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Canadian Teams Excel at the iGEM Giant Jamboree!

Kenza SamLali - November 21, 2018

The famous ‘iGEM from above’ picture, every year, taken slightly higher up… Photo: iGEM Foundation, Justin Knight.

The famous ‘iGEM from above’ picture, every year, taken slightly higher up… Photo: iGEM Foundation, Justin Knight.

The international genetically engineered machines (iGEM) competition is a worldwide (under)graduate and high school synthetic biology competition, strongly embedded in the synthetic biology culture. Since 2004, teams have been inventing biological machines with the ethos of deploying biological engineering for practical problem solving for the good. Although working on team projects is not inherent to higher education in the life sciences, iGEM proves that it should be: multi-disciplinary team members from across departments get together to solve pressing problems, with socio-ethical questions in mind that fuel their drive for scientific research. With a focus on standardisation of biological designs, and responsible innovation, iGEM has in fact shaped the development of the synthetic biology field.

This year, 13 Canadian university teams and three high school teams were accepted for the iGEM Giant Jamboree at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. All summer long, they have sweated in their lab coats, cloning from morning till morning, in addition to working on building hardware, developing software, engaging with the public and carefully publishing all their work on their website. From October 24th to 28th, the teams have been presenting their work to fellow iGEMers and an expert judging panel, of which I had the pleasure to be part of this year. Below, a summary of their brilliant work.

Canadian iGEM teams at the iGEM Giant Jamboree pose for the first “cGEM” photo.

Canadian iGEM teams at the iGEM Giant Jamboree pose for the first “cGEM” photo.


Université de Laval Bronze Medal

The team of Université de Laval performed some powerful metabolic engineering of S. cerevisiae to produce dopamine, noradrenaline, and adrenaline that can be purified and stored. With the EpiPen crisis in mind, the team aimed for a cheaper alternative for the current chemical synthesis of adrenaline compounds. Find out more on their wiki.

McGill University Bronze Medal

The Montreal team presented work on standardized cell-cell interaction for mammalian cells. They aimed to produce a universal, modular, easy to control, and orthogonal system using synNotch membrane proteins and BiTE antibodies. Read more on their wiki.

Dalhousie Silver Medal; Award Nominations: Best Environment Project

The Eastern team tried addressing aluminium toxicity in Nova Scotia’s lakes and waters. For this, they developed a point-of-care biosensor to detect aluminium, based on the bacteria Pseudomonas florescens. Read more on their wiki.

Brock University Bronze Medal

The team at Brock University decided to take a look at the famous FLIP Recombinase system, and the possibilities for optogenetically engineering it. This is foundational work that can possibly expand the synbio toolkit! Read about it on their wiki.

Queen’s University Gold Medal; Award Nominations: Best Diagnostics Project

The Queens team devoted their summer on building biosensors for the detection of glucocorticoid hormones (specifically cortisol) using both a FRET system and a system that uses intein splicing. In addition to their lab work, they have built a portable diagnostics device that can detect hormones in babies saliva. Check out their work here.

University of Toronto Silver Medal


For this years iGEM competition, the Toronto team proposed a new separation technique for bioremediation processes: the use of floating E.coli! The team engineered E.coli to produce inducible gas vesicle proteins (GvPs), in such quantity that the E.coli would float, which would be super useful in water treatment! Find out more here.

University of Lethbridge Gold Medal

The Lethbridge team decided to work with VINCEnT, a novel system for delivery of biological cargo, using protein nanocompartments (PNCs). They build several types of PCNs for the iGEM community, and developed an interesting risk assessment rubric for the use of these virus-derived systems. Find out more about this great project on their wiki.

University of Waterloo Silver Medal

The Waterloo team aimed to make co-culturing of bacteria easier, by engineering an E.coli optogenetic switch that can dynamically control E. coli growth. They engineered it in such a way that different wavelengths of light can regulate the production of MetE, an enzyme essential for bacterial growth. Read more about their project on their wiki.

University of Guelph

Ever had to deal with nasty beer brewing equipment? Calcium oxalate is a byproduct of brewing that causes your cleaning to be a really annoying task. The Guelph team looked into engineering E. coli and S. cerevisiae with Formyl-Coenzyme A Transferase (FRC) and Oxalyl-Coenzyme A Decarboxylase (OXC) so that it can uptake sodium oxalate and metabolize it. Read more here.

University of Calgary Gold Medal; Award Nominations: Best Software

The Calgary team looked at improving the current gene editing toolkit and developed a new method to insert larger constructs using CRISPR. They did this using a newly-combined system of FLP recombinases, CRISPR and Chromatin Modifying Elements. Really decent foundational work. The team was also nominated for best software, for their software SARA, an easy to use web app that can screen though past iGEM software projects. Great job! Read more on their wiki.

