iGEM is not only about genetic engineering but rather about what we as scientists can do to make the
world a better place. That is why participating in environmental projects such as the Sweep-week is
very important to us.
Therefore, we handed out a survey on the streets of our hometown and talked to the people about how to reduce plastics in daily life. The results showed that there is a demand for action regarding the increasing pollution by plastic. You can find more information at our homepage “Education and Public engagement”. By reaching out to the people we wanted to prepare them for innovative bio-recycling approaches enabled by synthetic biology.
Students internship: A Deeper Insight
One of our main goals is to inform young people about the responsible use of plastics. We attended six different schools to talk about this issue. The perception of our project with the younger generation was so positive that afterwards, many students reached out to us to learn more about our biorecycling approach. After all, it is their future that we have to care for. Therefore, we organized a student internship for the really dedicated students. They had the chance to participate in several experiments under our guidance and were able to get a closer look of the work of a biologist and ask questions about the field of study. In our lab, the students learned how to work against the downsides of plastic. On the other hand, they also witnessed the immediate necessity of plastic in science.
To get in contact with the general public and to answer their questions, we organized a panel discussion. Genetic engineering is a powerful tool, and its possible applications need to be regulated and well considered before they are called into action. The worries and doubts of the general public are of high relevance for our further project realisation. The latest news on the genetically modified crispr/cas-twins makes it clear that we, as scientsts, should not only be focused on our goals, but also keep in mind the ethics behind our actions. A discussion about the ethical framework is way overdue. To meet those requirements, we organized a panel discussion in cooperation with Prof. Karen Joisten from the department of philosophy. The event started out with a general presentation about genetic engineering organized by us. Afterwards, Prof. Henn, vice chairman of the german ethics coucil focused on the possibilities of synthetic biology. On this note we presented our project idea to receive valuable feedback, which we incorporated into our project design. Finally, we closed the event with an open discussion during which we answered questions of the audience. We learned that our project stands and falls with the acceptance of synbio with the general public. Vice versa, we also hope that the vision of our recycling system will better the reputation of genetic engineering. The event was visited by a lot of interested people of different age and backgrounds.
Our biological approach to recycling PET, as we presented it to the public, could be a solution to the current plastic pollution. However, that does not mean that an irresponsible use of plastic should be acceptable. That is why we attended an event called Sweep-week, at which we collected 33 kg of rubbish from the streets of Kaiserslautern to raise awareness for a cleaner environment. The people we met on the streets were very interested to hear about our project and we exchanged heavily on how to reduce plastic waste.
A Day with the Sheltered Workshop
For the disabled, we organized a field trip together with the sheltered workshop. This day was an inspiration for us as much as we hope it was for all the lovely people that we could talk to. We talked about our project as a short introduction to synbio. Then we went on to explain the very basics of genetic engineering, which is why you can find more information on our Education
State Parliament Politician
As our project raised more and more interest, politicians became aware of our plans. Andreas Rahm, representative of the government and member of the reigning party SPD contacted us to learn more about the issue of plastic pollution. We invited him to a discussion at our laboratory and to explain our motivations for the iGEM project. Politics is the best way to change the future and make the world a better place. As scientists, it is our job to supply the leaders with the information needed to meet the best decisions. Mr. Rahm offered to use his influence to set us up with the director of the local sewage treatment plant, which we gratefully accepted. This way, we took our chance to bring politics and science together to take a step towards a cleaner and more educated future.
Each year our university dedicates one week to a more sustainable future. Focussing on recycling PET, our project fits perfectly into this topic. Our booth at the sustainability-week gave students the opportunity to meet us and ask questions about our project as well as the competition. Here, we got into contact with people from all over our university. For example, a professor of entrepreneurship offered to help us make our project more economically feasible. This event was also an inspiration for future iGEM projects focusing on saving our planet.
Integrated Human Practice
Even an excellent iGEM project is only helpful if it can be applied under real-world circumstances.
We really wanted to make a difference and therefore reached out to several companies that could
integrate our degradation method in their workflow.
Guest Lecture at the Colloquium
The department of biology offers a weekly Colloquium in which a guest speaker is invited to present their results. To expedite our project, we had some research on other biologists that also worked on PET-degradation. Prof. Wolfgang Zimmermann of the Institute of Biochemistry in Leipzig works with the enzyme cutinase, which has been found to degrade PET as well. He and his workgroup have been working with the enzyme for over 10 years and they have expressed it in different organisms, for example in Bacillus Subtilis. To learn more about his methods and results, we invited him to have a talk at our colloquium. This event was more helpful than we could have ever imagined and we can only advise anybody who has the chance to exchange with other scientists to do so. His visit showed us once more that science should not be a competition but rather a cooperation with people working towards a common goal. We not only benefited from his well-elaborated presentation but we also had the possibility to talk to him in private for a whole evening. Prof. Zimmermann gave us two valuable pieces of advice to enhance our project. One was to use highly amorphous PET for the degradation as it is more accessible for enzymatic digestion. The other one was to work with higher temperatures to reduce the stability of PET. We are really grateful for his shared experience. Following his advice, we tested the growth of our alga at different temperatures for increased protein activity.
