Nottingham Team Win Gold Medal at iGEM 2018
28th October 2018
The University of Nottingham 2018 team has been awarded a prestigious Gold Medal and was nominated for ‘Best New Composite Part’ at the recent International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in Boston, USA.
It is the first team from Nottingham to win a Gold Medal, which was awarded to the team at the iGEM Jamboree event in Boston on Sunday 28th of October 2018.
The iGEM competition began in Jan 2003 and currently attracts over 400 teams, from more than 45 countries and annually exceeds 5000 global undergraduate and post-graduate student participants. Teams use the principles of synthetic biology, the “Engineering of Biology”, to design biological parts, devices or systems to address a real-world problem or to perform a novel, previously unseen function. The best ‘parts’ of every project are then submitted in the form of a ‘BioBrick’ to the iGEM BioBrick registry for use by others.
Nottingham’s team was composed of ten undergraduate students drawn from the Schools of Life Sciences, Biosciences, Computer Science, Mathematics and Social Sciences. For the duration of their project they were embedded within BBSRC/EPSRC Synthetic Biology Research Centre (SBRC) at Nottingham, under the overall guidance of Nigel P Minton and Philippe Soucaille and under the close supervision of a dedicated multidisciplinary team comprising Louise Dynes, Daphne Groothuis, Dr Christopher Humphreys, Dr Carmen McLeod, Dr Michaella Whittle and Dr Craig Woods.
The team’s innovative synthetic biology project, Clostridium dTox; it’s not so difficile, aimed to develop a novel therapy for the treatment of disease caused by the superbug Clostridium difficile.
C. difficile infection is the most common cause of antibiotic-associated diarrhoea in the Western World and is a big problem in hospitals and care-facilities. The disease symptoms are caused by the release of two major toxins, TcdA and TcdB by the bacteria. The use of broad-spectrum antibiotics to treat disease causes a reduction in the natural diversity of the gut microbiota. It is this reduction in gut flora biodiversity which allows C. difficile to take advantage. It is thought that non-toxigenic C. difficile present in the gut microbiota could act as a possible probiotic, out-competing toxigenic C. difficile.
The aim of the project was to engineer a C. difficile bacteriophage to produce factors that would bring about suppression of toxin production. The expression of both toxin genes (tcdA and tcdB) were repressed by targeting their mRNA using either antisense RNA (asRNA) or CRISPR interference (CRISPRi) technology (dCas9). The ultimate aim is to produce a C. difficile-specific bacteriophage therapeutic which ablates toxin production without significantly affecting the native gut microbiota.
The team was also nominated for ‘Best New Composite Part’. A composite part is a functional unit of DNA consisting of two or more basic parts assembled together. These must include all characterization information and be added to the Registry.
Human Practices and Public Engagement
The team devised a number of activities that explored how Clostridium dTox could impact society. This included mining and carrying out a sentiment analysis of data from hundreds of social media comments on an online phage therapy video and exploring the current legislation surrounding phage therapy. They also researched what makes C. difficile such an important issue to society and how their project can help make a positive impact on communities by working towards the development of a novel therapy for its treatment. Finally they held a discussion group with non-scientists, and interviewed five leading scientific experts in the field, including the UK Public Health England lead on C. difficile infection, to understand how the team could make their project as effective as possible.
Public engagement was an important focus for the team, which developed hands-on workshops to communicate the project in local schools, libraries and to staff and students at the University. The team members have also been busy promoting their project via a range of social media platforms as well as by publishing articles in a local newspaper and in the University of Nottingham’s Impact Magazine.
All of these aspects enabled the team to produce a project of high enough quality to win a Gold Medal at the Giant Jamboree, recognising the fulfilment of all the competition criteria. The Gold winning team members were; Lucy Allen, Hassan Al-ubeidi, Ruth Bentley, Sofya Berestova, Eun Cho, Lukas Hoen, Daniel Partridge, Varun Lobo, Fatima Taha and Nemira Zilinskaite.
What the Judges said
“Great project, great wiki!! You just light up so many questions in my mind and actually this is the key of synthetic biology! Thank you so much for your effort and all hard work!”
“Super interesting idea to use temperate phages for this! …. You are clear on your achievements and reasoning throughout, which is super refreshing. Great effort!”
Nottingham’s iGEM team was generously supported by the University of Nottingham’s Research Priority Area in Industrial Biotechnology, through grant funding from the Wellcome Trust, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) via the Nottingham Digestive Diseases Centre, by generous cash donations from Don Whitley Scientific Ltd, LanzaTech and Seres Therapeutics and through in-kind support from Qiagen, Millipore Sigma, Promega, Eppendorf, New England Biolabs, LabFolder and Snapgene.
We are also grateful for the support given by the following collaborators: Team Biomarvel Korea and the teams from Imperial College London and the University of Warwick.