The development of our project has been closely related to our human practices. We have made an effort to consider as many elements outside the lab as possible. Please visit our Silver page and our Project Justification.
1.- Formation of the team
Our team was formed in quite an interesting way. We didn't start with iGEM, but at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP13-MOP8-MOP2). On december 2016, we attended this event as youth delegates of the Public Research and Regulation Initiative (PRRI), which, in collaboration with the ISAAA delegation, took an international group of young science students to introduce us to how biotechnology and synthetic biology regulations take place. We sure learned a lot about biodiversity and its international regulations. However, this experience quickly opened our eyes and we soon became aware that there is a widespread negative perspective on synthetic biology, mainly from activist groups and also from country representatives. But it didn't just end with that: there was also a big lack of participation from the scientific community and the young people regarding the regulation processes that were taking place. And even worse … we witnessed the proposal of a moratorium to Synthetic Biology!!!
Considering this a problem for the development of emerging technologies, something had to be done. We came back to our homes, inspired, conscious of the importance of effective science communication, and with the conviction to do something to make a change. It was then when we decided to create Youth Biotech, an international association that focuses on science communication, science regulation and science development. Today, it has presence in 15 different countries. Under the science development track we founded the PHAgave project.
We believe in international cooperation as the best mechanism of growth, success and evolution, therefore, we have built up a team that meets this belief. Our team instructors and advisors come from different parts of the world; like Panama, Germany and the United Kingdom; or have been involved with international institutions such as Stanford, McGill University, University of Edinburgh, The Global Biotech Revolution, and of course, have a vast experience at iGEM as team members, team leaders, instructors, members of the Latin American committee or delegates.
We wanted to develop a project that could actually help to solve a real problematic in our community. In order to do so, we focused on one of the most famous industries in our country, and more specifically in our home state, Jalisco: The tequila industry!
Tequila is one of the biggest industries in México. It is an alcoholic beverage extracted from Agave tequilana, with 558 places within different states in the country that dedicate fully to the Agave growth and tequila production. It is a major source of employment and economic gain for many in Mexico. The chain of value is not only limited to economic aspects but also cultural, ethnic, social and environmental importance of several areas of the country. Agave is also a vital species for indigenous populations and is also used for medicine, fertilizers, food and its growth promotes development for the area as well as it helps eradicating poverty (CIATEJ, 2016 ). Tequila is now exported to around 120 countries, and the production is about 300 liters/minute (El país, 2013).
The tourism industry in Mexico is also a major economic and development tool, a report from the National Chamber of Tequila Production states that, of the total products consumed in Mexico by foreigners, 57% accounts solely for Tequila, as it is a major attraction for tourism. Also, the same report stated that 900 thousand tons of Tequila are produced annually, employing 300 thousand people across the country (Millenio, 2017).
But like any major industry, it produces tons of waste, the two major contaminants that result from Tequila production are bagasse and vinasse. By 2014, 240 thousand tons of bagasse were produced, which is equivalent to 20 days of residue generated in the metropolitan zone of Guadalajara city and up to this date its has doubled. The problem with bagasse is that it is a fibrous material, organic but when it is not managed correctly (which happens more often than not) it produces toxic leachates that pollutes soil and water, changing their properties, causing bad odors and the proliferation of damaging fauna such as mosquitos (Ramos, 2017).
3.- Developing the project idea
After taking all of the above into consideration, together with our love for environmental biotechnology, we decided to tackle the local problem of bagasse waste from a global perspective: plastic waste. We decided to produce bioplastic from this residue by the development of a genetically engineered organism. Our project, PHAgave, also consists of a way of bioplastic production that is more circular and sustainable, instead of destining the production of new resources as the raw material for bioplastic production.
To corroborate the issue, validate our project idea and become immersed in the tequila production process, we visited several small and medium production plants, including El tequileño, Camarena, Saro, Tequilera El Olvido and El triángulo, all of them based in our home state, Jalisco. Jalisco has a lot of small Tequila producers that play an important role for the country’s economy. They told us how bagasse was a problem for them: they have A LOT of it, and it takes up a lot of volume, representing a contamination problem for the community, due to toxic leakages and mosquito proliferation. Usually the disposal is problematic and they even have to invest money to get rid of the huge quantities.
