Cardiff students head to Boston iGEM competition

By Tanya Harrington

Cardiff University is now the home of the first Welsh iGEM team, which is soon to compete in an international competition held in Boston.

The iGEM competition was founded by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2003 as a non-profit event, and has continued to grow since. This year, it boasts 290 teams from 41 countries, all from various regions around the world such as Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America.

Cardiff’s team, consisting of second year students Christian Donohoe, Asal Golshaie, Andrew Brimer, Robert Newman, Laura Bird, David McMaster and Nikolas Demetriou, was put together by the academic Dr Geraint Parry: a regularly published plant cell biologist and lecturer at Liverpool University, who collaborated with Cardiff University with the express purpose of assembling the group.

The aim of the competition is to encourage its candidates to think about synthetic biology: the artificial engineering of biological systems to find new uses for them. This may mean altering biological systems or organisms to become more useful in an academic setting – for example, one of the previous year’s candidates was Cambridge University, who came up with a method which utilised 3D printing to make studying microorganisms simpler for biologists. Or alternately, this form of biological engineering could be used in a medical or even industrial setting, with Exeter University proposing a method of adapting certain types of ribosomes to detect Bovine Tuberculosis in cattle in a way that does not interfere with the vaccination process, ensuring the safety of livestock and even human beings.

The team will be required to work for ten weeks during the summer holiday, completing tasks not only intellectual in nature, but altruistic as well. Alongside conducting research and creating lab reports, coming up with an idea and presentation to deliver and compiling an “iGEM Wiki” page detailing their efforts, the team will also be performing outreach work – lending help and giving talks with schools, businesses, media, and the local community in Cardiff. Their ideas and plans for the project are as of yet unknown, but as their lab work begins on the 13th of June, we can expect to hear of new developments soon.

This year, the competition will take place in October, and will be held at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. The entire team will be flying out to show a twenty-minute-long presentation based on their idea for the use of biological synthesis. However, the deadline for submissions itself is August 19th, when applications “freeze,” in order to allow time for the panel of judges to assess the hundreds of wiki pages before the final exhibition.

Following the role played by Cardiff University’s Gravitational Physics Group in the detection of gravitational waves earlier this year, as well as its MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics being awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize, this entrance into the iGEM competition is just another example of how Cardiff is thriving scientifically this year. With Summer approaching and the team excited to work on creating their ideas for the first time, it is certain that this achievement by undergraduate students of subjects such as Biomedical Sciences, Chemistry, and Genetics, will be one more thing the University will be proud to add to its repertoire.

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