University of Dundee

Brian Cox visits MMB to meet his cartoon alter-ego

04 Oct 2013

Dundee University Rector Brian Cox met his own bacterial alter-ego when he visited a student team at the College of Life Sciences, preparing for a major international competition.

Brian has backed the Dundee team set to take part in the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition in Lyon later this month and paid them an impromptu visit in June. He returned to visit the team on Friday October 4th to see how their project has been progressing and wish them well.

While at the Division of Molecular Microbiology at the College of Life Sciences, Brian was presented with a comic that features himself in algal form, drawn by Avril Smart, a member of last year’s successful iGEM team.

This is the third year Dundee has been represented in the highly competitive, worldwide, International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition aimed at undergraduate university students. Dundee won successive gold medals at the 2011 and 2012 European iGEM Jamboree. The 2011 and 2012 teams also went on to jointly win the College of Life Sciences annual Brian Cox Award for Public Engagement earlier this year.

The competition requires students to use a kit of biological parts (issued by iGEM at the beginning of the summer) and to use these parts (and new parts of their own design) to build biological systems and operate them in living cells at laboratories in their own Universities.

The Dundee team has devised a project called `Toxi-Mop’ which uses synthetic biology to engineer harmless laboratory strains of bacteria to ‘clean up’ water that has become contaminated with toxic algal blooms.

The local value of this became apparent in the summer when the warm weather led to algal blooms in Clatto Reservoir and in the boating pond at Camperdown Country Park.

The team has also built a device (‘the Mop-topus’) that can be housed permanently at a lake or pond, which will continuously monitor the temperature, pH and light levels that can be used to predict the likelihood of future algal blooms.

“When Brian visited the team in June he was really interested in what they were doing so we are delighted to welcome him back and show him what the students have done before they set off for the actual competition,” said Professor Tracy Palmer, who has worked with the students.

“It is fantastic for the students to get the support of the Rector.”

The 2013 Dundee inter-collegiate team comprises 10 undergraduate students: Kyle Harrison (applied computing), Nasir Ahmad (physics), Craig Johnston  (mathematics), Rachel Findlay (mathematical biology), as well as Christopher Earl, Philip Rodger, Ewa Grabowiecka, Kyle Buchan, John Allan and Alice Rowan from Life Sciences.

The iGEM Foundation, which runs the competition, seeks to promote the advancement of science and education by developing an open community of students and practitioners in schools, laboratories, research institutes, and industry – in particular by involving students and the public in the development of the new field of synthetic biology.