Q&A with the City of London School iGEM Team

We are excited to introduce the 2016 City of London School iGEM team. Twist Bioscience is honored to sponsor the team for their 2016 iGEM project, which will be presented at the iGEM Giant Jamboree in Boston at the end of October. They were selected for sponsorship due to the quality of their application, in terms of both the scientific question they were addressing and their approach. 
Twist Bioscience: Who are the City of London School iGEM team?
City of London School iGEM Team: We are a group of Sixth Formers (the UK equivalent of high school seniors) from the City of London School, an independent boys’ school set right in the center of London. One thing we all have in common is our love of biology, in particular molecular biology. There are ten of us working on our iGEM project, and we have all contributed to its different aspects, according to our individual strengths.
Left to right, top row first:
Michael will (probably) be studying history by this time next year. He will likely have completely forgotten the difference between a centrosome and a centromere, but has thoroughly enjoyed working on a complex biological problem. He has stayed up late countless times working out the folding of primers and writing articles.
Jake H. is the sort of person that every team needs. He is always on hand and always on time, ready to help whenever necessary. He’s been involved in most of our experiments and has devoted numerous early mornings to iGEM. When he’s not in the lab, Jake H. plays chess rather well and is a fine footballer.
Clemens is the team’s creative dynamo and leader—it was his idea to enter iGEM in the first place! He has attended numerous conferences and interned at CyBio and LabGenius over the summer. He is involved in most of the team’s activities, contributing to everything from research to experimental design. Besides biology, his scientific interests range from logic gates, carbon nanotubes, and artificial intelligence to the more esoteric corners of mathematics.
Cameron has his fingers in many pies. Over the past few months, he has contributed to the team’s research, carried out numerous experiments, and searched high and low for potential sponsors. Moreover, he has written a couple of articles that help to explain the principles of synthetic biology to non-scientists.
Jake M. is a jack-of-all-trades (and master of most). He is a physicist, biologist, chemist and mathematician who provides much of the team’s intellectual heft. Research is his natural forte but he is also surprisingly good at badgering potential sponsors and collaborators. He particularly enjoys arguing with Clemens over fairly minor points of detail, usually at length and always at the top of his voice.
Naail has been one of the team’s most active members. He has diligently researched a broad variety of topics ranging from plasmids to natural transformation, and has additionally found the time to help out in the lab. He can also speak decent Russian.
Freddie is one of the team’s pipette-wielding experimentalists. He is usually one of the people who carries out DNA work, like plasmid isolation and restriction digestions. Outside of iGEM, he sings, acts, and plays about twenty different sports. Nobody quite knows how he manages to find the time to help out with iGEM given this dizzying array of other interests.
People not in the photo:
James Ng is the team’s head of human practices, a position to which he is ideally suited as a prospective lawyer. He is a fine writer and has written several articles and pamphlets for the team. Sadly, he is not continuing with biology beyond this year — iGEM is something of a swan-song for him.
Elias is both an artist and a scientist. He’s responsible for most of the arty stuff on our wiki. He has also been involved in many of the team’s experiments, and his skill with a pipette is matched by his skill with a pencil or paintbrush.
Gulzar is one of the team’s quieter, calmer, saner members. A would-be medic, he is a capable scientist and a diligent researcher. When doing experiments, he can often be found tucked away in the corner of the lab, carrying out whatever needs doing whilst everybody else discusses how to do it.
“Our project aims to apply a genetic engineering approach to developing a next-gen solar panel utilizing a bacteria-based fuel cell.”
Twist: Why did you get involved with synthetic biology and iGEM?
CLS iGEM Team: This whole project started with Clemens’ search for work experience. Someone suggested he look into iGEM and everything took off from there. As the deadline for registering was nearing (we registered with couple of hours to spare) Jake M. and Mr. Zivanic (our Principal Investigator) sorted out many bureaucratic issues. This wasn’t helped by the fact that Jake was in the UK and Mr. Zivanic was in California at the registration deadline. Thanks to Jake’s perseverance (one might even call it pushiness), we are here today to tell this story.
Twist: What is your project all about?
CLS iGEM Team: We focused our effort on improving the efficiency of biological photovoltaic cells, a next-generation solar panel, which harnesses photosynthetic organisms to convert solar energy into electrical energy.
The modern silicon solar panel has many problems. It is expensive to make, bulky, and it has a low efficiency of energy conversion, i.e. only a tiny percent of light energy gets converted into electricity. Our project aims to apply a genetic engineering approach to developing a next-gen solar panel utilizing a bacteria-based fuel cell. We take traditional microbial fuel cell (MFC) designs and modify them to create a biological photovoltaic (BPV) cell.
Using a cyanobacteria called Synechocystis in our BPV cell, we can extract the energy that has been harvested from light. This has the potential to be a sustainable and eco-friendly practice for the production of renewable energy. However, a major pitfall in the use of the BPV as a form of bioelectricity generation is the fact that it has low efficiency, an obstacle that we aimed to overcome in our iGEM project design.
Our genetic modification of Synechocystis had two main aims: to increase the rate of electron export from the cell for increased efficiency in BPV cells, and to increase growth rate in order to make working with Synechocystis easier. Like all cyanobacteria, Synechocystis is a prokaryote (no nucleus and “easy” to transform), but it is photosynthetic. When it comes to cyanobacteria, this happens to be a model organism, i.e. the genome is fully sequenced and lots of work has been done on it already, so there is a body of cumulative knowledge out there already. Previous studies have shown the rate of growth to be the main obstacle in working with Synechocystis and we believe that solving this problem would lead to improvements in the efficiency of the BVP cell, too.

