Let’s explore some facts...
Microplastics are generated by the incomplete degradation of plastics from cosmetics, bottles,textile industry, fibers and other plastic related products. They may also be intentionally manufactured. Microplastics have a size of 5 mm or lower and may be composed of different materials such as Polyester fibers. Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) are compounds that mimic certain hormones and interfere with body signaling. EDCs may have its origin from the degradation of microplastics and processes related to plastic bottles manufacturing. Currently, there aren’t any methods with the needed quality to detect EDCs in an efficient manner. Most methods are either too expensive or not reliable enough. The lack of quantifying methods has an impact on the existing regulations and standards regarding the quality of drinking water, since they usually don’t take into account either Microplastics or EDCs.
Microplastics are a huge problem and many researchers and even some iGEM Teams are trying to put a stop to them. However, have you heard about Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals? If not, don’t feel bad, many people including regulatory agencies from all around the world have overlooked them. Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals or EDCs are dangerous compounds that come from many sources but are mostly associated with the degradation of certain plastics and its manufacturing processes. They may even be found in drinkable water, so we are exposed to them o a regular basis. Besides, their detection is a challenge due to their characteristics: they are too small and there are too many. In addition, they are difficult to eliminate from water and accumulate in the organism that consumes them. EDCs are related to several diseases that range from metabolic and hormonal health issues to even cancer. We want to tackle this problem, we want to detect them and even eliminate them.
We began the development of our own biosensor which has several characteristics that make it unique. Our inspiration came from our research, in which we found that several people had already developed a biosensor for the detection of these compounds. However, they had some problems that include a high sensitivity towards interference and the potential to become too expensive. So we decided to implement a biosensor that could measure EDCs in situ, that could be fast and easy to use, in addition to being cheaper to produce. This biosensor will work through the immobilization of hER⍺ protein receptor on a quartz, which is part of a piezoelectric sensor.
We know that detection isn’t enough in our battle against EDCs so we decided to also get into the degradation of these harmful compounds. We used a Laccase from another iGEM Team and we established a protocol that could help us to mass produce this enzyme. In the future, we plan on introducing this step as part of the purification process of fresh water.
We completed the design of the hardware and the software for our biosensor. In fact, we created a program that lets users have a real time visualization of the oscillation frequency in order to analyze the output; moreover, we provided a mathematical model to find the exact value of the amount of mass present in the sensor. In the molecular section of our project, we tested the expression of our protein through some experiments. We designed several Biobricks to meet our goals and established the conditions to express large quantities of our protein in order to standardize the manufacturing process of our Biosensor. With the Laccase, we actually managed to conduct an assay and determine its activity towards three different substrates. We also created a protocol that could be used to mass produce this enzyme and use it to purify water from EDCs in a treatment facility.
We hope that in the future we will be able to get our sensor in the market. This has huge implications since people could measure the amount of EDCs they are exposed to. It could also work as a Quality Assurance tool in the manufacturing of plastic bottles and the bottled water industry, since companies could sell their products guaranteeing to their consumers that their water is 100% EDC free. Regulatory agencies might also be interested in our sensor and the findings we do with it. Most countries don’t have any regulations whatsoever regarding microplastics or EDCs as pollutants in drinking water, so we hope that our project could be the basis of a new set of Norms that enforce the regulation of these contaminants. We’ve also aligned our project with three of the Sustainable Development Goals, which are “Water and Sanitation”, “Health and Wellness” and “Life Below Water”.