Bristol Students Lead The World with Precision Farming Prototype

15th Nov 2010

A Biology/Mathematics undergraduate, Katherine Coyte, was one of an interdisciplinary team of students that came third in the finals of one of the most prestigious international events in Synthetic Biology, the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. The successful project idea was generated during an undergraduate Synthetic Biology workshop held by Professor Claire Grierson at the School of Biological Sciences in April 2010.

The iGEM competition is held every year at MIT in Boston (USA) and attracts teams from many world-leading universities and research institutions around the world.

This year, the Bristol team was selected as one of six teams out of 128 to compete for the most coveted award at the competition, the Best Project prize. The other finalists were Cambridge, Imperial College, Peking, Slovenia and TU Delft. After a fantastic performance at the iGEM Jamboree (5-7 November 2010), the team were the second runner up for the top prize, placing them third overall in the competition. They also received a Gold Medal and the award for the Best Food or Energy Project.

Bristol was participating for the third time at iGEM having achieved a Bronze Medal and the Best Model prize in 2008 and a Gold Medal and the Best Model prize in 2009. This year's achievement establishes Bristol firmly as a key player in this exciting emerging research area.

The BCCS-Bristol team's 2010 project named 'AgrEcoli' aimed to construct a device based on modified E.coli bacteria contained in biodegradable beads that can detect and signal the presence of nitrates. The beads could allow farmers to map the nutrient content of their fields and optimize their fertilizer use. This could potentially reduce the carbon and financial costs of fertilising agricultural land, as well as reducing pollution from excess fertiliser. The 'AgrEcoli' project produced a working prototype that detects and signals local nitrate concentrations on soil in ranges that matter to farmers. The team also explored realistic costs and potential savings for farmers who might use the product, as well as public attitudes to the device and how local people could be informed if the product was used.

The team of students who worked on the project over the summer was truly interdisciplinary and included students from Biology/Maths (Katharine Coyte), Biochemistry (Tom Layland), the Bristol Centre for Complexity Sciences (Thomas Todd and Neeraj Oak), and Engineering Mathematics (Kira Kowalska, Antoni Matyjaszkiewicz and Roz Sandwell). The work was supervised by Nigel Savery (Biochemistry) who led the team at the Jamboree in Boston, Claire Grierson (Biology), Mario di Bernardo, Krasimira Tsaneva-Atanasova, Caroline Colijn (Engineering Mathematics) together with Tom Gorochowski, Oliver Purcell and Petros Mina (graduate students at the Bristol Centre for Complexity Sciences).

Bristol participation to iGEM was made possible thanks to support from the School of Biological Sciences, the School of Biochemistry, the Bristol Centre for Complexity Sciences, Predictive Life Sciences, SIGNET, BBSRC, EPSRC, the Department of Engineering Mathematics, the MVB School of Engineering and Syngenta, one of the largest agricultural companies in the world.

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