After testing growth of Clip strains at 25°C and 33°C we could show that this increase in temperature leads to faster growth without harming protein yield. These results lead us to the conclusion that there is no difference in growing Chlamy at standard conditions. (Link results abb 16) Since the optimal temperature for PETase is between 30°C and 40°C we expect higher activity at 33°C. Therefore, we tested activity of both enzymes in two experiments. Comparing activity at 25°C to 33°C and at 30°C to 40°C leads us to the conclusion that there is an improved activity when increasing the temperature from 30°C to 40°C. (Link results abb 16) Thanks to Prof. Zimmermann’s very good advice, we were able to get a lot closer to realizing our project.
Another helpful advice for our project design came from Dr. Schönberger from the Fraunhofer Institute for Structural Durability and System Reliability. He told us to purify EG instead of converting it enzymatic to ethanol. This increases the energy efficiency of our recycling approach. Especially the low market value of ethanol makes the conversation a waste of resources. This expertise led to a concentration of our capacities on the actual implementation of our project idea.
Visiting the Sewage Plant
To get a better understanding of the current situation we contacted the sewage plant of
Kaiserslautern on how microplastics are currently handled. A subsequent tour gave us an insight into
the different treatments of sewage. A closer look at the biological treatment stage was possible as
well. The bacteria used by the sewage plant in the biological treatment stage need to be kept under
certain conditions. So, a wide variety of factors need to be taken into consideration, such as
aerobic and anaerobic conditions, as well as macro- and micronutrients necessary for the survival of
the bacteria. Metabolic products are taken from the biological waste materials which enter the
sewage plant through wastewater.
We then met the manager to discuss the technical approach regarding microplastic. During the discussion we learned that no further samples have been taken for the analysis of microplastic pollution. The wastewater treatment plant, however, is able to remove up to 95% of the microplastic which ends up in the sludge. The sludge will dry in the digestion tower and then either get burned which releases toxic gases and CO2 or is scattered onto fields as fertilizer. This, however, allows microplastics to enter the fields and finally land in our food.
There are regular controls in the cleaning stages to check for different nutrients and micropollutants. However, such an analysis method does not exist for microplastics. There are no guidelines for microplastics and establishing those without an analysis method that allows the purification of microplastic is not possible. This is where our idea can be deployed. Our green alga could be used as an upstream cleaning stage for microplastics. The photoautotrophic green algae are not dependent on certain media, in contrast to the bacteria in the biological purification stage. This means it does not influence the cartage household of the sewage plant. We were offered the possibility to establish a testing pool with our algae and to take samples four our laboratory. The height of the pools ensures good light conditions for our green algae to grow and the members of the sewage plant offered us support for further analysis steps as well as technical support. We are looking forward to a cooperation that allows us to apply our alga under real-life circumstances.
After receiving input from the local wastewater treatment plant, we wanted to also talk to someone from academia. So we reached out to Dr. Knerr, a researcher at the TUK’s civil water management department. He already knew some facilities that use green algae to eliminate pollutants from wastewater and has directed us to Prof. Otterpol at the University of Hamburg-Harburg. Dr. Knerr was also able to give us numerous tips on how to implement our system in a sewage treatment plant.
To be able to integrate a system successfully, one must pay attention to numerous boundary conditions, such as the external influences which change in the course of the year like water temperature, flow rate, pH, etc. In a sewage treatment plant, the water carries not only necessary nutrients but also pollutants, which could have a negative effect on Chlamys growth. In order to test how our system behaves in the overall context of the wastewater treatment plant, it is necessary to test this on a smaller scale first. Such prototypes are already being tested in the pilot plant of the Department of civil water management. Therefore Chlamy could be exposed to real wastewater. This allows us to assess the influence of realistic conditions and take them into account in our project design.
In general, the microplastic problem is perceived as very acute in both industry and academia. Therefore, they are very enthusiastic about our approach.
The issue with microplastics in water management is that there is no legal framework or water purity standards. It is not even possible to quantify the existing contamination because microplastics are not uniformly defined yet. Neither the particle size nor the method for sample collection are standardized which is why analytical results cannot be compared or conclusions drawn. There is, however currently a research program ongoing, which is going to settle these questions, called RUSEKU. So there is some advancement being made, even though the research is still in its very infancy.
In order to make our project economically feasible for the large-scale industrial sector, we were suggested a cooperation with the Civil Water Management Department.
We received valuable and helpful advice from the sewage treatment plant and also from the Department of Civil Water Management of the TUK. We were able to combine the inputs from academia and industry to further optimize our project idea to be suitable for practical applications.
The problem of plastic pollution affects all of us. Every single one of us is responsible for the future of our planet and each of us must decide how to handle this responsibility. We decided to act and we hope that our project inspires other to also stand up for our planet.