From the White Board to the Wet Lab

In order to determine the focus of iGEM 2015, we participated in a week long sandpit where we brainstormed ideas. By the end of the week, we were left with three prospective projects: sound-sensitive ‘dancing’ bacteria, wound detecting plasters, and a heroin purity biosensor. Put to a vote, the heroin biosensor pulled the majority; however, serious reservations remained widespread amongst the group.

While iGEM projects that attempt to "save the world" are met with little ethical opposition, it seemed that an iGEM team that tried to tackle a subject as taboo as drug use would meet resistance every step of the way. Nevertheless, we took the idea forward, perhaps driven by the mantra 'Edinburgh iGEM 2015: keeping drug addicts alive long enough to recover'. It was then time to get out into the real world to see whether this ideal could stand on its own.

We left the sandpit with interesting thoughts regarding the design of, and biology behind, our putative biosensor. In the case of design, we first imagined a device similar to that of a Gameboy with a biosensor as its processor: users would input a sample of their heroin and the device would output a simple text-based estimate of how much a user could inject without expecting to overdose.

As far as the biology, we knew we roughly had two options: we could construct either a cell-based or cell-free biosensor. Having an idea of the potential benefits and disadvantages of both, we set off on a mission to research the most viable option.