Students win gold at MIT competition for precision farming prototype
Press release issued: 12 November 2010
A prototype design that could allow farmers to map the nutrient content of their fields, helping to optimise their use of fertiliser, was shortlisted from over 100 entries at a prestigious international science competition hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
The design, produced by a student team from the University’s Bristol Centre for Complexity Sciences (BCCS), was named as one of three runners up in the 2010 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, held at MIT in Boston, US.
The synthetic biology competition involves teams designing and building new biological systems using standard biological parts that can be operated in living cells. At the four-day event, the teams present their designs and compete for the most coveted award, the Best Project prize.
The BCCS-Bristol team's 2010 design prototype project entitled '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 a reducing pollution from excess fertiliser.
The project idea was generated during a successful undergraduate Synthetic Biology workshop held at the School of Biological Sciences in April 2010. 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.
After an excellent performance at the iGEM Jamboree, the team were announced as second runner up for the Best Project prize, placing them third overall in the competition. They also received a gold medal and the award for the Best Food or Energy Project.
Professor Mario di Bernardo from the University’s Department of Engineering Maths, said: “Bristol was participating for the third time at iGEM having achieved a bronze medal and Best Model prize in 2008, and a gold medal and Best Model prize in 2009. This year's achievement establishes Bristol as a key player in the exciting emerging research area of synthetic biology.”
The interdisciplinary team of students who worked on the project over the summer included Kira Kowalska, Antoni Matyjaszkiewicz and Roz Sandwell from the Department of Engineering Mathematics, Katharine Coyte from the School of Biological Sciences, Thomas Todd and Neeraj Oak from the Bristol Centre for Complexity Sciences and Tom Layland from the School of Biochemistry.
The team’s project entitled 'AgrEcoli' was supervised by Dr Nigel Savery from the School of Biochemistry, who led the team at the Jamboree in Boston, Professor Claire Grierson in the School of Biological Sciences, Professor Mario di Bernardo, Dr Krasimira Tsaneva-Atanasova and Dr Caroline Colijn from the Department of Engineering Mathematics together with graduate students at the Bristol Centre for Complexity Sciences, Tom Gorochowski, Oliver Purcell and Petros Mina.
The BCCS Bristol team’s participation in iGEM was made possible thanks to support from the University’s Bristol Centre for Complexity Sciences, the Department of Engineering Mathematics, the MVB School of Engineering, the School of Biological Sciences, the School of Biochemistry, SIGNET, BBSRC, EPSRC, the Predictive Life Sciences Initiative and Syngenta, one of the largest agricultural companies in the world.