iGEM 2017 UCL: Light Induced Technologies (LIT)

Using light in the future will mean more than illuminating rooms and flash photography. This year, a team of 9 undergraduates from UCL, with academic backgrounds ranging from Biochemical Engineering to Psychology, are shaping this vision. The members, coming from anywhere between Mexico and Luxembourg, will use the world’s largest synthetic biology competition at MIT, iGEM (international Genetically Engineered Machines), as a platform to develop light induced technologies.

The goal is to make synthetic biology more accessible to the general public by providing standardised and easy-to-use light control systems

LIT (Light Induced Technologies) - and no, it’s not Elon Musk’s new company - came out of a two-day project hackathon back in June. Ideas ranged from bio-robots to improve survival chances and collect data on Mars, to using optogenetics to control gene circuits. “The goal is to make synthetic biology more accessible to the general public by providing standardised and easy-to-use light control systems” – the team`s stated vision. The potential applications range from medicine to fabrication. The cells are engineered to respond to light in a tightly controlled manner. This switch can then be coupled to a wide variety of biological processes.

In essence, organs are made out of complex networks of different mammalian cells. To gain control over that complexity, LIT will use light to induce cell adhesion and trigger genetic networks in specific parts of the cell population. This work will be done in pluripotent stem cells. Their work is the first steps towards building organs from digital blueprints and tissue regeneration.

Stereolithography is an important technique in engineering and prototyping. The team aims to produce an organic version of this 3D printing method by allowing bacteria to form 3D structures through cell adhesion. Once this is implemented, specific wavelengths will be tested to produce biopolymers that are UV-resistant and environmentally friendly. Light induced technologies are also trying to optimise a bioluminescence system to create an efficient bacterial lightbulb.

This interdisciplinary project is based on research and mathematical modelling. However, other components such as entrepreneurship and public engagement will also contribute to its success. Research and engineering doesn’t happen in a bubble, so one must acknowledge and involve a wide variety of actors. The team has been working with different non-academic stakeholders in the project. For example, talking to architects has shaped the vision of what can be done with biopolymers in the field and inspired design. The planned activities over the summer aim to get people excited about synthetic biology, communicate science effectively and assimilate the ethical and societal implications of the projects.

There is an easy answer to the ‘so… what happens next?’ question. The website and social media pages (see below) are platforms for both communication and feedback on the project. Until November, you can get in touch, offer suggestions and collaborate.

Facebook: UCL iGEM

Instagram: ucl_igem17

Twitter: @ucligem