February Brainstorm with Advisors
We brainstormed as a team with our principal advisors on what topics to tackle, ranging from STI detection kits to food allergen detection devices, however after a thorough investigation and research on local problems existing in the UK as well as other countries, we decided to focus on the problem of fatbergs.
- We spoke about the potentials of synthetic biology ranging from medicine to the environment
- Decided to focus on the problems in water and the sewage system.
- This was particularly interesting as our team has members from across the world allowing us to compare different problems in different areas.
- Not all of our members are from a biological background we decided to run a ‘biology bootcamp’
- Begun fatberg research
March Presentation to WISB
We presented our project ideas to the Warwick Integrative Synthetic Biology department
- The department supported our project and gave us the details of people to contact in fatberg research
- Lipase activity is key to focus on for bacterial systems.
- We began contacting experts in this field
- Lipase activity was looked into more to understand this biological mechanism
May Meeting with Advisors
We held a meeting with our project supervisors, PhD students and team members to get up to date with our research into the project and to set up a timeline for the ‘biology bootcamp’ and modelling workshop for after exams
- Got up to date with the project research and areas, set up accounts on Microsoft teams to organise our strengths
- Organised biology bootcamp and modelling workshop.
- Put a greater emphasis on the multidisciplinary areas of our project to target modelling and outreach
June Dr Tom Curran
Skype interview with Dr Tom Curran, Director of MSc Environmental Technology at University College Dublin who reduced fatbergs by 90% in Dublin after targeting the restaurant industry and the correct disposal of waste cooking oil.
- Advised us to take a strong approach in public education and outreach to reduce and prevent fatbergs from being formed in the first place
- Advised us about the UK building regulations that allow fatbergs to form as well as fatbergs being used to produce biodiesel in recycling.
- Began designing leaflets, stickers and a campaign to educate the public on what is safe for drains and what is not.
Dr Sam Fox
Got into contact with Dr. Samuel Fox of United Utilities from Liverpool, UK, a leading water treatment company in the UK tasked with the removal of fatbergs, among other commitments.
- Offered us a sample of a fatberg found in Liverpool to carry out metagenomic analysis to better understand the ecology of fatbergs.
- Advised us of a synthetic biology approach to tackle existing fatbergs.
- Began forming extensive safety paperwork due to the dangers of using a sewage sample which is classified as ‘human tissue’ meaning we would need permission and clearance to use a CAT2 laboratory (and relevant training).
Dr Ahmad Mannan
Research fellow in systems biology at Warwick University gave us an insight to biological modelling.
- Advised for us that our initial idea to target the FADR biological pathway to degrade triglycerides may not be suitable due to the reversible reaction of triglyceride fats with lipase activity, and we should focus on making the reaction favourable through plasmid recombination, enzyme analysis or a sensor.
- Advised us to model bacterial growth in different concentrations of oil to find the optimal to characterise our lipase bacteria’s optimal parameters.
- We decided to see the feasibility of using a calcium sensor to allow for increased sensitivity of the lipase activity to give control.
- Began to model the bacterial growth curve of bacteria in different concentrations
Project Phase 1: Fatberg Autopsy
After input from these figures, we decided that the first stage of our project would be to do a metagenomic analysis of the fatberg sample to see what lipases would be favourable to use in fatberg degradation to create a product which would break down fatbergs within the sewers.
July Thames Water
Telephone interview with the UK’s largest wastewater service company, supplying 2.6 billion litres of drinking water to the residents of the UK per day and maintaining the largest reservoir in the UK. Thames Water began the first anti-fatberg campaign in the UK.
- Advised us on their campaign to increase public understanding on what to flush down the toilet and pour down the sinks.
- Gave us tips on what makes a successful campaign
- We began designing anti-fatberg leaflets centered on the 3 P’s - flush pee, poop and paper but nothing else, and to throw oil in the bin, not the sink.
