When was the last time you thought about what you were flushing or washing down the drain? Where the water goes after you wash your hands? Or even what materials and chemicals are rinsing down our pipes into the wastewater treatment plants?
While out of sight and mind to most, these questions have been top of mind for some members of the Synthetic Biology Research Program, a student-led organization performing scientific research on issues such as climate change, energy production and personalized medicine.
Their answers to the above questions – and solutions to the problems they raise – will be on display at iGEM 2019 this weekend in Boston.
The International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation – or iGEM – is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to education and competition, the advancement of synthetic biology, and the development of an open community and collaboration.
The iGEM 2019 competition brings together international teams made up of predominantly undergraduate students interested in the field of synthetic biology to pit their ideas against each other.
Composed of students from the Synthetic Biology Research Program, Western’s iGEM team will share its work on newly identified or emerging contaminants being found in bodies of water, and what can be done to solve the growing problem.
These undesirable organic compounds range from endocrine disruptors and pharmaceuticals, to personal care products, pesticides, and fertilizers. The presence of these contaminants is problematic for the environment and human health. High levels of these toxins are ingested by marine life, potentially disrupting reproductive, developmental, behavioural and metabolic processes in aquatic life.
Yet, existing wastewater treatment plants lack adequate infrastructure for removing these pollutants.
In their project, the team proposes a synthetic biology approach to develop a self-assembling catalytic bacterial biofilm capable of degrading emerging contaminants. The bacteria will be engineered to express fusion proteins that assemble into fibrous structures extracellularly and enable greater accessibility of the enzyme’s substrate.
The proposed platform for EC degradation is a versatile and promising avenue for the removal of these toxic compounds from wastewater, according to the team.
“When we (team) got together, we wanted to work on ideas that could apply to the real world,” said Luana Langlois, iGEM team President and Co-founder. “We’re trying to incorporate real-life applications into our design.”
The iGEM team meet multiple times with City of London officials, as well as visited the Greenway Wastewater Treatment Centre to gain a better understanding of the wastewater treatment process and how their project can be applied to it.
The team’s solution is a promising avenue for the removal of the toxic compounds from wastewater, explained Langlois, a Microbiology & Immunology masters student.
Synthetic biology involves redesigning organisms by engineering them to have new abilities – thus harnessing the power of nature to solve problems in medicine, manufacturing and agriculture.
Team member and postgraduate scholar Shea Tough said the wastewater industry understands these contaminants exist, but the numbers are growing so fast that testing regulations cannot keep pace.
“Everything going through the wastewater treatment plants, they are treating it for things like phosphorus, ammonia or chlorine,” she said.
“There are a lot of different regulations that get put in retrospectively. We’re looking at newly identified ones that could pose a future threat. Treatment plants are looking to us to be the pioneers and once legislation is in place we already have the problem solved for it. We’re trying to implement a simple solution and be the most value to them.”
With more than 375 teams from Finland, Egypt, Brazil, Japan, Bulgaria, Costa Rica and other countries sharing their work this weekend, Western’s team looks forward to what can come of their ongoing research.
“This is something really different from our regular classes,” said Meet Panchal, a fourth-year Neuroscience student and team member. “This is something not planned by professors; this is planned by the students themselves. Nowhere else are you going to get the chance to work with such a large team of diverse students on something you enjoy.”
Langlois agreed. “It can be quite intense, but it is passion driven and that’s what energizes me. Seeing others like me having opportunities like this saying, ‘I do this because I enjoy this. I want to be the owner of my own project,’ to me, that is the greatest reward.”
“Everything is a milestone for us in our research” Tough added. “Genetically engineering a construct that comes out with the right parts and doesn’t fail and degrade, that’s exciting. Getting protein expression, that’s exciting. It’s every step along the way the pushes is along.”
Only time will tell if their research can be commercialized and applied in the future. Team members want to soak in the critique and feedback they get this weekend.
“You go in with what you have,” Langlois said. “The aspect of networking, meeting potential new collaborators is exciting. We’ve come so far to stop now, especially since it has such a real world applications. If we don’t do it, who will. We all bought into this dream and we might as well have fun.”