This year, we tried three approaches to ensure our project will positively contribute to the worldwide community, and used the feedback to tailor our project to the wants and needs of the industry. In order to do this, we interviewed academics and utilised their responses to shape our project to the wants and needs of the industry, and designed a iGEM customer discovery toolkit - one that should leave a mark in the human practices feature of iGEM.
As our “ChIVes” were quite novel, we decided to interview academics and other experts in the synbio and nanocompartments field, as well as pharmaceutical industries. Our approach was to apply the principles of customer discovery such that we proceeded into interviews by giving as little information as we could about our project to the experts with the intention of discovering as much as possible from them. As such, we were able to identify their particular needs and issues as well as obtain essential feedback from people who had had first hand experience in those fields which would impact our vesicles and which our compartments would affect. Our hypotheses were tested and either validated or rejected throughout these precious interviews.
We had originally planned the use of our vesicles to be for drug synthesis, mostly in the pharmaceutical industry. However, as in all science, this was merely our cherished hypothesis that needed to be put through the wringer to prove there was no bias. Indeed, throughout the interviews, several academics mentioned a multitude of new ideas and potential applications for our nanocompartments. Needless to say, we had to go back to the drawing board; which in the case of science is literature reviews.
We were left dumbfounded when we were told we had not even considered how we would go about extracting and purifying our vesicles. Our very own Dr. Briardo Llorente then went through a list of possible issues which we would come across in that process. He mentioned how we should be considering the need to assemble pathways into the vesicles for metabolic engineering. There was also the issue of whether the attempt to use vesicles for protein purification could lead to overexpression and the formation of inclusion bodies. He informed us that certain E. coli strains contained additional chaperones and these could help in the production of more soluble proteins.
Dr. Tom Williams, also from MQU, informed us about his research on peroxisomes, which we realised were quite similar to our “ChIves”. Indeed, peroxisomes had evolved for the specific function of containing toxic metabolites and also induced proximity of components of metabolic pathways to increase reaction rates. He hinted that our vesicles could potentially serve as factories for the isolation of metabolic pathways and suggested the isolation of the fatty acid oxidation, as well as that of carboxysomes.
We learned during the interview with Dr. Brendan Orner that our vesicles could potentially be leaky. He mentioned that this would largely depend on the nature of our vesicles, which were lipids. Therefore, hydrophobic and lipophilic molecules would easily be able to cross their membranes. This would negate the whole point of our intended metabolic engineering (which is basically the isolation of substances). Nonetheless, this opened up a potential new application to our compartments i.e to be used in drug delivery as medication could be slowly released from our vesicles, hence eliminating the need for constant intake of drugs at certain times of the day by patients.
Prof. Nico Bruns and Dr. Alf Garcia-Bennett remarked that although protein nanocages were all regular in shape and of the same size, our vesicles could be all disproportional and have varying sizes. This changed our perspective and we reckoned it would be better, in a commercial setting, to perform size exclusion chromatography on the purified vesicles first so as to segregate them based on their sizes and thence optimize their use.
We decided to create a customer discovery toolkit which future iGEM teams, struggling with the process of human practices, could utilise to approach this crucial aspect of the competition. Our toolkit would provide a detailed explanation, a means of training almost, for teams like ours. In order to accomplish this, we produced a survey that we sent to other iGEM teams around the globe. We were delighted to learn that out of 36 respondents, 83% of them conducted interviews for human practices and the majority included emails, phone calls and surveys. With only 64% of them appreciating their methods as being definitely efficient, we concluded a customer discovery toolkit would help the remaining 36% improve their approach and help the confident 64% strengthen theirs. Our conviction for the need for a customer discovery training guide increased when we learned that 63% of teams that responded had never heard of the process whilst only 9% had used it before. Indeed, our team struggled at first to wrap our heads around the human practices aspect, which seems to be void of the interesting science. However, human practices plays a crucial role, not only in iGEM, but in all research as it considers the potential impacts and improvements that can be brought about in the everyday society. Our decision to make a toolkit was based on the evidence we collected through surveying other iGEM teams.