Team:UNESP Brazil/Human Practices



     Our team started from a concern with the environmental issue. When researching the topic, we observed that electronic waste was a factor of great importance, leading to concerns about the consequences of silicon extraction. Among them, the low quality of life and lack of control over the work of people directly involved in the extraction, which can even lead to various health problems.

     In addition, improper disposal can cause contamination by heavy metals, both in the region of disposal and in distant places where the material can be carried. These heavy metals also cause serious damage to the health of the local population (1).

     Increasing amounts of energy and even water are required to keep systems working properly, reaching a point in which Microsoft submerged one of its servers (2) to try to reduce its maintenance expense.

     We saw an opportunity and the need to carry out a project that could address such issues involving e-waste. Amidst so much brainstorming, emerged the idea that would meet this desire to help: store data in DNA. After some meetings to improve the idea and making sure it would be feasible and workable, our team decided that Lovelace's Note In Gene would be our project for the iGEM competition. The idea of storing data in DNA covers the iGEM values: seeking to help the population, innovation, solving an important issue, and contributing to science at various levels, so a perfect fit for our 2021 project.

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     To begin achieving information on the subject, our team met with Grupo Reciclo, a company that specialized in recycling and reusing electronics, and with Coopermiti, a recycling cooperative, both of São Paulo. With these meetings, we could understand the impact of inappropriate disposal, from pollution and contamination of environments to health problems for the local population, which is exposed to heavy metals.

     We could understand how important it is for us to keep our project to develop sustainable alternatives to the use of silicon, which cause problems even at the extraction, degrading the environment, and exploring labor.

Image 1. Printscreen from our meeting with Grupo Reciclo

     To deepen our knowledge, Marcus, CEO of Reciclo indicated reading the World Economic Forum report on E-waste and Circular Economy.

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     Developed by the Platform for Accelerating The Circular Economy (PACE), an entity hosted by the World Economic Forum (WEF), the report A New Circular Vision for Electronics, Time for a Global Reboot (3) has very relevant information about the current state of global e-waste.

     Currently, 50 million tons of waste are generated every year, equivalent to 125,000 Jumbo Jets or 4,500 Eiffel Towers. It's estimated that by 2050, 120 million tons of e-waste can be produced annually; the global market reached $1.1 trillion in 2017, growing 6% by 2024, it will reach $1.7 trillion. Manufacturing 1 ton of laptops potentially emits 10 tons of CO2.

     Despite the enormous amount produced and the complex waste flow (containing up to 60 elements of the periodic table), 80% of e-waste in the world is not properly disposed of: 4% is disposed of in household waste and 76% has an unknown destination. In this issue, it is clear that: Brazil, Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, China, Mexico, Thailand, India, Vietnam, and Eastern Europe are the biggest deposits of e-waste while Norway, United Kingdom, Denmark, Netherlands, and Australia are the biggest producers, which increases inequality.

     To get a social glimpse on the topic, in many countries, women and children make up to 30% of the informal e-waste workforce. Many studies show that there is an increase in miscarriage and premature births due to exposure to these components. Workers also suffer high incidences of birth defects and infant mortality, in addition, e-waste components are carcinogenic. There is no exact number of informal workers in the e-waste sector, but in Nigeria, it's 100,000, while in China it's 690,000.

     Furthermore, only a total of 67 countries have legislation about e-waste.

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     To understand the current scenario of electronics disposal in our country, one of the 67 with legislation on the subject, we arranged ourselves to research and study them. It was then possible to understand that the Brazilian legal structure on the subject is well structured and requires equipment to have an appropriate disposal, which should also be made available by the company that produces the device through reverse logistics.

     However, these standards are not fully followed, given how hard it is to find gathering points and places that clearly and objectively make available the possibility of requesting reverse logistics to return the devices to companies.

