University of Leicester students aim to use DNA to create environmental solution to pollution

Posted by pt91 at Apr 12, 2012 10:15 AM |
Competition sees undergraduates design a novel genetically engineered organism

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 12 April 2012

University of Leicester students are set to try their hand at genetic engineering - and hope to create a new organism which could rid us of decades of plastic rubbish.

Second-year Biological Sciences undergraduates are taking part in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition this summer, and aim to construct a biological machine that can efficiently degrade polystyrene.

Polystyrene has been used in plastic packaging for years, but takes up to hundreds of years to biodegrade and requires temperatures of more than 1000°C to be combusted. The breakdown products can also contain chemicals that are thought to cause cancer.

The group of around 10 students aims to create an organism that can rapidly degrade polystyrene in an environmentally friendly way by using standard DNA parts supplied by the competition organisers.

They will spend 10 weeks working in the university's laboratories over the summer vacation, and upload their findings to iGEM's wiki site.

They hope to be able to present their findings to judges at the European region's Jamboree event in Amsterdam in October. If they are successful in Amsterdam, they could be chosen to compete in the international final at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the USA, in November.

The students have already raised more than £2000 in funding for the project, which included taking part in a sponsored walk from Leicester to Loughborough along the River Soar.

The project is being led completely by the students with supervision from Dr Richard Badge and Dr Raymond Dalgleish of the Department of Genetics, and department head Professor Julian Ketley.

Dr Badge said: "The value in this kind of experience is that the students will really get to think about how science works - tutors will not be prescribing what they should do. It will be quite different from class work, but ultimately very valuable, because in science we are always trying to strive for independent thinking.

"There is an awful lot of landfill space that is being occupied by a non-biodegradeable plastic. Finding a way to degrade it would not only free up a lot of space -  such as reducing marine debris collections like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch - but a controlled biological process could produce useful hydrocarbons, rather than mixtures of dangerous benzene derivatives, which is the case when polystyrene is partially burned."

Project leader Christopher Morton, 20, a Biological Sciences student from Peterborough, said: "I have always kept the environment in the forefront of my mind, being an active member of the UOL environment team. I knew previously that polystyrene was a large component of landfill and bad for the environment, and feel a cost effective bacteria to deal with the problem - and maybe even produce something worthwhile - is a fantastic advance for society.

"Although there have been presentations and practical lab work during my studies, I feel this project will give me much more hands on experience as an up and coming scientist - while at the same time potentially giving something good to the world and getting communities to help in the process.

"Getting a place at the Jamboree would be a challenge to say the least, but not one that we won't be ready for. Some of the lecture theaters we will be presenting in are humongous in comparison to some of ours, however at the same time the thought of presenting our findings there is exhilarating!"

The team has been offered funding and support from the University's Department of Genetics and Genetics Education Networking for Innovation and Excellence (GENIE) as well as lab suppliers IDT, Promega, Bioline and Heathrow Scientific.

iGEM is an international genetics competition started at MIT which has categories for school-age, undergraduate and entrepreneurial entrants. More than 170 teams from around the world have entered the undergraduate-level category this year.


Notes: Dr Richard Badge can be contacted at or on 0116 252 5042.

More details about the project can be found at:

More details about the competition can be found at:

Mark Cardwell

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