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These are our ideas from initial brainstorming:

  • Allergy testing/quality assurance: Imagine you’re allergic to a certain food stuff, and you’d love to go to a new restaurant or visit a friend’s dinner party, but you can’t be quite sure if the food you’re allergic to is in the meal you want to eat. We’d design an “at-the-table” allergen testing kit, to allow allergy sufferers to be confident in what they eat, even if it hasn’t got a list of ingredients. This could also be scaled up to be used in a factory setting, where foods could be tested for allergens (no more confusing “may contain nuts” labels! We’d know know for sure if the food did or didn’t contain something) or other substances (after the horse meat scandal, what about foreign DNA?).

Pros: Has a very simple application, a large market, and could be applied to a number of different situations/factories/food types.

Cons: It’s easy to test something homogenous like soup or a drink, but how do you test something more complex like a salad or roast dinner? And it would have to be very accurate and reliable; we don’t want to accidentally tell people they can eat something when they can’t! Also, how do we relate this to synthetic biology?

  • Bioluminescence in infected plants: When a crop is exposed to a pathogen, the response molecules used by the plant to defend itself would trigger luminescence, alerting the farmer to the presence of the pathogen. The farmer could then isolate the infected plants, preventing the spread of the pathogen to the rest of the field.

Pros: As it would be recognising the response of the plant, as opposed to recognising the pathogen, the luminescence could theoretically be stimulated by any infection, whether it’s bacterial, fungal or viral. As the pathogen would be recognised before “symptoms” start showing on the plant, the farmer could quarantine the affected crops and prevent losing the entire harvest.

Cons: What if the plant doesn’t recognise the pathogen? Or what if it responds by producing different molecules to the ones that would activate the luminescence? Also, we would hope to use Arabidopsis thaliana as our model organism, but there probably wouldn’t be time to grow the plants before we had to hand in our results. There is also an issue with the bioluminescence affecting the other wildlife in the fields. If plants are lighting up in the field, how would this affect the insects, birds and small mammals which regulate their days based on the difference between night and day? Although we would never have managed to fill a field with the modified plants, there would have been problems with releasing a crop that has been modified in this way into the outside world.

  • Acoustic Bio-control: Using sound as an input to control bacterial output. The aim would be to get bacteria to respond to certain frequencies of sound, potentially to be used in very targeted drug therapies (eg. the sound would cause the bacteria to lyse, releasing a specific toxin or medication). Because we’d be using sound, it hopefully wouldn’t have an adverse effect on the patient (apart from the toxins/medications released, of course!).

Pros: Doesn’t seem to have been looked at previously in iGEM, so would be quite novel within the competition. Would have a multitude of applications, but the potential medical uses are especially alluring.

Cons: Again, there are problems with specificity, reliability and accuracy. We don’t want bacteria to be releasing anything without us telling them to, and we would have to be confident in them only reacting to the one frequency of sound. The project would be very complex, and we might not get any viable results to present at the jamboree.

  • Using bacteria to “crack” alkanes into specific carbon chain-lengths: When oil is cracked using conventional methods, a number of different carbon chain-lengths are generated; some are far more useful than others, such as the lengths used to make petrol and diesel. There has been work previously on using bacteria to “crack” long carbon chains into shorter length of a certain range, but could we get bacteria to produce one chain length alone?

  • Use magnetic bacteria to generate electricity: There are a variety of bacteria that responds to magnetic fields. They contain organelles called “magnetosomes” which give them magnetic properties. We would hope to use the movement of these bacteria to generate electrical energy (the kinetic energy of the moving bacteria can be converted to electrical energy by taking advantage of the properties of electromagnetism), possibly using the natural convection currents in place when bacteria are in suspension in fermentation tanks (could also use waste heat from factories to aid in convection currents), or by putting the bacteria in a medium that already has it’s own movement (moving parts in machinery, waves on the sea, etc).

  • Using luminescence to locate biofilms in different environments: There are a whole host of environments and settings where biofilms poses a variety of problems, whether they are “practical” problems or associated with illness. For example, there are problems in the fuel industry with biofilms forming in oil pipelines and blocking/slowing the movement of fuel/oil. There are also problems with biofilms forming on medical equipment and in hospital environments, which can then encourage the spread of nosocomial infections. Is there something we can use to make the biofilms more obvious (eg. luminesce) to help in their targeted removal?

  • Increasing the depth of algal ponds by increasing ability for light to filter through: Currently, algae which produce biofuel can only be suspended in ponds which are ~20cm deep. What if we inserted a mechanism to allow light to filter through the algae, so the ponds could be slightly deeper? Possibly vacuoles containing light focussing beads. Even an improvement of a couple of centimeters will dramatically increase the volume of ponds you can utilise.