Reflections: King’s College London iGEM 2020, Renervate and Future Prospects

Today’s guest blog about the 2020 virtual iGEM Giant Jamboree is written by Abigail Conner, Co-Team Leader of iGEM King’s College London (KCL).

In October 2019, I returned to London from Boston feeling elated after an unforgettable week at the Giant Jamboree. My team, Capacity, had just won a Silver Medal. I had the privilege of presenting in front of the judges about our work. The Giant Jamboree presented me with a vision of where Synthetic Biology will take us and its potential to radically transform our society for the better. Words cannot describe the deep sense of pride I felt to be a part of this community. For the first time, I felt truly empowered as a young scientist and was hugely inspired by the brilliance of my peers. As a result, I was beyond happy to assume the role of Team Leader of KCL’s 2020 team.

Almost immediately after touching down in the United Kingdom, I began to plan our project. Throughout the recruitment process and setting up applications, Stephanie Avraamides—the Head of Human Practices in Capacity—joined me in leading the team. As Co-Team Leaders, we would establish Renervate, a team of 19 undergraduate students from various STEM backgrounds, from Nutrition to Biomedical Engineering. Although we were fortunate to have met up in person several times before March, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic scattered us across the world. Our team members represent sixteen different countries, meaning we had to navigate a range of time zones when working virtually. Despite this, we adapted to the virtual setting and worked tirelessly to develop Renervate. Come November, we would be rewarded for our endurance and commitment. I am thrilled to say that Renervate won a Gold Medal, Best Therapeutics Project, and nominations for Best Model and Best Supporting Entrepreneurship at last year’s Virtual Giant Jamboree.

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Exploring the Virtual iGEM Giant Jamboree with iGEM Concordia

Today’s guest blog about the 2020 virtual iGEM Giant Jamboree is written by Lancia Lefebvre, Team Leader of iGEM Concordia.

AstroBio database for differential gene expression

After a year of full-time work, I joined our team of 16 undergraduate students to live-stream the virtual iGEM Giant Jamboree from the isolation of our respective apartments. Together in a separate zoom call and Facebook chat, we fired off messages as awards were announced. ‘OMG Toulouse won best poster! Did you see Aachen’s project?’ Then came the Software Track award, our track, and boom! “Concordia-Montreal are the Software Track Winners for iGEM Giant Jamboree 2020!”

Firework and heart emojis exploded in our chat and on my zoom call, mouths gaped in shock and pride. Our AstroBio database for differential gene expression in microgravity conditions had won! Innumerable lines of code; hours of consultation with NASA bioinformaticians, bioethicists and coding pros; detailed graphic design; and most of all passionate teamwork had brought us this distinction. A gold medal and an inclusion nomination soon followed. This nomination we hold close to our heart as we continuously collaborate on a safe, warm and welcoming team structure. Supporting each other and working together are core iGEM values, which lead to collaborative and stronger solutions to world problems through the application of synthetic biology solutions.

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iGEM in a Pandemic: Reflecting on Human Practices

Today’s blog is written by the University of Copenhagen iGEM Team.


The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition has 257 teams of students competing this year. Despite all of the unique difficulties we’re all facing in 2020, the University of Copenhagen is competing once again. This year’s project involves a unique approach to Chronic Inflammatory Diseases (CIDs).

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NanoLuc: Tiny Tag with a Big Impact

Synthetic biology—genetically engineering an organism to do or make something useful—is the central goal of the iGEM competition each year. After teams conquer the challenge of cloning their gene, the next hurdle is demonstrating that the engineered gene is expressing the desired protein (and possibly quantifying the level of expression), which they may do using a reporter gene.

Reporters can also play a more significant role in iGEM projects when teams design their organism with reporter genes to detect and signal the presence of specific molecules, like environmental toxins or biomarkers. Three of the iGEM teams Promega sponsored this year opted to incorporate some version of NanoLuc® Luciferase into their projects.

NanoLuc® luciferase is a small monomeric enzyme (19.1kDa, 171 amino acids) based on the luciferase from the deep sea shrimp Oplophorus gracilirostris. This engineered enzyme uses a novel substrate, furimazine, to produce high-intensity, glow-type luminescence in an ATP-independent reaction. Unlike other molecules for tagging and detecting proteins, NanoLuc® luciferase is less likely to interfere with enzyme activity and affect protein production due to its small size.

NanoLuc® Luciferase has also been engineered into a structural complementation reporter system, NanoBiT® Luciferase, that contains a Large subunit (LgBiT) and two small subunit options: low affinity SmBiT and high affinity HiBiT. Together, these NanoLuc® technologies provide a bioluminescent toolbox that was used by the iGEM teams to address a diverse set of biological challenges.

Here is an overview of each team’s project and how they incorporated NanoLuc® technology.

