Bio-Engineering E.Coli To Degrade Plastic and Save The Baltimore Inner Harbor
The importance of the community's perspective and impact on our project was considered in every step of our process. The Baltimore-Bio Crew assessed the ethical integrity of our project through various methods such as public engagement, outreach, surveys, and presentations. Through these techniques, we have collected a diverse set of perspectives on our work and its capacity to positively impact the world.
The Baltimore-Bio Crew performed presentations in front of audiences that varied from scientific professionals and community members to an environmental advocacy organization that was all interested in learning more about our work. Each presentation given was in preparation for the iGEM competition and was presented at different stages of progress in our work. The first notable presentation was given at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology, which is located near the Baltimore Inner Harbor. The audience was full of scientific specialists, that was able to give educational insight on the ways in which our project could develop. By presenting to this group, we were able to gain new outlooks on our process such as the practical uses of our product, the safeness of our methods, and the bioethical concerns of our work. Another important discussion that we had was with the community, people interested in science and our work visited the lab to hear more about our project. They were able to encourage our thoughts on the people’s opinions about synthetic biology and the practical uses of our product.
The Safety of E.coli in Our Project
The use of k-12 E.coli strains produces very little potential for harm in the environment and to other living organisms. The United States Environmental Protection Agency states that this strain “does not normally colonize the human intestine”, has “safe commercial use”, and is “not known to have adverse effects on microorganisms or plants”. Despite this, the team took safety precautions to prevent contamination or spread of this organism outside of the lab. Each member used latex gloves, thoroughly washed hands, and did not consume food or drink in the lab. We do not plan on releasing this bacteria into the environment, where mutations and environmental security can be impacted. Though we have thought about creating a “killswitch” causing the organism to self-destruct if found in a foreign environment, or is threatened by becoming a host to other DNA.
The By-Products of Plastic Degradation
In our process, the team has also considered the risk of the byproducts that are produced in breaking down PET plastics: ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. Ethylene glycol is used in the manufacturing of antifreeze, which can cause harm to certain organisms that are wrongly exposed. Terephthalic acid is a product used in creating PET plastic. These two byproducts if collected, have the potential of promoting sustainability and recycling of materials. Ethylene glycol could possibly be used as a source of energy, or promoter of thermal energy as it has heat transfer and antifreeze properties. Terephthalic acid could be used to effectively recycle and reproduce plastics that had been previously broken down in our chemical process, decreasing the need for new PET plastics to be created and lessening its overproduction in our world. In order to separate these byproducts from the direct environment, we considered developing a bioreactor to break down PET plastic in office spaces, homes, and schools. We also would contain the degradation process in recycling plants, or in filters for synthetic fibers collected in washing machines.
The Approval of Synthetic Biology
The Baltimore Bio-Crew welcomed community visitors, lab members, and scientists alike to participate in our survey on the perceptions of synthetic biology in our environment. In this survey, we found a variety of data that opened our eyes about the feelings of the public in relation to synthetic biology. It was very important to us to know the communities stance on synthetic biology in their environment, and if they supported and improved our work, or had concerns.
Our survey, titled "Baltimore Biocrew Survey: Ethics of Genetically Modified E.coli" was distributed online and by going out to members of the community and asking them if they would like to take it. The survey indicated that the majority of those surveyed were between the ages of 15 and 25, and the results for levels of education are shown in the chart below.
Of the people surveyed, 47 percent said that they saw trash in their communities every day, and 63 percent thought that trash was a problem in their community. When asked how much they thought they contributed to this trash problem, there were a wide range of responses, but the majority said that they moderately contributed to plastic pollution. These results are shown in the graph below, with 1 representing "not at all" and 6 representing "far too much."
This answer indicates that many people, although they understand that plastic pollution is a problem, do not understand how much they might contribute to plastic pollution. Even if people don't litter, they may still be contributing to plastic pollution. 91 percent of plastic never gets recycled (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/plastic-produced-recycling-waste-ocean-trash-debris-environment/), and plastic can blow off of landfills and trucks to end up in the ocean. Even if plastic is put in the trash can, there is still a chance it could pollute the environment, and one ton of trash gets added into the ocean every minute (http://wastelandrebel.com/en/how-on-earth-does-all-the-plastic-get-into-the-oceans/).
79 percent of people surveyed thought that microplastics were a problem in the environment. This seems like a lot of awareness, but it may be due to the fact that many people have heard about microbeads in the water. It may be that not many people know that microplastics are also created when bigger pieces of plastic break down. This would be a topic to cover in a future survey.
When asked "How serious is the accumulation of plastic waste around our planet?" 76 percent responded "very serious." These results are shown below, with 1 representing "not serious at all" and 6 representing "very serious."
For another question, people were asked, "Have you ever heard of synthetic biology?" The results are shown below.
Additionally, a brief definition of "GMO" was provided, and then survey takers were asked if they had heard of GMOs before. The results from this question are shown below.
