A gem of an idea does well at international competition


Imperial iGEM team

A team who developed a process for turning waste into plastic has taken home a clutch of awards at an international competition.

The team of students from Imperial College London have been recognised for their project, which uses harmless engineered bacteria to turn landfill waste into a biodegradable plastic or bio-plastic. The team say the bio-plastic could be used in healthcare to make syringes and other disposable devices used in hospitals. They have also developed a method for breaking down the bio-plastic so that it can be easily disposed of when it is no longer needed.

"In the future, our system could provide a sustainable way to make an environmentally friendly alternative to petroleum-based plastics, which would reduce our dependency on oil."

– Jemma Pilcher

Imperial iGEM team member

The students won their awards at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, winning a gold medal for the project, coming first in the manufacturing section and third overall out of total of 200 teams worldwide.

The iGEM competition sees university teams experimenting in their labs over the summer, competing to develop microscopic devices that can be used to help the environment, advance health and medicine, improve IT and make food and energy production more sustainable. The teams make their devices from harmless bacteria and cells such as yeast, re-engineering their DNA to perform pre-determined functions. 

Teams from universities all over the world descended earlier this month on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA, presenting their inventions at the annual iGEM competition. The projects were judged by a panel of leading scientists and engineers.  

The Imperial team re-engineered the genetic code of harmless E.coli bacteria so that they can break down landfill waste and turn it into bio-plastic. Current methods for making bio-plastics rely on plants as the main ingredient, but this means valuable agricultural land has to be used to grow the plants. The team say their process could be scaled up to industrial levels and that using waste material instead of plants could free up agricultural land so that it can be used more productively for agriculture.

Imperial team member Jemma Pilcher said: “In the future, our system could provide a sustainable way to make an environmentally friendly alternative to petroleum-based plastics, which would reduce our dependency on oil.  Additionally, this system would divert rubbish away from landfill sites and incinerators, which have very negative effects on the environment by releasing toxins, and instead use it as a resource.”

"Technologies such as ours could one day be used to deal with the global challenge of how to dispose of ever increasing levels of waste,” added team member Margaria Kopniczky. “Perhaps in the future we will have household appliances that contain engineered bacteria that turn domestic waste into new 3D printed bioplastic objects such as a plastic container to store the leftovers from a meal.”

Since the competition began in 2003, Imperial has entered a team nearly every year in the iGEM competition. Each year, successive Imperial teams have reached the final six.

Professor Richard Kitney, Co-Director of the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation at Imperial and team mentor, said: “Coming third overall in the world is a great achievement for our team and we would like to thank our colleagues for supporting the iGEM team and in particular the team’s advisor Dr Richard Kelwick. One of the reasons why our teams do so well each year is that students take full ownership of their project, which is important for their development.”

The team consists of Jemma Pilcher, third year undergraduate in Biochemistry; Margarita Kopniczky, third year undergraduate in Biology; Iain Bower fourth year Biology with Management; Wenqiang Chi, fourth year undergraduate in Biomedical engineering; James Strutt, MSc in Stem Cells; Matthew Chin MSc in Biomedical Engineering and Sisi Fan, MSc in Bioinformatics.

The students learn both scientifically and personally during the competition. This includes developing a research project from scratch and getting to experience the realties, rigour and challenges of carrying out laboratory research. They also learn to work as a team, communicating their ideas to external parties and presenting their work formally. This year the team presented their work to nearly one thousand colleagues.

Professor Paul Freemont, Co-Director Centre and team mentor, said: “Professor Kitney and I get enormous satisfaction in seeing a group of young colleagues develop their professional skills over the summer. It never ceases to amaze me how creative our teams can be in tackling major global problems and how extraordinarily determined they are in being successful. Already this project has received a lot of attention from the waste industry, which may lead to potential research collaborations in the future.”  


Colin Smith

Colin Smith
Communications and Public Affairs

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Email: press.office@imperial.ac.uk
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