The UNSW iGEM team believes collaboration is an essential part of science. Collaboration between scientists includes the sharing of knowledge and resources in various creative ways, and helps to implement more significant work in society. Over the past year, we have sought to form and maintain meaningful relationships with other iGEM teams and members. Through mentorship and friendly camaraderie, our team has truly enjoyed and gained insight into the collaborative nature of the scientific discipline.
2020 has not been the most ideal year for engaging in the typical in-person collaboration activities with other iGEM teams. Although our team did not get to enjoy the same privilege as previous teams, we were able to explore new and unique ways to collaborate with other teams both nationally and internationally. Building relationships with other iGEM teams has given us a taste of what it feels like to be one part of a global effort to prevent coral bleaching, as well as efforts to preserve the greater marine environment.
The UNSW iGEM team was excited to engage with teams on the international stage for the ‘UNSW iGEM Virtual Coral Symposium 2020’, held on the 24th of September. As with most events and initiatives in 2020, multiple teams navigated Zoom to present the development progress of their coral conservation projects, and engage in constructive and meaningful discussion about practicing science during the COVID-19 era. Our team facilitated a rich, interesting and multi-layered discussion about our proposed synthetic biological solutions with international audiences including university students, the general public and marine experts.
We were so glad to be joined by the Exeter team from England and the St. Andrews team from Scotland. Through mentoring meetings peppered throughout the year, we had a preconceived idea of what each team’s project involved. However, the symposium provided a valuable opportunity to see each team’s project presented as a whole, as well as learn from their presentation and communication techniques.
The Exeter team presented their project “CalcifEXE”, which aims to produce a new carbon negative 3D bioprinter to enable the printing of calcium carbonate into custom shapes that can act as backbones to coral reefs. This would allow coral regeneration to be sped up in damaged reefs.
St. Andrews Team
The St. Andrews team presented their project “Shinescreen”, which aims to produce a sustainable and coral friendly sunscreen, providing protection to corals from the toxic chemicals normally found in traditional sunscreens.
Each team was given a designated amount of time to present their project, with direction to focus on their progress throughout the year, and the ‘journey’ their project has taken in response to research, lab work, and outreach to stakeholders. It was fascinating to see how each team demonstrated a highly considered and integrated response to coral conservation. In addition, each team was allocated time to take questions from any participant of the symposium. iGEM team members, experts, and audiences enjoyed asking thought-provoking questions, which teams will, no doubt, consider in the remaining weeks of the project. Much discussion was also had in respect to the difficulties posed by COVID-19, particularly in regards to lab access and stakeholder outreach. It was interesting and uplifting to engage with each teams’ responses to these challenges.
Each team was also asked to invite one to two ‘experts’ who have mentored and informed their work over the year. Following each team’s presentation, experts were invited to give a short presentation of their area of research, and their contributions to their iGEM team. This allowed for a rich forum of international perspective on different research aimed to combat coral bleaching. We’d like to extend a heartfelt thanks to our experts for giving us their time and insight:
Dr. Dominic Glover
The role of molecular chaperones in cells to promote both the correct folding of new proteins, as well as the aggregation of proteins particularly under denaturing conditions. Thermal stress can cause proteins to denature and unfold, thus losing their structure. Cells have thus developed very complex mechanisms to prevent protein folding and aggregating, as they are very energetically expensive processes.
Mr. Josh McCluskey
Algae come in two main forms - eukaryotic and prokaryotic. Prokaryotic algae is extensively used as a model organism for photosynthetic research. Synechocystic PCC 6803 is useful for engineering, as it can be easily transformed with linear dsDNA, and is capable of heterotrophic and photoautotrophic growth.
The creativity and innovation demonstrated throughout the teams’ solutions brought about a few poignant realisations to our team. Firstly, the nature of a coral bleaching problem is one existing beyond the shores of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Further, coral bleaching is a multifaceted problem with various contributing factors. Nonetheless, through collaboration, we are more equipped than ever to apply creative, courageous and cutting-edge approaches to combat coral bleaching and protect marine health. Therefore, we should be proud to be one part of a collaborative global effort to save coral reefs.
We designed this event to foster camaraderie between teams, and give all an opportunity to present their projects and science in a public forum. Over the year, we have developed the outlook that science is as much about being able to communicate clearly to an audience of non-scientists as it is about technicality. Through this opportunity, all teams involved were able to learn from each other in the many creative ways they used to conceptualise and communicate their project towards a wide audience. This was a particularly helpful precursor to the final iGEM presentation, where we are looking forward to communicating our science for the judges.
The UNSW iGEM team was so proud to have collaborated with Exeter and St. Andrews teams in this way, and gained close personal and working relationships that will be taken forward even beyond the project. Having spoken to Exeter and St. Andrews throughout the year during meetings, it was wonderful to see a culminated final presentation of their projects in their entirety. We would consider the UNSW iGEM Virtual Coral Symposium 2020 a success, as we were able to collaborate to share our science, promote discussion about coral conservation, with a unique international perspective that was brought by both lay-people and coral and marine experts. It was so uplifting to see that creative synthetic biological efforts were being employed to conserve the world’s coral population and marine environments. All teams involved were excited to have seen the far-reaching potential for collaboration, even beyond the iGEM project in the science world.
We would definitely recommend any future iGEM teams to collaborate on a symposium. In particular, the virtual aspect allowed for communication with teams on an international level. In evaluating our experience and design, we would have loved to have invited more international teams to participate and share their project. While we may have been constricted by time zone challenges, future teams may be able to coordinate a virtual symposium that may extend over a few days, to ensure a greater extent of collaboration between teams.