 
 
Twist: Outreach is an important part of iGEM, what did you do to engage the public with your project?
CLS iGEM Team: We approached our public engagement in three ways. Firstly, we carried out an education event. Members of our team presented about iGEM in general, as well as our specific project. This was a tremendous experience that gave us the chance to talk to the general public, answering their questions and in some cases addressing fears about the project and genetic modification as a whole. Secondly, we wrote several articles for our school’s student newspaper. Finally, we developed a board game based on the principles of iGEM, which we were able to (hopefully) translate into an accessible and fun game for people to enjoy.
Twist: How did your project evolve between conception and the finish line?
CLS iGEM Team: Once we started our work, we quickly realized how few biological tools were available for working with Synechocystis and cyanobacteria in general. We realized that we needed to contribute to this, too. Making new parts for cyanobacteria became as important as testing them in the final chassis. As we were becoming more passionate about iGEM, we also started thinking about making this kind of work easier for the future year groups in our school. Alongside developing the scientific start of the project we looked into the logistics of running an iGEM project in a UK high school.
“Working on iGEM showed us what science might look like if more teams worked together.”
Twist: How has the Twist Bioscience sponsorship helped your project? 
CLS iGEM Team: Quite simply, without Twist Bioscience’s sponsorship, our project would not have taken off at all. Finding funding for a project like this is difficult even if you are a team from a renowned university, let alone a secondary school. Securing the first sponsor is always the most difficult task and the fact that Twist Bioscience supported us encouraged others to do the same. Charles Joseph from Twist was particularly helpful, working with us and helping us navigate various US tax forms that needed to be filled in and that none of us understood.
Twist: What are your thoughts about the future of synthetic biology?
CLS iGEM Team: We feel extremely positive about the field, not least because we saw first hand how cooperative everyone is. We frequently hear stories about the competitive nature of science and groups racing each other to discover something new. Working on iGEM showed us what science might look like if more teams worked together. We certainly found other teams helpful in terms of their suggestions and advice, and we believe that projects like this could truly revolutionize biology. Simultaneously, we have been massively enthused by general public engagements with the field, reading magazines such as Biocoder and researching biohacking spaces around the world.
Twist: If you had another 6 months, where would you take your project?
CLS iGEM Team: We would aim to make a BioBrick-compatible, high-copy dual-host plasmid that would make work with cyanobacteria much easier and faster.
Twist: Any final words?
CLS iGEM Team: Apart from Twist and other sponsors, we would like to thank the Imperial College team who have been our main point of contact when encountering difficulties that no internet forum or textbook could help us solve. Without their support we would have still been stuck doing minipreps right now.
Thank you very much to the City of London School 2016 iGEM for taking the time to chat with us. We hope they have a great time at this year’s competition, and we wish them success!