Students wow at Science Gallery with synthetic biology projects

4 Apr 2013

The Novia team at the Science Gallery yesterday

Seven student teams from Trinity College Dublin and NCAD have been spending 12 weeks pooling their resources to come up with projects centred on the field of synthetic biology. Yesterday, the teams presented their futuristic ideas at Science Gallery, including concepts for bio-engineered homes, toothpaste containing ‘good’ bacteria to prevent dental decay, and biological synthesised bandages that can heal.

Each year, the Idea Translation Lab runs at the Science Gallery as part of TCD’s undergraduate curriculum offering. The idea of the 12-week programme is to group science, humanities and art undergraduate students together to come up with projects. Another goal is to get students to reflect on the broader perspectives around the cultural, ethical and economic role of science in society.

This year, students were tasked with coming up with ideas around the area of synthetic biology to tie in with the exhibition Grow Your Own, which will be running at the Science Gallery later this year.

The TCD students also partnered with seven industrial and product design students from NCAD for the first time.

Last night, the student teams exhibited their ideas at the Science Gallery and a panel of judges that included the bio-hacker Cathal Garvey and the course’s director Teresa Dillon, scrutinised their efforts.

Two winning teams were picked on the evening. These were Novia, which has come up with a an idea for a consultancy to get more insights from the public about how they would feel about future synthetically engineered products, such as toothpaste containing good bacteria to fight the bacteria that causes tooth decay.

The other winning team is exploring the production of the chemical compound opiorphin as an alternative painkiller to morphine.

The two groups of students will now head to the Le Laboratoire in Paris for a week-long workshop in June supported by the EC FP7-funded Studiolab project. The teams will also have the possibility to present their projects at the Studiolab exhibition ‘Synthetically Yours’ at the media arts festival Ars Electronica, which is being held in Linz, Austria, in September.

Sheelan Yousefizadeh, who is in her a third year at TCD, studying genetics, is part of the Novia team. Speaking today, she said her motivation for taking part in the Idea Translation Lab was to learn about other niches she can delve into upon graduation with her scientific background.

So what is Novia all about then? As well as Yousefizadeh, the team comprised a chemistry student, human health and disease students as well as an industrial design student from NCAD.

“Our idea is a consulting firm that uses conceptual products to ask people questions. Our initial idea was meant to be about products that are made of living bacteria. The idea was to look at how synthetic biology in the future can replace the chemicals that we have in products, such as toothpaste and shampoo, with living bacteria to produce the same result,” explained Yousefizadeh.

She said the science behind these products is really real even though they don’t exist yet.

“The whole idea of synthetic biology is if you have the right building blocks you can build whatever you want.”

Sheelan Yousefizadeh, a third-year genetics student at TCD, pictured pitching the Novia concept at Science Gallery

Sheelan Yousefizadeh, a third-year genetics student at TCD, pitches the Novia concept at the Science Gallery

Yousefizadeh said the team set about coming up with an idea for a toothpaste product that would be made with bacteria to replace the bad bacteria in the mouth.

“As we went along with the project we realised that what is really missing in the market at the moment is real, accurate data about what people actually think about synthetic biology,” she explained.

The team felt that there was a niche for assessing the public perception about synthetic biology in Ireland. Yousefizadeh cites the instance of asking people if they would be OK with their toothpaste being synthetically modified from tomorrow.

The team pivoted to create a consulting firm that uses props for products that have real science behind them but are not yet made.

“We think that the information we gather will be very insightful for the general public, for scientists and for companies that are already working towards developing these products,” she said.

While working on its toothpaste concept product, Yousefizadeh said the team came across synthetic biology companies, such as Oragenics, which creates oral probiotics products.

She said the aim will be for Novia to start doing research to give companies feedback before their products actually go into the marketplace.

Concept products

The three concept products that Novia will be demoing at the upcoming exhibitions at Ars Electronica and in the Science Gallery will include a toothpaste product and a suncream containing bacteria that gets activated once it absorbs sunlight to produce an enzyme that’s reflective to prevent the skin against sunburn.

“Our final product is called Novia Choice. It’s a contraceptive pill and this is our most wacky product idea. Depending on the colour of the pill that you take you can get different side effects, such as increased contraception or really bad nausea,” explained Yousefizadeh.

The team has also created prototypes of what the products will look like so that people can easily grasp the concepts.

“We want to work our business model to see if it can potentially succeed,” she added.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic