U pollution bead research nabs gold at national competition

The team of mostly undergraduates has developed water-cleaning technology.

Parker Lemke

Environmentally unfriendly and expensive chemicals are one of the few methods for cleaning up pollution caused by mining operations — like those in northern Minnesota — that can let harmful substances into the earth.

But thanks to University of Minnesota student research, efforts to undo mercury pollution in waters contaminated by mining might have a new tool. A 24-person team of mostly undergraduates has developed tiny beads filled with genetically engineered bacteria that can clean up mercury and other poisonous heavy metals, said team leader and microbiology senior Basem Al-Shayeb.

His group joined 245 other research teams from around the world at a competitive synthetic biology jamboree in Boston last week. On Monday, the University project won the award for best environment project.

“I think it’s still sinking in for most of us, and it was Basem’s birthday today, so it was a great win for the team overall,” said Jessica Tarnowski, a genetics, cell biology and development senior and co-leader on the project.

The contest — called the International Genetically Engineered Machine, or iGEM — asks students to design and build biological systems, Al-Shayeb said. The College of Science and Engineering, the College of Biological Sciences, Cargill and 3M are some of the project’s financial supporters this year.

Evan Brutinel, a senior microbiologist at 3M who helped connect his company with the University students, said they sponsored the project in part because of its promising implications.

“It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility that this could be scaled up to something very useful,” he said.

Trapping pollutants in a ‘bacterial prison’

The team developed cell encapsulation technology that uses beads filled with genetically engineered bacteria to filter out and convert pollutants in contaminated water into less toxic substances.

Students applied a chemical system developed at University laboratories to contain the bacteria inside the beads, said chemistry senior Niko Le Mieux.

“We essentially trap them within a bacterial prison,” he said. “They do everything they need to do, but they can’t leave.”

Le Mieux helped lead the team’s engineering, mechanical and chemical work. He said he has worked on University iGEM projects since 2012, when a friend pressured him to join the interdisciplinary team that tackles a different challenge each year.

“I completely changed my outlook on not only synthetic biology but all these technologies,” Le Mieux said. “I kind of decided that’s what I want to do.”

Team members brought the project to the Minnesota State Fair this year to measure public perception of mercury pollution and genetic engineering, Tarnowski said.

Their three-day exhibit surveyed more than 300 people and found that about 88 percent of them were concerned with mercury poisoning in water, Tarnowski said.

“The more educated our community is about what it is that we do, the more they are able to make decisions in regards to this technology,” she said.

Seeking a patent

The first national iGEM competition in 2004 involved only five student teams. It has since added 240 more teams to its roster, but iGEM’s mission of getting young students involved in hands-on research has not changed.

“The basic idea is to get students to start think[ing] about not just studying biology, but engineering biology, and using that to do useful things,” said associate biomedical engineering professor Casim Sarkar, who advised the team on its mathematical modeling.

With its Boston victory in hand, the project’s members will carry out more experiments, collect more data and flesh out their ideas to make the team’s patent application as strong as possible, said Le Mieux. It will also continue to develop efforts to remove other heavy metals, like lead and iron, from water, Al-Shayeb said.

“It definitely paves the way for more grant money,” Tarnowski said of the team’s recent victory.