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     From a meeting with the CEO of Matrix datacenter, we could gather a lot of information. One was about the biggest concern for data center administration; before the meeting, we believed that it would be the disposal of materials that won't be used anymore, especially Hard Drives (HDs) and Solid State Drives (SSDs). However, the greatest concern is about energy consumption, which can be so high that, in the US, it represents 2% of all energy consumption in the country.

     The disposal of old hardware ends up being less of a concern due to partnerships between datacenters and specialized companies, ensuring a lower environmental impact and the reinsertion of these components in the economy, increasing their lifespan.

     But energy consumption is constant, with no possibility of interruptions, meaning that these companies usually have diesel generators to ensure continuity of operation in the event of a power outage. Furthermore, constant and intense cooling dramatically increases cost, and if a data center does not have adequate cooling, it can even become a fire. Some companies are using passive ways to cool their vault rooms, and reduce cooling expenses, such as installing them in lower temperature locations and even submerging entire rooms.

     Eber, the company's CEO, also gave us information about the size and expense of a data center. Each deck occupies, on average, 2,016m³ with a consumption of 2 kWh, totaling, in the case of hyper-scale data centers, an area of 2 hectares (20,000m²) with a capacity for consumption of 20MW. That is a rate of about 1,000W for each m². This panorama allows us to assess that storage in HDs and SSDs is inefficient from energy and spatial point of view. It is increasingly urgent to create an alternative capable of storing large amounts of data in a small space and that does not need as much refrigeration and electricity.

     At the end of the meeting, Eber offered a visit to the Matrix to understand how a data center works, but unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we weren't able to do so.

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     To ensure that our project followed all local regulations and safety protocols, our team managed to read the regulations approved by the National Technical Commission on Biosafety (CTNBio - Comissão Técnica Nacional de Biossegurança). Through this, it was possible to remark not only that our procedures were adequate, but also that most of the content prepared by the commission deals with environmental release and conditions for planting genetically modified plants, such as corn, soybeans, and eucalyptus.

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     Market segmentation is one of the most fundamental marketing activities. To successfully match products and services with customer needs, companies need to divide markets into groups (segments or clusters) of consumers, customers, and customers with similar needs and desires. Companies or manufacturers can then focus on each of these segments by positioning themselves in a single cluster. In this sense, our team placed itself as a company with a product (our hardware) and performed market segmentation based on cluster analysis, which uses data to form segments, making segmentation less dependent on subjectivity.

     Our study can be accessed HERE.

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     We contacted an established company, IDT, to present our project and receive feedback on possible improvements and real-world applications. We quickly arranged a meeting with a representative of the company.

     At that meeting, they suggested our technology could be developed into more accurate diagnoses, allowing a positive or negative result, not just a positive one. This way, testing becomes more precise, specific, and more objectively responsive than the current model.

     They also recommended other fluorophores to make the differentiation between the signals easier.

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     One of the most anticipated opportunities for our team was the meeting with Tom Knight, which took place on July 15th, made possible after one of the Ginkgo Bioworks challenges that we participated in in 2020. The conversation developed from the presentation of our project, in which we had the immense pleasure to hear him say it's an incredible idea.

     We got advice and suggestions for our project, to make it more efficient and safer. Tom Knight's main idea was to break it into smaller parts, using only the promoter and broccoli to test its behavior. It was readily accepted and put into practice in the wet lab. We also received a great invitation and recommendation to get in touch with Drew Andy to collaborate on a project on cellular memory.

Image 2. Printscreen from our meeting with Tom Knight

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     Since our team's first registration to iGEM in 2017, raising funds to register the team and the project in the competition was an arduous and laborious task. We organized ourselves to look for sponsors from different areas since the culture of sponsoring university teams, at least in Brazil, is not very widespread. We tried to participate in numerous events to obtain contacts and indications. We also placed small stores in those to sell products related to the team and synthetic biology to raise money for our registration.

