Students engineering the next breakthrough in antibiotics

December 14 / 150

Peter Collins and Sean Lowe at iGEM in Boston.
Peter Collins and Sean Lowe at iGEM in Boston.

A team of 20 science and engineering students joined forces this year to compete in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.

iGEM, an initiative started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), is a global competition designed to foster research and education in synthetic biology and gene technology.

For their entry, the Melbourne iGEM team developed a design concept for producing star peptides using the bacteria E. coli. 

Star peptides are molecules made up of several linear peptides linked together at a central core. Star peptides have many applications in biomedicine, and the Melbourne team’s concept involved a star peptide with antimicrobial arms which could serve as a next-generation antibiotic.

The iGEM team also focused on science outreach. They presented a public display about synthetic biology at National Science Week and even published a children’s book.

The book, titled The Adventures of E. coli, introduces young children to the concepts of bacterial growth and genetic engineering.

In November, team leader Sean Lowe and team member Peter Collins presented their work at the iGEM global conference in Boston, known as the iGEM Giant Jamboree, where the team received a bronze medal. 

The students were mentored by academic leaders across multiple disciplines including Associate Professors Heung-Chin Cheng and Paul Gooley from the Bio21 Institute, Associate Professor Neil O’Brien-Simpson from the Melbourne Dental School and Dr Angus Johnston from the Nanomaterials for Biology Group at Monash University.

Mr Lowe, a Master of Engineering student, said working at the intersection of biotechnology and biomaterials had been really exciting.

“It was an excellent exercise in science and leadership, and we had a great time in the process,” he said.

Associate Professor Cheng said this was a fantastic collaborative effort of students and colleagues.

“The iGEM team has been a hard-working and committed group of talented students dedicated to pursuing their project since its inception almost 18 months ago,” he said. 

“It has been a very rewarding experience working with this team.”

The team was supported by the Bio21 Institute, the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the Defence Science Institute, and the Defence Science and Technology Organisation.

You can read more about the team at and see the book at

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