The Geoffrey Pope building has been alive and kicking all throughout summer, with the sound of keen students busily working on their project for iGEM 2015.
The international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation runs an annual competition wherein teams from universities around the world spend the summer on a project in synthetic biology. I caught up with Jasmine Bird, Bradley Brown, Joseph Slack and David Markham from Exeter’s team in the middle of their research stage.
The team is designing a kind of riboswitch known as a ‘toehold switch’ which may be used as a diagnostic device for bovine tuberculosis.
“We’ve chosen an immediate application of this for the detection of Mycobacterium bovid which the causative agent of bovine TB,” Slack explains, “so we want to do that in a cost effective, safe and low-tech manner. The idea is we can use the test in a field, in a tube and it’ll be a new way of detecting whether an animal carries TB. The vet could take a blood sample, put it into our cell free test and then he would know that if it changed colour, that the cow was infected.”
Bovine tuberculosis causes significant losses to farmers in Devon and across the UK. As well as hoping to create a practical diagnostic tool, the team hopes to raise awareness of the issue.
“TB affects a lot of people; there’s a lot of people whose livelihoods it ruins”, Slack continues. “All the vets and the people we’ve talked with have been really engaged with it… it’s quite nice to think that we’re offering a bit of light to the problem [TB] in the UK. It pulls on the heartstrings.”
In conducting the interview, I had just pulled most of the team away from the lab bench. “At the moment, we’re doing initial tests on our toehold to see whether the theory is correct, or not.” Bradley tells me. “So hopefully in the next two or three weeks we should get data confirming that.”
The final weeks of the summer are looking just as busy. “There’s loads of different aspects of the project… the modelling team are modelling how it would interact in a cell free system, and we’ve got quite a lot of outreach stuff coming up in the next couple of weeks. And looking further again from that, it’s not long until we fly out to Boston to present it. So we’ve got to make a poster and presentation.”
As the competition’s finale, the team will head to Boston in September for the competition’s “Giant Jamboree”. In a jamboree unlike any other, iGEM teams from round the world will assemble to present and celebrate their projects.
Their enthusiasm for the project was so infectious that I felt as though I’d made a grave mistake leaving Exeter for the summer. As Markham puts it, “I’ve learnt more this summer than in the entirety of last year. It’s because everything’s been so directed by us, that you can’t help but learn along the way and learn so much so quickly – that’s been one of the highlights for me” Bird added. “Not only has it been a pleasure to be involved in, but I’ve also made some great friends as well.”