We are dealing with the problem of organophosphate pollution. Organophosphates are widely used as pesticides in many countries, including India. However, they leach into water bodies and enter the bodies of various lifeforms, causing adverse effects. We aspire to build a bacterial cellulose-based filter functionalised with organophosphate degrading enzymes to combat this menace.

Team iGEM, IISc Bangalore

The rise of synthetic biology has evoked mixed reactions from the masses. While the Synbio proponents hail the discoveries in the field, the opponents have a view that ‘Man is breaching his limits and trying to become God’. What is your take on this aspect?

This aspect reminds us of one of the most celebrated physicists, Richard Feynman. Feynman once said, ‘What I cannot build, I cannot understand’. The holy grail of this nascent discipline is the creation of synthetic life. If engineering a radio is not considered akin to ‘becoming God’, why would engineering life be? Certainly, stringent regulations need to be put in place to prevent the misuse of the enormous potential of synthetic biology. But that should not be a pretext to oppose advancements in the field. From gene therapy to treating dreaded genetic diseases to genome editing, synthetic biology is THE future. To oppose it is to take a giant step backwards.

iGEM strives to promote research at different levels and encourage students to come up with practical solutions to real-life problems. What is the goal of your project for this year’s competition, and how did your team brainstorm and narrow down on your chosen idea?

We are dealing with the problem of combating organophosphate pollution. Organophosphates are widely used as pesticides in many countries, including India. However, they leach into water bodies and enter the bodies of various lifeforms, causing adverse effects. Current physical and chemical methods for addressing this problem are ineffective or unfeasible. We aspire to build a bacterial cellulose-based filter functionalised with organophosphate degrading enzymes to combat this menace. Thus, our primary focus is on using the filter for combating organophosphate pollution. However, we also seek to tailor the filter in a manner similar to the plug and play platforms of computers so that it can be used to bio-remediate other classes of contaminants with minimal modifications.

During brainstorming, we were focussing primarily on ideas related to agriculture and ways of combating pollution and finally zeroed in on this exciting material – Bacterial Micro-Crystalline Cellulose (BMCC). While going through the wikis of some iGEM teams, we came across iGEM teams who had worked on such BMCC based filters. In particular, an iGEM team from Imperial College London, who had worked on BMCC caught our attention. We also encountered and read several research papers on organophosphate hydrolases, which led us to focus on organophosphates. Thus, we were struck by this idea of using bacterial cellulose as a filter base to combat organophosphate pollution.

Curiosity-driven research, even with all its awe-inspiring charm, can often hit a roadblock without the backing of the all-powerful sponsors. How did you go about garnering funds for the project?

One great thing about the iGEM experience is the diversity of activities that need to be undertaken by a team. It’s almost like running an entire lab. We experienced first-hand, the financial issues involved in research while reaching out to sponsors. We contacted many industrial houses and funding agencies. The Director of IISc was kind enough to fund our project generously as soon as we approached him with the details. We’re thankful to him and the Dean of the UG programme for their help in this regard. We also approached several companies to sponsor us by providing free access to their software and/or products. We’re thankful to SnapGene and LabFolder for their support in this regard.

The iGEM journey is a mosaic of new experiences quite different from the usual lab work science students encounter during their formal courses. How do you think participating in a research-intensive competition like iGEM impacted your scientific thought and mettle? 

iGEM has shaped our scientific thought in several ways. It has taught us to hit the books every time we get stuck in wet lab aspects. It has made us streamline our approaches in the wet lab based on our modelling results and literature survey. We realised the vast difference between the ideation of a project and its implementation. We modified our original idea an innumerable number of times. This iterative process made us think deeper and harder. As far as our scientific mettle is concerned, our iGEM journey has drastically enhanced our resilience. Our team had nearly zero wet lab experience prior to starting our iGEM journey due to the ongoing pandemic and online education. While we knew in theory how things work, we had to learn how to troubleshoot practically. Finding out your experiment failed after 72 hours of work is very disappointing. But one needs to brush that feeling off, stand up and hit the bench again (well, after you troubleshoot your failure). The research-intensive environment of our iGEM journey resulted in us developing better interpersonal skills, better time management skills and better resilience- both inside and outside the lab.

One of the striking features embellishing iGEM projects is the need to make them responsible and good for the world throughout the project lifecycle. What are the human practices being taken up by the team? How did the team try crafting their human practices to be effective in the wake of a global pandemic?