Interviewed Greg Strumer of Hydro-cleansing the leading fatberg removal company in the UK which removed the Whitechapel London monster fatberg (largest fatberg found).
- Advised us on the methods of fatberg removal and the dangers of the sewers
- Advised us on safety procedures and what to expect from the sample for our safety forms
- We redesigned our safety forms and included information on items suspected to be found in the sample such as needles, cotton buds and sanitary products.
August John Love
We were fortunate enough to partake in a telephone interview with Professor John Love at Exeter University who carried out the first fatberg autopsy on the BBC documentary, Blue Planet.
- Advised us on what to expect on getting our fatberg sample and advised that DNA extraction would be exceedingly difficult
- Suggested we adapt our project to work in a closed environment to prevent plastics in fatbergs from being released into the water
- Told us that the fatberg itself is not metabolically active after extensive RNA analysis
- Informed us that we needed to ensure we control the secretion of lipases
- We changed our safety forms to be more applicable
- We decided to get in contact with Dr. Justin Pachebat who we had been in touch with before to obtain a DNA sample of the fatberg in case our extraction failed
- Looked at systems to implement our lipase bacteria in such as grease traps
- When repeating our cloning strategy we picked the pET151/D-TOPO as this contains a T7 promoter, allowing the inducible expression of our lipases. This would not have been possible with a constitutive promoter like glpT in our previous backbone pGC_BB12.
Neena Gill MEP
We interviewed our MEP (Member of European Parliament) of the West Midlands and Member of the committee of Economic and Monetary Affairs to discuss the impact of fatbergs and sewage costs.
- Advised us on the EU laws on GMO use which are focused on agriculture and food production
- Advised that misleading advertisement of ‘flushable’ wet wipes is a problem as they get stuck in fatbergs
- We spoke to EDANA, an industrial body responsible for woven materials in Europe, were we addressed the problems of flushable, but non-biodegradable wet wipes
- We focused our public outreach to prevent wet-wipe flushing and got involved with petitions and campaigns to ban the word ‘flushable’ on wet-wipe packaging
Interviewed Dr Justin Pachebat of Aberystwyth, Institute of Biological, Environmental & Rural Science who has sequenced DNA from fatberg samples.
- Advised that DNA extraction from a fatberg sample would be difficult and agreed to share fatberg DNA from the Whitechapel fatberg with us after we failed to extract DNA from a synthetic fatberg
- Advised us to use spirit blue agar to begin a lipase assay to ensure lipase activity worked in our cloned bacteria
- We decided to focus on lipase characterisation and narrowed these down to 6 after blast searches and began to clone these into bacteria
- Began to trial lipase assays to find a way to measure the activity of the lipase
We realised a sensor would not work as calcium levels are always high in concrete sewers and thus control and sensitivity would not be established, thus we changed our direction to using this bacteria in a closed system.
Newcastle iGEM Meet Up
We attended the UK iGEM meet up at Newcastle where we spoke to various iGEM teams and professors to understand particular problems regarding the ethics and laws of GMOs.
- Team members from other teams told us about their concerns of us using GMOs in the drains and ideas for implementation such as powders
- Teams advised us on their safety protocol and gave us advice for our SOPs
- We decided to get in contact with organisations such as the European Union to better understand the implications of GMOs
- We looked at potential applications of our project in using the lipase enzyme in a powder format or bacterial use in grease traps
South West Water
Organised an online interview to better understand their campaign ‘Love your Loo’ to ban the word ‘flushable’ on wet-wipes.
- We adjusted our leaflets to advertise that wet-wipes should not be flushed down the toilets
- Supported and increased their petition to ban ‘flushable’ on wet-wipe packaging
Biogas produced from fatbergs is harder to store, and has less efficiency when compared to biodiesel which has a 1 litre to 1 litre conversion rate from waste oil, so by breaking down the solid fatberg into a soluble form, it would provide a better source of recyclable energy, and also allow items stuck within it to become free, which can also be recycled.
