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Plastic fantastic

1 August 2012

Second-year computer science student Philipp Boeing describes UCL iGEM’s plans to solve plastic pollution by creating marine organisms that bind it all together to form an island.

UCL iGEM 2012 team

Image: UCL iGEM 2012 team. From left: Martina Sebastian, Bethan Wolfenden, Erin Oerton, Yeping Lu, Rhiannon Wilkinson, Bouran Sohrabi, Aurelija Grigonyte, Leonard Wen Yan Leong, Philipp Boeing, Joanne Ting Chu En, Carina Tran, Thomas Hargest.

What is iGEM?

It’s the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, a worldwide research contest in which teams from almost 200 universities create something from scratch that will contribute to the tools of synthetic biology. The competition is part of MIT’s synthetic biology project in which people experiment with DNA and then contribute the data and strands – or BioBricks – to a DNA repository and library.

MIT wanted to grow the library but also to demonstrate that this type of genetic engineering is simple enough for students to participate in, so they started a summer class back in 2003 which has now grown into the international competition it is today. It gives undergraduates a unique opportunity to work on their own research projects in labs over the summer.

So what is the actual task and how do you win?

The idea is that you have to improve an existing BioBrick and submit a new one, but awards are also given for best human practice – it’s important that teams go out and engage, putting the experiment into a social context and thinking about the legal and ethical issues.  You can be awarded bronze, silver or gold based on how many BioBricks you submit.

We’re judged on our wiki, which is where we document everything we do, and our parts – we actually submit physical DNA to the registry – as well as our experiment reports and other data. There’s a 20-minute presentation which ends with a ten-minute Q and A, then there’s a poster session.

What is the UCL iGEM team working on?

There are hundreds of millions of tonnes of tiny bits of plastic floating in the ocean causing microplastic pollution and we want to find a solution to this. We’re looking at organisms which we know have plastic degradation properties and trying to find those genes, take them out of the genome and put them into marine bacteria to see what happens. This has never been done with this kind of bacteria so there’s a lot of new ground to be explored.

We’re quite confident that we could engineer bacteria that could eat up the plastic, but we’re also exploring whether we could somehow collect it and construct it into a plastic island. We have a Bartlett architect on the team which is really useful because she’s helped us to develop the vision and make it into something beautiful. Obviously the island isn’t something that we could do over three months but we’re exploring whether it’s actually possible to do it at all.

I like that the project poses such an ethical dilemma, because you have something evil – plastic pollution – but are solving it with genetically modified organisms, which most people perceive as being bad too. So it’s evil versus potential evil, and that allows us to ask questions that take people out of their comfort zones.

How did you get involved in iGEM?

I was on the team last year and so this year I was part of the selection panel alongside the two supervising lecturers, Dr Darren Nesbeth and Professor Eli Keshavarz Moore. We wanted to pick people from multiple disciplines so that we’d have a range of complementary skills. We've ended up with students from Computer Science, the Bartlett, Biochemistry, Biochemical Engineering, Medical Physics and Medicine as well as Molecular Biology – there are 13 of us in total.

How are you funding your work?

The Wellcome Trust gives some of the team members a living stipend for ten weeks – not quite the duration of the project but everything helps! The Department of Biochemical Engineering funds some of what we’re doing and we’ve secured a few in-kind sponsorships which have provided us with free lab equipment. We also had a crowd-funding page on Sponsume [the team beat its target of £1,500], offering investors certificates or, for those who donate a bit more, a 3D-printed model of the island. The money will mainly go towards conference travel costs – we need to go to Amsterdam, Munich and MIT, which isn’t cheap!

When will you know the competition results and how well do you think you’ll do?

There are three regional competitions and the top third from each region go to MIT for the finals in November. We are currently on track to get a gold medal but that doesn’t guarantee a place in the finals. On balance, though, we’re in a pretty good place because we’ve been working on this since January. We put our website up before the other teams which in turn has meant that we’ve had more publicity than anyone else [UCL iGEM’s project has been featured in Wired and their YouTube fundraising trailer, below, has been watched over 1,800 times].

As well as the science aspect, what have you learned during this year’s iGEM?

A few articles were published about our plastic island idea which were quite dramatic and hyped up. We hadn’t expected that so it definitely taught us something about science journalism. However, the fact that it annoyed certain marine researchers enough to tweet about it ended up working in our favour as we contacted them and they’re now sharing their data with us! It helps that we’re enthusiastic but naïve students; people like to help us.

Do you think your work will continue once the competition’s over?

Some projects in the past have continued, for example a team that worked on arsenic biosensors for developing countries was given a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but that’s very rare. Sometimes papers are published on iGEM research but for many students the most important aspect of iGEM is its function as an educational tool: Molecular Biology students want more lab time and practical experience and this provides a unique learning opportunity for them.

How can people learn more about what you’re doing?

On August 7th we’re holding a speed debate at the Richard Mully Basement Bar where people can ask experts in marine biology and bioethics as well as environmental groups questions about tackling plastic pollution using GMO. We’re also keen to help the London Hackspace build their own GMO lab where members of the public can go in and try their hand at Molecular Biology. The ideal would be to spend a week in there and end up with a publicly owned BioBrick.

That might sound overambitious but that’s the great thing about being on a student team: we don’t know what limitations exist; we don’t know what’s impossible so we just demand that everything should be possible. In a way, that’s what synthetic biology wants to become.

Find UCL iGEM on…

Interview by Ele Cooper

Page last modified on 01 aug 12 13:20

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