We started out by identifying stakeholders and prioritising them according to a power-interest map. We then began to engage in a dialogue with the key players of the project – members of the academia, environmental activists, and NGOs like the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). We sought their input at every stage of our project design and tried to understand their needs. Besides this, we also engaged respectfully with those affected the most by this burgeoning organophosphate toxicity – the farmers. We have conducted surveys to gauge their levels of understanding about this. We have also approached the biotech startup ecosystem in Bangalore to know more about the scalability of our project. Besides this, we also focussed on disseminating information about our project and SynBio through symposia and primers. We have also penned a book detailing the basics of SynBio for school students in India, which has been accepted by the IISc Press. Due to the pandemic, we had to keep most of our human practices (HP) activities online. Still, we tried to make the best use of the opportunity by interacting with stakeholders cutting across narrow geographical boundaries.

What are the practical implications of your conceived idea, and who are the stakeholders of your project?

Our idea goes a long way in fulfilling the UNSDGs, particularly SDG 3. Organophosphate toxicity and its associated effects are ravaging the rural populace of India who sustain on agriculture, primarily due to carcinogenic impacts. Our idea can intervene here, help reduce the organophosphate levels in the surroundings and pave way for sustainable and safe living.

The stakeholders of our project include academia, civil society activists, NGOs (like PAN), agriculturalists, sewage treatment plants and entrepreneurs.

What do you think are the major milestones and challenges to be crossed in bringing your idea to fruition in the future?

The major milestone would be to improve the thermal and pH stability of the enzymes we use to ensure our filter’s applicability over a broad range of environmental variables. We would also need to find ways to coat the functional enzyme on the micro-channel filter walls.

As the research community worldwide has started to adapt to the current climate and shifted to online platforms, iGEM has seen an increased focus on aspects of mathematical and computational modelling. What are the pros and cons of participating in a challenge such as iGEM via the online mode? 

Due to the pandemic, iGEM foundation increased emphasis on modelling and we think this is a good change that is meant to stay! Traditionally computational and experimental approaches are separated; well, they do require different skill sets. But iGEM’s increased emphasis on modelling has helped diversify our skill sets as a team.

The drawback of participating in a challenge like iGEM via online mode is the heavy technological requirement. Instead of being able to present your project, we pre-record a presentation video. The limited interactive mode is a significant drawback. Audience questions are very interesting, and the opportunity to interact with the audience is lost online. However, iGEM presentations and science have become more accessible. We no longer need to fly to attend the Jamboree to hear the ideas various iGEM teams have. We can very easily get a comparable experience by watching their presentation on YouTube.

What, according to you, are the benefits and other perks that students can obtain by participating in iGEM?

iGEMers are exposed to doing science holistically, and we can’t emphasise this enough! Not only are you identifying a problem in your community that you want to tackle, but you develop a solution and test that out! You share the solution you are proposing with the synthetic biology community in the rest of the world and your own community. You improve your approach to problem-solving based on the feedback you get from your stakeholders. There is no parallel to this invaluable experience. But apart from the experience, you get the opportunity to network with budding researchers from all over the globe who are also passionate about solving problems using synthetic biology. Personally, for our team, the biggest benefit has been to work on science that that has the potential to change lives today.

How do you envisage the world of synthetic biology a decade from now?

Well, a decade from now, we expect synthetic biology to invade every life science discipline. Synthetic biology acts as a tool to investigate fundamental questions in life science. We also expect synthetic biology applications to become more widespread and well-accepted in translational science settings. We also hope that the community of iGEMers would be larger than ever. There would be an entire generation of iGEM-inspired scientists running their laboratories in several different scientific institutions and R&D companies all over the world. 

Finally, what would be your message to students looking forward to participating in the upcoming editions of iGEM?

iGEM is a fantastic learning opportunity, particularly for young researchers. iGEM competition’s pillars strive to provide a holistic approach to solving the problems present in your community using synthetic biology tools. It promotes and emphasises science communication, collaborative spirit, and multi-disciplinary approaches. In many ways, it inculcates essential skills in individuals to be good researchers and active members of their community (not just the scientific community). We would finally say, “Get started as early as you can!!!” 

The iGEM 2021 Team from IISc Bangalore

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