Team:Alma/Human Practices

Human Practices
Human Practices
iGEM is more than experiments in a laboratory; it is by nature extremely interdisciplinary. We went beyond wet-lab research and thought critically about our project and reached out to others to both promote awareness of the problem and get feedback to inform our design.

As students at Alma, we value our connection to the local environment and to each other. It is our responsibility to work together to help restore and improve the surrounding area for our community, so we've decided to tackle a pollution problem in the nearby Pine River. We consulted local students to see their perspective on synthetic biology, sharing techniques and examples with them to help them see what is possible.

We also reached out to experts both on and off campus to find out how to best tackle this problem. We integrated these conversations into our project. They not only helped to inform our design, but also validated the importance and utility of our project. The potential end-users of our project were particularly excited about its potential. This is reflected on our implementation page, where we analyze both how the project would be used and the potential value it could have to the local EPA officials and community.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has limited and cut short some of our in-person interactions and wet-lab work, some of the connections we made are highlighted below. Partly in response to these circumstances, we also pursued additional avenues for outreach, such as using social media or the creation of our podcast.
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Team members (left to right) Kaleb Ramon, David Viguilla, and Aryaan Misra asking students for their ideas for a project.
Elementary Students: Idea Generators
We hosted a group of elementary students to talk to them about STEM and what they can do in science. During this time, we were starting to think of ideas to pursue for this year’s project, and asked for their ideas. A few that were seen included: “stop pollution in the environment,” and “make a bacteria that eats away pollution without hurting the environment.” Although these are just a couple of examples, the wide majority of the responses were related to pollution, water, and animals in the environment. This was helpful for us, as this was the first time we had asked people, “what should we do?” and gave us an idea of what the general public may possibly like us to focus on with our project.
Alma High School: Lab Techniques
After inviting these students to our college, we decided to visit the local Alma High School to practice different lab techniques and have a discussion during wait times about iGEM and synthetic biology. Here, we did a modern transformation lab that was able to help students review the well-known experiment by Avery and Macleod, which lined up perfectly with the class’s curriculum. Within this, students were able to learn how to perform DNA transformation within the context of iGEM. This was done using the commonly used BioBrick BBa_J04450.
Lab that the high school students completed.
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Abbey Killian talks with high schoolers about synthetic biology and what iGEM can do for the world.
After the lab was performed, one of our students was able to sit with the high school students and talk about involvement in iGEM and what synthetic biology could do for our community. During this time, our team was tossing around the idea of the Pine River and we received positive feedback from the students who grew up in the community, saying that they were excited that we may go with this topic. Although this was a main discussion point, we still asked for ideas that we could go for, some of which included: “new topical cream for acne” and “treatment for cystic fibrosis (CF), somehow using a bacteria to break down the thick mucous that is seen in CF patients.”
Greenspire Middle School: Painting with Bacteria
Right before the nationwide mandatory COVID-19 quarantine was enforced, we were able to visit a science fair at Greenspire, a STEM-focused middle school. Here, we set up a booth to explain the mini-lab that we had set up, which involved the use of E.coli transformed with fluorescent proteins and chromoproteins to form a type of “bacterial art” by streaking the bacteria on agar plates.

This allowed us to form an ongoing connection with these students, as they provided contact information so that we can send them images of their plates after incubation We were able to teach these students not only about the E.coli strain we were using and how we were able to have multiple colors of the bacteria, but also about safety techniques when handling bacteria.

We asked about project ideas here and the feedback we received from multiple students frequently related to pollution. This further demonstrated that our project was addressing an important and valued problem for this community.
Maddie Hibbs and Kaleb Ramon teach a student how to paint with E. coli.
We did an Instagram Live!
Abbey Killian and Dr. Devin Camenares host an Instagram Live for incoming students to ask about Alma iGEM.
Instagram Live: Recruitment and iGEM Q&A
Once social distancing and virtual meetings became our reality, our advisor Dr. Camenares and Abbey Killian sat down together on an Alma College broadcasted Instagram Live to talk about our iGEM team and the impact that we have on our students and community! This event served to educate our current Alma College students about who we are and what we’re doing. Additionally, our recent efforts with our Alma College Admissions office has allowed us to reach a broader audience: prospective students! This has boosted not only our recruitment efforts, but more and more people know what iGEM is and what it strives to do for the synthetic biology community. In our home state of Michigan, there are only three collegiate teams, so we are excited to be increasing our efforts to expand our team! Watch our discussion.
Integrated Human Practices
Expert Advice
The first professional that we met with was Dr. Amanda Harwood, an assistant professor at Alma College. She 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.
Meeting with Dr. Amanda Harwood
The team meets with Dr. Amanda Harwood to discuss details about our project.
While in the brainstorming phase, we knew we wanted to deal with environmental pollutants, especially those found in the Pine River. Some of our preliminary ideas included a DDT degradation pathway. We decided to run our ideas by Dr. Harwood, and she was able to provide us with insight as to what direction to go in. The Pine River’s main problem, although DDT has negative consequences, is the contamination of the derivatives of DDT, therefore a degradation pathway of DDT would not be the most efficient route to take in terms of degradation. She instead suggested that we come up with a screening protocol to administer risk assessment. This would be helpful to all the people who are researching along the Pine River, as well as being able to focus efforts and resources on the places that need it most.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
After deciding on the Pine River project, we wanted to talk to the experts who have been aiding in the superfund site’s recovery for the last couple decades. We were able to talk to Thomas Alcamo, Diane Russell, and Theo von Wallmenich, and they expressed enthusiasm when we mentioned 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 DDT 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 would be 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, creating circuits that detect different thresholds or discriminate against different types of xenoestrogens.

Another way our biosensor product would improve the EPA’s current processes would be through improving the cost associated with taking samples at superfund sites for analysis. Current tests are about $80 per sample and due to fees that include labor and shipping, the total cost is $240 per sample. See our cost analysis.