iGEM 2014

UCC students are first Irish team to compete in iGEM

UCC students are the first Irish team to compete in iGEM competition

Nine students from UCC were the first Irish team to participate in a prestigious synthetic biology competition held in Boston, USA from Oct 31st – Nov 3rd.  The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition saw 245 teams from leading universities all over the world compete based on a synthetic biology research projects conducted over the summer.

UCC students and Dr Paul Young at the 2014 iGEM competition

The UCC iGEM 2014 team pictured at their poster during the iGEM competition, held in Boston Oct 31st – Nov 3rd. Back (L to R): Gavin King (4th year Biochemistry), Shama Chilakwad (4th year Genetics), Daniel Collins (4th year Genetics), Patrick Xie (MSc in Engineering), Dr. Paul Young (Academic Advisor). Front (L to R):  Leanne O’Sullivan (3rd year Biomedical Science), Timothy O’Flynn (4thyear Genetics), Ian McDermott (4th year Biochemistry), Cian O’ Donnell (2nd year Biological and Chemical Sciences), Russell Banta (4thyear Chemistry)


Synthetic biology is a new an exciting field and has been defined as “the engineering of biology: the synthesis of complex, biologically based (or inspired) systems, which display functions that do not exist in nature” (Synthetic Biology: Applying Engineering to Biology: Report of a NEST High Level Expert Group).  Among other things, synthetic biologists strive to use biological systems to produce fuels, chemicals, medicines and other useful materials. 

The title of the UCC team’s submission to the iGEM competition was “SeaDNA and SeeDNA”. It was actually not just one project but two.  Both projects were conceived by the students themselves and were outrageously successful.  They were carried out under the guidance of Dr Paul Young and Professor Tommie McCarthy in the School of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at UCC. 

The first project, SeaDNA, takes inspiration from the hagfish, which lives on the ocean floor and produces a defensive slime made of filaments with amazing properties. The team used bacteria to mass-produce two hagfish proteins and assembled them into synthetic fibres.  These novel biopolymers are biodegradable, lightweight and thin, but potentially stronger than nylon, steel and even Kevlar.  They have many potential applications in the biomedical, food and manufacturing industries. 

The second project, SeeDNA, involved engineering bacteria to detect specific DNA sequences.  As proof-of-principle, a bacterial system was developed for the detection of the human papilloma virus that causes cervical cancer.  With further optimization this method could represent an ultra-low cost diagnostic technology for use in resource-poor hospital labs in developing countries or in agricultural and industrial settings. 

While in Boston, the team presented their work in front of a large audience including the competition judges.  They also prepared a poster and presented this throughout the 4-day competition.  In addition, as part of the competition, the students had to create a wiki documenting their project.  The wiki provides further details about the team and their projects and can be viewed here:http://2014.igem.org/Team:UCC_Ireland 

The interdisciplinary team comprised students from across the College of Science, Engineering and Food Science.  They received financial support from the UCC as well as from SOSventuresEli Lilly and Janssen.  They competed in the Entrepreneurship track of the competition and while they did not win any prizes, they hope to build on the experience gained this year to be much more competitive next year. 

The UCC iGEM 2014 team preparing to deliver their presentation at the iGEM Gaint Jamboree, in Boston.
UCC iGEM 2014 team member Patrick Xie (left) examining an LED-based illumination device made by the Alto_Helsinki team from Finland
UCC iGEM 2014 team member Patrick Xie (left) examining an LED-based illumination device made by the Alto_Helsinki team from Finland
The UCC iGEM 2014 team pictured after their presentation together with the other teams in the Entrepreneurship track – Alto_Helsinki from Finland and the eventual winners of the track ITESM_Guadalajara from Mexico
The UCC iGEM 2014 team pictured after their presentation together with the other teams in the Entrepreneurship track – Alto_Helsinki from Finland and the eventual winners of the track ITESM_Guadalajara from Mexico
UCC iGEM 2014 team members Leanne O'Sullivan and Timothy O'Flynn explaining the team project during the poster session at the iGEM Gaint Jamboree, in Boston
UCC iGEM 2014 team members Leanne O'Sullivan and Timothy O'Flynn explaining the team project during the poster session at the iGEM Gaint Jamboree, in Boston


 How did the students find the iGEM experience?

iGEM was hard work, rewarding and enlightening” says Timothy O’Flynn (4th year Genetics).  “Despite all the hard work that was required over the summer, the end result was worth it. We met some incredible people along the way and saw some amazing projects while in Boston.” 

