UCC Students win gold in Synthetic Biology competition

15 Oct 2015
The UCC iGEM 2014 team pictured at their poster during the iGEM synthetic biology competition, held in Boston Sept 24th-28th. From left to right: Amy Keane (3rd year Biomedical Science), Aoife O’Brien Horgan (2nd year Medicine), Donnchadh O’Sullivan (5th year Medicine), Brandon Malone (2nd Year Pharmacy), Shama Chilakwad (MSc Biotechnology) and Leanne O’Sullivan (4th year Biomedical Science).

7 students from UCC brought home a gold medal this year in a prestigious synthetic biology competition held in Boston, USA from Sept 24th – 28th

The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition saw 259 teams from leading universities all over the world compete based on a synthetic biology research projects conducted over the summer.  More than 2700 attendees participated, in what’s noted to be the largest synthetic biology event to date.

Synthetic biology is a new and 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” 1.  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 “Basehunter”, a bacterial based DNA detection system. The project was conceived by the students themselves and was outrageously successful. They were awarded a gold medal for their work and they were nominated for the “Best Integrated Human Practices” award. The project was carried out under the guidance of Dr. Paul Young and Prof. Tommie McCarthy in the School of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at UCC.

Basehunter, 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, the Sry gene on the Y chromosome and the TB causing agent - Mycobacterium tuberculosis. 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:

The interdisciplinary team comprised students from across the College of Science, Engineering and Food Science and the College of Health and Medicine.  They received financial support from UCC as well as from pharmaceutical companies Lilly and Janssen.  They competed in the Medicine and Health track of the competition and were successful in getting a gold medal award as well as being nominated for Best Integrated Human Practices.

How did the students find the iGEM experience?

Brandon Malone (2nd Year Pharmacy) says “Initially when I applied to be a part of the UCC team, I had high expectations for what could be accomplished. By working as part of an interdisciplinary team, I soon realized that I would dramatically exceed any expectations I had of what could be achieved in one summer.” 

Amy Keane (3rd year Biomedical Science) says "iGEM is unlike any other research project offered by Universities in that it is student led. Having the responsibility to make important decisions regarding the experiments was something I found challenging at the beginning, but I soon learned to have confidence in my decisions. The giant jamboree in Boston showcased fantastic projects and it was great to share the results of our hard work all summer with people also interested in synthetic biology."

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