Lanes for Drains
To ensure our research would not negatively impact real people we spoke to this leading UK company that specialises in drain blockages. As well as answering our questions, they also provided us with information from their recent research into public awareness. More information on their work can be found here.
- We adjusted our leaflets to advertise that wet-wipes should not be flushed down the toilets
- Supported and increased their petition to ban ‘flushable’ on wet-wipe packaging We discovered that many people know what can and cannot be put down the sink, but that they continue pouring away waste due to "convenience".
- We understood the ethics of our project are important.If we target issues that humans are already employed to solve, we need to take into account workers jobs. Should our project provide a solution, the impact should be minimised on both the environment and people.
- Confirmed our project would be useful to all people
- Started focusing on a "convenient" solution that could be used in the kitchen to make consumers' lives easier.
We interviewed various restaurants to ask them if they would like to implement our project idea with supporting reports of legislative action.
- Restaurants liked our idea of grease trap devices with the bacteria in as the minimise bacterial contact with their cooking surfaces
- They supported the project idea and the prevention schemes we had initiated
- We ensured our lipases could be isolated from our engineered bacteria, as well as work within our bacteria under the control of an inducible T7 promoter, allowing for the commercialization of our product as both a powder and for use within grease traps.
Bacterial species have an upregulated and cloned lipase gene in them which catalyses the breakdown of triglycerides into fatty acids which can then subsequently be used to make biodiesel in a closed system outside of sewers as a treatment instead of combustion.
Paris Tokyo Sewers
Contacted the City Halls of Paris and Tokyo to better understand why the formation of fatbergs only occurs in some countries as opposed to all
- Informed us that the presence of fatbergs is due to cement sewers with calcium deposits
- Focused on the formation of fatbergs being due to incorrect vegetable oil disposal
- We focused on the saponification reaction which catalyses the formation of fatbergs from the reaction between free fatty acids, produced from the hydrolysis of triglycerides, and calcium ions
- Understood that fatbergs will form in the UK due to the old Victorian sewer systems we have as opposed to Tokyo, so we must think about preventative measures also
Click here to download it, or view below.
This company is responsible for collecting waste vegetable oil from our university and converting it into biodiesel
- Advised us that waste cooking oil is recycled into biodiesel and is an efficient process and fatbergs are often combused to product biomethane
- Advised us to look into the types of oils most responsible for fatberg formation
- This inspired us to create a report on the UK regulations of waste vegetable oil (insert link to PDF) to provide a guide for fatberg prevention on a legal scale
- Researched to find oils responsible for fatbergs and centered our research on palmitic oil
Click here to download it, or view below.
Wrote to the EU to address issues of the economic impact of fatbergs, misleading advertisement, use of synthetic biology and proper oil disposal
- Advised that the economic expenditure of sewage blockages is huge and mostly avoidable through better public outreach programs
- Advised that flushable wet-wipes cause huge problems yet this must be fought against with individual companies
- Informed that synthetic biology is a huge field with many limitations due to fear and misconceptions, research is extensive but gradually GMO’s will be more accepted
- We reached out to various campaigns and companies to advertise the impact of wet-wipes in the sewers such as South West Water
- We looked at legislation surrounding GMO use and focused our school outreach programs on debunking these myths
Click here to download the EU Report, or view below.
Click here to download the GMO Regulations PowerPoint, or view below.
Integrated Human Practice
Ensuring that our project was viable and ethical was constantly at the forefront of our minds. Human practices influenced our lab work but also our public education, helping to round our project at every turn. We knew we wanted to provide a solution to fatbergs, and knew we wanted to use lipase activity using synthetic biology to create a novel bacterium to degrade fatbergs. However, we knew there were many considerations to take into account, from ensuring our project worked with public GMO policy, to making sure that drainage workers jobs were secure, we spoke to multiple spheres of society to understand that our biological solution had to be supported by preventing fatberg formation through public engagement and education.
Click on the boxes below to see how our journey into the sewers was shaped by the various organisations and individuals we spoke to!