Goodbye Azodye UCL iGEM 2014

The Human Practice Story

The Human Practice Story

This year UCL's iGEM team has addressed the subject of Policy and Practice with three central questions. The answers to which not only gave us valuable insight, but also guided our research to best benefit the world.

What does the Industry need?

Synthetic biology could be a powerful industrial and environmental tool, as our project hopes to demonstrate. As with the introduction of any new technology it is important to understand the problem that we are trying to solve with synthetic biology and the context into which our potential solution solution fits; not just in terms of the technological competition, but also in terms of policy making, legislation, the history of the problem, extant environmental and health data and even international relations. Though often overlooked in iGEM, we chose to look at this by creating a short, concise digest in the form of a mock POSTnote. A POSTnote is the standardised format by which the UK's Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology advises Parliament on science and technology issues. We suggest that following such a format could help iGEM teams contextualise their project better. Alongside our social media campaign we also contacted local government agencies, and used it to launch our engagement with the biggest name in dye policy, ETAD.

Download the Mock Parliamentary PostNote here

In a bid to further understand the industry requirements for an azo dye remediation project three of our team ventured to the head office of The Ecological and Toxicological Association of Dyes and Organic Pigments Manufacturers (ETAD) in Basel, Switzerland. We met with their Chief Director Walter Hofher along with Research and Development Directors from Bezema and Huntsman Dyeing Companies; Georg Roentgen and Dr Stefan Ehrenberg respectively.

We came out from the meeting with a much deeper understanding of the factory dyeing processes, current remediation strategies and the requirements of the entire industry. The table below summarises what we learned and how it changed the direction of our project.

Composition of dye effluent: Effluent not only contains azo dyes that we can toxic to E.coli upon remediation but Copper and Chromium salts in addition. From the knowledge we set out plans to test the toxicity of different concentrations of copper and chromium salts on E.coli. If the salts proved toxic to E.coli we planned to use an overexpression construct for the Copper resistance proteins CusA and CusB as the first step towards solving this problem. We also planned to compare the survivability of our recombinant E.coli strain in textile industry effluent and assess further modifications that would improve our organisms effectiveness.
Sulphonated azo dyes: In an effort to use less water in the dyeing process, companies are leaning towards the use of sulphonated dyes which cannot be easily broken down by normal factory methods From this discussion we decided to create a new BioBrick part for the enzyme Lignin Peroxidase which has previously been shown to aid in the breakdown of sulphonated azo dyes

Watch the video of our trip here!

Exploring Thames Water

In order to understand how our device could be used to remove azo dye contamination from within a water system we visited Mogden sewage treatment works. We want the integration of our bioprocess to be as seamless as possible, creating greater incentive for industry to consider our ideas.

Mogden is the second largest sewage treatment facility in the UK, covering an area of over 55 hectares of land. Being given a tour of the facility gave us an overview of the variety of phases waste water is treated at.

The secondary treatment phase proved very exciting for our project. Following the removal of solid waste during primary treatment, the waste water is directed into aeration lanes. These aeration lanes contain a variety of naturally occurring bacteria chosen to degrade the remaining human waste, food waste, soaps and detergents.

Mogden has a single lane with anoxic conditions designed to promote anaerobic reactions. These lanes are also provided with a high nitrogen content to maintain the bacteria. The fluid is then directed into lanes with aerobic conditions where the remainder of the bacterial reactions can occur.

This phase would be an ideal to integrate our device, the separate aerobic and anaerobic phases provide the conditions for our two-step process and would fit seamlessly into an already established process. The aerobic lanes use membrane diffusers to oxygenate the water, we further investigated the use of these diffusers for system as a different method of oxygen delivery.

Mogden Sewage Works

We visit!

Mogden's Aeration tanks

How can we understand the impact of our project on a sociological scale?

Having already visited stakeholders from the dyeing industry to discuss the logistical aspects of our solution we decided to extend a hand to the rest of the stakeholders in the industry, as well as the general public. We gathered over 85 attendees from various specific industries including the general public and invited them to attend a seminar where we outlined the goals and technologies we were using. This presentation was then followed by a debate in an attempt to gather information about their thought and concerns about what we were doing. This debate centred around three key themes which we felt best reflected the concerns of the public in relation to the development of genetically modified organisms and synthetic biology.

  1. Are there better solutions to the problem than ours?
  2. Is it safe to use synthetic biology in the bioremediation of dyes?
  3. Whose responsibility is the problem?

The responses we acquired during the discussion lead our project to evolve to better fit society and industry stakeholder needs:

Question General Responses to consider Project Alterations in response
Are there better solutions to the problem than ours? Remove use of Azo Dyes altogether and use alternative dyeing methodology Collaboration with Bioartist Natsai Audrey to explore the possibility of Bacterial synthesised dyes
Is it safe to use synthetic biology in the bioremediation of dyes? You can never know the future, you must move slowly in implementing such a plan. If there is an escape of the bacteria, you must stop them transferring DNA to other organisms or outcompeting beyond the current technology Exploring implementation timelines at a factory level for future business plans. Creating a Xenobiological module within the project.
Whose responsibility is the problem? Everybody's; scientists, industry, lobbyists, the general public. Create #UncolourMeCurious short film to increase knowledge of the problem and hence increase likelihood of all parties knowing enough to take responsibility.

