Project Inspiration and Description
In 1969, an oil well located off the coast of Santa Barbara experienced a blowout, leading to one of the largest oil spills ever charted in U.S. waters. This disaster, which made headlines nationwide, had profound effects on marine life, with oil from underwater fissures creating a slick that would eventually cover an area the size of Chicago. It only took a few days for the oil to reach the beaches of Santa Barbara, killing thousands of birds and contaminating the waters; ultimately, this resulted in drastic changes in legislation.
In 2016, there was a large oil spill in our team’s region that extended into the San Diego River. This not only affected the areas where thousands of gallons of diesel oil were originally spilled, but it also led to contamination of vegetation, soil, and water where the oil leached. While horrific, this type of event is unfortunately not unheard of, nor is it an anomaly in our oil-driven society. From the first major incidents of this kind as described above, oil spills have been wreaking damage ever since oil has been used extensively for industrial use. As members of the region in San Diego affected by the 2016 oil spill and having seen the detrimental effects of oil spills firsthand, our team was inspired to target the issue of oil spill cleanup in order to better prepare for future incidents. Current options for oil spill cleanup are difficult and extremely expensive, and we believe that it is possible to use a genetically engineered bacterial system to manage oil spill cleanup in a cost-effective manner. The basis of our project stems off of this idea.
Oil fuels our modern world, but unrefined oil contains carcinogenic compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs and petrogenic PAHs can inflict irreversible lasting damage to entire ecosystems. Our project harnesses the natural ability of microorganisms to degrade some of the most prevalent, toxic PAHs into harmless compounds. The system then reuses these catabolic end products by taking advantage of bacterial metabolism to produce clean energy by coupling the degradation pathways with sequences that upregulate hydrogen synthesis within E. coli. In addition, we use synthetic pathways to metabolize long n-chained hydrocarbons to fuel such hydrogen synthesis.
In essence, our project harnesses the power of synthetic biology to use harmless and safe bacteria to degrade hazardous compounds in oil, which will facilitate easier and faster oil spill cleanup. In addition, we strive to produce clean bio-hydrogen energy as a result of the degradation. We offer a solution to the threat of oil spills and their toxic constituents, allowing our society to work towards a cleaner tomorrow.