Special Programme in Science (SPS)

Students in Synthetic Biology: Team SPSingapore wins a Silver iGEM medal

The teams build projects; they make things work. Randy Rettberg (chairman of iGEM Foundation), on the iGEM competition


Running for its 11th iteration this year, the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) the premiere student competition in Synthetic Biology. This year, NUS sent its first team to participate in iGEM, consisting of 9 students from the Special Programme in Science (SPS). Team SPSingapore has actually been considering running for the past few years, but with the setting up of the SPS wet lab last year, the project has finally gotten off the ground. From 24-28 September, the team attended a four-day conference-cum-competition in Boston, Massachusetts to present their research project - Controlled missiles: Targeted treatment of tumors with engineered E. coli.

Map of iGEM teams around the world. Image credit: http://igem.org/About

Team SPSingapore aimed to build a dual-switch system that allows engineered bacteria to specifically target the tumor core environment. The team was able to construct this system by assembling genetic circuits from BioBrick 'parts' obtained from a catalog provided to all teams. iGEM functions on the principle that biological Parts (i.e. functional components like promoters and coding sequences) should be standardised and interchangeably used in different genetic circuits. The Registry of Standard Biological Parts catalogs all the biological building blocks or 'BioBricks' deposited by previous groups, with pertinent product specs like sequence, construction and testing. In essence, that is the allure and promise of synthetic biology - the ability to build your own genetic circuit and system. In contrast to genetic engineering, which might tweak an organism's DNA with genes borrowed from elsewhere in nature, synthetic biologists assemble new gene sequences/systems from scratch.

The team assembled genetic circuits on a two plasmid system. Engineered bacteria cells would theoretically able to specifically target the tumor core environment, when two conditions are met - sufficient cell density and absence of oxygen (see infographic below).

Infographic on the dual switch system: Only under both anaerobic and quorum sensing conditions would target gene expression take place. The red shapes represent engineered cells.

Over the summer, Team SPSingapore adapted the SPS wet lab for intensive cloning work, despite initial hiccups and some inexperience with molecular cloning. After consulting with staff mentors and SPS alumni, the team improved their experimental design and managed to submit three BioBrick parts to the iGEM registry.

In addition to practical applications and research, iGEM also incorporates a Human Practices component. Teams are encouraged to focus not only on lab work but also the broader societal context that synthetic biology faces. Team SPSingapore opted to focus on education, building on their experience from SPS in communicating science. They conducted a workshop to introduce synthetic biology for 20 undergraduates; introducing both the theoretical and experimental aspects of the field. In addition, they developed a novel teaching tool as a primer into understanding genetic circuits as a way to construct their own circuits. Genetic circuits are represented with clear and innovative notation, and a series of brain-teasing puzzles are used to introduce concepts such as promoters and other gene regulatory elements. The teaching resources for the workshop are available here.

All in all, Team SPSingapore is honoured to have this incredible opportunity to represent NUS, and thrilled to receive the Silver medal as a newcomer at the iGEM. Looking to the future, we hope to send more teams for the iGEM competition and support synthetic biology research!

For more photographs of the Team at the iGEM Giant Jambouree, please check out this link.

The team, with staff mentor Dr Stuti Desai, as the Jamboree winds down.
First row, from left
: Tan Yi Han, Ngyuen Duy, Soong Yun Ting, Hee Yan Ting, Yeo Xin Yi
Second row: Wong Chi Yan, Stuti Desai, Kenneth Lim Kun Ming, Adrian Tan, Clarice Hong

We don't make iGEM easy; we make it worth the effort. Randy Rettberg, chairman of iGEM Foundation