4.- Lab experimentation
Conscious on how crucial it is to protect the biological integrity of our ecosystems, especially when working with genetically modified organisms we collaborated with the Mexican Association of Biosafety to organize a Risk Analysis course, in which we got certified ourselves. We learned the three steps of a Risk Analysis: Risk Assessment, Risk management and Risk communication. We also reviewed the concept of “One Health” that emphasizes the interrelationship between animal, human and plant health. All of these concepts were taken into account when we designed and carried out our project. We also developed a Risk Analysis ourselves that can be found in our Biosafety section.
We certainly don't just want our project to end this november at the jamboree. We have considered the commercialization of our project and have developed a business model, designed in a way that the community is benefited from the use of environmentally friendly bioplastics. Also agronomy studies were taken into account. Tequila is not the only fermented beverage produced in Mexico, lots of small communities produce other fermented beverages from different Agave species, which could also be used under the model of our project.
Please visit our entrepreneurship and applied design sections to read more about our efforts to create a complete project, capable of being manufactured and commercialized to become a reality that benefits our community.
Youth Biotech, the association we belong to, which was created after attending the UN Biodiversity Conference, focuses on three main areas: science communication, science regulation and science development. That’s why, the PHAagave project has also taken into account those areas for our human practices, but mainly science communication. Why? Because we believe that effective science communication is key for Synthetic Biology and the other emerging technologies in order for the fear of the unknown to not be able to close the door to science development. Most science misconceptions are based on hypothetical escalated risks regarding these technologies. It is our responsibility as scientists and future scientists to be able to explain how the technologies actually do work so the can be implemented in projects that solve big problems like climate change, famine, antibiotic resistance, cancer, among others.
section to take a look at the events we’ve hosted and participated
Our experience at iGEM
The development of our project was not error free and, of course, it wasn't easy at all! We had initially thought on the diaper degradation problem. We started to work on it and made some research to optimize its degradation, but we soon realized it was more convenient to change our project due to biosafety concerns regarding mixing pathogenic bacteria strains, found in the used diapers, with our GM organism. We also found out that there already existed other efficient systems for diaper degradation that didn't cause much environmental struggles; for example, there’s a fungi mixture that does the job in 60 days.
After having already picked the PHAgave idea, we tried different ways to degrade the bagasse, a lot of investigated ways were not viable in our conditions as well as we did not have a lot of materials.
Then our iGEM kit didn't arrive on time, it was stuck in customs for months!!! Because of this we failed to finalize the InterLab on time. Well, not only because of this… the DH5 alpha E. coli strain we were provided with wasn´t DH5 alpha in reality!! We found out too late…
Here’s a video of the moment when we finally received our kit! We were so excited!
But unfortunately … it seemed to be damaged so we couldn´t carry out the necessary transformations for bronze medal. However, our friends from iGEM Tec-Chihuahua collaborated with us and sent us the transformations. Take a look at our collaborations for more detail
Our constructs we constantly revised and corrected for optimization. When we were finally able to send them, logistics between the company that was going to synthesize them and the mexican provider were too slow … Then a huge earthquake hit Mexico city and all the process slowed down even more. Our construct did not arrive on time to be sent to iGEM HQ.
All of the above without taking into account other logistic problems at our University labs and other within team…
But no matter what, we learned A LOT!!
Re-planning and planning for emergency as well as integrating as a team helped us distribute responsibilities and engage people in the job.
Choosing the most viable and easy to replicate solutions usually prevailed.
Listening to instructors, advisors, and experts in the subject is key to correct mistakes or prevent some failures due to inexperience.
Communication within team members must always be encouraged.
The design of the project and actions taken must always follow clear objectives.
Asking for help and establishing new relationships to learn is always a good idea.
Try to assure at the best extent the compromise of the team regarding the project.
When we started the project, most of us hadn't even taken a Genetic Engineering course. Today, we have not only learned a lot about this subject but have also received valuable lessons regarding problem solving, teamwork and have even become more creative!
One of our team members, Santiago Ochoa, wrote a poem about our iGEM kit arrival experience (which was stuck for a month or so in Customs):