iGEM team to tackle food poisoning

This summer, the University of Glasgow’s iGEM team are designing a genetically engineered biosensor to detect one of the most common causes of food poisoning in the UK.

iGEM is a competition that encourages students from different disciplines to work together to solve real-world challenges by building genetically engineered biological systems with standard, interchangeable parts.

Hundreds of universities worldwide design, build, and test their projects over the summer and gather to present their work and compete at the annual Giant Jamboree conference, which takes place from 9–13 November in Boston, US.


This year’s team comprises seven undergraduate students from biology, two biomedical engineers and one from social sciences, each bringing their own knowledge and expertise to the project. They’re led by Dr Julien Reboud, Lecturer in Biomedical Engineering, and Dr Sean Colloms, Lecturer in Synthetic Biology.

Their idea is to develop a genetically engineered biosensor to detect the presence of the bacteria Campylobacter, which is one of the most prevalent causes of food poisoning in the UK. The team will use technologies such as microfluidics and ultrafiltration to produce a sensor that will use modified E. coli bacteria to give a visual indication of the presence of Campylobacter.

Campylobacter causes more cases of food poisoning in the UK than E. coli, Listeria, and Salmonella put together. It can be spread easily, often from raw or undercooked chicken, or from contamination due to washing raw chicken, and just a few bacteria can cause illness.

Ethical implications

The team’s geneticists will investigate a biological mechanism in Campylobacter to increase the specificity of the sensor, while the engineers will develop the hardware. The project will also consider legal and ethical implications of producing a biosensor.

Ambra Giuliano, Business Management & Politics student, said: “I come from a social science background, and I felt that I could contribute to the human practices of the project. I am currently exploring the legal, political, and social issues related to our project, as well as ethical issues concerning the impact that food safety has on human health.

“This approach is crucial for building a safe and sustainable project that serves the public interest and will impact on the design of both the biology and the engineering. In particular, raising awareness among the public on the importance of adopting preventative measures to avoid food poisoning, will be extremely important to us.”

Katy Baker, iGEM advisor, said: “At the moment the project is in very early stages, but the team are working hard to create a functional biosensor for detection of Campylobacter. It’s a very exciting project and I’m really interested to see the path they take to complete the project.”

Dr Julien Reboud added: “Over the past few years, iGEM has been an enthusiastic and extremely rewarding endeavour. As supervisors, we see the students growing from perplexity at the enormity of their tasks to well-earned pride as they finish their presentation at the giant jamboree. This is an expensive undertaking and we are extremely grateful to all the goodwill, especially outside the University, that makes Glasgow’s participation in iGEM possible again this year.”

First published: 28 June 2017