We’d love to give a special thank you to the hard work and contributions of the following people, and our sponsors for supporting our event and project:
- UNSW iGEM 2020: Sayali Gore, Annabelle Beach, Annabelle Lee, Jason Lin, Chelsea Liang, Gabrielle Milet, Deborah Chandra, Jack Robbers, Kelly Varianne, Sam Hum, Sakthirupini Ramamurthy, Zelun Li, Farnaz Sedghi, Kelley Gao, Cornelius Bong, Caitlin Ramsay
- Exeter iGEM 2020: Matthew Turk, Bethan Rimmer, Anna Donnan, Ariane Goudie
- St. Andrews iGEM 2020: Soo Bynn Lee, Caius Gibeily, Isobel Guthrie, Poli Foteva
- Sponsors: UNSW, UNSW School of BABS, Revive & Restore
Communication with different iGEM across various time zones has been a challenge for us all. This year, we have been reaching out to other iGEM teams mainly through emails that we found from the igem registry. The great initiative taken by the iGEM HQ to establish our first iGEMers slack channel has also helped us to make contact with Hainan China. We later took on this idea, and created a slack channel between Exeter, St. Andrews and Hainan where we found it much easier to communicate compared to email which usually takes weeks to get a reply. The last and the most important form of communication is through zoom calls, where we get to link the names with the faces and have meaningful conversation with each other.
OUR TEAM COLLABORATIONS
The Exeter iGEM team is working on a similar theme to the UNSW iGEM team in effort to preserve the marine environment. They are developing a carbon negative 3D bioprinter that prints various shapes of calcium carbonate acting as the coral reef backbones. Through this project, it is hoped that a faster regeneration of corals in damaged reefs could occur.
We have managed to collaborate with them via Zoom as suggested after some previous contacts through emails. The collaboration includes the exchange of ideas and some discussion on the issues that the UNSW iGEM team might have in applying GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) into the environment. Other legal and policy discussion was also carried out as the Exeter iGEM team would like to patent their work in developing the coral backbones. Some human practices contacts were also shared during the meeting. In a further collaboration, the Exeter iGEM team was also invited to the coral themed symposium hosted by the UNSW iGEM team. With this symposium, the Exeter iGEM team also helped in promoting the event in their social media which helped us in reaching out to a wider audience around the world.
In relation with our team’s project on preventing coral bleaching due to the increase in temperature, coral bleaching could also be as a result of the toxic chemicals found in sunscreens. The St. Andrews iGEM team is working on sustainable and coral friendly sunscreen which aligns with our main aim to protect corals.
Collaboration with the St. Andrews iGEM team was performed by exchanging some experts' contacts to help to improve both teams’ projects with more experts’ opinions. Discussions on each teams’ projects were also carried via several Zoom calls. In these discussions, we exchanged several research articles on coral microorganisms and coral heat studies. The UNSW iGEM team also helped the St. Andrews iGEM team complete and provide suggestions on their online survey on public attitudes on sunscreens and coral bleaching in different countries. In order to receive Australian perspectives for the survey, we also shared them through our facebook page. In addition, the UNSW iGEM team also invited the St. Andrews iGEM team to be one of the featured presenting teams in the ‘UNSW iGEM Virtual Coral Symposium 2020’. For the symposium, the St. Andrews iGEM team also helped in promoting the event through their social media to reach out to a wider audience not only in Australia, but also around the world.
In contrast to our focus on elevating the heat tolerance of Symbiodinium, the Hainan China iGEM team turned their focus to microbial symbionts of the coral. By introducing ‘probiotics' to the system, with an aim to nourish the coral symbiotic relationship, therefore enhancing the survivability of the coral under extreme environmental conditions.
We organised two zoom calls with Hainan China during the early stage of both our projects, in which we introduced the core idea behind our project and also gained valuable insights from their approaches to the problem. After the meeting, we exchanged some primary and secondary research papers on the topic of coral bleaching and various coral symbionts. Beyond the scope of science, we also collaborated on the level of HP by filling out their survey and making few suggestions to their survey.
As a newly joining team to the iGEM competition in this unusual year, kits supplies have been an issue for the DeNovocastrians iGEM team from the University of Newcastle in Australia. To carry out their project on using bacterial systems to degrade benzene in the environment, the UNSW iGEM team has helped them by sending Biobrick Part pSB1C3. This particular part was from the UNSW iGEM 2018 team and we were therefore able to provide them with the suggestion on how they would be able to use the specific part.
The Duesseldorf iGEM team was running the postcard project and we have participated in their project by sending our postcard design. The postcards were then printed in Germany to be sent to the other teams around the world.
Due to the global pandemic, the iGEM team at Uppsala undertook an initiative which reached out to teams over the globe to understand the struggles of teams in various countries. Our team shared our experiences of the challenges we had to face due to the global pandemic and how this affected our work in the lab, as well as how we have been communicating with each other. We would like to thank the Uppsala team for reaching out to us in a means to stay connected during a time we have to be physically distant.
Collaborations this year from the UNSW iGEM team with other iGEM teams have been extremely diverse. For example, we had the amazing pleasure of collaboratively holding an online symposium with multiple iGEM teams. And they were only coral related teams! We would not have been able to have this internationally held Symposium if it were held in person. Perhaps even an extended hybrid version may be possible too! Other examples have been mentor-based, and even included the very creative postcard collaboration with the Duesseldorf iGEM team.
We believe our UNSW iGEM team has adapted very well to these collaborations, but we can still improve. Our reach of iGEM teams this year has been more sparse and specific. As a result, we hope that in the future UNSW iGEM teams may aim to have wider reach and diversity in shared content through collaboration, so that they may be exposed to a wider range of iGEM projects. This may also involve looking to other iGEM teams for mentoring.