The project itself is part of an international competition in synthetic biology called iGEM where they will face over 350 other teams from around the world at the beginning of November.
The students themselves came up with the idea of developing an organism that could break down the chemical PCB which, among other things, plastics and paint, has contaminated the earth and the sea.
“We were all interested in solving an environmental problem. PCB is a substance that is harmful to both animals and humans and still exists in quite high amounts in the environment. The problem is that this chemical is not degradable over time, it’s very stable”, says team leader David Lund.
“Much of it is in the soil, from the soil it goes through the water and into the small fish. Then the bigger fish eat the small fish. It ends up in seals, seabirds and killer whales and accumulates in large animals”, says team member Moa Lord.
PCB emissions are a large problem from the local area which the students are from but also needs to be solved on a larger scale.
“The PCB levels are high in the Gothenburg area, including in Askim and around the Baltic Sea, but the pollution is also a major global problem. On the west coast of the United States, many whales have died due to high PCB levels.
“The recommendations that pregnant women should not eat herring from the Baltic Sea more than once also have to do with PCB levels”, says David Lund.
In their project research, the students found the support that certain organisms in PCB-contaminated areas have developed the ability to cope with the chemical. That was how the idea of a self-developed yeast strain came into being.
“We have taken genes from different bacteria and put them together in one organism, the same kind of yeast that we use for baking bread. This includes a lot of trials runs where we optimize the gene sequence, trying to find a solution where the yeast can decompose the chemical”, says Emma Andersson, another member of the team.
For over three years, the students have gained theoretical knowledge in the Biotechnology programme at Chalmers, but in this project, they have been able to use their new knowledge in a very real way.
“It feels incredible to be able to use our previous knowledge and experience in the lab to try to solve a problem that has such a huge environmental impact,” says David Lund.
“Course labs always work, but the reality is far more difficult. You must constantly analyse what went wrong, adjust the equipment or concentrations to get the perfect result”, says Moa Lord.
“Even if we don’t succeed in solving the problem with this project, we hope that it brings some attention to this kind of solution, cleaning water with micro-organisms.”, says David Lund.
Text: Vedrana Sivac