geekStarter Community Highlights – July 2017

Summer is peak time for iGEM teams. Find out what they have been up to in recent weeks.


Aiming to develop a buoyancy based-bacterial screening method which utilizes a bacterial two-hybrid system, the team completed the assembly of the construct needed for this system, and is currently working on building a fluorescent reporter. They have run into some roadblocks in the cloning of the gas vesicle cluster of eleven genes into a single plasmid, but they welcomed this challenge because it exposed them to many different cloning techniques.
The team has also started the modelling component of their project and are excited to get the ball rolling with that. As for human practices, they have been super busy reaching out to various channels for feedback on the project, setting up social media accounts, and planning different fundraising and community outreach events!

UAlberta iGEM team members presenting on synthetic biology to Archbishop Macdonald High School in Edmonton

UAlberta iGEM team members presenting on synthetic biology at Archbishop MacDonald High School in Edmonton


With their research revamped towards a focus on long term space missions and the colonization of Mars, the progress of engineering their bacteria to produce bioplastics by recycling human waste has acquired increased momentum. The past few weeks have found them conversing with experts in numerous fields from scientists at the Calgary wastewater treatment plant to astronauts, including Chris Hadfield, to help guide their project towards completion.

Commander astronaut Chris Hadfield on Skype with UCalgary iGEM team

Commander astronaut Chris Hadfield on Skype with UCalgary iGEM team

In the lab, the team has made valuable advances in the process of making Escherichia coli bacteria that can produce and secrete bioplastics. The lab work is divided into three groups: one which handles the complexities behind synthesizing the bioplastics, another which is figuring out methods of extracting the bioplastic from inside the cell, and finally a group to develop the complete process of plastic production, which rounds out the non-biological side of the project.
The team has recently received their synthesized genes which, once transformed into the bacteria, will allow them to complete the aforementioned tasks. Currently, the genetic engineering teams are in the process of placing these genes in E. coli and conducting experiments to ensure insertion and correct placement. The process development team has been creating synthetic feces using a recipe retrieved from NASA and quantifying the feedstock chemicals produced through the fermentation process.
UCalgary iGEM team meets regularly with advisors and iGEM alums

UCalgary iGEM team meets regularly with their advisors and iGEM alums

Future directions for the team are confirming that the genes of interest are in place, and performing assays to test bioplastics production and secretion. The process development group is working towards developing a method to separate and purify the bioplastics and characterizing it, as well as designing a large scale process for Mars.


Over the past month the team has made progress on all aspects of their project. They have received and begun working with 26 of the 38 constructs required to produce all the components of their cell-free transcription/translation (TX/TL) system. In the wet lab they have begun cloning, sequence confirming, and transferring their constructs into the iGEM BioBrick standard plasmid pSB1C3.
While the wet lab team is working on getting each individual TX/TL component expressed, the modelling team is working on determining how to best regulate expression of each component to achieve the proper ratio from a one step purification of all components. The goal is to have all the TX/TL components purifiable by a one step, minimal cost protocol thus making them more accessible to a wide range of users.

Team advisor Graeme Glaister explains the current status of the project and daily work plan to new team members

ULethbridge team advisor Graeme Glaister explains the current status of the project and daily work plan to new team members

For human practices the team has been working on two separate but complementary projects to go alongside the wet lab project. The first is how the cell free TX/TL system could be used as an educational tool to showcase these important practices and teach students at all levels. One major issue with the commercially available kits that teach molecular/synthetic biology is that they contain laboratory strains of E. coli, which have been flagged as GMOs in some countries. The system ULethbridge team wants to build could replace the E. coli in these kits as a non-GMO alternative that can offer similar functionalities. A second human practices project arose from the team’s assessment of how this system could be used maliciously. As such they are currently looking into how cell-free systems such as theirs are covered by GMO or other biotechnology regulations in countries around the world.


Striving to make environmentally-friendly pigments for the printing industry, the team made progress on a number of fronts in the last few weeks:

  1. Wiki Coding Workshop. Chris Isaac and Dinule De Silva donated their time to introduce the team to the basics of HTML and CSS coding.  The students made template webpages and explored the various functions of different coding tags. Once they felt comfortable using these tools, the students began designing the wiki template for their iGEM project.

Lethbridge High School team members learning to code

  1. Tour of Warwick Printing. The students organized and went on a tour of this local printing company, which they had contacted to inquire about their ink usage and needs. The students saw how the ink was processed from its stock in order to prepare it for mass printing.
Lethbridge HS team with president Dave Warwick on tour of Warwick Printing company

Lethbridge HS team on tour of Warwick Printing company, with company president Dave Warwick

  1. Interview with Greg Vilk (PhD, Biochemistry) from the Industry Liaison Office of the University of Lethbridge. The students sought the expertise of the Industry liaison Office to acquire information on patent laws and regulations, and to obtain advice on how to expand their SynthetINK project into a viable business. Dr. Vilk also provided some scientific advice on how to improve the design and experimental set up of the project.
  1. Wet Lab work. The students have attempted cloning the pigment genes melanin, zeaxanthin and anthocyanin into the pJET plasmid, which should yield the desired genetic circuits. Ligation reactions that successfully transformed into E. coli DH5a are currently being screened by restriction digestion and agarose gel electroporesis. Successfully ligated plasmids will be sequenced to confirm the insertion of parts.
  1. Mathematical Modelling. The students and advisers are learning how to use the Symbiology plug-in of Matlab to begin work on the mathematical model of the SynthetINK system.


The team’s project, which aims to provide soil remediation solutions and produce life-sustaining oxygen gas on Mars, is moving at a slow, but steady, rate. Working with their principal advisor and mentors, the team has completed the gene design and ordered the sequence for the enzymes needed to change toxin perchlorate into chlorite and oxygen. While waiting for their synthesized genes to arrive, the students completed all necessary laboratory safety courses and training.

UrbanTundra students during brainstorming session

UrbanTundra students during brainstorming session

The team has also signed up for the iGEM InterLab Study and has been planning their approach to achieving this medal requirement; they will be collaborating with the UAlberta iGEM team to complete this task. Additionally, the team has commenced an experiment where they are testing different agricultural methods to explore and find out how their engineered system could lead to sustainability of resources.

In the mean time, a number of fundraising initiatives have been launched to cover the team’s expenditures. These include bottles drives, a crowdfunding page through CrowdScience, and requesting donations for a silent auction. Those interested in donating items to support the team’s silent auction, can contact the team at To spread the word about their research and project, and to connect with the public, the team has created a website separate from their iGEM wiki page, and stay active on social media. Overall, they are excited and ready for the next  few months of iGEM!

UrbanTundra team member excited about iGEM

Excited about iGEM! UrbanTundra team member in the new lab dedicated to iGEM at UAlberta


Skip to toolbar