Team:Alma/Human Practices

Human Practices
Original Goal
When we started this two-year project, our goal was to better our community and our environtment through the use of synthetic biology. Our first brainstorming efforts were primarily environmental and targeted the evident problem that has lurked in our community for over fifty years. During the 2020 cycle, we traveled to different schools in the area and presented our idea to produce a biosensor to help allocate efforts to clean the DDX that surrounds our community. We received overwhelming support and decided to continue searching for a means to help professionals tackle DDX contamination.
We chose a biosensor because there are no screening protocols that are feasible for our community to make use of. Processes established now include spending thousands in order to locate where pollution is by testing locations, with each test costing around $800. Although we have not engineered a way to degrade DDX, we have engineered a tool that can be implemented into the current regime that professionals use to address areas polluted with DDX.
Past and Future Impacts
In addition to examining the present problem of DDx pollution in our area, we also explored historical aspects of this pollution. We learnt that the ecological damage brought about by overuse of DDT was one of the things that motivated the environmental movement in the United States. Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring called attention to this issue, and her influence also draws attention to the status of women in STEM - like DDT pollution, barriers to women in this field have been long standing and hard to remove. Their removal, however, is called for and necessary for both women's opportunities and the progress of science. You can read more about Rachel Carson on our History page, or by downloading the same information in essay form.

In addition, we have taken a close look at the current effects that DDT has on wildlife and humans to ensure that our project is carried out in a responsible way. You can read more about our analysis of these topics at our 'History' page
Educating Future Scientists
As the summer lab work continued, our iGEM team was presented with the unique oportunity of teaching and mentoring some new students interested in science. A group of 8 eighth graders came into the lab through a program that Alma College puts on each summer to get young students introduced and interested in research based science. They were taught the basic procedures and protocols used on an iGEM team, and learned to palte bacterial colonies by using strains of E. Coli with different fluorescent proteins in them (see some of their artwork!).

For these students, we designed a research manual where they used our Universal Golden Gate system (see contributions) to assemble different BioBricks together. It is designed to be very 'plug-and-play' style, requiring only enthusiasm and imagination to complete. You can view our manual and adapt it for your own research camps.

