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iGEM Manchester 2017 is a team of nine students from Manchester Metropolitan University and the University of Manchester participating in the biggest synthetic biology competition in the world. iGEM stands for the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, wherein teams design modified organisms to combat real-world problems.
In their project, the 2017 Manchester team aims to address two imminent environmental concerns: eutrophication and the depletion of phosphate reserves. They aim to modify bacteria to accumulate phosphate from waste agricultural water, effectively recycling phosphate from the fertilisers farmers use and preventing damage to the ecosystem at the same time.
iGEM Manchester 2017 started their work in February by analyzing the energy, medical and environmental problems facing our society now and what’s expected to happen in the near future. This is a standard procedure for each of the 337 teams competing this year. “We looked into a range of project ideas including fungal bricks, directed evolution and degradation of plastics but we eventually settled on addressing phosphate depletion. Fertilisers generally have three main components, one of which is phosphorus, making it one of the three main pillars of agriculture and a backbone of food security in the 21st century,” explains team member Amber Hall.
Phosphate rock is a finite resource, the majority being found in only one country with reserves of the mineral predicted to be exhausted in the next 50-100 years. This poses a huge hurdle for the growing global population and threatens the food security of tomorrow. This outlook provides the incentive to design a new method of recycling, with the potential to support chemical fertiliser production by reusing phosphate and decreasing waste, effectively closing the loop. Currently a large amount of phosphate ends up in rivers and lakes due to agricultural waste water, which gives rise to the second problem; eutrophication where an ecosystem is overloaded with nutrients and in water ecosystems creating algal bloom’s. These blooms not only turn the water a murky green but can disrupt the ecosystem and often lead to the deaths of many aquatic organisms such as fish.
iGEM Manchester 2017 seized the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone by creating a phosphate accumulating bacteria. The team aims to engineer E.coli to include micro-compartments in the cell, within which the phosphate would be stored. Think of them as mini sponges. This massively increases E.coli’s ability to take up and store phosphate from its surroundings compared to unmodified E.coli.
As part of the iGEM competition, the team is building a potential business model based on the project. To this end, the team has been speaking to experts in synthetic biology and the water industry, and studying the current legislation on GMOs in order to further develop their idea with the possibility to scale-up their methods for industry in the future.
The grand finale of the iGEM competition, The Giant Jamboree, takes place in Boston in November. The Giant Jamboree brings together students, academics, researchers and industry experts to celebrate achievements in synthetic biology; teams give presentations, hold workshops and organise social events. It’s here where iGEM Manchester 2017 will compete with other universities from around the globe, and hopefully capture the audience with a biological technology that could prove vital in both future, and current environmental protection.
You can follow the Manchester iGEM team on Facebook and Twitter and we’ll keep you up to date on their progress to ending the environmental problems around phosphate, as well as helping slow the destruction of a finite resource. Good look guys!