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Synthetic biology and the senses at the Cambridge Science Festival

last modified Apr 11, 2017 03:03 PM
The Downing Site Plant and Life Sciences Marquee welcomed over 1200 Science Festival attendees on Saturday 18 March to experience 'getting personal' with the biological sciences. Members of OpenPlant and the Synthetic Biology Strategic Research Initiative were out in force to help visitors of all ages explore synthetic biology with their senses and explore the every day applications this emerging technology might be put to in the coming years: from sustainable scents to tastier tomatoes.

SynBio Senses 

See bioluminescent bacteria


Some marine bacteria are able to generate light through a series of proteins known as luciferases. The luciferase or lux genes are located together in a section of the genome known as a lux operon. Bernardo Pollak and Anton Kan (Department of Plant Sciences) sequenced the lux operons of 19 bacteria to understand more about the structure of the genes and look for brighter bioluminescence for use in synthetic biology, such as creating light in response to a signal or demonstrating where and when a piece of regulatory DNA makes genes active.

Some of the brightest bacteria Photobacterium kishitanii were on display in our DIY dark box. P. kishitanii are found free living in the ocean and in the light organs of several deep-dwelling marine fish. In addition to developing new knowledge and research tools, Bernardo and Anton used the bacteria to create a bioluminescent dress in collaboration with fashion designer Victoria Geaney of the Royal College of Art that was recently featured in WIRED magazine, in a fitting example of the intersection of aesthetics, design and biology.



Touch garments dyed with bacterial pigments


Orr Yarkoni (Department of Pathology) displayed a variety of garments from cuff-links to scarves to underpants died with violaecin produced by the bacteria. Orr and partners have recently established a spin-off company Colorifix, which won a place in the prestigious Bio-start business accelerator. Visitors were able to feel the garments and hear Orr explain the potential for biological dyes to reduce industrial waste compared to chemical dyeing processes, which have long been known to be polluting.


Smell rose and patchouli produced by bacteria and algae and hear about the role of bioproduction in sustainable manufacturing

SmellChemical manufacturing of perfumes and scents from petrochemicals is another polluting industry that could potentially be made more environmentally sustainable through bioproduction. Dr Patrik Jones and members of his lab from Imperial College kindly attended with their samples of geraniol (rose) producing bacteria and patchouli scented algae which have been genetically engineered with genes found in plants that make up their scent-producing pathway.


(Imagine the) taste of spicy tomatoes

TasteGreg Reeves and colleagues  in the Department of Plant Sciences are recreating the pathway of genes that make capsaicin, the spicy compound in chillis. While the research is early stage and regulation would prevent us tasting the final product anyway, Greg was on-hand with his poster to explain the interesting science behind the project, why he was interested to resurrect a pathway that has been partially lost in tomatoes, which still retain some genes in the pathway, and discuss the future of synthetic biology in food and flavouring.


Use all your senses to build a flower and meet Dave the DNA Robot

Younger visitors were building custom flowers with different colours, scents and flavours in an exhibit designed by Colette Matthewman and Jenni Rant from the John Innes Centre and SAW Trust, Norwich. Dave the DNA Robot made his first public outing since a radical redesign and was a big hit with visitors old and young alike, offering a very novel interpretation of the transformation of DNA to RNA and protein.


We hope to continue developing the synthetic biology and the senses theme for future outreach and engagement events. If you would like to contribute your research project or an idea, get in touch on

Thank you very much to all the volunteers at the Science Festival 2017: Colette Matthewman, Andrew Balmer, Jenni Rant, Patrik Jones, Marine Valton, Jenny Molloy, Greg Reeves, Orr Yarkoni, Nadia Radzman, Ioannis Tamvakis.

See all photos from the event on the SRI Flickr >>

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The Synthetic Biology Strategic Research Initiative provides a hub for anyone interested in Synthetic Biology at the University of Cambridge, as well as commercial partners and external collaborators.