Team:UNSW Australia


Australia’s global identity is hallmarked by the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), a biologically diverse ecosystem located off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Its coral reef is the largest in the world, containing over 600 coral species, and accounting for three-quarters of the world’s coral population. The GBR supports one of the world’s most biodiverse ecosystems, and contributes $6.4 billion dollars to Australia's GDP annually.


Climate change is rendering the GBR increasingly more susceptible to coral bleaching, with five mass bleaching events occurring in the last two decades. Rising ocean temperatures cause oxidative stress, triggering the ejection of corals’ microalgal-symbiont Symbiodinium spp. and rendering the coral ‘bleached’. The most recent of these events marked 50% of the reef being declared dead, and resulted in 60% of the remaining live reef bleached. This is the most severe and widespread coral bleaching the GBR has ever seen.


Utilising a synthetic biology approach, PROTECC Coral (Prevent Reactive Oxygen And Thermal Extreme Caused CARKING) aims to prevent bleaching of coral hosts by engineering thermo-tolerant microalgal symbionts. Our project design is twofold:

1. Chaperone level: Introduce small heat shock proteins (sHSP) into Symbiodinium sp. to prevent protein denaturation and aggregation.

2. Enzyme level: Implement a glutathione recycling system within Symbiodinium sp. in order to neutralise heat-stress induced toxic reactive oxygen species (ROS) and prevent expulsion from coral hosts.



With the unprecedented circumstances of the global pandemic and restrictions on lab access, lab teams initially focused on integrated project design informed by conversations with experts. This guided development of dry lab structural models, with the aim of better understanding our component sHSP proteins, as well as mathematical models, to predict the cell level metabolome of our engineered system. To complement this, the wet lab team conducted experimental characterisation of proposed chaperone systems within an E. coli chassis, validating their ability to prevent protein aggregation.


Integrated HP, to the UNSW iGEM 2020 team, is understanding the mutualistic relationship between people and science. Our human-centred design began by consulting ethicists and social-scientists to understand the complex dynamic between society and synthetic-biology. From there, our research and development was driven by the values and needs of the diverse stakeholders we spoke with. These conversations were sustained and meaningful in every part of our HP journey. With this insight, we reached out to coral experts who informed the technical aspects of our solution. Together, our conversations resulted in an approach that accounted for nuanced values, in order to create a good and responsible solution to coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.


The UNSW iGEM team is made up of sixteen young people who call Australia home! We come from a range of different backgrounds and care about the GBR like it’s our own. This personal connection we feel with the reef as Australians, as well as our multidisciplinary approach, has allowed us to weigh both the environmental issues of coral bleaching and the social, economic and cultural ones. We are passionate about the crossover of conservation and synthetic biology, and believe it holds the key to a solution that could bring about great change.