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oGEM 2018: Student Perspectives on Synthetic Biology in Ontario

Fatima Sheikh & Samir Hamadache - October 26, 2018

  Members of the McMaster, Toronto, Queens, Western, Guelph, Ottawa, Waterloo and Brock iGEM teams, who attended the Ontario “oGEM” conference at McMaster University, July 28 2018.

Members of the McMaster, Toronto, Queens, Western, Guelph, Ottawa, Waterloo and Brock iGEM teams, who attended the Ontario “oGEM” conference at McMaster University, July 28 2018.

The McMaster iGEM team has experienced drastic growth since its beginnings. Going into our fourth year, we are currently a team of almost 40 members making up 5 different subteams: Wet Lab, Dry Lab, Human Practices, Business Development, and Community Outreach. Our previous projects have included the use of light to control recombinant protein production (2015), the use of quorum sensing with genetically engineered lactic acid bacteria as a novel therapy for gastrointestinal tract cancers (2016), and developing a plate- based biosensor for E. coli through the use of fluorescent DNAzymes in an effort to tackle antibiotic-resistant bacteria - a growing public health issue both in Canada and overseas (2017). This year, in addition to taking on a new research project, we had the pleasure of hosting the annual oGEM conference!

The Ontario Genetically Engineered Machine Network (oGEM) Conference is an annual event that brings iGEM teams from across Ontario together to discuss their research projects, initiate collaborations and discuss both the successes and challenges of synthetic biology research. This year, in addition to having Dr. Benjamin Scott, SynBio Canada President and iGEM alumnus come to speak to us about his research in synthetic biology, we introduced a student synbio roundtable discussion session.

The conversation, initially proposed by Ontario Genomics’ Manager of Strategic Planning, Dr. Jordan Thomson, was designed to address the discussion paper resulting from the inaugural 2018 Canada SynBio conference and workshops. However, what started as a conversation on synthetic biology research quickly shifted to the biggest challenges facing the synbio community in Canada, the lack of synbio education at the undergrad level, and funding & resources for iGEM teams.

(1) the field of synthetic biology lacks a clear definition that distinguishes it from existing disciplines like molecular biology

(2) there’s an absence of undergraduate-level courses and programs, and being an interdisciplinary field, this means students are lacking necessary knowledge and tools

(3) undergraduate programs in synthetic biology would help foster much needed interdisciplinary communication

  Several members of the SynBio Canada Steering Committee also participated in the oGEM conference (left to right): Dr. Benjamin Scott (President), Fatima Sheikh (McMaster University) & Samir Hamdache (Western University)

Several members of the SynBio Canada Steering Committee also participated in the oGEM conference (left to right): Dr. Benjamin Scott (President), Fatima Sheikh (McMaster University) & Samir Hamdache (Western University)

Despite some of the highlighted challenges, the conversation remained optimistic on the potential for synthetic biology in Canada and the role students will play in disseminating synthetic biology to a wider audience.

Over the next month as we prepare for the upcoming iGEM jamboree we will be putting together an oGEM recap video in collaboration with SynBio Canada and the Ontario iGEM teams. This video will shed light on the challenges associated with this emerging field and the action that is needed to address these challenges, from a students perspective.

Each year the oGEM conference grows and gives all participants an opportunity to learn about one another's work, the new initiatives we have taken on, and to form partnerships to move synthetic biology forward. It was an absolute pleasure to host the event at McMaster and we look forward to seeing everyone at next year's conference. In the meantime stay tuned for our recap video and all the amazing work being done by students across Ontario.

SynBio Canada is committed to working with and advocating for the synthetic biology student community & iGEM teams across the country. Check out our growing list of Canadian iGEM team profiles--if your team isn’t represented here, let us know! We plan to help strengthen channels of communication among teams and support the synbio student community in advocacy efforts.

Fatima SheikhComment