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Spotlight on geekStarters: UCalgary iGEM Team

Spotlight on geekStarters: UCalgary iGEM Team

A favorite team picture from a visit to the Pine Creek Wastewater Treatment plant. The team received an exclusive tour and had a lot of questions answered in regards to their project.

Check out this recent interview with the iGEM team from University of Calgary, and learn about their exciting project and hopes for this iGEM season and beyond.

  • What is unique about your team? Any memorable moments?

The most unique part of our team is the diversity that we have. For the summer, we conducted “word of the day” consisting of all the different languages in our group. There were 12 different languages at one point.

  • What is your team’s favorite fun activity? What’s something your team does to bond?

We sometimes conduct table tennis and pool championships during lunch hours that get rather intense. We also like to meet up for meals after lab work.

  • How does your team use social media?

Our team uses Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to keep our followers updated on the progress of our project and the fun we have been having during our time together. We have also used social media to make the community aware of events we are involved in. Follow us @igemcalgary.

  • How would you describe your team’s project in 3 sentences or less?

Our project involves using human waste to produce polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) bioplastic that can be used for 3D printing. We are looking to implement this idea in long range space missions such as the Mars project where waste management will be a problem.

  • What has been one highlight of working on your project so far?

Being a member of the iGEM Calgary team gave us the opportunity to meet and foster connections with undergraduate students from different faculties. This year’s Astroplastic project taught us the importance of interdisciplinary cooperation and gave us the opportunity to make new friends.

  • What is your team’s biggest challenge?

Our final product and processes are challenging and time consuming to quantify.

  • What does your team look forward to the most this season?

Going to the iGEM Jamboree in Boston.

  • What do you hope to achieve by the end of this season?

To make a tool out of the plastic that we produce from our genetically engineered bacteria.

  • Where would you like to see your project go in the future? What are your team’s dreams for the future?

If we are able to develop our project into a working prototype we would love to test the prototype in Mars like conditions and eventually have the process used on Mars.

geekStarter Community Highlights – August 2017

Our iGEM teams got a lot done over the past few weeks. Check out their recent updates!


  • UCalgary iGEM 2017 

Project: Improving waste management on space missions by using genetically engineered bacteria to turn human waste into bioplastics

Our human practices outreach efforts have been picking up steam, as we have decided to build on previous Alberta iGEM teams’ efforts and create an updated version of a manual instructing members of high schools and postsecondary institutions in the practical matters of starting an iGEM team. We want our manual, which will take the form of a video series, to be a real-world connection between the academic and public spheres, and encourage public participation in building the scientific body of knowledge. Our policy analysis also focuses on barriers which may impede access to synthetic biology and providing sound recommendations which will alleviate these barriers. We envision this to be an important area for research with connections to the feasibility and impact of our project.  Since a long-term space mission will be a collaborative effort between several nations, it becomes important to ensure that access to information and technology is equal across the world.

We have other public engagement events planned for a more immediate way to increase local participation in science. On September 14, iGEM Calgary is partnering with TELUS Spark at the Adults Only Night to engage the broader public about the limitless applications of synthetic biology. In addition, we will be hosting an informal event for members of the public at a local venue, Home and Away YYC, to raise awareness about iGEM and synthetic biology.

Our process development team is focussed on creating a streamlined, low-maintenance design for our system which encompasses the entire process, from waste management to plastic production to 3D printing. They have been using a synthetic analogue for human faeces from a NASA recipe in their experiments, which currently involve developing a way of extracting a liquid feedstock high in volatile fatty acids from the solid human waste.

NASA Recipe for human feces

The process team’s experiments with NASA synthetic feces! The recipe for synthetic feces includes cellulose, oils, and miso paste.

The genetic engineering teams are hard at work transforming cells with our parts. We are using a bioplastic production part from the Tokyo 2012 iGEM team in order to have a frame of reference for what our parts should be capable of producing. By comparing our parts to existing parts, we can better characterize both systems.

In the near future, our team will be looking to run experiments to prove that our system can work as one continuous process. We will be quantifying our bioplastic production to compare our system with previously designed parts and to provide compelling evidence that this technology should be implemented on long-term space missions.


  • ULethbridge iGEM 2017

Project: Developing cell-free transcription and translation systems that are affordable, versatile, and easy-to-use

The wetlab group has been focused on cloning 27 of our constructs into vectors and putting them inside the bacteria. We have also designed and submitted our remaining constructs to be synthesized by Twist Bioscience, and performed control test expressions for 4 of our proteins so far. These will be used as a benchmark to determine how well our constructs work in comparison to our lab standard. We are getting our parts ready for submission to the iGEM registry, and we will soon begin over-expressing our proteins. We were successful at introducing the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) into liposomes and are continuing to optimize this process as model for our system. We aim to be ready to put our transcription / translation (Tx/Tl) system into liposomes once we have successfully over-expressed all of our proteins.