Ian McDermott (4th year Biochemistry) says “iGEM is not like other summer research projects - nobody tells you what to do or how to do it, the students are in charge.”  Regarding the iGEM “Giant Jamboree” in Boston he says, “We met other students from around the world and bonded over our shared experiences. The iGEM Jamboree is a social experience as much as a scientific and educational one.  I learned two very important lessons working on our iGEM project. The first was how to work as a part of a team without murdering my teammates. The second was that I want to work in research.”  

Shama Chilakwad (4th year Genetics) says “iGEM in a nutshell: Being a part of a team, coming up with your own projects, designing the lab work, applying for funding, carrying out the lab work, compiling all the data, finishing up with a hopefully successful project, practicing presentations all in 3 months, And then you go to Boston and attend the world's largest synthetic biology event and present your work and get to meet literally thousands of people that did the exact same thing as you...that's quite a fantastic experience!

Gavin King (4th year Biochemistry) says “iGEM is a fantastic opportunity to gain an insight into research.


iGEM in 3 words...

Timothy O’Flynn (4th year Genetics): Hard work, rewarding, enlightening!

Ian McDermott (4th year Biochemistry): Hooked For Life!

Gavin King (4th year Biochemistry): Innovative, valuable, student-led

Shama Chilakwad (4th year Genetics): Challenging, motivating, rewarding


For more information, please contact Dr Paul Young.  +353 (0) 21 420 5994.

Press Release: 18 June 2014

Academic mentors and student members of the UCC iGEM 2014 team

Back (L to R): Prof Tommie McCarthy, Leanne O’Sullivan, Gavin King, Cian Scannell, Russell Banta, Selma Bouanane, Shama Chilakwad, Patrick Xie, Dr Paul Young. Front (L to R):  Cian O’ Donnell, Timothy O’Flynn, Daniel Collins, Ian Valentine McDermott, Carolina Cordero

UCC Leads the Way in Synthetic Biology

Students awarded venture capital to form SynBio start-up, compete in international competition

This month, a group of UCC students are starting a research project that they will enter in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.  They will be the first Irish team to compete in this prestigious event.

In addition to participating in the iGEM competition, they have set up a company, Benthic Labs, which has successfully secured a place on the SynBio axlr8r programme.  SynBio axlr8r offers start-ups expert mentoring, lab space, access to state-of-the-art facilities and 30,000 USD in funding.  This funding will support the team’s bid at the iGEM competition in Boston, Massachusetts, this November.

The iGEM competition sees student teams given a kit of biological parts at the beginning of the summer. Working at their own universities, the teams use these biological parts, and new parts of their own design, to build biological systems and operate them in living cells.

The UCC team aims to run two innovative synthetic biology projects over the summer, the results of which will form the basis of their iGEM entry.

The first project aims to synthesise a novel biopolymer. By engineering hagfish genes into bacterial cells, the team hopes to produce and purify the proteins that constitute hagfish slime (a gooey substance used by the hagfish for self-defence).

These hagfish slime proteins form fibres that exhibit some exciting properties: the fibres are 10 times stronger than nylon, but are 100 times thinner than a human hair; they are antimicrobial and can form a hydrogel.

Potential novel applications include the use of the biopolymer as a suture in delicate surgeries, fabric for the textile industry, or an antimicrobial aerosol for surgical instruments and implants, to name but a few.  Benthic Labs are hoping to commercialize some of these products.

The second project will involve engineering bacteria to detect specific DNA sequences. In this way, it is hoped that the bacteria could be used to detect pathogenic viruses, for example. This would have applications as an ultra-low cost diagnostic technology.

