Norwich scientists pave way for truly green lighting

It lies at the cutting edge of science, a pioneering and occasionally controversial new field which could be set to revolutionise how we live in the 21st century.

And for one team of Norwich students, the possibilities of synthetic biology could take them all the way to global glory – and they may even just help develop glow-in-the-dark trees along the way.

Biology whizz Alistair Walsham is one of a team of eight students from the University of East Anglia (UEA) set to take part in an worldwide competition that leads the way in this new field.

Named the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, it involves 192 teams of students from around the world, all of whom hope to make it to the grand final at America's Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mr Walsham, 20, said: 'I'm both nervous and excited but I think if all goes to plan we could do well. What we're doing is unique, it's the first time it's been done and the first time a team from the UEA has taken part so I want to make a big impact.'

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Synthetic biology combines science and engineering to create new biological forms not found in nature. Among its many possibilities, many involved think it could lead to the development of new life-saving drugs.

As part of the competition, the students are sent genes known as biobricks to modify; in the case of the Norwich team these included the genes of a deep sea squid and firefly.

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And the team will also be treading new ground in this most forward-thinking of competitions by using moss and algae as the subject of their experiments with the genes.

Mr Walsham said 'We thought why not make the most of our great resources and do things as well as we can, so we're taking the firefly gene and combining it with the moss and algae to see if we can make it luminescent.'

They hope to do this by inserting the gene of the firefly, and the luminescent characteristics that it carries, into the algae and moss.

The algae and moss are more advanced than the bacteria that is normally used, opening up a wider range of possibilities, he explained.

'We're going to give it a chance to grow and if it works you will be able to see the moss in the dark.

'If this was successful and you were to take it quite far past what we had done you could have things like trees as street lights or, instead of underwater electric lights you could have a plant which would light up.'

Having gained �30,000 in grants and funding to help them with their studies, after finishing their second year studies the group have spent the last five weeks developing the project at the John Innes Institute.

Their efforts are building up to the first round of the European leg of the competition in late autumn in Amsterdam, and if they make it through that stage it will be on to America. Here, they could be competing against teams from far-flung places such as Korea, Africa and Australia.

Helping them along will be a researcher and PHD student Steven Garrett, 21, who last year collected a bronze medal with Sheffield University in America, an experience he called 'incredible'.

He said of the group's efforts: 'It's new for the competition and it's taking a huge step forward, and it's been really helped by the expertise at John Innes Centre and UEA.

'Synthetic biology has only been around for 10 years, but it's letting us do things we wouldn't have thought possible before, and the competition is a big part of that.'

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