High River Teens are Fighting Fatbergs

High schools have to be resourceful. Not all of them have access to a nearby university to gain access to things like autoclaves, centrifuges, and shaking incubators.

That didn’t stop the Notre Dame Collegiate high school iGEM team in High River, though. These eight students are part of an after-school synthetic biology club to engineer bacteria.

I’ll give you a moment to process that. The idea of a genetic engineering club was completely inconceivable back when I was in high school (like… 10 years ago, dear lord). Now they’re not just happening in cities, but also in smaller bedroom communities. In the past, we’ve also had teams from Consort and Cochrane compete at iGEM.

It’s incredible how far we’ve come to make science accessible to people.

No Lab? Make Your Own!

The team started as a club back in 2015/2016, where the students tried something nice and simple: make bacteria turn red.

In a university lab, this is a pretty easy job. Take a ring of DNA (called a plasmid) and give it to bacteria. Plasmids act like add-on modules, giving new functions to bacteria. This plasmid would produce red protein, alongside everything else the bacterium normally does.

In a high school lab setting, though, this posed a challenge, because the team didn’t have some of the fancy lab equipment that universities had.

They had to improvise, making things like incubators out of Tupperware containers and Christmas lights. They had spent a lot of time learning about DIY biology and some of the tricks that other scientists used to do their experiments. Fortunately, they were able to eventually upgrade their equipment.

The Big Challenge

Once their lab was set up, the students could work on something a bit more ambitious. This year, the team decided to try and sink fatbergs.

What a fatberg, you ask? When you flush non-biodegradable things like condoms, tampons, paper towels, and “flushable” wet wipes, they combine with cooking grease and other oils. Because sewage systems are so cold, the grease solidifies and holds everything together. These congealed masses slowly build up until they become monstrosities of solid, greasy sewage that stick to pipes and clog them. It takes a herculean effort to physically break this down once they grow to this size.

No, seriously. Ew.
Ew.

So the lesson here? Stop pouring grease down the sink. It’s an enormous burden on our water treatment system. Freeze your delicious bacon and burger grease and throw it out in the compost instead.

First Steps

Fatbergs are quite the undertaking, so the team worked on a simpler proof-of-concept with their project first, called the RMS E. coli.

(They wanted to call it Leonardo DicaprE.coli, after the famous actor who could have survived if James Cameron let him. Unfortunately, the suggestion was tabled after concerns about copyright infringement.)

You can totally see the resemblance, though.

The team engineered E. coli to produce a protein called esterase. Esterase breaks down chemical bonds in common fats, producing glycerol (which dissolves in water) and fatty acids (which emulsify easier).

To test their system out, they used a model compound called 4-nitrophenol that has the same chemical bonds as fats. The benefit of using 4-nitrophenol is that once those bonds are broken, it turns green. This makes it easy to see the results. The students demonstrated that their newly engineered E. coli could, in fact, break the bonds they wanted.

Well, to some degree, at least. Right now, it looks like their on/off switch isn’t working as expected, and esterase production is always stuck on. So like any prototype, they’ll probably need to find a new switch for their next iteration.

Field Trips

Just like their colleagues in Lethbridge, the team also did market research at their local wastewater treatment plant. The Town of High River generously offered the students a chance to test their bacteria, to learn how they interact with the bacteria already living in the treatment system. The team is pretty excited to continue this part of the collaboration.

Me? I’m not sure I’d be that excited about visiting a water treatment plant. I’ll just cheer the team on from afar. Very afar.

And so can you! The team presents their project in Boston on October 27th at 11:30am EST. You can also follow their adventures on their Instagram.

This is Part 5 of a six-part series on Alberta’s iGEM teams this year. Missed out? Start from the beginning!

Photo credits: NDC-HighRiverAB iGEM, Thames Water, Wikimedia Commons

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