Team advisor Taylor Sheahan talks to team members in the lab

ULethbridge iGEM team advisor Taylor Sheahan talks to team members in the lab

We have also begun modeling in order to predict how to effectively combine our proteins into a single vector. This will serve to simplify the process of creating our cell-free expression platform and allow widespread use of our system in prototyping, bioremediation and a variety of other applications.

We have contacted stakeholder groups such as New England Biolabs (NEB) and Amino Labs to discuss our proposed Tx/Tl system. NEB has agreed to provide us with their commercial Tx/Tl system at a discounted rate, and we will use it as a standard to compare our system to. Amino Labs is excited about our project as well as it promises to provide them with a safer system to use within their educational tool.

On the fundraising front, we have reached out to the Student Union at our university, and have been working on the Quality Initiatives Program (QIP) application requesting $7 000 to cover team travel costs to the Giant Jamboree in Boston. To acquire additional travel funds, a carwash has been organized in September. Finally, we have set up a kickstarter account as a means for community members to support our iGEM team.

To practice our poster presentation skills, we presented a poster of our project at the Alberta RNA Research and Training Institute (ARRTI) Annual General Meeting (AGM). This also gave us the opportunity to discuss our work and, as a result, we were able to better focus and refine our project.

Team members practice their poster presentation skills

ULethbridge iGEM team members practice their poster presentation skills at the AGM of Alberta Research and Training Institute



  • Lethbridge High-School iGEM 2017

Project: Making environmentally-friendly pigments for the printing industry

In the lab, we are making progress with our initial cloning experiments, and hope to have our DNA parts ligated into the standard iGEM vector soon. The next step will be to put our parts into bacteria and start producing the color pigments. At the same time, we have been employing our recently acquired coding skills and are currently working on designing the layout for our wiki.

Lethbridge HS iGEM team member doing wetlab work

Lethbridge HS iGEM team member doing wetlab work


Team faculty advisor Brian Dempsey (centre) with two team members during wetlab session

In an effort to inform the community about our project, we have put in a request to speak at a Lethbridge City Council meeting, and to have a public display set up in our City Hall at the end of August.

We have also contributed to the first issue of the Canadian iGEM Newsletter initiated by the iGEM team from University of Calgary, and we are currently working on our submission for the second issue of this newletter.


  • UAlberta iGEM 2017 

Project: Developing a buoyancy-based screening system for protein-protein interactions in E. coli

After many attempts, the team has successfully built two of the main constructs to be used in their wetlab investigations. The first construct is a modified version of an adenylate cyclase bacterial two-hybrid system, where two originally separated, commercial vectors were combined. Currently, the team is trying to characterize this construct with a fluorescent protein reporter. The second construct is a gas vesicle generator which is intended to confer buoyancy to bacteria. At the moment, the team is developing a method for the detection of buoyancy in liquid bacterial culture.

UAlberta iGEM team members doing wetlab experiments

UAlberta iGEM team members doing wetlab experiments

Aside from their own project-oriented wetlab experiments, the team has initiated the iGEM’s InterLab Study protocols. There was much difficulty in transforming the bacteria with the InterLab devices provided by iGEM, to the extent that the team ran out of stock for two of those devices. Only after a request for new samples and another transformation attempt, in collaboration with team UrbanTundra, were the protocols successful. Having successfully amplified and purified all the devices, which now show improved transformation efficiency, the team is keen to collaborate and share the DNA for the InterLab Study, as well as their expertise, to help other iGEM teams that have similar difficulties.

Bacterial Painting

Bioart piece from the August 12 event put on by UAlberta iGEM team at Telus World of Science in Edmonton

As part of their community outreach efforts, on August 12th the team put on an event called “Paint. Grow. Glow!” held at the Telus World of Science. The goal of this event, where visitors could paint with fluorescent bacteria, was to highlight to the public that microorganisms are not inherently harmful and can actually do many cool things, such as fluoresce. Team members had a really great time interacting with the public and sharing their love for synthetic biology. The event produced some great pieces of bioart and inspired the team to organize another follow-up event at the Telus World of Science in October! Check out this video about the event created by team member Abhi:

Team UAlberta members shared their love of synthetic biology with the public at Telus World of Science on August 12

Team UAlberta members shared their love of synthetic biology with the public at Telus World of Science on August 12


  • UrbanTundra High-School iGEM 2017 

Project: Increasing the potential for Mars colonization through the remediation of Martian soil and generation of useful by-products

This past month has been filled with progress on all fronts, be it within the team’s research, engineering, or public engagement endeavours.

