The four Australian iGEM teams and their supervisors came together on Friday evening (14/10/16) for the inaugural local teams meet-up, supported by SBA.  The venue was a somewhat shabby 1970’s era tutorial room in the Biochemistry building at the University of Sydney. Luckily, the science presented by these young synthetic biologists was far from shabby.

The hosts (USyd team) kicked off proceedings with a presentation on their project entitled FRESH (Fruit Ripeness Ethylene Sensor (Hopefully)) The idea was that the regulatory elements used by bacteria which grow on ethylene could be hijacked, and linked to a colorimetric output, such as the amilCP chromoprotein. The team succeeded in making some new chromoprotein variants via error prone PCR, but at the time of writing, are still pursuing the goal of proving that the regulatory genes and promoters function as expected. The ‘human practices’ elements of the USyd project included outreach to students at schools, at the university Open Day, and at the Australian museum during Science Week; they also interacted with the fresh fruit industry to get ideas about the marketability of their biosensor.

The UNSW team followed on with a presentation on their project “BLEB”, which aimed to make E.coli strains that create outer membrane vesicles (OMVs) for use in all manner of biotechnology applications. These OMVs are very attractive potential SynBio tools; for example, they allow the different enzymes from a single metabolic pathway to be brought together in a defined space, which contains a ‘friendly’ biochemical environment. OMVs are also attractive since they are not themselves GMOs, and thus would available for applications in which whole cells would not be legal. The UNSW team human practices included surveying various local experts in both environmental and medical biotechnology, to determine whether there was a market for their OMVs, and also engaging with school students at functions hosted by outreach organisations B.Inspired and Aspire.

After a break for pizza and drinks, the science resumed with the Macquarie Uni team showcasing the latest instalment of their grand plan to create a photosynthetic E.coli. As always, the team impressed with the amount of progress, submitting many new parts to the Registry, and edging even-closer to this ambitious goal. The team also unveiled a new twist on the project, which was a plan for a portable hydrogen generator, to take advantage of this potentially very useful by-product from the photosynthetic apparatus. We were also entertained by a short movie the Maq. team had produced, interviewing rural folks about how they could use the hydrogen source, and getting feedback on the design, as part of their human practices work.

Finally, the University of Melbourne iGEM team presented their work on engineering star peptides. Special thanks must go to Rob Naturani for making the trip solo to represent his team, a heroic effort on behalf of his comrades south of the border. The star scaffold system is an intriguing and versatile platform technology which allows cross-linking of different proteins, for example as a way of enhancing reaction kinetics via enzyme colocalisation. The Melbourne 2016 project improved the design of the 2014 team by adding split inteins to the star scaffold, with the idea that these would enable joining to other target proteins, with the intein simultaneously self-splicing out of the picture. A very cool concept.

Will bellies full of pizza and heads full of science, the teams and their supervisors headed home. It was a great night, with both honest constructive criticism and hearty pats on the back shared between teams. There was a genuine feeling of community, which is really what iGEM is all about.

Dr. Nick Coleman | Senior Lecturer in Microbiology
School of Life and Environmental Sciences | Faculty of Science

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