The interdisciplinary group is made up of students from UCC’s College of Science, Engineering and Food Science (SEFS), each with a different focus – Genetics, Chemistry, Biochemistry, Biomedical Science, Mathematics, Physics and Engineering.

The team’s entry in iGEM is supported by UCC’s College of SEFS and was initiated by Dr Paul Young and Prof Tommie McCarthy from the School of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, who will act as the main academic mentors.

The iGEM summer competition, which began with five teams in 2004, has grown enormously over the past ten years. This year, 245 teams from the world’s leading universities will take part. The competition is run by the iGEM Foundation, an independent, non-profit organisation dedicated to inspiring education and competition, advancing synthetic biology, and developing an open community with collaboration among students.

SynBio axlr8r is backed by venture capital firm SOSventures and focuses on entrepreneurs building technologies relating to the field of synthetic biology. The programme is sponsoring six start-ups through a three-month period in UCC.

Links: iGEM, Benthic Labs, SynBio axlr8r, UCC School of Biochemistry and Cell Biology.

For more information, please contact Dr. Paul Young (p.young@ucc.ie; 087-7408586) or Shama Chilakwad (benthiclabs@gmail.com; 089-4946998).

What is Synthetic Biology?

A dictionary definition of synthetic biology is “The design and construction of biological devices and systems for useful purposes.”

Some examples of what is/ may be possible with synthetic biology:

  • Genetically encoded logic gates
  • DNA origami templates for nanoelectronic circuitry
  • Computational Design of Protein Nanomaterials
  • Data storage in DNA
  • An artificial leaf for hydrogen fuel production
  • Designed enzymes for gluten destruction
  • Diesel production in E. coli
  • Bacterial biosensor for arsenic
  • A bacterial red blood cell substitute
  • Self-Assembling Nanoreactors
  • Biohybrid materials from viruses
  • Biomimetic materials with distinctive optical and photonic properties
  • Bacteria as sensitivity tuners

It is not just for biologists!

FYI-Recruitment information. Note that Entries are now Closed!



UCC entry in the iGEM 2014 Synthetic Biology competition

The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) is a team-based undergraduate Synthetic Biology competition. The School of Biochemistry and Cell Biology along with the College of Science Engineering and Food Science will facilitate a UCC team to enter the competition for the first time.

Are you interested in being a part of the UCC iGEM 2014 team?

We are currently assembling an interdisciplinary undergraduate UCC team to compete in iGEM 2014. We are looking for students from diverse areas such as Mathematics, Computer Science, Engineering, Physics, Chemistry as well as the Biological and Medical Sciences. Undergraduates < 23 years of age in any year of any course are eligible to be team members.

How can I get involved?

To apply to be part of the UCC iGEM 2014 team, please e-mail the following information before Feb 21st 2014 to uccigem2014@gmail.com

A brief CV (max 2 pages), including Leaving Certificate (or equivalent) results and your complete 3rd level academic record to date, with subject and year marks indicated as a percentages.

A short statement explaining why you wish to participate in the iGEM project and what abilities and skills etc. you think that you can bring to the team (max 300 words).

Prospective team members will be encouraged to apply for any summer studentships/bursaries that they are eligible for.

iGEM team membership is a project offered under the College of SEFS undergraduate summer bursaries.

It is important to note that team selection will not be solely based on academic criteria, because team members also need to be able to:

  • promote the project
  • help in getting funding
  • be creative and come up with ideas
  • maintain the team blog etc etc.

How does the iGEM competition work?

First and foremost this is a student-driven competition. The student team will devise, design and implement the project! The team will be assembled by the end of February 2014, and complete the project during the summer of 2014. At the start of the project teams are given a kit of biological parts from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts. They will use these parts and new parts of their own design to build biological systems and operate them in living cells. School staff will advise the team and provide a crash course in synthetic biology for non-biologists. The team will also promote and fund-raise for the project, so as to be able to travel to the iGEM 2014 Jamboree in Boston in November!

Find further information about the iGEM Foundation and Competition.

Further queries can be addressed to uccigem2014@gmail.com

School of Biochemistry and Cell Biology

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University College Cork, Western Road, Cork.