The summer was full of exciting new experiences and a lot of hard work. You can browse through our sweat and tears here.

There and Back Again
an iGEM team's tale by Aalto-Helsinki

In March, we had 9 students who were excited about a new field of science that was hardly known in Finland. No experience, some studies, but a lot of excitement.

In October, we had developed a genetically engineered machine from scratch, made a mathematical model and a simulation based on it, ran our own research lab for five months, designed web applications to make research easier, built a pitch explaining synthetic biology to the general public, figured out a new way to do business and built a massive wiki documenting all of this. How did that happen? Check it out here.

Our priorities during the summer were:

  1. Have Fun
  2. Learn New Things
  3. Work Hard
  4. Make Something New

We worked at least 8 hours a day from the middle of May until the end of August in Aalto University's science campus in Otaniemi. There was a huge learning hub/living room in the building adjacent to our lab, so we made it our HQ during the summer. Then we kept on working as much as possible in the autumn while continuing our studies. Some managed to pull off the same hours as before while still keeping up with their studies!

It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings


General Safety Matters

All of our team members who worked in the lab have had safety training as a part of their studies. The training covered the following topics:

  • Personal protective wear: safety goggles, lab coats and gloves
  • General safety: acting in case of an accident, where to find emergency showers and fire extinguishers, understanding safety labels
  • Chemical safety: working with different chemicals and how to dispose of them
  • GMO safety: putting all waste that has been in contact with bacteria (living or dead) to bacterial waste, aseptic working methods

In our iGEM work we have only worked with non-toxic E. coli (K12 derivatives) and all the protein coding sequences that we have used in our project are non-hazardous. We did not create new protein coding sequences but instead we used sequences that are already available as Biobricks.

Our Laboratory

We got to work in the Bioprocess Technology lab of Aalto University. We had our own lab bench and we got to use all the instruments and equipment in the department. We also did some measurements in the labs of the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.

Oskari, Martina and Minttu excited in the lab.

Lab Close-Ups

Our Office

We also needed a proper office space where we could work during the summer since not everyone was going to do lab work and our lab bench wasn’t that spacious either.

We managed to find the "Learning Hub Living Room" (Vuori Hub) in the building of Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Since it was summer, there weren't many people around to use the space and we made it our home. It was a comfortable place to work in!

Photo of Vuori Hub by Stewart Dowden

Photos of Vuori Hub.


Thorough Documentation

Being the first team in Finland, we wanted to make sure that we documented everything we did as rigorously as possible.

We have our lab notebook in PDF files. From these you will be able to find everything that was done in the lab on a specific date.

We borrowed a convention from the software development framework, Scrum. So, every day all the team members answered these three questions:

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What will you do today?
  3. What might stop you from doing what you want to do?

Each of us wrote the answers down on our online team chat tool (Flowdock). According to the answers, we then assembled a detailed description of every single working day during our official work months (from May 20th to the end of August). So if you really really want to read exactly what we did, here's 30 pages of text for you to check out:

The Actual Timeline

We gathered the highlights of our project to the timeline below so you can effortlessly skim through the story of Aalto-Helsinki Bioworks! Lab things are on the right side and everything else on the left.

Timeline reference links:

  • November 2014
  • Best Wiki prize!


    Amazing!! This wiki won the prize for the best undergraduate wiki! We're so happy to bring a prize to home as the first-ever Finnish team. Good job everybody and big thanks to the people who have been helping us getting there!

  • October 2014
  • Giant Jamboree in Boston


    Flights from Helsinki to Boston on 27th October. A full week in Boston. Presenting our project in front of thousands of people.

  • Bootcamp Weekend


    Perfecting everything and admiring our work. All is well and we can just relax before the Jamboree.

  • Presentation at HYBER Workshop


    A presentation for HYBER Workshop in Långvik; great practice for the Giant Jamboree!

  • Furiously Finishing the Wiki


    Even though we had started developing the wiki early, the freeze deadline somehow snuck up on us. So little time, so many things to do. And finishing the wiki wasn't even the only thing we had to do before going to Boston!

  • Lab Freeze


    Unfortunately, due to time running out we had to freeze the lab work and we couldn't quite finish our wet lab project. Still, after almost five months of continuous work in the lab, we can be proud of what we've achieved and learned during this project!

