Behind the scenes…

If you’ve ever wondered what scientists actually get up to, take a look at some of our recent photos!

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Buzzfeed 2.0

Got a few moments to share? As part of our human practices, we’re interested in how the public view synthetic biology. That might be telling us you are very pro- or anti-, that you don’t care, or maybe you just don’t really know what it is! Whatever your opinion, take a few moments to complete our quizzes (don’t pretend you don’t have the time, we know how long you spend on buzzfeed). Seriously though, just a moment of your time would be such a great help to our project. Just click the links below!

Tell us about you! – demographics survey

Health, safety, and all things fun

A quick update

As summer draws closer, and the celebrations begin, deep in the heart of the biology building of York University, a dedicated group of students can be found, each day glued to their laptops. Our project is now in full swing.


Heavy metals and toxic pollutants have long been, and continue to be recognised as a serious problem in our environment. It’s not surprising therefore, that research in this area is already abundant. We have some great jumping off points for our project and we’re getting pretty close to deciding the details of our project, ready for the summer lab work to begin!

One of the strengths of the iGEM is that it encourages cooperation and team work. Our projects are so much more important than just the competition and the way iGEM works means that working together for greater results is rewarded. We’ve been looking at some fantastic projects from previous years which we may work to build on. All will be revealed…


Bioline are very kindly sponsoring us. A big thank you to them.

Sponsorship is very difficult, particularly for small projects such as our. Any help to get us one more step forward is always wonderful as talk has begun on getting our finished project to the international jamboree at MIT in Boston. The trip is expensive, but well worth it to get to present to a whole host of teams and companies from around the world!


We are excited to be sending team members down to a meetup with teams in Oxford later this week. Watch this space to see how it goes…

iGEM Outreach in Schools



Earlier this month, the iGEM York Outreach team has organised workshops aiming to teach children with ages between 6 and 9 years old about bacteria and synthetic biology. The children, studying at the “Victor Valcovici” primary school in Galati, Romania, have learnt how genetically modified bacteria can help us solve some of the difficult problems that the world is facing nowadays, and have each designed their own “Superhero Bacteria”, using the activity packs prepared by the iGEM Team.


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The kids were very receptive and ingenious, their ideas – some more realistic than others – ranging from using fluorescent bacteria as a compass to creating scented bacteria that can be used in the production of bio-perfumes.


“My bacteria produces lots of heat, and we can use it instead of radiators.”


“My bacteria can produce nutrients for plants to feed on.”


The disease exterminator
“My bacteria finds bad bacteria in the human body and exterminates it.”


“My bacteria produces heat.”


“My bacteria eats pollution and cleans the water from lakes and rivers.”


“My bacteria’s superpower is that it smells really nice. We can use it instead of perfume.”


“My bacteria is fluorescent and acts like a compass.”


“My bacteria is very fast. It has fimbriae, which help it cling to bad bacteria and destroy it.”


“My bacteria can produce fuel for car engines.”


Rescue Bacteria
” My bacteria can save people by extinguishing fire.”


“My bacteria is fluorescent. It can stick to trees and rocks and show you where the North is.”


“My bacteria cures cancer by killing cancer cells.”


“My bacteria feeds on pollution and cleans the air.”

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The children especially enjoyed learning how to use a microscope.

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Our project…

Our task for iGEM is to address something in the world we see as a problem. We’ve chosen to look at the very serious problems caused by mining waste. We are studying the case in  Bahía de Portman in Spain. Read on to learn a little more about the problem…

What happened?

Portman Bay is an area in South-east Spain. It is about 10 x 5 km and contains one of the highest densities of galena concentrations

This satellite image shows the village of Portman, as well as clearly outlining the historical and current shorelines

This satellite image shows the village of Portman, as well as clearly outlining the historical and current shorelines

in Spain. Open pit mining for galena (Pb-Zn) and sphalerite (ZnS) began in the 1960s. Pyrate (FeS2) also taken as a product for industrial production of sulphuric acid. The mining carried out was open-pit. This meant that the minerals were blasted from the ground using explosives. The rock collected was then crushed, milled, and processed in a plant. The processing involved separating the useful minerals (concentrates) from the rest (tailings) through a process called froth flotation. The concentrates could then be sent to the smelter while the tailings were disposed of. The tailings can make up 95% of the original material. Usually the tailings will be disposed of in a specially designed impoundment plant. However, in Portman Bay, there was no room for an impoundment plant to be built. At the time, this problem was got around, simply by pumping the waste from the plant straight into the bay. Between the years 1957 and 1990 when it was finally shut down, 50 million tons of tailings were pumped into the bay.

The Problem:

The separation processes at the Portman Bay plant were not 100% efficient and though some pyrite was removed for industrial use, the content of pyrite in the tailings exceeded 10%. Small but significant quantities of the other minerals being mined also ended up in the tailings. The tailings themselves also contain high concentrations of metals known to be toxic including zinc, lead and arsenic. The combination of pyrate with the other sulphates causes serious problems as they react to produce environmentally hazardous products. The layers of rock underneath Portman bay are rich in carbonate and this reacts to consume some but not all of the sulphuric acid produced.

Studies in the area show the serious impacts this is having on the local wildlife. The main problems are caused by the leaching of metals from the soil. Fish in the area accumulate the highest lead, mercury and arsenic levels, and mussels, the highest lead, cadmium and mercury levels on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Biodiversity is suffering as many larval species cannot develop properly in the environment. Marine communities are becoming overwhelmed by the few species able to survive and the future ecological impacts are unknown.

What’s being done?

In 2011, it was agreed that 2,700,000 m3 of tailings would be dredged, moving the shoreline 250m inland. Simply the volume of tailings present means that the whole area cannot be cleared and once this is complete, 30% of treated tailings will remain in the area and covered with gravel and compost. If this were not bad enough, the 70% of tailings removed will be moved to a specially built impoundment plant in the San José pit in the surrounding hills. The capacity would be 3500 m3 which is, in fact, not that large and overflows would be likely.

This process, though seemingly the only option, is not a good one. Even under the most controlled conditions, dredging tends to lead to an uncontrollable mess. One study warned that the greatest danger to marine organisms would be from toxic metals trapped in the tailings being resuspended in the water. With dredging, this would be an inevitability.

What are we doing?

The York iGEM team is looking at an alternative to solving the problem. We are interested in the dangerous chemical reactions occurring due to the mix of materials making up the tailings. Our project involves the genetic engineering of a bacteria to produce one which may be able to process some of the chemical present and turn them in to less hazardous waste.

Portman Bay