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iGEM Jamboree in Paris

Publication date
Tuesday, 14 Nov 2023

In early November 2023, eight undergraduate students from the ANU College of Science and ANU College of Health and Medicine travelled to Paris along with Professor Gaetan Burgio to attend the 20th iGEM Grand Jamboree. This year ANU entered a team into the iGEM global synthetic biology competition and students travelled to Paris to present their research and hear from leaders in the field.

Synthetic Biology (SynBio) is an emerging interdisciplinary field at the intersection of engineering and biology. SynBio promises to revolutionise medicine, conservation and manufacturing by engineering cells to perform new functions. Human cells are being engineered to detect and kill cancer, enabling powerful targeted therapies that eliminate tumours faster and without the side effects of chemotherapy.

Environmental challenges are able to be solved by bacteria with super charged abilities to eat plastic and our reliance on fossil fuels removed by yeast engineered to produce all the chemicals we currently make from oil. SynBio presents an exciting future in which biology is engineered as easily as computers are today and iGEM is the beating heart of the growing global synthetic biology community. iGEM teams have founded over 400 start-ups and it is widely recognised as the proving ground for upcoming leaders in the field.

The ANU team this year chose to focus on the problem of heavy metal pollution, an issue particularly pressing in Australia due to the waste left behind by mining and agricultural operations. This aligns strongly with iGEM’s goals of “Local people solving local problems”. Our platform was designed to bind to and sequester heavy metal ions such as arsenic inside protein nanocages inside bacterial cells. This effectively removes them from the environment preventing them from entering waterways and the food system.

Presentation of our project at the jamboree sparked a lot of interesting conversations with bio-mining start-ups that were interested in our platform and other teams working on similar problems. It was exciting to see the progress being made in environmental bioremediation, one project from Aachen university was using engineered fungi to recycle rare earth metals from e-waste, reducing our reliance on new mines.

The Jamboree took place across 4 days with presentations from all teams about their research as well as judging sessions where our project was critiqued by experts from across the world. There were also so many presentations and panel events that we couldn’t get to them all! Talks ranged from growing the start-up bioeconomy, responsibility in science and advances in the SynBio field. The team attended events hosted by the OECD on bioeconomy policy, start-up panels on how to raise venture funding and commercialise your research and we were interviewed by Niko McCarty, a prominent writer in SynBio, who works at Asimov who design genetic engineering tools.

The Jamboree was a very collaborative and international event, the sheer number of Chinese universities and even high schools and the standard of engineering excellence was truly amazing! The ANU team met up with the team from McGill university in Canada whom we had collaborated with on Biome, a protein art book to promote SynBio. McGill’s project; Proteus, went on to win the best overall project, and if you watch their presentation you will see why! The standard of engineering, design, human practice and outreach demonstrated by the top teams was awe-inspiring and the projects looked like they had been developed by large companies! It definitely set the bar high and gives the ANU team something to aim for in the future.

iGEM jamboree

We were awarded a silver medal for our project, along with Oxford, MIT, Yale and many others. We hope that more Australian universities are able to take part next year as just ANU and UNSW participated this year. In future years, we hope that the ANU iGEM team will continue to grow and more medals and prizes flow our way!

We would like to thank all our supporters who made participation in iGEM and the trip possible; the ANU SynBio initiative, the College of Science, the College of Health and Medicine, the ARC Centre of Excellence in Synthetic Biology, Centre for Entrepreneurial Agri-Technology, Bioplatforms Australia, the iGEM Foundation and the ACT Government.

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