University of Alberta’s iGEM team nervously listening to a judge’s question. Photo: iGEM Foundation, Justin Knight

University of Alberta’s iGEM team nervously listening to a judge’s question. Photo: iGEM Foundation, Justin Knight

University of Alberta Gold Medal; Awarded the Best food and Nutrition project; Award Nominations: Best Integrated Human Practices

Western honeybees are threatened by Nosema ceranae, a fungal parasite. And, the only fungicide against this infection, has been discontinued. This is why the University of Alberta team decided to engineer E.coli to overproduce porphyrin, which can damage the spores of Nosema. The team has performed very well overall (project, wiki, human practices) and earned an award in ‘Best food and nutrition project’. In addition to that, their extensive work with farmers, beekeepers, and other stakeholders, earned them a nomination for ‘Best integrated human practices’. Some impressive work you should definitely check out here.

University of British Columbia Bronze Medal

The British Columbian team decided to optimise pathways in E.coli for production of Naringenin and Kaempferol, compounds often needed for cancer drugs. They developed a co-culture system that can increase the production yield of both compounds in one shot! Amazing! Read more about their work on the team’s wiki.

McMaster University Bronze Medal

The team of McMaster University tried to find a way to study neurodegenerative diseases in E.coli systems. They expressed human amyloid beta protein variants in E. coli as a system for studying the molecular basis of aggregation of these proteins, that are the cause of diseases like Alzheimer's. Find out more on their wiki.


OLS Canmore Finalist: Chairman’s Award

How can we solve the plastic problem? Reducing plastic use is one, increasing recycling efficiency is something else… The Canmore team decided to bio-tag plastics for more efficient sorting, thereby reducing the amount of global plastic ending up in landfills and oceans. For their overall project achievement, and their efforts in making the field of synthetic biology more accessible, the team has won the Chairman’s Award. This is an award for teams that show true iGEM spirit throughout their work. Read more about their project on their wiki.

Notre Dame Collegiate - High River Silver Medal

The NDC high school team took on the dirty task of breaking down fatbergs! The team designed an E.coli strain that breaks down triglycerides, by producing esterases. Quite the challenging task for a high school team! Read about their project on their wiki!

Lethbridge High Silver Medal; Award Nominations: Best Model

The Lethbridge High School looked at purifying contaminated tailing ponds, and at the same time extracting useful metals during the process. For this process, they used bacteriophages and E.coli initially. Their project is very well described on their wiki, and their impressive bacteriophage modeling earned them a Model award nomination!

Every year, the Canadian teams are showing off more impressive projects than the year before, and a lot of that has to do with support from other Canadian teams. This year, Ontario teams met up at oGEM, about which you can read in a previous blogpost. During the Giant Jamboree, Canadian teams met up again, over midnight pizza on a windy Boston autumn night, and several Canadian team members decided to shape a more formal support network, the Canadian ‘cGEM’. “cGEM is a network of iGEM members from across Canada, getting together to build iGEM at a national level.” says Dan Lipworth, iGEM Guelph member,  “It's also a place for like-minded people to get together and share ideas about synbio and Canadian issues, meet great friends and make connections!”. Since their kick-off at iGEM, cGEM is slowly building its network across the country. You can get in touch through their Facebook group or by contacting us at SynBio Canada.

In addition to these team endeavors, Canada has shown excellence in judging as well! Every year, two prizes are awarded to the Judges who have shown excellence in their judging tasks. Two Canadian colleagues, Tessa Alexanian and Patrick Wu won the won the Rookie Judge Award and Veteran Judge Award! Congrats! I would truly encourage fellow scientists, PI’s and synbio enthusiasts to apply to become a judge at the iGEM Giant Jamboree. Being a judge will not only help you get a better picture on how a good project looks like -knowledge you can take home- , it is also a great opportunity to see science education change right in front of your nose. Such a massive gathering of the brightest minds of synthetic biology and young aspiring synbiologists is unforgettable! When I entered the Judging room, I was stunned, realizing many fellow judges are research idols I’ve been drafting (not sending) emails to for years, and I was frantically unsure what I was doing in that room. I did’t function. My brain went: Too cool. Too impressive. Too creative. Too amazing. But then you sit down and start doing your work, and realize that George Church is there for the same reasons as you, that Ginkgo Bioworks organizes their first annual Ginkgo Ferment meeting at the Giant Jamboree for the same reason as you are there. It’s the future of synthetic biology all gathered in one location!

And with such strong performance at this year iGEM, and Canada’s growing synthetic biology network, I’m looking forward to next year’s competition!

Kenza SamlaliComment