Missouri S&T students clean up water through plant biology

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On November 6, 2017

By designing a new protein for a common plant, Missouri University of Science and Technology students can identify contaminated groundwater in the environment and assure homeowners that their drinking water is clean from pollutants like industrial solvents.

Missouri S&T’s chapter of iGEM, the International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation, is preparing to present its research findings as part of the iGEM 2017 Giant Jamboree held Nov. 9-13 in Boston. Missouri S&T’s iGEM team will compete with over 200 other collegiate teams from around the world to earn a high certification ranking.

At the competition, the team will give an oral presentation of its research project to a panel of judges and exhibit a poster for review. Teams are then individually ranked based on their work. The competition is not head-to-head, so theoretically every team competing could earn the highest rating available.

The Missouri S&T project, titled “Detectable Bio-Sensing Processes in Arabidopsis,” uses thale cress, a common weed in Europe and Asia, as a model plant to biologically sense groundwater contaminated by the chemical trichloroethylene.

The Missouri S&T iGEM team has designed a protein that binds across a plasma membrane in the plant’s cells to trap trichloroethylene. The plant detects the chemical contaminant and then turns “clearer” to indicate exposure. These plants could be planted around factories and verify that proper decontamination standards are being met or even could be house plants and assure the cleanliness of your drinking water.

“A major slowdown in synthetic biology research is redesigning every single DNA part for every individual project,” says Erin Nischwitz, S&T’s iGEM team leader. “iGEM teams around the world create parts of DNA that will act the same way in multiple experiments in different functions. Once a team’s genetic part is saved, it does not need to be identified naturally in some organism and isolated every single time that indicator is desired, greatly speeding up research time.”

The iGEM Team is one of 18 student-run teams in Missouri S&T’s Student Design and Experiential Learning Center (SDELC). The SDELC, housed in the Kummer Student Design Center, provides real-world team-based operations, including computer design laboratories, a manufacturing shop, office space and logistical support. Design teams mirror small start-up companies that plan large-scale projects, organize into departments, raise funds, communicate their ideas and solve open-ended design challenges. Most teams compete annually against other collegiate teams from around the country and the world. For more information about the teams, visit design.mst.edu.

To learn more about the iGEM team or its project, visit igem.mst.edu. The following students will travel to Boston and represent Missouri S&T’s iGEM team:

— Ryan Baumann, a junior in biological sciences from St. Louis

— Ben Bleitz, a senior in biological sciences from Eureka, Missouri

— Kent Gorday, a senior in physics from Foristell, Missouri

— Erin Nischwitz, a senior in chemistry from Wildwood, Missouri.

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