Summer research projects involve cutting-edge science - such as engineering chloroplasts to produce vaccinesalbertstraub

While May Week feels like a lifetime ago, and the majority of students have long since escaped the labs and libraries of Cambridge, 10 intrepid students remain in the Department of Plant Sciences. We are a mixture of natscis and engineers, taking part in iGEM: an international synthetic biology competition. Teams from universities across the world participate, building genetically engineered systems that aim to make “a positive contribution to their communities and the world”. This culminates in a presentation of their results at the iGEM Jamboree in Boston in October.

This year, the aim of the Cambridge team was to create a toolkit for algal chloroplast engineering, which is a process that holds great potential for producing everything from biofuels to edible vaccines efficiently and in large quantities. This is currently both a complicated and a time-consuming process, so simplification is a key goal for the technology. Our toolkit contains genetic constructs and hardware that would enable the user to insert a gene of their choice into the algal chloroplast genome faster and more efficiently than is currently possible.

Summer researchers typically carry out ‘real’ research

Through ongoing research into producing sustainable fuels, algae have emerged as a potential candidate for producing high yields of biofuels using land which is not suitable for agriculture. This would remove the competition for land between fuel crops and food crops. It would require genetically engineering the algae by inserting the genes required to synthesise biofuels. Chloroplasts are the factories of the cell, and therefore their genomes are particularly desirable targets for gene insertion.

However, chloroplast engineering has its drawbacks. Chloroplasts contain many copies of the chloroplast genome – for example, the chloroplasts of the algae that we are working on contain 80 copies. This means that achieving homoplasmy (making all copies of the chloroplast genome the same, with the gene of interest inserted) can take months and require several rounds of selection. The additional complication and time required to transform algal chloroplasts makes this field less attractive for researchers, despite its vast potential.

Working with the alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, we are creating a molecular vector that uses CRISPR/cas9 to insert any gene (such as an edible vaccine, or the genes required for biofuel synthesis) into the chloroplast genome and help achieve homoplasmy. CRISPR/cas9 is a recent breakthrough in genome engineering that enables targeted insertion of genes into a specific site in DNA. It would enable our vector to insert our DNA construct into a specific site in all the copies of the chloroplast genome much more quickly than relying on the chloroplast’s endogenous mechanisms. In this way, we would hope to significantly reduce the timescale for achieving homoplasmy.

In making the process of chloroplast engineering a faster, simpler process we hope to make chloroplast engineering more accessible to future iGEM teams and researchers working in the field. As part of this aim to increase accessibility, our toolkit also includes low-cost hardware that could enable labs with very low budgets to grow and transform Chlamydomonas.

Projects can introduce students to new ways of practising science

On a Tuesday evening in a medieval tower in the heart of Amsterdam, you can find artists, designers and scientists gathered in a community lab to work together on projects that they hope will have a positive impact on society – striving to tackle problems as complex as antibiotic resistance. This is the Waag Society wetlab, just one of many community labs and bio ‘makespaces’ across the globe, occupied by motivated ‘citizen scientists’ carrying out ambitious research on low budgets and with limited access to equipment.

We became aware of this DIY science movement when we attended the ‘Biodesign Nightscience’ event in Paris in July, and it became the inspiration behind our idea to create low cost, well-documented hardware. The high cost of equipment required to grow and transform algae makes this technology inaccessible to labs like the Waag Society: our aim was to design a growth facility and ‘gene gun’ that would change this. The growth facility has light control, temperature regulation and imaging capabilities, and the gene gun provides a method of transforming the algae with our vector. It basically does what it says on the tin – fires metal particles coated with DNA into cells to genetically transform them, using bursts of high pressure gas. Our gene gun is on track to cost one per cent of the price of the same device currently found in our own department.

A meeting with the Cambridge-based Centre for Global Equality helped us to consider the humanitarian applications of our project. We have started contacting labs across the world that may benefit from the hardware we have developed, to gain feedback and adapt our designs to be as useful as possible. We have even had labs from India and Los Angeles expressing interest in our protocols!

As well as providing a career path, summer research projects can offer a wide range of experiences

As our Instagram feeds fill up with endless photos of our friends in exotic places, we could have regretted our decision to spend the summer cooped up in a lab carrying out a project of sometimes Week Five-esque intensity. We have had the opportunity to essentially run our own lab and plan a project entirely from scratch – a level of independence that is rare for a group of undergrads. I would definitely recommend iGEM to anyone wanting to carry out a lab placement over the summer. You have the opportunity to meet lots of different people, get a variety of experiences (from attending a conference in Paris to writing an article for Varsity) and carry out cutting-edge science in a very new field. We may not have escaped the stress of exam term, but the protocols and hardware we have developed have the potential to be used in real labs by real scientists – not bad for 10 weeks' work.