  • Our New Biobricks Were Sequenced


    We didn’t have time to sequence our new Biobricks before sending them to iGEM HQ but we wanted to sequence them anyway, just in case. The sequences were confirmed to be ok! We were really happy about this since we did have some doubts about making parts with PCR on our own.

  • Team Hoodies Arrived


    Getting ready for the Giant Jamboree!

  • Our Biobricks Started Their Journey to Boston


    Finally our own Biobricks were ready to be sent to iGEM HQ. We put them in a box and wished them a safe journey.

  • September 2014
  • Interview for the National Radio


    Out of nowhere we were invited to be interviewed for the national radio YLE! We talked about our project and showed the interviewer our lab.

  • Problems in the Lab (Again)


    We had a lot of problems with one specific ligation. Every time we tried, only one of the inserts seemed to ligate with the backbone and moreover the PCR and restriction digestion results on the gel looked bizarre.

    For the longest time we pondered what could be wrong with our protocols or parts but then with the help of a professor we figured out that the problem might be that we had repetitive sequences in both inserts. Apparently E. coli doesn't like having two similar sequences in the same plasmid and it splices the other one out.

  • Juggling Between Lab and School


    At this point everyone already had courses going but luckily the lab is right upstairs from the lecture halls so we could still continue working almost full time in the lab. We just needed to time everything perfectly so we could go listen to the lectures while we had incubations or PCRs running.

  • Presentation at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland


    We held a presentation about our project at VTT. It was the first time we presented ourselves to a real scientific audience and we got some really good feedback from the researchers.

  • Pitch Night


    Pitch Night was part of the Thinkfest arranged by the University of Helsinki in celebration of the university's 375th anniversary. Oskari gave an inspiring speech about following your dreams and introduced our project to the audience which mostly consisted of middle-aged people.

  • Aalto Party


    To kick off the academic year, Aalto University hosts a party every year during the first week of school. Despite the name, it's not really a party but more of an exhibition to show all the cool stuff the university has to offer. We were there to represent our team and to tell people about iGEM and our project.

  • August 2014
  • Another Round of Testing


    We had another round of testing with a part of our prototype and the LED rig. The results seemed really promising!

  • Bowling


    We planned to go to a room escape thing but when all the suitable times were booked, Minttu took us bowling instead.

  • The LED Rig Is Ready!


    It’s like our bacteria got their own personalized disco!

  • A Microscope That Can Almost Make You a Cup of Coffee


    We got to try a super cool programmable microscope. We wanted to see if our cells produced any GFP but unfortunately it turned out that all our cells were already dead so there was no GFP to be detected.

  • The Night of the Arts in Helsinki and More Pinball

    21.8.2014, 22.8.2014

    We went to visit the observatory during the Night of the Arts event in Helsinki. There were also massive soap bubbles and a man with a whole band setup in a baby carriage.

    The next day we went back to playing pinball and Crash Team Racing because it was so much fun last week.

  • Testing Started!


    We built the first part of the prototype and started testing!

  • Our Synthesized Genes Arrived!


    After a long while, our genes finally arrived. Now we could take them and other parts we had assembled and put the whole ingenious genetically engineered machine together.

  • Meeting at Heureka Science Center!


    We met the event manager and event organizer of Heureka and came up with an idea of a synthetic biology weekend workshop we could organize in the spring.

    They were very excited about us and everything we had to show and tell.

    We hope to inspire young people to study synthetic biology in the future and let the older people know it exists.

  • Pinball Night


    Lassi took us to play pinball. It was surprisingly fun. We played a ton of Crash Team Racing too.

  • Early Version of the LED Rig


    Pietu had been busy making the LED rig inspired by Tabor Lab. This is what the early version looked like. The LED rig would be the tool to control our light sensitive bacteria.

  • HYBER Took Interest in Us!


    We met with The Academy of Finland's Center of Excellence HYBER 2014-2019. They wanted to support us and invited us to talk in workshop that would be arranged just before the Giant Jamboree.

    In the evening Oskari took us to play laser tag! He was way better at it than anyone else.

  • MIT Media Lab People Came to Visit Us


    Marko Ahtisaari and Madeleine Abromowitz from MIT Media Lab came to visit our office and lab. We discussed about a possible pop-up media lab in Helsinki and threw some ideas in the air. We were also invited to go visit the actual MIT Media Lab in Boston when we go there for the Giant Jamboree.

