Team:UFlorida/Human Practices

UF iGEM 2021


Human Practices Overview

When designing our project, our Human Practices team sought out to emphasize the severity of antibiotic resistance in both environmental and clinical contexts. After giving a presentation to researchers from Florida Sea Grant, a university-based program that supports marine resource research and education, we were able to get targeted feedback on the environmental applications of our project.

Florida Sea Grant Presentation

The Florida Sea Grant is a University of Florida-based program that focuses on improving our community’s understanding of Florida’s coastal ecosystems through research, education, and conservation efforts. Existing in partnership with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Florida Board of Education, the Florida Sea Grant researches topics ranging from aquaculture and fisheries to harmful algal blooms and microplastics. Our relationship with this organization began last year, when we spoke at their popular Bite-Sized Science webinar series, which usually consist of brief overviews into complex environmental issues presented by Florida Sea Grant specialists. Given that the typical presenters for Bite-Sized Science were experts in their fields, we at UF iGEM were incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to present our 2020 project, focusing on Harmful Algal Blooms in Florida waterways, to a large audience. Since then, our relationship with the Florida Sea Grant has been an integral part of our Human Practices sub-team that we were eager to continue, leading to us presenting our 2021 project at another Florida Sea Grant webinar.

This year, we had the pleasure of presenting for the Florida Sea Grant once more in the form of their monthly staff webinars, where the scientists gather to learn and discuss novel scientific techniques. Discussing antibiotic resistance and how our project seeks to tackle it, we expanded the usual repertoire of topics the webinars concern, bringing welcomed outside perspectives to our project. The many scientists at the project offered new insight into the environmental importance of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) on aquatic ecosystems. Dr. Razieh Farzad, an expert on seafood safety, drew our attention to the issue of AMR in aquaculture systems.

Due to overfishing leading to population reductions in many wild fish species, aquaculture is widely seen as a solution that provides a sustainable and reliable supply of fish. Aquaculture systems often pack fish together in small living spaces, where water quality can quickly become poor. High fish density and poor aquatic conditions can result in an increasing reliance on antibiotics to prevent pathogenic outbreaks among the fish. Additionally, in countries that may have ambiguous regulations regarding antibiotic use in these fish farms, antibiotic overuse can lead to increased amounts of AMR that can threaten humans who consume the fish.

Educating on Health Disparities in Antibiotic Resistance

As budding young scientists, we are observing an era where science has become more intertwined with the lives of average citizens than ever. The COVID-19 pandemics has highlighted how health crises disproportionately impact marginalized communities, from the virus targeting those with pre-existing comorbidities to the increased risk of infection for those who work in lower-paid healthcare positions. Both of these groups are heavily populated with ethinic minorities, bringing to light the inordinate amount of risk and harm marginalized communities face from diseases of all sorts. While health disparities have existed for far longer than COVID-19, the pandemic has brought these issues to the forefront of our team members’ minds and encouraged us to educate ourselves on them more thoroughly.

As our research into the impacts of the antibiotic resistance crisis deepened, we realized the immense threat antibiotic resistance serves to further exacerbate health disparities. We discovered that many scientists believe that antimicrobial resistance will culminate into another global pandemic-level crisis. This would cause even more of a divide between privileged and marginalized groups in healthcare, with poorer populations and those lacking health insurance frequently being left behind when it comes to innovations involving new antibiotics or methods for fighting resistant bacteria. With minority communities being more likely to be hospitalized and have pre-existing conditions, it makes sense that they will be more susceptible to infection from opportunistic and resistant pathogens (often present in hospitals) and more severely affected by these infections.

With this knowledge, we felt the need to educate our community on the intersection of antibiotic resistance and health disparities. So often as scientists, we focus on finding a solution to a problem, but engineering synthetic biology solutions often takes years or decades, making it easy to forget to do our part to help the members of our community who are impacted by these issues in the interim. With this in mind, we sought to make a difference in our community through community service and education, working to make meals for our local homeless populations at the St. Francis House shelter.

