iGEM competition and electronic lab notebook

iGEM 2016 – Is DNA Data Storage The Solution For Big Data Crisis?

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SciNote encourages scientific ingenuity, exploration and new ideas, which is why we were excited to support iGEM 2016, the premiere student team competition in Synthetic Biology. At iGEM we met the team focused on the issues we are also passionate about, the big data challenge and the potential of using DNA for data storage.

The University of Edinburgh Undergraduate iGEM team 2016, BabblED, designed and implemented a modular system for storing data in DNA. Among 9 members of the team, there are 8 students from 8 different countries, Scotland, Bulgaria, Italy, USA, Greece, Romania, Australia, and England. The team says that the University of Edinburgh has always supported its teams at iGEM in a number of ways, not least providing lab space, staff and support to actually do the lab work and attend iGEM in Boston, US.

“A big influence on us pursuing a modular approach was Professor Chris French, one of the supervisors for the postgraduate team at Edinburgh, he pointed in that direction” the team says.

This year they also received support from the BBSRC and Wellcome Trust, the National Library of Scotland, JPMorgan, the Edinburgh Genome Foundry, Next Generation Data and the sponsors through Experiment.com.

Inspiration and motivation to start the project

“The main inspiration behind our project is the data crisis. We generate so much information that at one point we will not be able to store it with current technology, so I think that was pretty much all the motivation our team needed. We are wildly involved with this idea. During a one week workshop at the University we were encouraged to explore ideas, Freddie initiated the idea of using the DNA as a storage device. From that point on, we explored the idea together, since the beginning, our whole team was really passionate about it. The main idea our project has been developed around was making the DNA data storage more affordable, more accessible to others, more robust. We wanted to come up with a new way of storing information.” Pepy from the BabblED Team

“Actually, I had never heard of DNA storage before. I came up with the idea while discussing with the team and thinking about all these kind of issues. As a computer scientist I am completely aware of the data storage crisis. The structure of the molecule itself, with its distinct four bases, from computational point of view, really intuitively looked like I could write something here.“ Freddie from the BabblED Team

“The original idea was quite expensive and more similar to previous methods. In the spirit of iGEM competition we wanted to make it more accessible. By saving data on DNA with its main advantages such as density, longevity and sustainability we do in a way that imitates nature, which is what synthetic biology is. The team was selected in February, but then we had teaching so we didn’t meet. We met again in May and started brainstorming with the aim of finding a way to make this project a reality and start the work in the lab. By the end of June we had finally come up with our method and started doing the experiments in the lab, we stayed until the end of August. All the other requirements from the competition we finished the last two weeks in October.“ Azzurra from the BabblED Team

Biggest issue the team had to face before the competition

“The biggest issue we faced was making our idea more affordable. From the financial point of view we had some problems to solve. Crowdfunding was the way we did it. We engaged with the community, tried to get as much support as possible. There were a lot of difficult moments in the lab, we had to refine our protocols.“ Freddie from the BabblED Team

Building the scientific career

“What is next for the team is all up in the air. Coming to iGEM and to the competition is such a big step, they worked so hard to get here, most of what they have been focused on are things like the Wiki freeze, the poster and making sure that all of the criteria have been met. The team is thinking about what they want to do next. The poster and the presentation have been very well received which has given them a lot of things to think about. I imagine they will be looking to continue their project. They are a dedicated team that don’t give up.” Holly from the BabblED Team

The message for the future scientists by the BabblED Team

iGEM is an absolutely fantastic opportunity to explore any idea you have. You’re not constrained by your supervisors’ ideas, you’re not constrained by anything at all. You can choose any project you want and see where it goes.“ the BabblED Team

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