Team:NOVA LxPortugal/Human Practices

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Integrated Human Practices

Seeking advice and collecting feedback from external entities is a crucial part of any project; in iGEM, this process is called Integrated Human Practices. As part of our journey during this year’s project, we have totaled over 5 amazing interviews, whose information we have carefully curated in order to fully showcase the expertise of our interviewees. In addition, as a more engaging take on Integrated Human Practices, we also took part in conferences where experts were invited to provide feedback on the projects of participating iGEM teams. Keep reading to find out more about the knowledge we collected throughout the summer and how it shaped our project!

Who did we talk to?

Name Background
Chloe Wayman MSc in Freshwater and Marine Biology from the University of Amsterdam. Chloe published an article during her Master's, reviewing the fate of plastics in aquatic environments. She shared with our team her knowledge of plastics in the oceans and their impacts on the environment and health.
Luís Veríssimo Teaches Strategic Communication, as a guest, at NOVA FCSH. With over 30 years of professional experience related to communication, worked as an executive-director and strategic planning director in different national and international agencies. Helped our project by giving us an overview of good practices and strategies related to science communication
Paula Sobral Coordinator of the Environmental Risk thematic line at MARE - NOVA (Marine and Environmental Sciences Centre). With over 10 years of experience in the field, has published several publications and is a designated expert in microplastics for the Science and Technology Foundation. In the early stages of our project, she advised us on the best course of action and gave us valuable information regarding microplastic pollution and its dynamics, as well as technologies currently available for tackling this problem.
Rosa María C. Murillo Torres Geologist Engineer from IPN, with a master's degree and PhD in Environmental Engineering from UNAM, specializing in water treatment and soil remediation. She has a post-doctorate on the Elimination of emerging pollutants present in springs, using microfiltration. She is currently a full professor at the ITESM campus Estado de México. Through a collaboration with team iGEM TEC CEM, she has answered our questions regarding wastewater treatment plants. The information collected was extremely useful in improving our implementation plan, which revolves around said infrastructures.
Sabrina Magalhães PhD student in Bioremediation and Ecosystems Functioning in CIIMAR - Interdisciplinary Centre of Marine and Environmental Research. Sabrina has published several papers about microplastics and contributed to our project with her insights on their effects on human health and aquatic environment. She also provided useful information on wastewater treatment plants and on a technology based on nanobubbles, which we used in our implementation plan.

Environmental Impact

After deciding to join the fight against microplastic pollution, one of the first things we sought to do was determining the impact of this problem. To do so, we talked directly with specialists who have worked with this issue first-hand – namely, Chloe Wayman and Sabrina Magalhães, as they have developed significant work in the field of microplastic pollution.

Microplastics, like any other foreign substance, have an impact in aquatic environments just for being present there. These polymers have the capacity to adsorb large quantities of toxic substances present in the water, causing additional damage when consumed. Microplastics usually bioaccumulate throughout the food chain, starting at levels as fundamental as zooplankton itself, eventually reaching our plates. Microplastics, when ingested by animals, usually stay in their stomach, a part which we normally do not consume. However, nanoplastics may pass into the muscles, which we do consume. The problem is further aggravated in animals usually consumed whole, such as certain seafood – in those cases, we may be consuming entire pieces of microplastics without realizing. Although there have been several studies regarding the side effects of microplastic ingestion, their toxicity is still not well understood.

Plastic is becoming such a prevalent part of the environment that new ecosystems are forming around it, with new bacterial strains emerging. Microplastic particles present in water bodies can also permeate into other stages of the cycle (such as the rain) and, consequently, be present in the air that we breathe, with yet unknown health effects. And even more aggravating is the fact that microplastics have been found in animal fetuses, with unknown developmental consequences. Despite all this, the tendency is for microplastic prevalence to keep increasing exponentially in the following years.

All the information collected here helped us evaluate the impact of microplastic pollution in the environment, which in turn allowed us to determine why our project is responsible and good for the world. We employed this newly gathered knowledge in our Project Overview, where we explain the background behind the microplastics thematic, as well as the reasons that lead us to choose it.

Microplastic Behaviour

One of the first steps in developing an effective plastic degradation system is assessing which location is the most favorable in terms of microplastic circulation. Additionally, evaluating the behavior of each type of polymer in different conditions was also crucial in designing our strategy. For that end, we have contacted Chloe Wayman, Paula Sobral and Sabrina Magalhães, 3 experts in the fields of marine pollution and environmental dynamics.

It is considered that microplastics are mainly concentrated in the ocean, as it is where most of the circulating water ends up. Rivers and estuaries also show some degree of accumulation, especially those close to big cities, as plastic particles have to pass through these water bodies before reaching their destination. Additionally, while in rivers, these particles can also be retained by dams, leading to season-dependent fluctuations in the concentrations and characteristics of the plastics found in these environments. Most microplastics originate from land waste disposal (around 80 %), while the remaining 20% come mostly from the fishing industry.

Plastics are a very complex material, with a wide variety of polymers, and additives. However, there are 5 especially problematic polymers – polyethylene (PE), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). From these five, PVC and PET are the only ones that do not float. However, even plastics that do float will end up sinking, as they will eventually be colonised, and its density modified. Since the majority of these particles sink, there will naturally be a higher concentration of microplastics in the river sediments/ ocean beds.

