Episode 4 – Science in cells : Nobel Prize and Manchester iGEM winners

Welcome to this week’s episode of the life sciences podcast all about award winning science in cells! We travel from ground-breaking discoveries that have shaped our current understanding of how cargo molecules are moved in, around and out of cells, to synthetic biology where biological systems can be designed and operated in living cells – creating genetically engineered ‘synbio machines’. 


Dr Lisa Swanton

Firstly we speak to Dr Lisa Swanton, a lecturer here at the university, about this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, awarded jointly to James Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas Südhof. We find out how their individual approaches to the same topic led to the discovery of the molecular machinery that governs the transportation of molecules in around and out of cells. Not only did they discover the factors important for vesicle trafficking and secretion of cargo, but they also discovered how this occurs in a time-sensitive manner.


The Manchester iGEM team 2013

Our next guests were three of the members of the award-winning Manchester iGEM team (pictured below), who are undergraduate scientists here at the university and are paving the way for the future of science in cells. The iGEM competition allows undergraduates or A-level students to compete to create their own genetically engineered machines and display their advanced understanding of synthetic biology and its uses in the wider world, pretty awesome right?

The transportation molecular machinery inside cells – a university comparison


Cells produce various different molecules, such as hormones or neurotransmitters, which must reach a specific destination. This is much like how a university – taking the role as ‘the cell’ – is responsible for producing able students – ‘the cargo molecules’ – to be transported through three years at university and into further education or released into employment. However, how and when they progress through university and where they go once leaving is crucial for both the success of the student and of the university.

This problem is the same for the cell, hence requiring a ‘well-oiled’ system that transports the molecules to the right place, at the right time.

Both James Rothman and Randy Schekman used different approaches (genetic and biochemical) and different models (yeast and mammalian) to uncover a protein complex that enables vesicles to attach and fuse to their target membranes. These proteins – that could be described in our university analogy as the careers service – when absent cause chaos within the cells. As we also know at university, many things can inhibit a student’s progression, one of which is alcohol. Lisa provides an interesting example of something that has the same effect as alcohol for students on this trafficking system in the cell – Botox.

Thomas Südhof, in contrast, was interested in the timing of secretion, specifically with regards to neurotransmitters in the brain. He was the first to discover that an influx of calcium could trigger the binding of vesicles to the outer membrane. I’m afraid I have no comparison for calcium to university life – maybe the realisation that the perks of a student discount doesn’t override the weighty student loans ?

Ec(oil)i: The Lean Green (Award-Winn-een) SynBio Machine!

Our iGEM team designed their own synthetic alternative to palm oil production, re-engineering the fatty acid biosynthesis pathway in E. coli to produce all four main components of palm oil – palmitic acid, stearic acid (cosmetics), oleic acid (cooking oil), and linoleic acid. By producing the four fatty acids in palm oil using a synthetic approach, this project has the potential to diminish the number of palm oil plantations needed to meet the growing demand. Consequently, this would reduce deforestation and therefore have a global positive impact on the environment and biodiversity.


Manchester iGEM team winning ‘Best Human Practices Advance’ in the Boston World Finals


The European heats award for ‘Best Human Practices Advance’ being cuddled by the Sumatran orang-utan mascot

The team had their first glimpse of success at European heats where they won ‘Best Human Practices Advance’. This then meant they progressed to the World Championship Jamboree and subsequently won ‘Best Human Practices Advance’ at the world championships.

We hear about how they not only considered the environmental impact of the project, but also the potentially negative economic and ethical impacts, and the ways in which they could mitigate these.They also discuss their public engagement activities, and reveal a few strange suggestions for how to use synthetic biology in the future! Check out their Wiki page if you want to find out more about the team, their project, their work on modelling or human practices, including their public engagement activities.

public engagement


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