Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s iGEM overgraduate student team took home a gold medal at the iGEM Giant Jamboree held in late October at MIT in Cambridge, MA for their project PlastiCure-BGU. They were also nominated for Best Environmental Project, Best Poster and Best Applied Design which means that they were placed in the top three of each category. As they were the only team comprised solely of undergraduates in a category dominated by masters and PhD students, it indicates the impact of their project and their great achievement.
Now, the team wants to take their idea from a student project to a prototype.
The International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to education and competition, the advancement of synthetic biology, and the development of an open community and collaboration. iGEM runs the iGEM Competition - an international competition for students interested in the field of synthetic biology.
Their project, Plasticure-BGU, aims to use a genetically-modified bacterium to “eat” polyethylene-terephthalate (PET), a type of plastic, which is proliferating tremendously in the earth’s oceans and on land. If we continue to consume and then dispose of plastic at the same rate we have been thus far, then by 2050 the weight of plastic containers in the ocean will equal the weight of fish in it. According to a study in the Mediterranean Sea, 18% of fish sampled had plastic remnants in their stomachs. Some of these fish eventually ended up on our plates.
One of plastic’s best features is one of its greatest drawbacks; its durability makes it virtually non-degradable. An average bottle of mineral water takes roughly half a millennium to decompose, leading to a global accumulation of plastic waste. Many ideas have been considered for dealing with plastic waste such as burning or burying it, but these solutions damage the environment because of plastic’s toxicity. As plastic was only recently introduced to nature, native biodegradation solutions, such as microorganisms, are not sufficient to overcome the massive amounts of plastic debris in oceans and land. Thus, there is an urgent and unmet need to develop a microorganism that will be able to degrade plastic in an efficient and environmentaly-friendly way.
That is where Plasticure -BGU comes in. While the competition only requires a proof of concept, the team is planning on continuing their research. The Plasticure-BGU' product would degrade the plastic and produce the electricity needed to run the processing plant for the reaction by utilizing the energy released from PET bonds.
This year’s team was comprised of a multi-disciplinary group of students.
Tomer Shary, Nir Zafrany and Noa Weiss from Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. Ben Vaknin, Inbar Segal, Dor Bar-On, Eyal Zajfman, Inbar Bariah, and Liran Sagron from the Faculty of Natural Sciences. Guy Farjon, Yotam Itzhaky, and Efrat Jeshurun from the Faculty of Engineering Sciences.
“The competition was a great learning experience. We were exposed to varied and interesting synthetic biology projects. The warm reviews we received and the fact that we were chosen one of the top three environmental projects greatly encourages us to continue to research and develop the idea until we can efficiently break down plastic,” says Nir Zafrany.
Tomer Shary adds, “Working on the project and participating in the competition was a unique experience. Over and above turning our vision into reality and the intensive and rewarding work on the project, we were lucky to participate in the competition where we were exposed to other groups from around the world and research ideas in every field, an extraordinary experience for undergraduate students. We believe in our project and its ability to provide a real and a relevant solution to the growing problem of plastic accumulation and contamination, and are pleased to have the opportunity to continue to research after the competition.”