Student scientists engineer bacteria to break down plastic, hope to help clean Baltimore harbor

Six Baltimore high schoolers spent the summer genetically altering a common bacteria so that it can, in theory, dissolve plastic – a project they hope could one day eliminate tons of waste washing into the Inner Harbor.

The local team of juniors and seniors – four from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, one from Western High School and a home-schooled student – is building on the work of Japanese researchers who discovered a species of bacteria that can break down plastic.

The students’ research could show that other bacteria can be engineered to do the same.

Their work, done at a 4-year-old community lab in East Baltimore, won a bronze medal last month in an international competition that challenges scientists to use genetic engineering and molecular biology to solve world problems.

“They were able to tap into something that’s really hot, that a lot of people were interested in,” said Lisa Scheifele, an associate professor of biology at Loyola University Maryland who serves on the board of the lab, known as the Baltimore Under Ground Science Space.

The teenagers are the first team of city school students the community lab has sent to the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, which draws teams from the best universities and high schools around the world. The lab offers people of all ages – many with no research experience – training to become “citizen scientists.”

At the competition in Boston last month, researchers from Harvard and other top universities pitched similar concepts, using the bacteria to clean up waterways.

Alongside such formidable and experienced teams, “here’s a bunch of Baltimore high school kids who came up with the exact same idea,” Scheifele said.

The competition, known as iGEM, is a decade-old program that hands high school and college students bits of DNA and asks them to build something out of it. It aims to train them in an umbrella of sciences that fall under a field known as synthetic biology – a discipline that includes genetic, molecular and computer engineering and biophysics.

The local students competed alongside teams from high schools and universities in China and Japan, from across Europe, and from U.S. institutions including Columbia, Cornell and MIT. Winning a medal means hitting certain criteria in a scoring rubric.

From the beginning, the team – Poly students Mercedes Thompson, Eseni Tafah, Oumaima Dsiwech and Julius Gingleshad, Rachael Avidor of Western and home-schooled student Ella Coleman – had a vision for the project. They started working in June and dubbed themselves the Baltimore BioCrew.

Gingleshad had read about the Japanese discovery that enzymes released by a bacterium could break down plastic. Thompson brought her own interest in water quality – she had spent the previous two summers testing water in North Carolina and Georgia through a National Aquarium program for city school students.

The students wondered if a variation of the Japanese discovery might be a remedy for Baltimore’s trash-fouled Inner Harbor.

“That’s where me and my friends hang out,” said Thompson, a 16-year-old junior. Cleaning up the harbor would mean helping to erase some of the “stigma” Baltimore carries with outsiders, she said.

The Japanese researchers discovered a bacterium, which they named Ideonella sakaiensis, within plastic debris, breaking down material into substances that don’t pose a threat to the environment. In a March issue of the journal Science, the scientists reported that the bacteria could break down a thin layer of plastic known as polyethylene terephthalate within six weeks.

The local students didn’t want to work with the bacteria found in Japan, because apart from that experiment, it was untested in lab settings.

Instead, they started with clones of genes found in bacteria responsible for producing two plastic-eating enzymes. They incorporated them into the genome of E. coli, a mostly harmless bacteria that is commonly used in lab experiments.

The students mixed the modified bacteria into a solution in test tubes, along with the bits of plastic. For about the past month, they have been periodically weighing the specimens, each less than a tenth of a gram.

“The amount of plastic lost is so small, we’re worried we’re not actually able to detect it,” said Coleman, a 16-year-old junior who visited the lab on a recent evening to do another weigh-in.

The team is still in the process of testing whether their bacteria is effective at dissolving the thumbprint-sized squares of plastic film. It could be another month before they have results.

If the results prove to be as promising as they hope, the students have big ideas for the technology. They wonder if one day it could be integrated with Mr. Trash Wheel – the contraption that catches trash and debris washing into the Baltimore harbor – to help break down plastic once it’s collected.

The director of the Healthy Harbor Initiative, the group behind the trash wheels, welcomed the idea.

“We need some new ideas if we’re actually going to clean up the harbor and do it within our lifetime,” Adam Lindquist said. “It sounds like this innovation is feeding off that same thought.”

The students don’t know yet if they’ll continue to focus on the plastic-eating bacteria as they look toward the 2017 iGEM competition. They planned to meet Saturday to check in on their progress and discuss their next steps.

They admit the pace of their work has slowed a bit this fall. After all, they have to focus on finishing high school.

Whatever they choose to explore, the experience has energized their interest in science.

Leaders at the lab, founded in 2012 by a group of scientists and biotechnology advocates, were encouraged by the success of the local students and hope to bring more city youths into their programs.

“When I first came there, I didn’t know anything about the whole genetic engineering process. I didn’t know it was this simple – you could just go and do it,” Coleman said. “It was really cool.”

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