     With the pandemic and the advance of homeschooling, we had to reinvent ourselves and created an online platform that offers interesting and fast courses based on a monetary collaboration. On this platform, we started to sell some of the products that were available in our booths. Our money-raising possibilities have drastically decreased with the new COVID-19 scenario. Brazil entered an economic and political crisis, money previously allocated to public universities (the major science makers in the country) shrank; scholarships to scientific research ended, so any money related to the development of a scientific project became scarce and hotly disputed.

     One of the main impacts, without a doubt, was that, in addition to the inscription having increased (dollars), the Brazilian currency (Real) decreased in value. Thus, taking into account the registration of US$5,500.00, in 2017, that amount would be around R$17,215.00. Currently, it has increased to R$30,030.00, that is, an increase of 74%. For the Brazilian reality, R$17,000 would already be an enormous amount, R$30,000 is not feasible for raising funds and participating in an international competition.

     To exemplify the values, a Chevrolet Trailblazer starts its values at US$35,443 in the United States, in Brazil, it is considered a luxury car, and its initial value is at R$269,850.00, which would represent US$49,423.08. In other words, for our country, the team's subscription in iGEM is equal to around 11% of the amount that a person must have to acquire a car that only about 1% of the Brazilian population would have conditions to buy.

     From this, we settled the idea of how stressful fundraising becomes in a country that does not have the government encouraging science. Individuals care even less: people see the funding of science as something utopic and don't give it importance. Besides, they hesitate when they see the final amount that needs to be raised and don't understand how or why a project can be worth so much.

     Based on these, we began asking ourselves about our distress in getting the money, whether other teams were going through the same situation, and what is their experience and reality. So, to get enough data to raise an issue that we think is important, we decided to create an online form and send it to several teams around the globe.

     We obtained 32 responses from iGEM teams from different countries, with 13 responses from Asia, 08 from Europe, 06 from South America, and 05 from North America. We didn't receive answers from Central America, Africa, and Oceania. Among the questions sent, we considered the minimum monthly salary in dollars in each country, making it possible to verify the difference in purchasing power on each location and how this can impact the payment of the competition registration.

Image 3. A table containing the differences between countries' minimum wages.

     The differences between the values identified are huge. While some countries have a minimum wage of $1800, others have a minimum income of 76 dollars. It can imply a high inequality in purchasing power, especially when it is necessary to convert to a foreign currency such as the dollar, which often has a higher value than the local currency.

     Another question was where the money for the team's registration comes from: 56.25% has university funding, 31.25% has external financing, 3.13% has local political backing, and another 40.63% obtain money in other ways, such as being sponsored by private companies, schools, or governments, iGEM impact Grant, and selling courses and products. In addition, 15.63% of responses reported that the university finances 100% of the project, 46.88% has partial funding, and 37.50% has no aid.

     Finally, and most importantly, was the question related to the opinion on the amount requested for the team's registration in the competition. And the answers are available below:

Image 4. A chart containing the answers to the survey.
Image 5. A table with the data from the survey.

     In this way, our premise was confirmed: the registration fee impacts the teams differently and does not have an inclusive role, as countries with devalued currencies or with low conditions and minimum wages need to spend the same dollar amount for the subscription. Each team needs to find ways and methods to raise the money, apart from developing the project.

     Considering the goal of the iGEM institution of disseminating science and allowing anyone to participate in the competition, the amount needed to compete is incoherent, in addition to the expenses directly related to the team's project. Differences in living conditions and currency between countries strongly contribute to many teams not participating in iGEM, confirming the premise that the most prominent synthetic biology competition is not accessible for all those who want to contribute to science. As long as it continues to charge such expenses, bypassing the conditions of each location, as well as the difficulties that each team encounters, the cost will only seal the participation of teams centered in developed countries and reduce the participation of other countries.

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     (1) FPLANETA FPLANET. (2018, November 27). Digital Dumping in Ghana [Video]. YouTube.

     (2) Synek, G. (2018, June 6). Microsoft submerges a data center off the coast of Scotland. TechSpot.

     (3) Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE). (2019, January). A New Circular Vision for Electronics, Time for a Global Reboot. World Economic Forum (WEF).

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