A few weeks later, there was the Alma College INSPIRE program. This brings incoming first year students onto campus and gives them the opportunity to learn to do some research and lab protocols under the tutelage of a professor and their research students for the summer. For two weeks, we had a student who is now a major contributor to our team in the lab, learning to work in the field of synthetic biology.
Luckily, we were able to hone in on our priorities because of the science leaders in our community. The professionals that we spoke to, mentioned on our Human Practices page, shaped how we engineered our science, and especially, the implementation. Looking forward, we hope to collaborate with multiple groups in our area in order to educate, distribute, and change our community for the better. Alma iGEM hopes to become another scientific-driven leader in the environmental sciences in Gratiot County.
Integrated Human Practices
Effectivness in the Community
After ultimately deciding to pursue the biosensor, we consulted with multiple professors at our institution that do research on DDX and have played a role in the cleanup efforts that are currently established. Dr. Amanda Harwood received her PhD in Zoology from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and is an expert in aquatic toxicology. Her research areas are the toxicity and bioavailability of pesticides, legacy pollutants, and road salts. We had multiple meetings with Dr. Harwood, one helping us establish a direction for our project, and the other meetings helped us better understand the real life implications of what our biosensor could do. In the first mentioned meeting, she suggested that we come up with a screening protocol to administer risk assessment. This is a revolutionary project to pursue because of the immense negative consequences that DDX has on our Pine River and those who live around it.
We felt confident that our biosensor could be used by professionals to make our river healthy again. We then approached the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). We were able to talk to Thomas Alcamo, Diane Russell, and Theo von Wallmenich, all of whom expressed enthusiasm at the creation and use of a biosensor. They said that this could be used as initial screening in an area, such as an affected flood plain. “I think this would be very, very, useful for the EPA,” representative Theo von Wallmenich said in response to the idea of a quick and affordable screening measure to assess DDX and how to direct resources better.
In terms of the science of the biosensor and its detection ability, the EPA suggested that our biosensor be able to have a detection threshold of 1-5ppm (parts per million), which would qualify this area as an “acceptable risk.” The EPA representatives say that if they are able to know if a sample is above or below this threshold, it would be very helpful in resource allocation. Another idea mentioned was to have a higher threshold such as 40-50ppm, which would initiate an emergency response if a sample fell within this range. Discussion of a test that could give qualitative results on the amount of DDT (a sum of six metabolic forms) would be beneficial in being able to distinguish between forms, though this would not be necessary for an initial screen. This improvement to our biosensor would be used starting in a downstream site on the river and moving upstream where you are likely to see increasing concentrations of the pollutant. We have integrated this feedback into our expanded designs.
After truly finding direction and gaining more reassurance that professionals would be able to use this science, we approached a local environmental consulting firm, TriTerra. Although their primary work is not related to DDX, they have expressed that there is an obvious increase in DDX tests being ordered in our area by consumers looking to build new businesses, homes, or residents who want to make sure their properties are safe. They gave us more background on the rates of pollution in the area, comparing our 9,000 residents to Lansing, Michigan’s, (capital located about 45 minutes away) of 117,000. TriTerra said, although the population is much greater only a short 50 miles away, Alma has more contamination sites then Lansing in relation to population size. With this in mind, they were very optimistic in our development of a biosensor and suggested ideas very similar to those mentioned above that we received in the EPA meeting.
Beyond the Science
Not only did TriTerra say they were ready to use our biosensor when it was completed, they also mentioned a new target audience that we had not thought of due to our focus on academia-related resources. We want to impact our community, but originally we were pursuing a biosensor for the use of professionals. TriTerra mentioned that with this technology we have created, we could supply residents in the area with a much more affordable test to check how safe their property is. This shift in audience has completely shifted the focus in our project, as we would like to supplement our community, one of the poorest in all of Michigan, with a safety tool. Reassurance from a reliable biosensor will allow our community that lives in fear to then be more comfortable in their homes and within the small Gratiot County.
These consultants also mentioned the importance of accessibility when we are ready to distribute our science. When giving our biosensor to consultants who have clients willing to spend thousands on testing to ensure a low-polluted property, Alma iGEM’s biosensor will be able to “be able to save people 10-20% of their funding.” Funding in this case relates to not only the testing needed for a property, but also the cost for cleanup. With our science, we are prepared to help those with the money to spend, but also those who cannot afford the current testing prices. Accessibility is a new value we have added due to the meetings we have had. See proposed implementation on how we plan to distribute our synthetic biology into our polluted community.
Did it work?
Our human practices work has greatly impacted the direction and ideas surrounding our project. It has broadened our ideas of what impact we can have on our community in terms of accessibility. Not only this, but our targeted audience that will be positively affected by our science has gotten much larger since talking to local experts mentioned on our human practices page.
In the early stages of our brainstorming, we hoped to create a degradation pathway for DDX, however after consulting professionals, we decided to pursue a screening protocol because of the feasibility of the biosensor in relation to the first. This screening tool will then act as an education measure in terms of tracking where the DDX is and also serving our community’s treatment plans for pollution containment and future clean-up.
With the new research and information we have gathered, we have shifted our focus to a part of the community that needs our biosensor the most: residents. Safety within Gratiot County the past couple decades has been unknown and those affected by pollution have had access to very limited resources. With the low cost of our test and the education on this new synthetic technology we will bring relief to Gratiot residents.
Continuing Forward
The reason that we have this new shift in focus is because of the lack of communication and resources that have been given to the general public. This will be the first time residents can see and learn about the severity of the DDX pollution that otherwise has been swept under the rug. Being able to generate a streamline of easy technology and science for our affected audience will be the next step in remedying this tragedy. Our community needs us and we are looking forward to providing our synthetic biology that could change our world in Alma, Michigan.