Plants at iGEM2016: guest post by Geraint Parry

This article is authored by Gerant Parry and originally appeared on the GARNet blog, it is republished with permission. 

Photo credit: the iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight

Photo credit: the iGEM Foundation and Justin Knight

Take a look over there! As even the name suggests, the iGEM Giant Jamboree is a conference like no other.

Consider that there are 2500 mostly undergraduate students from all around the world, the vast majority of them at their first conference and each giving presentations that are being critically assessed. This provides a clue as to the kind of frenetic and excited energy that characterises this event.

For those a little confused, the International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation oversees and organizes iGEM, which is synthetic biology competition for groups of participants who are usually hosted by academic institutions. The basic idea is that a group of students works through the summer on a completely novel project that conforms to the principles of synthetic biology, before presenting it in the aforementioned Giant Jamboree.

As this is a competition, each project is judged on metrics that assess many aspects of the teams work. These include the contribution of biobricks to the iGEM registry (an impressive selection of molecular parts that are held within a standardised plasmid), the development of their novel project, initiating collaborations with other teams and their attempts to integrate human practices and public engagement into their project. By meeting certain criteria each team is eligible for Gold, Silver or Bronze medals alongside special prizes for different project categories.

Given registrations, student stipends, research expenses, travel and accommodation, putting forward even a small team can stretch to at least £20K. Therefore this is not a something to be taken lightly. To this financial requirement must be added the time donated by a team of instructors and advisors that support the students. However regardless of the cost, one thing is certain; for those students who participate, attend, present and are inspired by the Jamboree, it can be a career-defining moment.

Plant Synthetic Biology can make for a challenging summer!

Plant experimental chassis have not been widely used during the ten years of the iGEM competition where bacteria, yeast, mammalian cell lines or cell-free systems offer time efficient alternatives for the usual 10-week research period. However the iGEM foundation, alongside a group of committed advocates have recently developed the Phytobricks cloning standard, which is based on a recently published standard syntax within the Golden Gate cloning system. The aim is to lower the barrier of accessibility for teams to start plant projects and the evidence from this years competition seems to suggest that this is slowly happening. The 2016 iGEM team from Valencia-UPV is advised by plant synthetic biologist Diego Orzaez and their project submitted phytobricks for the expression of a split Cas9 system. They showed that the two halves of the Cas9 protein could reconstitute and was active in a tobacco expression system. They have documented this work on their Parts pages and this is hopefully a resource that will be used by future iGEM teams. Their team was very successful at the jamboree, winning a gold medal alongside specific awards for the best hardware  and software.

Another successful team with a plant project was from SCAU-China who had, over the course of at least two years, added an additional two genes to conventional Golden rice. This produces a ‘brown rice’ that produces the natural keto-carotenoid Astaxanthin, which is thought to have beneficial anti-oxidant properties. This is clearly a significant research project that has been badged with the iGEM logo and as such was very positively received by the judges. Although they did not submit parts in the Phytobricks standard it was exciting to see such a potentially high profile plant-project feature at the jamboree.   These projects are well deserving of their awards and their work builds upon years of expertise contained within the supporting labs. This highlights one of the challenges for the competitive element of iGEM; namely how teams can be equally judged when they have hugely varying levels of support. Fortunately it appears that this is not a significant issue as each team is able to take positives from their own performances and are happy to celebrate the excellent projects that they each had individually put together.

Remarkably the iGEM competition includes at least 30 high school teams and one of these, GDSYZX in China, worked with plant light responsive promoters that they added to the Parts Registry.

Algae on the rise.

A number of teams including Cambridge-JIC, Linkoping University in Sweden and USP_UNIFESP in Brazil used the algae Chlamydomonas_reinhardtii in their projects. Cambridge team had most success in their project that generated a set of parts in the Phytobrick standard that can be used in future algal projects. In addition they created a remarkable blueprint for the production of a prototype Genegun for plant transformation, costing just £300, making it accessible for less well funded labs. The other two teams mentioned above were hoping to use Chlamydomonas to produce either biofuels or spider silk protein and although the ambition of both projects outstripped their achievements this year, iGEM is all about thinking big: sometimes it works, sometimes not!

The team from Pretoria in South Africa took on an extremely ambitious plan called WattsApatmer to create ‘plant batteries’ by using short aptamers to attach either photosystem II or a laccase enzyme to either pole of an electrical circuit held within a novel graphene scaffold. The students made some progress with this and the project serves to highlight the blue-sky thinking that undergraduate students undertake as part of this competition. It is clearly difficult to make enormous progress over a summer project but there were so many amazing project ideas on display at this iGEM I hope that the host institutions can find finances to develop some of these ideas so that some can come to fruition to add value to the time already committed to these projects.

Europe on Top

From a UK and European perspective the iGEM jamboree was a huge success with Imperial College and LMU TU Munich taking the overall undergrad and overgrad awards respectively, with remarkable projects that highlighted the talent of their students and the level of support their receive from their host institutions.

The UK was represented by over 20 teams, the third most numerous behind the USA and China. Aside from Imperial College, the teams from Exeter, Dundee, Dundee Schools, Cambridge-JIC, Oxford, Sheffield, UCL, Glasgow and Manchester gained Gold medals. There is little doubt that the UK is developing a cohort of talented synthetic biologists who will be the research leaders of the future.

Overall we look forward to seeing the number of plant projects increase over the years to come. The development of the Phytobrick standard will undoubtedly help in this goal for students to come up with ideas to test the possibility of using plants in their projects.

There are exciting times ahead for plant synthetic biology!