Canmore High Schoolers are Sorting Plastic with Biology

Climate change is a hot topic recently (pun not intended). I think the next generation of young innovators is becoming increasingly aware of how we’re affecting our environment.

So I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all three high school teams this year have focused on some aspect of waste management.

The iGEM team from Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Academy worked on plastic recycling this year. But what’s interesting is how these Canmore high schoolers are approaching the problem.

Recycling Isn’t the Problem

Originally, the team wanted to help break down plastics by digesting them with enzymes. But like Lethbridge’s high school team, they learned from their market research that this wasn’t the real problem.

So they asked their local recycling plant, where the students learned that the major pain point wasn’t the recycling process. The major issue is actually the sorting of plastic before it gets recycled.

There are seven categories of plastic (which correspond to the number in the little recycling symbol you see). Inefficient sorting means that a large percentage of plastics that would get recycled is instead sent to the landfill.

Not exactly what we want to hear when we’re putting things in the blue bin.

It’s complicated to manage seven types of plastic though, so the team started with just one. Their project, PET Peeve, focused on tagging polyethylene terephthalate (PET) for sorting.

Red Alert

The concept involves producing a purified protein tag that would bind to PET plastic. To do so, they attached PETase (an enzyme that digests PET) to mCherry (a protein that glows red under UV light). Using a third protein called hydrophobin helps the PETase stick to the PET better.

By dipping plastics into a pool of this protein, they could mark PET plastic red. By then passing the plastic under an optical scanner, the PET plastic could be separated out. Engineered bacteria are only used to produce the proteins. Once the proteins are purified, there are no live cells that enter the system.

OLS Schematic
Using a bath of their protein tag, the plastics are marked red and separated.

You can read more about their design and their experimental results on their wiki. There are still a few aspects to refine in the project, but what prototype doesn’t?

Community Support

What I really like seeing about this team is how engaged they are with their community. Canmore is very close to Banff National Park and the mountains. Its proximity to local wildlife means that they are particularly careful about how they manage their waste. Through their engagement with stakeholders, the OLS team was able to identify the real pain points and design a solution that could integrate with the existing recycling process.

Along with their friends in Lethbridge, The OLS team also published a paper on their research in BioTreks.

The team even did a side project on accessibility in the iGEM competition. One of their team members has a physical disability and has more difficulty with some of the fine motor tasks like pipetting. It’s a very interesting conversation that I think deserves further exploration. Hopefully, they will carry on with it next year.

The OLS team is presenting on October 26th at 11:00am EST. You can learn more about the team itself through their Instagram, or on their (non-wiki) website.

The Power of Entrepreneurial Thinking

And with that, we wrap up all six teams going to Boston this year.

I hope I showed you some of the very real challenges that these students are taking on. They’re applying the skills they’ve learned in the classroom and the lab to try and solve them.

To me, that’s innovation. Being creative. Being risk takers and doing something that seems a little crazy. Being flexible and adaptable when you face hurdles along the way. Not being afraid of criticism or failure, and rolling with the punches instead.

No matter which of these students you talk to, you can see the passion in their eyes and the dedication to their work. Every team has a problem that calls out to them, and they genuinely want to find a way to make the world a better place.

I hope they never lose that spirit as they grow up and enter the workforce. The world always needs more people like them.

Best of luck to all the teams, and I’ll be sure to see you all in Boston very soon!

This is the last part of a six-part special series on Alberta’s iGEM teams. Missed out? Be sure to see the whole list here!

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