  • The First Sequencing Results Arrived


    We got our first sequencing results that were in confusing .ab1-files. Then it turned out that Geneious program makes analysing them incredibly easy. Most of the sequences looked good, some not so much.

  • Friday Sushi Lunch


    Instead of staying in our HQ and eating in the cafeteria next to it, Laura took us to eat fancy sushi. It was delicious and fun.

  • July 2014
  • Building the Synthesizable Sequences


    We assembled the sequences we wanted to synthesize. They included the lambda repressor OR sites that we designed. We found out that the synthesizing costs the same for 0-1000 nucleotides, so we included a few surrounding BioBricks to save on lab time. (The OR sites are fairly small.)

  • The First Ligations Were Sent to Be Sequenced


    We had a number of ligations ready for assembling and it turned out there was a sequencing lab about 5 kilometers away.

    We sealed 16 samples into tubes and sent them off. We were left eagerly awaiting to see if the work this far had succeeded.

  • Meeting with Tania


    We met Tania, an ex-iGEMer from the 2012 Amsterdam team. It was a great meeting and we finally got some validation that we're doing some things right.

    In the evening Martina took us geocaching! It is amazing what can be hidden completely in plain sight.

  • New Primers


    The new primers designed by Lassi arrived and we tested them in amplifying the backbones with PCR. The primers bind to the RFP insert instead of the prefix and suffix which have a palindromic site and can cause troubles. In the end we didn't use PCR amplification of the backbones since we opted for multiplying the whole plasmids in bacteria and gel purifying them instead. However, we did submit the primers to the Registry and you can find them here BBa_K1443003 and BBa_K1443004.

  • Demo Day


    We presented our idea to hundreds of people and held a booth for 6 hours.

  • A Movie Night with the Team


    In the evening Mikko took us to watch the movies The Skin I Live In, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

  • The Gene Circuit Was Finished


    We finished the gene circuit and now we could start designing the parts that would be synthesized.

  • Working Hard in the Lab


    We were working hard in the lab during July and got many new ligations done. At this point the lab had started to feel like a home already.

  • Summer of Startups Tallinn Trip!


    Summer of Startups took us to visit the startup people of Tallinn. We decided this was a practice trip for Boston, so we planned to have as much fun as possible. It was a great success and an unforgettable experience.

  • Extensive Research on the Lambda Repressor


    We found out that the lambda repressor system would be perfect for our three-way switch idea. We figured out how it worked and how to include it in our gene circuit.

  • The "Fun Master" System Began


    We decided we should do something (not iGEM-related) fun every week as a group. Each team member had their own week to plan an activity and pull the team to the mandatory weekly having-fun moment.

    So, Otto surprised us with a fruit juicer and a ton of fresh fruit. We spent the early morning happily drinking smoothies while working intensely on our project.

  • A N00b in the Lab


    As Niklas had never been in a lab before and he was eager to see what we do there, we took him in for the day and showed him all the cool stuff. He even got to try some pipetting (with water only, although it didn't seem to lessen his enthusiasm)!

  • The First Team Member Chimera


    Because chimera is a term both in gene technology and mythology, Laura decided (and others immediately agreed) that drawing a chimera for each member would be a cool idea. Everyone could decide three animals and a chimera would be drawn based on those.

    To read more about the chimeras, head to "chimeras" section on the Outreach page.

  • Brian Is Born

    1.7.2014, 2.7.2014

    We got the idea of explaining synthetic biology as turning bacteria into superheroes from a meeting with Micki Honkavaara. We started working on a new pitch based on that.

    Pietu finished the pitch the next day and presented it at Summer of Startups. It seemed to go over very well. People finally understood what we were doing.

  • June 2014
  • BioBrick Seeker on the iGEM Help and Community Pages


    Our BioBrick Seeker had been mentioned on the official help page for a while. We only noticed it now.

    We also wrote a small advertisement text for the Community page and got the Seekers featured there.

  • The First BioBrick Ligation Combo Worked


    We even checked it with a gel.

  • We Had Visitors in the Lab


    The Summer of Startups people came to visit our lab and see what we’re actually doing.

  • Backbones


    We found out that the Registry provides BBa_J04450 parts in different backbones, which could be used as destination plasmids. The red fluorescent protein insert makes it easier to screen out the background.

