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UEA students compete for top biology prize

Tue, 14 Aug 2012

Seven students from the University of East Anglia and Norwich Research Park will participate in a prestigious international biology competition in Amsterdam later this year.

The NRP UEA team will compete in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition along with 192 other teams from across the world. The 55 European teams will compete in the regional jamboree in Amsterdam on October 5-7, with selected teams going forward to the worldwide finals that take place in the USA in November.

iGEM is a project designed to advance a new branch of science known as 'synthetic biology', a rapidly growing scientific field in which living organisms and systems are engineered to create original materials, fuels and medicines. The competition was created to inspire a new generation of scientists to take up work in this area of study.

Biomedicine students Russell Gritton, Joy Edwards-Hicks and Lukas Harnisch have joined forces with molecular biology and genetics undergraduates Khadija Ouadi, Rachel Dobson and Rebecca Lo, and biologist Pacsoe Harvey to form the Norfolk group.

The team has been tasked with producing a new system that could enable the development of innovative bacteria to help solve problems throughout the world. They have chosen to focus on the role of the chemical nitric oxide (NO), and aim to produce a biological system that can sense NO levels within an environment.

Once completed, the biological system could have potential uses in many areas, including developments for future cancer therapies and for detection of NO levels in the environment, such as soil.

Team member Russell Gritton said: "iGEM has been an informative and exciting experience for all members of the team. We have been able to explore the new world of synthetic biology as well as gain invaluable skills in the lab itself and in communicating our work to the general public.

"Now we're looking to the European Finals and hope to be flying the UEA flag at the world finals in Massachusetts in November!"

Each iGEM team requires a number of academic advisers, and several members of UEA staff are providing support for the team. These include Richard Kelwick, a final year PhD student, and Dr Richard Bowater, senior lecturer, both from UEA's School of Biological Sciences.

Dr Bowater said: "For the students, the iGEM competition offers a great chance to experience all aspects of an exciting, real-life research project. They are involved in all stages of the study, from the initial development of the idea to its implementation over a short period of around three months.

"The research means that they will develop their laboratory skills, but the tight time-frame means that they also have to increase and practise their time and project management skills, which are important in any future career steps."

The UEA students are hosting a pre-competition meeting at the Google Campus in London on August 17, from 9.30am - 6pm, where the nine UK teams will all present their work.

Members of the public are welcome to attend on the day, and all the presentations will be broadcast live over the internet by Google. For more information about the event and the live stream, visit

The team will also present their research to the public at the Forum in Norwich on August 19, where anyone can go along between 10am and 3pm to learn about synthetic biology and participate in a fun activity day for all the family.

The European final of iGEM takes place on October 5-7 at six universities across Amsterdam. The winners from that final will progress to the world championships in Boston, Massachusetts on November 2-5.