Stu­dent sci­en­tists make bac­te­ria to eat plas­tic

Team of six to find a means to clean Baltimore har­bor of trash by bio­engi­neer­ing

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Scott Dance

Six Baltimore high school­ers spent the sum­mer ge­net­i­cally al­ter­ing a com­mon bac­te­ria so that it can, in the­ory, dis­solve plas­tic — a project they hope could one day elim­i­nate tons of waste wash­ing into the In­ner Har­bor.

The lo­cal team of ju­niors and se­niors — four from Baltimore Polytech­nic In­sti­tute, one from West­ern High School and a home-schooled stu­dent — is build­ing on the work of Ja­panese re­searchers who dis­cov­ered a species of bac­te­ria that can break down plas­tic.

The stu­dents’ re­search could show that other bac­te­ria can be en­gi­neered to do the same.

Their work, done at a 4-year-old com­mu­nity lab in East Baltimore, won a bronze medal last month in an in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion that chal­lenges sci­en­tists to use ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing and molec­u­lar bi­ol­ogy to solve world prob­lems.

“They were able to tap into some­thing that’s re­ally hot, that a lot of peo­ple were in­ter­ested in,” said Lisa Scheifele, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of bi­ol­ogy at Loy­ola Univer­sity Mary­land who serves on the board of the lab, known as the Baltimore Un­der Ground Sci­ence Space.

The teenagers are the first team of city school stu­dents the com­mu­nity lab has sent to the In­ter­na­tional Ge­net­i­cally En­gi­neered Ma­chine com­pe­ti­tion, which draws teams from the best uni­ver­si­ties and high schools around the world. The lab of­fers peo­ple of all ages — many with no re­search ex­pe­ri­ence — train­ing to be­come “cit­i­zen sci­en­tists.”

At the com­pe­ti­tion in Bos­ton last month, re­searchers from Har­vard and other top uni­ver­si­ties pitched sim­i­lar con­cepts, us­ing the bac­te­ria to clean up wa­ter­ways.

Along­side such for­mi­da­ble and ex­pe­ri­enced teams, “here’s a bunch of Baltimore high school kids who came up with the ex­act same idea,” Scheifele said.

The com­pe­ti­tion, known as iGEM, is a decade-old pro­gram that hands high school and col­lege stu­dents bits of DNA and asks them to build some­thing out of it. It aims to train them in an um­brella of sciences that fall un­der a field known as syn­thetic bi­ol­ogy — a dis­ci­pline that in­cludes ge­netic, molec­u­lar and com­puter en­gi­neer­ing and bio­physics.


The lo­cal stu­dents com­peted along­side teams from high schools and uni­ver­si­ties in China and Ja­pan, from across Europe, and from U.S. in­sti­tu­tions in­clud­ing Columbia, Cor­nell and MIT. Win­ning a medal means hit­ting cer­tain cri­te­ria in a scor­ing rubric.

From the be­gin­ning, the team — Poly stu­dents Mercedes Thomp­son, Eseni Tafah, Ou­maima Dsi­wech and Julius Gin­gle­shad, Rachael Avi­dor of West­ern and home-schooled stu­dent Ella Cole­man — had a vi­sion for the project. They started work­ing in June and dubbed them­selves the Baltimore BioCrew.

Gin­gle­shad had read about the Ja­panese discovery that en­zymes re­leased by a bac­terium could break down plas­tic. Thomp­son brought her own in­ter­est in wa­ter qual­ity — she had spent the pre­vi­ous two sum­mers test­ing wa­ter in North Carolina and Ge­or­gia through a Na­tional Aquar­ium pro­gram for city school stu­dents.

The stu­dents won­dered if a vari­a­tion of the Ja­panese discovery might be a rem­edy for Baltimore’s trash-fouled In­ner Har­bor.

“That’s where me and my friends hang out,” said Thomp­son, a 16-year-old ju­nior. Clean­ing up the har­bor would mean help­ing to erase some of the “stigma” Baltimore car­ries with out­siders, she said.

The Ja­panese re­searchers dis­cov­ered a bac­terium, which they named Ideonella sakaien­sis, within plas­tic de­bris, break­ing down ma­te­rial into sub­stances that don’t pose a threat to the en­vi­ron­ment. In a March is­sue of the jour­nal Sci­ence, the sci­en­tists re­ported that the bac­te­ria could break down a thin layer of plas­tic known as poly­eth­yl­ene tereph­tha­late within six weeks.

The lo­cal stu­dents didn’t want to work with the bac­te­ria found in Ja­pan, be­cause apart from that ex­per­i­ment, it was untested in lab set­tings.

In­stead, they started with clones of genes found in bac­te­ria re­spon­si­ble for pro­duc­ing two plas­tic-eat­ing en­zymes. They in­cor­po­rated them into the genome of E. coli, a mostly harm­less bac­te­ria that is com­monly used in lab ex­per­i­ments.

The stu­dents mixed the mod­i­fied bac­te­ria into a so­lu­tion in test tubes, along with the bits of plas­tic. For about the past month, they have been pe­ri­od­i­cally weigh­ing the Ella Cole­man col­lects spec­i­mens in an ex­per­i­ment to en­gi­neer a bac­te­ria that cre­ates en­zymes to break down plas­tic. spec­i­mens, each less than a tenth of a gram.

“The amount of plas­tic lost is so small, we’re wor­ried we’re not ac­tu­ally able to de­tect it,” said Cole­man, a16-year-old ju­nior who vis­ited the lab on a re­cent evening to do an­other weigh-in.

The team is still in the process of test­ing whether their bac­te­ria is ef­fec­tive at dis­solv­ing the thumbprint-sized squares of plas­tic film. It could be an­other month be­fore they have re­sults.

If the re­sults prove to be as promis­ing as they hope, the stu­dents have big ideas for the tech­nol­ogy. They won­der if one day it could be in­te­grated with Mr. Trash Wheel — the con­trap­tion that catches de­bris wash­ing into the Baltimore har­bor — to help break down plas­tic once it’s col­lected.

The di­rec­tor of the Healthy Har­bor Ini­tia­tive, the group be­hind the trash wheels, wel­comed the idea.

“We need some new ideas if we’re ac­tu­ally go­ing to clean up the har­bor and do it within our life­time,” Adam Lindquist said. “It sounds like this in­no­va­tion is feed­ing off that same thought.”

The stu­dents don’t know yet if they’ll con­tinue to fo­cus on the plas­tic-eat­ing bac­te­ria as they look to­ward the 2017 iGEM com­pe­ti­tion. They planned to meet to­day to dis­cuss their next steps.

They ad­mit the pace of their work has slowed a bit this fall — they have to fo­cus on fin­ish­ing high school. What­ever they choose to ex­plore, the ex­pe­ri­ence has energized their in­ter­est in sci­ence.

Lead­ers at the lab, founded in 2012 by a group of sci­en­tists and biotech­nol­ogy ad­vo­cates, were en­cour­aged by the suc­cess of the lo­cal stu­dents and hope to bring more city youths into their pro­grams.

“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,” Cole­man said. “It was re­ally cool.”


Ella Cole­man is part of a team of high school stu­dents from Baltimore who won a bronze medal at an in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion in ge­netic en­gi­neer­ing for their work on a plas­tic-eat­ing bac­terium which they hope can be used to clean up the bay.


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