  • Gradient PCR


    We kept getting weird results from PCR so we tried to solve the issue by doing a gradient PCR with different annealing temperatures. It seemed like 55 °C would be the answer to our problems.

  • First Colony PCR: No Successful Ligations


    We made our first colony PCR to test if the ligations seemed right. Unfortunately they didn’t. We decided to make linearized plasmid backbones to increase the efficiency.

  • BioBrick Seeker Spreading


    BioBrick Seeker received attention on Twitter. People really seemed to like the tool.

  • Writing Sponsorship Applications


    We were trying to advertise ourselves and get some kind of financial help and support for this project. It felt really difficult and time consuming. We also took some new pictures, a new group photo, for example.

  • Trouble in the Lab


    The backbones didn't seem to be working right and the negative control kept growing. Not good.

    The reason seemed to be that we hadn’t gel purified the backbone and it kept religating with itself.

  • The Ligation Calculator


    We made a ligation calculator to help us estimate the amounts of different plasmids to be digested. The calculator calculates how many microliters of miniprepped plasmid is needed to be digested in order to pipet 4 ul of each digestion mix to the ligation mix. Insert-plasmid ratio as well as vector mass fields could be changed if needed. Taking these two variables into account, the appropriate molar amount and then the mass amount of inserts are calculated using the information of their lengths. This tiny little excel tool really saved time in the lab during the summer.

  • May 2014
  • Precipitation of the Cell Membranes


    This process would be repeated about 50 times during the summer, but this was the first..

  • The First Version of BioBrick Seeker


    It started from the mild inconvenience of searching for BioBricks from four different excel sheets in the lab. At this point, the Registry pages didn't yet have the updated info about part availability either. With the tool we could search through this year's distribution effortlessly. Because it was so useful for us, we decided to share it to others, too.

  • The First BioBrick Transformation in Finland


    Cooool. There it was!

  • The First Biobrick Out of the Plate


    We got our hands on the Biobrick plates and took the first piece out. This is where it all started.

  • Website Is Done


    This time it did actually look cool! The actual website might still be available on Check it out!

  • Lab Kicked Off!

    20.5.2014 making plates. Not that mind-blowing, but very important.

  • A Tour in the Lab


    We got one desk from the laboratory. There was still someone else's stuff on it, but it was ours and we were going to do amazing things there.

  • The iGEM 2014 Distribution Kit Arrived


    We got the eagerly awaited box from iGEM and the competition started to feel real. In the box we found the Distribution Kit plates full of Biobricks and other cool stuff like these pins!

  • April 2014
  • Getting Ready for the Summer of Startups

    22.4.2014, 25.4.2014, 28.4.2014

    We met a few times to go over what we would say to the Summer of Startups panel, so that they would accept us to the program. This culminated on the 28th, when we had the interview. Our team leader tried to attend through Skype, but the panel didn't like it. We managed to pull through anyway, and the panel was very excited about us in the end.

    They accepted us in the program.

  • Expert Meeting at Aalto University


    We presented ourselves and our initial ideas to a panel of experts, mostly researchers from VTT and the Viikki biocampus. The occasion went very well and there was a lot of interesting discussion. We noticed that we really can do cool things as a group.

  • Meeting with Markus at Helsinki Think Company


    We presented our initial ideas to our advisor, Markus, in preparation for the expert meeting. We discussed what direction to go and what kind of an idea to pick.

  • March 2014
  • Making an Introduction Video


    We made an introduction video of us so we could apply to the Summer of Startups incubator program. It turned out pretty good! Video link:

  • Hackathon


    The first version of our website was built. We wanted it to look cool. It didn't.

  • Coming Up With Ideas

    18.3.2014, 25.3.2014

    Some brainstorming. Wild ideas. Rating the ideas. Then an unbelievably cool post-it gradient of all the ideas.

  • The First Meeting


    The first team meeting was held on a Friday afternoon. Some of us met each other for the first time ever, some had already met before. We talked about the project and got to know each other.

  • Picking the Team

    5.3.2014 - 12.3.2014

    Oskari was in the first job interview in his life, as the interviewer. He held 19 more interviews during the week. Nine people were chosen to be in the final team.

  • The Beginning
  • Meetings with Aalto University and the University of Helsinki

    31.1.2014, 5.2.2014

    It seemed like the universities were into the idea.

  • The Idea of a Finnish iGEM Team Was Formed


    First e-mails about the idea were sent.