Call for citizen scientists to help tackle eco problem

Posted by pt91 at May 18, 2012 10:55 AM |
Students ask for help from public to find environmental solution to pollution
Call for citizen scientists to help tackle eco problem

Left to right: William Harrison, Nathan Hanna, Anthony Cox, Christopher Morton, Luke Thompson, Grace Hodson, Neil Nathwani, Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys (who has contributed to the project) and Philip Higgs.

Issued by University of Leicester Press Office on 18 May 2012

JPEG image of project team available from

Members of the public have the chance to take part in a groundbreaking University of Leicester student-led experiment to tackle pollution.

A group of undergraduates hope to genetically engineer a new organism which will quickly break down polystyrene waste, and are issuing 'citizen science' kits to help with the research.

Polystyrene has been used in plastic packaging for years, but takes up to hundreds of years to biodegrade.

The second-year students who make up Leicester's International Genetically Engineered Machine team (iGEM) want to find examples of bacteria which already degrade polystyrene to help them design a more efficient organism.

In exchange for a small donation to the project, volunteers will receive a kit containing a piece of polystyrene which they can simply bury in their garden, allotment or plant pot and leave for several months before sending it back to the team in a postage-paid envelope.

The polystyrene pieces will be tested in the lab for traces of microbes that have colonised and might be consuming it.

These could include pseudomonas bacteria, which are common in soil and have the capability to degrade polystyrene very slowly, but there may be better, faster microbes waiting to be discovered.

The team will then locate the parts of the microbes DNA which give them this trait, and aim to transfer these genes to the new bacteria that they create.

The participant who uncovers the most active polystyrene-degrading bacteria will be invited to have their name included on a research paper at the end of this project, and runners up will receive an "Official Citizen Scientist" iGEM t-shirt.

Project leader Christopher Morton, 20, a second year biological sciences undergraduate, said: "The kits are a fun and easy way to get people involved in the experiment.

"The main aim of the experiment is to find the elusive polystyrene degrading microbes. We hope this will get people thinking outside the box to try and place an experimental kit in an unusual place which will result in us finding the microbes."

Vice Project Leader Anthony Cox, 21, who also studies Biological Sciences, said: "Public engagement with this aspect of the project not only gives us a large number of samples from different areas, but also helps us to raise awareness.

"The greatest thing the public will get out of the project will be the satisfaction of knowing they've helped out in a project which could ultimately be of great benefit to the environment."

The kits can be purchased for £2.50 from the team's website at: Money raised will help fund the purchasing of equipment and resources for the experiment.



Christopher Morton, project leader, can be contacted at

Dr Richard Badge, project supervisor, can be contact at, or on 0116 2525042

About Leicester's iGEM team

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 also contain chemicals that are thought to cause cancer.

The group of 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.

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 have entered the undergraduate-level category.

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