We can use genetics to clean the Chesapeake

What would six Baltimore high school students do, living near the Chesapeake Bay, an “impaired” body of water, when they learn, amazingly, that genetic modifications in a piece of bacterial DNA might be able to produce an enzyme that can dissolve plastic?

Here’s the basic idea (slideshare.net CDN)

No need to wonder. Just ask this team of “citizen scientists”: Mercedes Thompson, Eseni Tafah, Oumaima Driwech, and Julius Gingles, all from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Rachael Avidor from Western High School, and Ella Coleman, who lives in the city and is homeschooled, the Baltimore Sun reports.

Plastics are a waste product that pollutes the environment we live in, and many solutions have been implemented with little long-term success, such as Mr Trashwheel and laws prohibiting the act of littering. Researchers, in 2014, have found a bacterium, known as Ideonella Sakaiensis, that is able to degrade polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics entirely using two enzymes. The Baltimore BioCrew wanted to design a bacteria that is able to degrade the plastics in our marine ecosystems at a rapid rate without harming the creatures within it. In order to investigate if this is possible, we obtained the two enzymes used in Ideonella Sakaiensis, PETase and MHETase, and inserted the enzymes into E coli plasmids. We hope the E coli bacteria degrades PET plastic within 1–3 weeks and produces a byproduct that is benign to organisms and a possible energy source.

Sounds good, right? Dubbing themselves the “Baltimore BioCrew” and working out of the Baltimore Under Ground Science Space, this team just won a bronze medal at an international science competition in Boston, so it must be good from a scientific standpoint.

The iGEM competition has been running for a decade and isn’t just for high school students. Teams, divided into the classifications of high school, undergrad, and overgrad, come from universities and student labs from around the world and present their projects each year.

“They were able to tap into something that’s really hot, that a lot of people were interested in,” the Sun quoted Lisa Scheifele, an associate professor of biology at Loyola University Maryland and a board member of the student lab, as saying. And “here’s a bunch of Baltimore high school kids who came up with the exact same idea.”

“When I first came there, I didn’t know anything about the whole genetic engineering process. I didn’t know it was this simple—you could just go and do it. It was really cool,” Ms Coleman told the Sun.

The students’ vision for cleaning up the plastic in the bay is a daunting task, because there’s a lot of it and the amount of plastic the bacteria can digest is barely measurable. But it could help.

“We need some new ideas if we’re actually going to clean up the harbor and do it within our lifetime,” Adam Lindquist was quoted as saying. He’s the director of the Healthy Harbor Initiative, which maintains trash wheels that clean trash from the water. “It sounds like this innovation is feeding off that same thought.”

Still, the students say they’re looking forward to the 2017 iGEM “competition” and might have a few new ideas of their own.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.