These results show that 31 percent more people had heard of GMOs than had heard of synthetic biology.
For a question that asked how people felt about GMOs, the highest number of answers was tied between ambivalent and supportive. The ambivalence was to be expected, since GMOs tend to have a negative reputation, but we did not expect there to be so many answers supporting GMOs. In the graph below, 1 represents "against", and 5 represents "supportive."
One of our questions read "Are you aware that bacteria can be genetically modified to perform useful functions?" 79% of responses were "yes." However, this question might have been set up in a way that made the answer biased. Since the title of our survey was "Ethics of Genetically Modified E. coli," it is possible that some of the survey takers read the title and said that they were aware that E. coli could be modified, even if they were not aware of this before they started taking the survey. The results are shown in the chart below.
Participants in the survey were asked if they had ever heard of a "citizen scientist," and if so, they were asked how they would feel if a citizen scientist was genetically modifying organisms to solve a community problem. Their responses are shown below.
Next, participants were asked the same question, but instead of a citizen scientist they were asked how they would feel if a biohacker was modifying organisms to solve a community problem. These results are shown below.
These results show that the answers for the biohacker question were more negative and ambivalent than the answers for the citizen science question. The word "biohacker" seems to have a more negative connotation than "citizen scientist," even though they are essentially the same thing and they were both working towards positive goals in the scenario described.
Finally, the participants were asked: "If there was a possibility to create a GMO which would be able to degrade plastic waste, would you support the use of this GMO to clean up plastic pollution?" The results are shown in the chart below.
80 percent of the responses to this question were "for" the use of a GMO to degrade plastic pollution. This result indicates that the people in our community would be willing to support our project.
The Importance of Our Work
In the collaboration with Baltimore Beyond Plastic, a local youth-led environmental advocacy group, we were able to explore the thoughts of students and Baltimore residents. These groups were able to express their individual ideas on the importance of our project and the need to address the issue of plastics in our environment.
Engaging With the Public
KIPP Middle Schoolers and Wax Worms Project
The Baltimore Bio-Crew partnered with the teachers of KIPP middle school to explore the properties of wax worms. Scientist Federica Bertocchini recently found that wax worms that invaded her beehives had escaped from the plastic bag that she stored them in. This interesting occurrence opened our minds up about the abilities of wax worms to biodegrade plastics. It as well as an awesome way to engage the public and younger students. We first tried with store bought worms and did not see any evidence of plastic eating (more tests are needed). We made a call to local beekeepers and a crew members mom for wax worms and she found someone with an infestation! The honeycombs were brought to BUGSS and the Bio-Crew isolated the worms and distributed in equal amounts in glass jars with wire mesh. We tested with beeswax (positive control), wax paper, low-density polyethylene (ziplock bags), high-density polyethylene (plastic bags), and finally cling wrap. Over 1.5 months the worms (in 2-3 life cycles -worms to moths to worms) are significant holes in every type of plastic tested. These were on display and discussed with the public before Baltimore Bio-Crew gave their second public talk at BUGSS during Baltimore Innovation week!
Baltimore Beyond Plastic
The Baltimore Bio-Crew partnered with a local environmental advocacy group that pushes for legislation on the control of plastics in our city. The Bio-Crew participated in the “Why We Care” project, where students and residents all over the city expressed their views on plastics in their environment and personal lives. This powerful project shows the true importance of finding ways to save our environment, as the issue of plastic connects with people all over the city.
The Baltimore Bio-Crew also attended the Youth Summit On Environmental Justice organized by Baltimore beyond plastic, leading one of the groups there and talking about the synthetic biology approach to helping the environment.
Healthy Harbor EcoTour
The Baltimore Bio-Crew participated in a healthy harbor ecotour. This tour was very eye-opening on the different initiatives being taken to save our harbor that we were not even aware of. In this tour, each crew member had a different experience of the harbor that we have never had before. We learned about the structures put in place to involve the community in the environment from the playground and the map of the watershed to the rain garden. We also found that organizations were involved in promoting oyster growth directly in our inner harbor, and building live filters for the water using native plants.
BUGSS Birthday Presentation
The Baltimore Under Ground Science Space celebration of 5 years was this year. The Baltimore Bio-Crew participated in this special event that welcomed the public, lab members, and families of the crew. The crew presented our progress in the work as practice for iGEM, we invited the University of Maryland Team to be apart of this celebration. This presentation allowed us to explore the audience's opinions on synthetic biology and the usefulness of our work. We also invited the public to come into the lab and learn about pipetting and microorganisms.
During the summer the crew presented to scientific professionals at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology. This presentation was practice for the iGEM competition, although we had not completely finished our project we found that it was important to engage different audiences in our work. The audience was welcomed to ask questions, provide suggestions, and guide the future directions of our work.
The Baltimore Bio-Crew thanks our sponsors for their generous support of our team that made our project and travel to the Jamboree possible. Thank you!