with a larger audience. The event included the UNSW, St Andrews, and Exter iGEM teams, which were also joined by a few experts in the fields of marine biology. The symposium allowed the teams to present their projects and answer questions from the audience and experts. Additionally, this event also allowed us to share our survey with the audience and collect more data as most of the audience was composed of Australian students.