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Synthetic biology in the real world: Case studies

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iGEM – from student competition to spin-out company

By Caroline Channing

The iGEM competition was started in 2004 and has since developed into a global competition with undergraduate and high school tracks. The competition involves using standard biological parts (BioBricks) to build genetically engineered systems. UK teams have consistently done well in iGEM, with Imperial coming 2nd overall in 2014.

Several start-up companies have been established using ideas originally conceived as UK iGEM projects such as; Bento-bioworks (UCL 2013) which is creating an all in one laboratory, Labgenius (Imperial 2014) which focuses on microbial expression optimisation,  Morph Bioinformatics (UCL 2012) which focuses on genomics and bioinformatics and CustoMeM which is making customisable ultrafiltration membranes (Imperial 2014).

With several more projects developed further for example; an Arsenic biosensor which was awarded money from the Welcome Trust (Edinburgh 2006 and Cambridge 2009) and a cell-free TNT sensor (Exeter 2012) which was awarded money from DSTL. Finally GeneGuard (Imperial 2011) started off as an iGEM project and received further funding from DSTL and BBSRC to further develop it and is now influencing international GM regulations. 

UK Strategic Plan for Synthetic Biology 2016

Click on the image above to download the UK Synthetic Biology Strategic Plan 2016

New synthetic biology technologies are starting to offer exciting opportunities across a range of industries including manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, biofuels and health.

Research Council funding in collaboration with a wide variety of national and international partners across academia and industry, is supporting the long-term growth of UK synthetic biology, development of a highly skilled workforce and an infrastructure to underpin and enable cutting edge research in industry and academia, as well as providing support for synthetic biology start-up companies.

The pervasive potential of synthetic biology is brought to life through a series of case studies ranging from a biosensor toolkit with the ability to treat chronic conditions such as diabetes through to using enzymes from yeast mould to unlock cleaner routes to producing biofuel.

The wide ranging applications of synthetic biology will play an important role in growing the UK's bioeconomy, creating new jobs and ensuring the UK is a world leader in this area.

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