Students want to make clothes easier to recycle

​When the prestigious international competition IGEM was held, a team from Chalmers participated. They wanted to make it possible to recycle more textiles – with the help of enzymes.
IGEM, The International Genetic Engineered Machine Competition, was started in 2003 at MIT in Boston and has since grown into its own, independent organization. The topic of the competition is synthetic biology, which in short means taking advantage of the knowledge that exists about genetic code, and how to change it to influence biological systems. One example is the production of enzymes that can be used to accelerate chemical reactions, which in turn can be used in industrial processes.
It is this technology that Chalmers IGEM team, consisting of ten students, focused on.
“We wanted to use enzymes to break down synthetic fibre found in cotton, which makes it difficult to recycle textiles. You often mix in three to four percent elastane, whose fibres are then worn out while i.e. a pair of jeans are being used. Therefore, the cotton cannot be recycled because it cannot be separated from the worn elastane fibres”, says Matilda Johansson, who is studying her fourth year at Biotechnology.

"Enzymatic cocktail"

She says that because large resources are required to grow cotton, a lot is wasted when clothes cannot be recycled.
Therefore, the team developed an "enzymatic cocktail".
“We identified nine enzymes that biotechnically should break down elastane. These can be made in laboratories and used on textiles, so they break down the elastane – but hopefully not the cotton”.

This year's competition was of course affected by the pandemic. Among other things, the final "Giant jamboree", where the teams show their projects on site in Boston, was cancelled and went digital. The corona virus also affected the work in the project itself.
“In terms of lab work, it was tricky because the time in the lab halls was limited and we were allowed to be a maximum of two people at a time. There we missed a few weeks. We managed to build up the genetic codes to get the bacterium to produce the required enzymes, but never had the time to test them. We hope to be able to hand it over to next year's Chalmers team or hope that another competitor picks up the thread, says Matilda Johansson.

Reached bronze level

In the competition, you can receive the bronze, silver or gold award, depending on how far you have managed to take your project and how many criteria you have managed to achieve. To be allowed to step up a level, it is required that all criteria are met. The Chalmers team reached bronze but were stumbling close to silver as only a few criteria were lacking at the silver level.
“There are a wide range of criteria, such as Human practices on how society affects the project and vice versa. We managed to spread our message widely because we broadened it. It does not matter what level we ended up at, the important thing was that we got very good feedback”, says Matilda Johansson.

The thought of continuing the project outside of the competition has been there, but reality also comes into play.
“There is potential, the need exists among, for example, municipal actors and clothing stores. But time and money are a problem. We are involved in recruiting next year's team and hope that they will want to continue working with this”, says Matilda Johansson.

"Learned so much"

The Chalmers team consisted of ten students, from different years and specializations, and two students from the University of Gothenburg.
“We try to get as broad a team as possible, because for example web design is a component of the project”, says Matilda Johansson.
She does not hesitate to push other Chalmerists to participate in IGEM.
“We have learned so much. You get an overall picture of biotechnology and get to be with it all the way: from idea via sequences, lab work and model work to documentation. Above all, we learned extremely much about working in projects and groups and got a try of what it is like to do this for real because it is up to us to plan our work”.

Text: Erik Krång
Pictures: Private

Page manager Published: Wed 13 Jan 2021.