The University of St Andrews iGEM project on the creation of a probiotic sustainable sunscreen worked to address several of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations (United Nations, 2015). Our sunscreen aims to reduce the use of potentially harmful chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate found in conventional sunscreens (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2016). This addresses SDG6: ensuring the sustainable management of water and sanitation, and SDG12: enforcing sustainable consumption and production patterns. In the Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals in 2003, it was found that oxybenzone was detected in the urine of 97% of the participants (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019). Additionally, traces of oxybenzone have also been found in municipal drinking water and studies have shown that it acts as an endocrine disruptor, moreover, it is not removed in the treatment process to purify the drinking water (Garcia et al., 2011). St Andrews is a small seaside town on the east coast of Scotland and has a rich and biodiverse ecosystem in its waters. Living so close to the sea, we are very aware of the threats to the marine ecosystem, in particular to coral reefs. Coral reefs are incredibly diverse, and 25% of marine species depend on coral reefs. Corals are ecosystem engineers, and their loss would lead to a devastating ecosystem collapse. Protecting coral reefs in order to conserve these vital ecosystems for future generations is fundamental to SDG 14: Life underwater.
Through synthetic biology, we will be able to progress towards a more sustainable lifestyle and meet the goals adopted by the UN. As individuals who have the privilege to have access to high-level education and technological advancements, we have the responsibility to devise solutions to the global problems we face. For these reasons, we developed Shinescreen, a product that will protect us from the harms of UV rays without the costs to the marine ecosystem. Through its implementation, we believe that it will help to meet the SDG objectives by ameliorating the health of our oceans and educating the public about the need for sustainable products.
Dr Sebastian Hennige and Dr Alice Tagliati
We interviewed Dr. Sebastian Hennige and Dr. Alice Tagliati, who both research the effects of sunscreen chemicals on coral reefs. This allowed us to gain vital insight into the impacts of marine pollutants on the environment and to get their opinion on the effects that Shinescreen could have on the corals. As they are both experts on the causes of degradation of corals, their positive outlook on our product and knowledge imparted to us allowed us to understand the importance of minimising the stresses on corals, which could be achieved by decreasing the leaching of chemical sunscreens.
Therefore, through the implementation of the toxic chemical-free Shinescreen, water pollution due to the leaching of the chemicals from conventional sunscreens would be reduced, improving the water quality and increasing the possibility of its recycling, which is target 6.3 of the SDGs. Additionally, targets 6.6 and 12.4 were addressed, since through the increased use of sustainable sunscreens, water-related ecosystems would be restored as the amount of the toxic chemicals found through the water cycle would not be increased, simultaneously protecting the organisms found in these environments from the chemicals, as it has been found to result in gender shifts in fish due to their harmful properties. Sustainable Development Goal Targets 12.6, which is to encourage companies to adopt sustainable practices and integrate sustainability information in their reporting cycle, and 12.b, which is to develop tools to monitor impacts for sustainable tourism that creates jobs and promotes local culture and products, were also addressed in our project.
As regions such as Palau, Hawaii, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have announced bans on the harmful chemical sunscreens, sustainable and safe alternatives like Shinescreen will be in high demand (BBC News, 2020). The development of our CoralWare app allows consumers to track the sustainability of the sunscreen they use as well as the presence and amount of the toxic chemicals found in their sunscreen. Through this, consumers would be incentivised to reduce the use of non-sustainable and harmful sunscreens and therefore pressuring companies to turn to more sustainable and environmentally friendly product development.
Caption: After bleaching events, the biodiversity of reef ecosystems are reduced drastically. Picture credit: The ocean agency/XL catlin seaview survey
Louise Lang – People4Ocean
To obtain more information on the industry for sustainable development we met with Louise Lang, who founded People4Ocean, a sustainable sunscreen company. The meeting gave us a perspective of both the difficulties and the advantages of developing a sustainable sunscreen, as we learned that zinc oxide nanoparticles are essentially found in all mineral sunscreens and therefore still could damage corals. However, through the use of synthetic biology we hope to address this problem and produce a cheaper and more sustainable product. As coral bleaching was mainly caused by using toxic sunscreens in regions with high amounts of tourism like Hawaii and Australia, the implementation of our Coralware app would encourage tourists to be more sustainable and promote the use of smaller local sunscreen brands, which would be more environmentally aware of the damages caused by using conventional sunscreens. The use of the app and similar tools would increase the public’s knowledge of the damages caused by unsustainable practices and sway them towards more sustainable ones, therefore that could influence the government to promote and purchase sustainable goods and companies, another intention of the UN in target 12.7.
