As an undergraduate science student, there are several key aspects to becoming a successful researcher. While attending lectures and laboratory sessions is the foundation of a strong career, extracurricular lab work is instrumental to understanding what a future in research is truly like. Some students apply to help out professors and lecturers in their department or elsewhere. Others have found a new way into research.
Each spring, a handful of biologists, chemists, physicists and computer scientists gather to start a new project as part of the iGEM competition. iGEM is the ‘International Genetically Engineered Machine’ competition, which challenges students around the world to find innovative biological solutions to any issue they can think of. University of York students in past years have chosen to develop bacterial fuel cells or bacterial janitors, which clean up harmful toxins released by mining.
This year the team has chosen a problem closer to home. By the end of summer, the group aims to have designed, developed and created a self-sustaining living organism that will remove phosphate and a wide array of metals out of Yorkshire’s wastewater. Phosphate pollution of rivers in the UK is partially caused by wastewater. At the same time, phosphate fertiliser deposits for agricultural use are running low. Hence, developing a cheap way of removing and recycling phosphate from wastewater and sludge is economically viable and environmentally friendly.
The metal pollutants on the other hand are not only toxic, but can also be very valuable. A study conducted in the USA showed that for a city of 1 million people, the value of metals in wastewater adds up to 13 million US dollars annually. Yorkshire has a population of more than 5 million. If we can develop an organism to remove and collect these metals out of wastewater, we will produce a self-sustaining pollutant remover, provide a cheaper alternative to current wastewater treatment systems, and potentially have a way of extracting valuable metals out of waste sludge.
The organism of choice will be a bacterium, as they are easy and cost-effective to grow and can survive extensive genetic manipulation. As in past years, we will use “BioBricks” – sequences of DNA with known functions that can be assembled together to synthetically alter the function of a cell, to get our bacteria to collect and process the phosphate and metals.
While the research and lab work for the project is very challenging and will take all summer, there are other aspects to the competition. Firstly, the team is self-funded, and must apply for every research, travel and student grant under the sun. Secondly, part of the competition involves outreach to the public. Keep your eyes peeled for events on campus or in town where we will be showcasing our work and discussing the ethics of synthetic biology, including at YorNight European Researchers’ Night.