University of Leicester students are set to try their hand at genetic engineering – and hope to create a new organism which could rid us of decades of plastic rubbish. Second-year Biological Sciences undergraduates are taking part in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition this summer, and aim to construct a biological machine that can efficiently degrade polystyrene.
Polystyrene has been used in plastic packaging for years, but takes up to hundreds of years to biodegrade and requires temperatures of more than 1000°C to be combusted. The breakdown products can also contain chemicals that are thought to cause cancer.
The group of around ten students aims to create an organism that can rapidly degrade polystyrene in an environmentally friendly way by using standard DNA parts supplied by the competition organisers. They will spend ten weeks working in the university’s laboratories over the summer vacation, and upload their findings to iGEM’s wiki site.
They hope to be able to present their findings to judges at the European region’s Jamboree event in Amsterdam in October. If they are successful in Amsterdam, they could be chosen to compete in the international final at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the USA, in November.
IGEM is an international genetics competition started at MIT which has categories for school-age, undergraduate and entrepreneurial entrants. More than 170 teams from around the world have entered the undergraduate-level category this year.