The international genetic engineered machine competition (iGEM) was my first taste of proper experimental science, and I still have a fondness for synthetic biology. I was part of the Cambridge Team for 2010. This was an exciting team project where we got to define our own genetic engineering project and work on it over a summer.

We focused on bioluminescence, building modular genetic components (BioBricks) from firefly luciferase, in a number of colours, and also from the bacterium Vibrio fischeri. The exciting thing about the bacterial luciferase is that this permits ‘autoluminescence’, i.e. the bacteria produce light without adding any other chemicals. We exploited this to light ourselves in the photo below.

In the project we achieved a Gold Medal, were finalists in the competition and won the prize for Best Wiki, which I designed. As part of the project I built BioBrick2GenBank, a small tool which converts BioBricks to GenBank format for editing in standard cloning software. This has been used >350,000 times to date.

Our BioBricks have been used by a number of future teams, including by a team from Peking, who used this part in one bacterium, combined with a light sensitive-system in bacteria in a separate tube, to allow cell-cell communication!

Gibson assembly

We were also early users of the revolutionary Gibson Assembly protocol, and I penned the lyrics to the embarassing music-video we made to promote it, earning us the (dubious?) distinction of a Craig Venter tweet.


On the back of this project I was quoted in New Scientist, and later by the BBC.

Book chapter

Ben Reeve and I later wrote a chapter about the application of bioluminescence in synthetic biology.

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