Considering the nature of microplastic circulation through marine environments, solutions that are currently emerging for this problem should optimally be implemented near the source. It should also be considered that, when removing microplastics from a water body, microorganisms from the habitat would also be removed or perturbed, as initially we were planning on collecting microplastics via dredging companies, which may result in an undesirable impact on that ecosystem, even though the purpose was to remove a pollutant that was introduced there by us. Our plant hypothesis was not well optimized as we lacked the more delicate details on how water treatment plants work and 3D graphic modelling.

The information collected throughout these interviews has been employed in our implementation plan to create a more efficient system. We decided to implement a technique of nanobubbles, which allows the capture of contaminants using small rising air bubbles. Our prototype was re-illustrated with the help of someone with knowledge in 3D modelling. The feedback regarding the dynamics of microplastic circulation and accumulation in marine environments was useful, as well as information about the density of these particles. If you are curious to see how this newly-gained knowledge impacted our project, head over to our Proposed Implementation page!

Infrastructures for Implementation

We would like to apply our prototype with Bacillus in companies that already recover water with various sediments, i.e., dredging companies and wastewater treatment plants. With this in mind, we needed more information on those processes and its regulations. So, in collaboration with iGEM TEC CEM, from Mexico, they helped us find a contact that would answer all our questions, Dra. Rosa María C. Murillo Torres, from the School of Engineering and Sciences, Tecnológico de Monterrey Estado de México.

We learned more about: how anaerobic tanks work and confirmed that our Bacillus can be used there to help reduce the concentration of microplastics contaminants; how the mud separation is regulated and how it is divided in its treatment; the regulation of microplastics control within the wastewater facilities which does not have any implication whatsoever in the discarding of microplastics (in Mexico however, Portugal and other countries may have different regulations); about the process behind methods that can be used to treat microplastics with “hard-to-work” sizes and shapes – mainly using flocculation and/or coagulation, if smaller microplastics still remain in the water then they are recovered the best they can and incinerate them, which unfortunately causes the release of undesired fumes.

In conclusion, we applied this knowledge to our help design and outline how our prototype should be laid out. Considering how microplastics are usually cleaned and recovered in wastewater treatment plants, as well as its implications on the environment, we decided that its better to have various separations steps (using the properties of density in microplastics versus the sediments, filtrating the plastics and cleaning them, whilst reutilizing the water of those processes), we also know that our Bacillus can be implemented in the anaerobic digestion tanks of wastewater treatment plants, we were told that as long as we can see if it financially compensates their use depending on the efficiency of our bacteria. Once again, we would like to thank iGEM TEC CEM and Dra. Rosa María C. Murillo Torres.

Efficient Communication

With the rise of social media sharing, came a lot of misinformation and fake news. That has made a percentage of the general public suspicious of scientific progress and current global issues, either going against it or more notably, not taking interest in it.

It was clear to us that we needed to have a good grasp and understanding of how to properly communicate our project: to make people take interest in the fight against microplastics, we needed to find our voice. To do so, we interviewed Luís Verissímo, a professor in the field of strategic communication. We learned about how to properly organize our speech. First on what we want to say, and what we want to achieve with communication. Afterwards we need to find our core public, which will satisfy what we want to achieve. When both are determined, we need to adjust our speech and our message to garner the attention of the core public, while maintaining truthful to the message we initially wanted to convey.

With the knowledge we gathered from the interview, we focused our communication to the core audience that is already invested in learning about environmental issues, environmental companies and ONGs who might be able to further our project. We gave lectures and workshops to children, teaching them about the problem of microplastics and the possible solutions to this problem. We also gave presentations to the scientific community, providing them with our solution to the microplastics crisis. In our Education & Communication page, you can find more details about all these initiatives.

Conferences - an Undervalued Take on Integrated Human Practices

In iGEM, making use of conferences is a largely unexplored but greatly rewarding approach to collect the information needed for the Integrated Human Practices cycle of improvement. In an environment where everyone is working towards a common goal, the ensuing discussions are rich, and with various points of view on the table, the participants are sure to gather the knowledge needed to take their projects to the next level.


Our team was invited by the iGEM TEC CEM team to participate in the LATAM MeetUp on August 28th, an event where teams from around the world were invited to present their projects so as to prepare the teams for their project presentation in the Giant Jamboree. As part of the event, a few professors were invited to serve as judges and give their feedback and improvement suggestions regarding the presentations.

The attending guest professors liked our presentation and gave us suggestions. They suggested improving the aesthetics of our slides, adding an image or diagram depicting our engineering ideas to give the judges a better idea of what we were planning and to show some results from our modelling work and other details regarding how we are doing it. They also suggested adding photos in our human practices section of activities we organized, explaining how the pandemic affected plastic use, adding the methods we are going to evaluate plastic degradation along with the design of our bacteria.

Overall we thought the feedback invaluable and we have been using it to improve upon our presentation. We hope you’ll be able to see our upgraded version in the final presentation!

International Ocean Conference [iGEM Edition]

In this conference, teams whose projects are related to ocean conservation would gather up with the common objective of improving each other's projects, with guest advisors guiding the roundtable discussions and providing advice. Unfortunately, we had to cancel the conference at the last minute due to unforeseen circumstances. Nonetheless, we decided to write about it on this page, not only as a tribute to the team members who worked too hard to make this event a reality, but also as inspiration for future teams. We would like to see conferences such as this one become a more common practice between teams, as it is both a great asset to any project, and a demonstration of the spirit of collaboration always endorsed by the iGEM community.