Faculty undergraduates were part of a team that won a gold medal in the European heat of the International igemGenetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. The students will now go on to the World Finals, to be held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston at the beginning of November.

The worldwide iGEM competition is open to students who are interested in synthetic biology. Competing teams are given a kit of biological parts at the beginning of the summer. They then use this kit, and additional parts of their own design, to build biological systems and operate them in living cells.

The Manchester team, mentored by Professor Eriko Takano, created a synthetic alternative to palm oil using E. coli. Due to its use in many consumer products, demand for palm oil is huge. This is causing the price to rocket, at the same time as creating irreparable damage to rainforests and species such as the Sumatran Orangutan. The team said:

“We went beyond what’s expected in terms of human practices. We researched a report that explored the effect of our project on national and global scales. We studied the viability of replacing palm oil with a synthetic alternative, putting special focus on the effects of competing with traditional farmers. Our report details a vision in which synthetic biology and traditional farming complement each other.”

Because of this aspect of their work, the team won the award for Best Human Practices. They were also involved in outreach activities, with stands at the FLS Community Open Day and at the University’s Science Stars day. Team member Rob Harrison said:

“We would like to thank the Faculty for their generous support. Each team member found the experience highly beneficial; be it for lab experience, computer modelling, or the development of transferable skills.”

We’ll be posting an update on how the team get on at the World Finals. You can find out more about their project on their Wiki page, and more about the competition in general on the iGEM website.

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