Meet our iGEM team


We are the DeNovoCastrians, the inaugural iGEM team from University of Newcastle. iGEM (international Genetically Engineered Machine) is a competition that gives students the opportunity to push the boundaries of synthetic biology by tackling everyday challenges. Synthetic biology is the designing, engineering, testing and validating of a biological system made from interchangeable biological parts and standard molecular biology techniques. iGEM teams, made up of primarily university students from different disciplines, use these techniques to solve an everyday challenge, while also engaging the community and the industries. Hence, iGEM covers all the aspects of a research project.

Past iGEM projects include:

  • Using bacterial biosensors to track
    Chronic Kidney Disease in patients or microbial infections in animals
  • Manufacturing recombinant spider silk with
    E.coli for application in medication, cloth, and aerospace fields.
  • Using biofilms to efficiently capture
    nanoparticles before treated water is released into the environment.

DeNovoCastrians solves the big challenges…

Right now, an environmental crisis is unfolding
in front of our very eyes – in Mauritius, a ship filled with petrochemicals has
ran aground, starting to leak petrochemicals into the ocean and nearby reefs.
As many petrochemicals are listed by the
International Agency for research on Cancer as a Group 1 carcinogen (causing
headaches, weakening of the immune system and in
severe cases death), this will undoubtedly affect marine animals, birds, coral
reefs, and the citizens of Mauritius that rely on the marine environments for
their sole survival.

Imagine a world where crisis like the one
above can be solved by just spreading microorganisms into the ocean, and all
the petrochemicals will be degraded. That’s the world we want to live in!

Under supervision of Prof. Brett Neilan
and Dr. Karl Hassan, both from the ARC Centre of Excellence of SynBio,
University of Newcastle, we will take a step towards solving crises like these
and preventing them from occurring. Our project utilises the power of some
microorganisms for the bioremediation of terrestrial and aquatic
systems polluted with petrochemicals. In Sydney harbour, an organism called Rhodococcus
sp. 33has been found to be able to survive in high concentrations of the
petrochemical benzene. Comparing to a related species, Rhodococcus sp.
9, we have identified the gene cluster responsible for the breakdown of benzene
and related petrochemicals. This information has been used to further identify
similar clusters from other microorganisms.

We aim to move three of these gene
clusters from their native organisms to the sporulating Bacillus subtilis,
the gram-negative model organism Escherichia coli and the blue-green
algae Synechocystis PCC 6803, using an inducible controlled plasmid
system. This will be followed by validating the ability of these engineered microorganisms
to live off benzene and similar petrochemicals as a sole carbon source. The end
product of petrochemical degradation is a high value compound used in the
fragrance and pesticide industries, which we will purify, showing that our
system will breakdown a toxic compound while producing a high value end

… and the small spillages.

As Newcastle is an industrial city, we are
aware of the major consequences prolonged exposure to low levels of petrochemicals
can have on both humans and the environment. Therefore, we will also aim to build
and validate a biosensor that detects even low levels of petrochemicals. It is
expected that the petrochemical degrading gene clusters are expressed in the
presence of petrochemicals. Hence, we aim to remove the petrochemical degrading
genes, and instead insert a fluorescent protein. So, when petrochemicals are
present, the microorganisms will glow green – the greener the organism, the greater
the petrochemicals present. In this way, we can track the concentration of
petrochemicals sensed by the microorganism.

By the end of this project, we hope to have helped the world take a small step towards a cleaner and greener planet.

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