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The Future of Synthetic Biology: A Recap of iGEM 2019

After attending the iGEM Giant Jamboree last year and being completely blown away by the projects presented (check out this article or this one), I didn’t think I’d be as astonished this year. I attributed part of the awe I felt over the caliber and quality of the projects to my wide-eyed naiveté, having never attended the event before. The second time around, the “first-time” novelty long worn off, I didn’t expect to feel that same level of amazement.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

After three days of impressive presentations, I once again felt that same astonishment as I prepared to watch the presentations of the 6 finalists. With good reason—the projects presented by the six finalists completely blew my mind!

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It Takes a Village: Automating Plasmid Purification for iGEM

Today’s blog is guest-written by Wihan Adi, a Master’s student majoring in physics at Justus-Liebig-University in Giessen and team member of iGEM Marburg. Although his background is in nuclear and particle physics, his research interests shifted toward affordable biosensors for point-of-care cancer detection, which is how he ended up doing microbiology for iGEM.


Back in March when the iGEM season had just started, Maurice, a fellow iGEM Marburg team member, told me that he was exchanging emails with Margaretha Schwartz from Promega. Given my background as a physics student, Promega was not a household name for me at the time. “So, are you interested in automating a plasmid purification protocol?” asked Maurice. He told me that Promega was willing to supply the Wizard® MagneSil® Plasmid Purification System for this purpose; that was another name that added to my confusion.

This year, iGEM Marburg is aiming to establish a fast phototrophic organism as a synthetic biology chassis. For this goal we chose Synechococcus elongatus UTEX 2973, with a reported doubling time of 90 minutes. More specifically, we are creating an easy to use toolbox to empower rapid design testing, including genome engineering tools, self-replicating plasmid systems, natural competence and a Golden Gate-based part library. Our team chose to work on phototrophic organisms because we envision accelerating research in this particular field. (Note: Last year, Marburg’s iGEM project won the Grand Prize!)

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Sci Comm Tips From An iGEM Judge

Formal judgement in any context is nerve-racking. Scientists, familiar with being judged, rely on others to evaluate (and hopefully accept) everything from a PhD thesis defense to grant proposals and peer-reviewed journal article submissions. The frustrating part is not knowing exactly what the judges are looking for. Sure there are requirements and guidelines to follow—but how are the judges going to interpret them? It would be a whole lot easier if we could just peek into their minds. Unfortunately for most, that fantasy isn’t likely to turn into reality.

But if you are part of an iGEM team, today is your lucky day! Our own Preeta Guptan volunteers as a judge for the iGEM competition, and in today’s article you will get her insider’s perspective about what iGEM judges look for. You will also get some tips to help you excel in the iGEM competition—and effectively communicate about science in general.

Preeta is an External Innovation Manager at Promega, which means she seeks out and investigates technology that might be valuable for Promega to license or acquire. The opportunity to scout up-and-coming synthetic biology advances was one reason she wanted to be an iGEM judge, but curiosity was at the core of her decision. Preeta and the other judges bring their unique perspectives and experiences to each iGEM project and team they evaluate. Here are some suggestions from Preeta:

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iGEM Stockholm: Blending Art and Synthetic Biology

On May 13, 2019, twenty-five meters below the streets of Stockholm in a retired nuclear reactor, Nerea Capon and her iGEM team unveiled an artistic fusion of creativity and synthetic biology. The Synthetic Biology Art Exhibition featured works by other iGEM teams and local artists, all presenting their unique reflections on the concepts of synthetic biology. The collection included synthetic skin grown by bacteria, performance art, and even a musical snail that spent the week crawling around a table full of plants.

“They were mind-blowing,” Nerea says a few weeks after the exhibition. “We let them have total freedom to interpret synthetic biology as they would love to, and it was really surprising.” Continue reading “iGEM Stockholm: Blending Art and Synthetic Biology”

Announcing the 2019 Promega iGEM Grant Winners

It’s FINALLY time to announce the winners of the 2019 Promega iGEM Grant! We received over 150 applications this year, so picking the top 10 was very tough. As always, we’re impressed by the amazing work iGEM teams are doing in the lab and in their communities. The 10 winners listed below will receive $2,000 in free Promega products.

Good luck to all teams competing in iGEM this year, and congratulations to our winners! Don’t forget that Promega has free technical support for all teams competing in iGEM. Our scientists are excited to help out. You can also check out our iGEM Sponsor page, which has tools and resources to help make your project a success. Continue reading “Announcing the 2019 Promega iGEM Grant Winners”

Synthetic Biology by the Letters

Synthetic biology has been in the news a lot lately—or maybe it only seems like it because I’m spending a lot of my time thinking about our partnership with the iGEM Foundation, which is dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology. As the 2019 iGEM teams are forming, figuring out what their projects will be and how to fund them, it seemed fitting to share some of these stories.

A, C, T, G…S, P, Z, B?

Researchers recently developed four synthetic nucleotides that, when combined with the four natural nucleotides (A, C, T and G), make up a new eight-letter synthetic system called “hachimoji” DNA. The synthetic nucleotides—S, P, Z and B— function like natural DNA by pairing predictably and evolving. Continue reading “Synthetic Biology by the Letters”