In the lab, the research team has marched closer towards their goals, and intends to keep building on this momentum as the Giant Jamboree comes closer. Although they have run into a few hiccups with the gene sequence and their transformations, the team continues to push forward with their research. Currently, they are redesigning one of their gene sequences in order to better control the rate of production of a particular enzyme needed in their project. The team has also commenced the InterLab Study, a bronze medal requirement for this year’s iGEM teams. On this task, they are working closely with the UAlberta iGEM students, who have graciously shared access to their equipment. In fact, with mentorship from the UAlberta team, the UrbanTundra students are determined to not only complete their portion of the InterLab Study by the end of the month, but also make progress on their own construct.

Urban Tundra team member doing wetlab experimental work

Urban Tundra team member doing wetlab experimental work

To test their bio-remediation process, the team has been researching and designing a model bioreactor using CAD software. Building on this research and after the design is finalized, they will move on to creating a prototype bioreactor in real life. The team is also investigating whether waste products from the bioreactor, including dead bacteria, could be used as growth medium within an agricultural setting. To this end, they have constructed a hydroponics set-up within a greenhouse space generously provided by Harry Ainlay High School – as shown in this video. In the following weeks, the team will seek feedback on the bioreactor and hydroponics set-up from industry stakeholders, which they will use to refine and improve their system.

Urban Tundra team members will use their newly set up hydroponics to improve the sustainability of their bio-remediation system

Urban Tundra team’s newly set up hydroponics will help them improve the sustainability of their bio-remediation system

On the fundraising and community engagement front, the team has been working hard to collect items for their silent auction on August 25th at the Castle Downs Family YMCA in Edmonton. At this event, they will be presenting several workshops throughout the evening to educate parents, teens, and children about synthetic biology. Team members have also been collecting bottles from businesses, and distributing flyers for an upcoming team’s bottle drive. And, last but not least, the team has completed most components that will be featured on their Crowd.Science fundraising page and plan to launch this fundraising campaign at the beginning of September.

Spotlight on geekStarters: Lisa Oberding

Spotlight on geekStarters: Lisa Oberding

Lisa Oberding – Mentor of synthetic biology team from Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Academy in Canmore since 2014. In this photo, Lisa (right) teaches the students laboratory techniques at the Lab skills workshop held at University of Lethbridge in March 2017


10 Quick Questions for Lisa

  1. How would you describe yourself in one sentence?

I’d say I’m very curious, tenacious (or stubborn, depending who you ask), and I love a challenge – I love learning new things, as well as using that knowledge to either master a new skill or build things from it in new and better ways.

  1. What do you love the most about your work/school?

I love the challenge of what I do – really getting to apply what I have learned to solve problems and build something useful, and the potential to really make a difference in the process.

  1. What is your best accomplishment so far?

Probably being a part of founding FREDsense and helping it to get to where it is now while getting my M.Sc. at the same time.

  1. What is something you are working towards right now?

Outside of work, I’m currently working on learning how to code as well as learning to be completely fluent in Spanish before working on learning another language next year.

  1. How do you like to spend your downtime?

My downtime (when I get it) usually goes one of two ways; either I’ll spend hours curled up reading a good book, or I’ll go on some kind of adventure – I love to travel and scuba dive, as well as bike, hike, rock-climb, and snowboard.

  1. What is something you can’t imagine your life without?

Challenge – I can’t imagine what it would be like to not have the access or opportunity to really challenge myself and learn, see, and do new things.

  1. What is one thing that people will be surprised to hear about you?

Probably anyone who has heard me talk about diving and how much I love the ocean might be surprised to learn I am terrified of being trapped underwater and drowning – have been since I was a kid. Took me a long time to pass certain parts of my certification for diving because of it.

  1. What is something you are afraid of?

Not being able to make some kind of difference with what I do. That, and wasps. I really, really hate wasps.

  1. What would you like your work to be ten years from now?

That’s tough – 10 years is pretty far from now. I’d love to see FREDsense have become something that is really making a difference with how people know whether water is safe (for them and the environment), and I’d like to be tackling some new and exciting challenges in environmental biology and biotech…perhaps on a beach somewhere 😊

  1. What is one thing you appreciate about geekStarter?

I’d say it’s two things. Firstly, the opportunity it gives students to really delve into new and exciting fields that they would likely not get any exposure to otherwise, and supports them to really work hands-on and challenge themselves, not just learn from a lecture or a book – I know without geekStarter I would not have gotten involved with any of the amazing experiences that have gotten me to where I am today. And secondly, personally as a mentor, I really love the chance to get to mentor and teach students something new, and watch their excitement as they learn and explore new challenges.