Lastly, the largest portion of our project was directed by our efforts to contribute to the conservation of marine ecosystems, which is targeted by the Sustainable Development Goal number 14. The use of sustainable sunscreens such as Shinescreen would reduce marine pollution due to the leaching of toxic chemicals and minimise the impacts of ocean acidification, addressed in targets 14.1 and 14.3. Ocean acidification has caused extensive damage to organisms with carbonate exoskeletons, resulting in coral bleaching and decreasing marine organism populations. The addition of those chemicals from the sunscreens further increases the rate of coral bleaching, but by addressing this problem through the development of sustainable sunscreens, the impact of ocean acidification on marine organisms can be reduced.
Dr Nicola Allison
In our research to develop a safe sunscreen that would help to conserve the ocean organisms, we interviewed Dr. Allison, who researches coral bleaching and the impacts of environmental change on marine organisms. Dr. Allison highlighted the risks that our E. coli could cause infections or disrupt the coral microbiome, and we could unintentionally do more harm than good. We took this on board and worked to ensure that our bacteria would not survive away from the permissive conditions of the skin. We worked hard to make sure that our kill switch design was robust and to minimise the chance of our bacteria escaping and persisting in the environment. Her knowledge of the biomineralisation in corals and their mucus layers aided us in the kill-switch development to ensure that it would not cause any detrimental effects on the marine environment.
Additionally, we developed a partnership with the Coral Guardian organisation aimed to increase the public’s awareness on coral reef degradation. Coral guardian is a conservation charity that works to conserve coral reefs nearby the Komodo National Park, which is located on a developing island in Indonesia and is mainly sustained by tourism. After a meeting with Ruxandra Toderasc, the scientific co-director of the Coral Guardian, the St Andrews iGEM team selected the organisation as a partner due to their close relationship with the local communities around the areas affected by over-fishing and coral bleaching. As addressed by targets 14.2 and 14.4, its goal not only to educate people on sustainable fishing methods but also to employ locals to transplant the corals and restore the biodiversity of the marine ecosystems. Furthermore, by implementing the raise awareness kit provided to us by the organisation and providing funds towards their coral adoption system, it will be possible to help to regulate the overfishing of the waters surrounding the park, allow for economic advantages even through the sustainable use of marine resources, and increase the people’s knowledge about ways to improve the health of marine ecosystems, which are targets 14.7 and 14.a of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Collaborations with other iGEM teams
Three of our collaborations with other iGEM teams were mainly focused on the targets of Goal 14, as we all worked on projects to conserve the marine ecosystem. The partnership with the Hainan team fostered discussions around coral bleaching and how our projects could be possible solutions to this problem. Coral bleaching is complex and has multiple causes, and therefore requires multiple solutions. We hope that our projects can contribute to these solutions and help conserve coral reefs. Furthermore, as the St Andrews team did not have access to labs throughout the project, the Hainan team tested substances that would potentially be used in Shinescreen to assess if the substances would have beneficial impacts on the coral’s zooxanthellae, advancing the potential that our sunscreen could have in the restoration of the oceans.
The partnership with the University of Manchester team allowed us to hold SDG stakeholder interviews, such as the ones with Dr. Hennige, Dr. Tagliati, and Louisa Lang. As both teams were working to develop a sunscreen addressing the coral bleaching problem, it was therefore a very beneficial collaboration as it allowed us to help each other in both the modelling and human practices aspects of the projects.
The collaboration with the University of New South Wales iGEM team began when we were trying to collect information from Australian residents about their knowledge of coral bleaching. We also presented along with University of Exeter iGEM team at the Marine Biology Symposium that they hosted. This allowed us to gain insight on the possibilities and solutions that other iGEM teams were designing through synthetic biology, and how it could provide the means to meet the SDG to conserve the marine ecosystems. It was also a great opportunity to raise awareness about threats to marine ecosystems, and how we are working to lessen these threats.
Similarly, our own Synthetic Biology Forum aimed to further inform the public about synthetic biology and how it could be the key to meeting several of the SDGs. Only through the education of the public will it be possible to meet Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN. It is therefore essential that individuals like the iGEM team members who have the knowledge about the prospects of synthetic biology, utilise their awareness to inform others about the ways that we can change our system towards a more sustainable one.
GIANT PACIFIC OCTOPUS CREDIT: JETT BRITNELL / CORAL REEF IMAGE BANK
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019). Benzophenone-3 (BP-3) Factsheet | National Biomonitoring Program | CDC. www.cdc.gov.
Garcia, H.A., Hoffman, C.M., Kinney, K.A. and Lawler, D.F. (2011). Laccase-catalyzed oxidation of oxybenzone in municipal wastewater primary effluent. Water Research, 45(5), pp.1921–1932.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (2016). Sunscreen Chemicals and Coral Reefs. www.Noaa.gov.
BBC News (2020). Palau is first country to ban “reef toxic” sun cream. BBC News. 1 Jan. www.bbc.co.uk.
United Nations (2015). THE 17 GOALS | Department of Economic and Social Affairs. www.sdgs.un.org.