While the story of our service project is detailed in our Excellence in Another Area page, we also focused on educating the shelter staff about antibiotic resistance and its interconnection with the underserved populations we both seek to help. Our team worked together to design a pamphlet explaining why we wanted our project to go beyond science, branching into service to give those most harmed by antibiotic resistance a chance to arm themselves with knowledge on how to stay safer. In the pamphlet, we highlighted how individuals facing food insecurity often don’t have the resources to seek out antibiotic-free meats and produce. Through social media, we also work to highlight the importance of thorough hand-washing in food-service and healthcare settings to reduce the spread of harmful bacteria. Our conversations with science experts at our university, including Dr Carr. and Dr Séraphin (see Scientist Meetings section below) further reinforced our focus on public health outreach as a means to help mitigate the spread of resistant pathogens among vulnerable groups.

Integrated Human Practices Overview

To further develop our objectives, we met with an array of scientists from the University of Florida's Emerging Pathogen’s Institute. All specializing in different areas, we received diverse perspectives on the clinical and technical applications of our project. Additionally, these scientists also provided us with valuable feedback on some ethical safety precautions important to our real-world implementation.

Combined Scientist Meetings

We had the opportunity to meet with several experts virtually over Zoom to discuss details on the methodology and values of our project. Dr. Paul Gulig, Dr. Chad Carr, Dr. Anthony Maurelli, and Dr. Marie Séraphin are professionals of their fields associated with the University of Florida. Collectively, their extensive knowledge spans across molecular pathogenesis, industrial beef production, microbiology, and public health, respectively. They are all respected educators and researchers whom we were grateful to have the opportunity to learn from. Their advice on which concepts of our project to improve upon and explore further drove us to rethink what practical applications we aimed to achieve. Dr. Gulig and Dr. Maurelli’s expertise in molecular functions and genetics helped us improve our project design. They had us consider how our mechanism for gene cutting and reducing antibiotic resistance should be delivered. We reflected on the use of enteric capsules, and how different delivery methods would affect accessibility to patients. They educated us on the importance of targeting extracellular, non-invasive pathogen bacteria of the gut to have our system be its most effective. The invaluable advice we received from Dr. Gulig and Dr. Maurelli aided in strengthening potential weak areas of our project.

Dr. Maurelli suggested that our CRISPR therapy could be used to target Vibrio cholerae due to its accessibility in the gut, as Vibrio cholerae does not invade gut epithelium. Vibrio cholerae commonly presents symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, thirst, and leg cramps. If left untreated, patients can become severely dehydrated which could lead to kidney failure. Tetracycline is the antibiotic used to treat this disease, but resistance has been seen in epidemic settings of cholera. Therefore, it is important to have a therapy in place when these traditional therapies fail.

Dr. Maruelli also mentioned the increased risk of antibiotic resistance in neisseria, the bacteria that causes gonorrhea, due to its naturally conjugative abilities. Its natural ability to exchange DNA with other bacteria makes the genital tract a perfect environment for the spread of antibiotic resistance. Diseases like gonorrhea have already developed antibiotic resistance to traditional drugs used to treat it. Because of this, treatments for gonorrhea are rapidly changing course, so research into new treatments is highly encouraged for the scientific community.

Dr. Séraphin and Dr. Carr offered our team insight from a community and public health perspective. With expertise in tuberculosis transmission and treatment, Dr. Séraphin explained how the prolonged treatment for antibiotic resistant tuberculosis led to taxing effects on patients’ bodies as well as their finances. Despite its prevalence persisting mainly outside of the United States, she mentioned the risk potential for increased transmission due to the high volume of travel and immigration unique to Florida. This information led us to reevaluate the issue of antibiotic resistance in a context more specific to Florida. We also considered possibly targeting a specific pathogen’s antibiotic resistant genes and further specifying our goal in regard to medical therapeutic treatments. Dr. Carr’s unique perspective as an educator in beef raising and processing encouraged our team to reflect on antibiotic resistance as it pertains to food production. Learning about the guidelines for ‘natural’ levels of antibiotic resistance in industrial food production settings, and the prevalence of antibiotic resistant genes in the meconium of newborn calves opened our eyes to the challenges of antibiotic resistance exclusive to the food industry in comparison to its manifestation in healthcare.

Our meetings with Dr. Gulig, Dr. Maurelli, Dr. Séraphin and Dr. Carr allowed our team to dually fortify our project’s design while providing us with important [practical] questions to help determine what kind of impact we intend to make.

Dr. Maurelli

Community Impact & Public Health Outlook

Dr. Gulig

Community Impact & Public Health Outlook

Dr. Carr

Molecular, Clinical & Scientific Outlook

Dr. Séraphin

Molecular, Clinical & Scientific Outlook