Team:University College London/FAQ




Cell Viability

Do you know how long your cells will survive in the marine environment (seeing as it is quite a competitive environment)?

Even with the added salt tolerance, it is likely that the naturally occurring marine bacterial strains will be more adapted to survive in the ocean than our E. coli. As such, E. coli is only our model organism to be utilised in the lab. We are also investigating our BioBricks in two strains of marine bacteria, Roseobacter denitrificans, and Oceanibulbus indolifex.

How would the nutrient poor environment of the ocean affect your system? Have you considered other marine systems with added viability, such as cyanobacteria?

In theory, one of the biggest challenges our project would face in the marine environment would be the lack of carbon sources. As such, photosynthetic marine microbes, such as cyanobacteria, would be ideal organisms for the application of our project. At this stage though, the tools for developing synthetic biology technologies with cyanobacteria are relatively limited. Thus, we have decided to look especially at the Roseobacter clade of bacteria, as it contains phototropic members that have the potential to meet the desired future viability of the project.

Marine module functionality

If curli binding is non-specific, how are you going to ensure that they bind to plastic, and don't take other important organisms out of the ecosystem?

In order to control curl binding, we are using our Detection module to ensure that curlis are only expressed in the presence of organic pollutants. Due to the high specificity of organic pollutants for plastic debris, the local concentration of organic pollutants is significantly higher in the presence of plastic. By expressing curlis only in local proximity to plastics, we increase their probability of binding. Furthermore, due to the size difference between plastic fragments and microbes, it is much more likely for our cells to bind to plastics than to other free floating microorganisms in the ocean.

Due to the ocean currents, is buoyancy that important? Won't the currents have a greater effect on positioning than the gas vesicles?

The surface ocean currents are defined by the limits of the North Pacific Gyre. As such, if the plastic particles and microbes are within 100m of the surface of the ocean, they will be confined to the gyre, and be able to interact. If the cells sink beyond this depth, it is likely that deep ocean currents would carry the cells away from the gyre. Hence, buoyancy of the cells is essential to keeping the cells within the confines of the gyre, and target plastic pollution.

Project Goals

How did your team come up with the idea of solving plastic pollution in the ocean?

During our project brainstorming sessions, we determined that environmental issues were an ideal focus for our team, both because of past iGEM projects that targeted environmental issues, and our own interests. Looking at some of the environmental problems facing the world today, we determined that ocean pollution was an area of key interest, which we could contribute to. As there were a number of plastic related BioBricks in the registry, we decided that this would be a good stepping stone to bring our project forward.

Realistically, what would the next step be after aggregating plastics? Will you really be bringing the plastic republic into reality?

The idea of creating a plastic island in the middle of the Pacific ocean out of our plastic pollution is our visionary idea for our project. We think that it is unlikely that such a project could be implemented any time soon - even disregarding the ethical issues, the project would still have many technical challenges to overcome to create a coherent system. While we think it is more practical to create larger aggregates of plastic that can be easily cleared from the ocean, we believe that the concept of creating a plastic republic is an idea that can inspire and challenge the public, allowing them to see the potential of synthetic biology.

Human Practices

Was the crowd funding project difficult to do? Would you recommend other teams do it?

Crowd funding is fairly simple: the more effort you put into your campaign, the better response you get. The most important part of your campaign is clearly communicating your idea. The second step is making it easy for your investors to engage in your project, e.g. in our case, buying 'virtual land'. With regards to other teams crowd fundraising, it's worthwhile - it helps you focus on the aims of your project, why you really need funding, and how you engage with the public. However, bear in mind that a successful campaign is time-consuming, and it can be demotivating to not get a strong response.

How did your team go about generating publicity for your project?

Part of it comes down to luck. Be proactive. We emailed newspapers, spoke to journalists and tweeted abundantly. Have something interesting to say: invest time in presenting your idea from an angle targeted towards the person you're contacting. Make it easy for them to connect with your project. High quality pictures and a catchy vision help.