Industry (No. of Representatives)

Ethical Fashion (4), Textiles (11), Environmental/Sustainability Policy (4), Social Sciences and Ethics (3), Synthetic Biology/Engineering (32), Press (2), General Public (31)

Company Representation

Ethical Fashion Forum, Jack Wills, Aravore London, Central St Martins, Highams Park, Forum for the Future, University of Greenwich Law Dept, Global Water Forum, Environmental Industry Commission, UCL, University of Sussex, GamCare, University College London, Imperial College London, Guardian Newspaper, The Write Network

Watch the presentation and part of the discussion here!

See some pictures of the debate!

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How do we engage the general public to understand the problem and the solution?

The #UncolourMeCurious Campaign

Our #UncolourMeCurious campaign was created so that awareness of the problem of azo dye pollution could spread hence breaking down the responsibility of the problem to anybody and everybody as suggested by our Citizen Synbio panel discussion. The #UncolourMeCurious campaign comprised of three fantastic art collaborations, a conceptual short film and social media campaign. This culminated in the #UncolourMeCurious Exhibition with works from numerous BioArt collaborators including Central St Martins, Natsai Audrey, Linden Gledhill and The Slade. On the opening night the spread of attendees ranged though the Ethical Fashion Forum, Jack Wills, Guardian Newspaper and many more.

Central St. Martins Collaboration: Breaking into Bioart

We approached the Central St Martins textiles department with our ideas of synthetic biology and science and they asked ‘When does technology like this become accessible?’ This question yielded a set of beautiful visualisation of the way our bacteria could be used to create art if controlled by light. These pieces by second year Textiles Design BA students Cameo Bondy and Barbara Czepiel exhibit the textiles that could be created if our bacteria contained optogenetic biobricks that switched their dye breakdown capacities on and off via light cues.

See samples of their work below:

Bioartist Collaboration: Natsai Audrey

A practicing independent designer and researcher, Natsai Audrey Chieza is a Design Futurist inspired by material innovation and technology. Natsai considers her creative pursuits with a strong interest in how the life sciences can enable new craft processes for a more robust environmental paradigm.

Natsai contributed a series of pieces to be displayed at the #UncolourMeCurious from her Faber Futures exhibition, exploring the use of bacteria to create pigments and dye fabrics, deviating from the standardisation of a petri dish.

Natsai has achieved measurable success in design research projects for Microsoft, Nissan, Unilever and EDF Energy. She has also exhibited in numerous design exhibitions and events across Europe including the Victoria & Albert Muesum, London; Audax Textile Museum, Tilburg; Salone Internazionale del Mobile di Milano, Milan; Designersblock LDF, London; EN VIE/ ALIVE, Paris; Science Gallery, Dublin; and Heimtextil, Frankfurt.

Bioartist Collaboration: Linden Gledhill

Linden Gledhill is a scientist inspired to art. Like us, he uses the tools of science, in his case advanced microscopy and high speed equipment to break down the physical work at different spatial and temporal scales. We noticed his pictures of azo dyes crystals on flickr and contacted him over a potential collaboration. After contacting him over azo dyes photos, discussing possible experiments we could carry out (LCMS, azodyes auxotrophy) and ending our conversation on discussing zombies and a ferro-fluidic attack on humanity, we got him on board to help us. He kindly offered us to use his pictures and videos of azo dyes cystallisation both in our website and exhibition. IN addition to the possible ways of using his images he gave us advice on how to make them ourselves, with the dyes we were decolourising in the lab. We exposed a video at out UncolourmeCurious event using some footage he sent us of the crystallisations. Unfortunately we weren't able to use the pictures on the website due to the mandatory Creative Common policy of the iGEM website. It was nevertheless very interesting to have some perspectives from a scientist and artist on the project, hearing how he moved from science to art and was then able to display the beauty of the microscopic work.

The Slade Collaboration: Putting it All in Context

We wanted to reach out even further into the Arts community, to get people thinking about dyes and how they are used. We collaborated with The Slade School of Fine Art and with them unthreaded the chemical history of the dye industry. We constructed a timeline that highlighted the ancient and pre-industrial uses of pigments, to the rise of the azo dye, to help contextualise the Slade's Salon installation in the UCL Wilkins Building, and highlight the terrific importance of azo dyes to the way we use colour.

#UncolourMeCurious Conceptual Short Film

We knew that the exhibit would engage the public but we asked ourselves, what about those who do not live close enough to visit and learn about this issue? To achieve this we created the conceptual art film #UncolourMeCurious designed to present our project in an abstract way open to interpretation, whilst maintaining the core concept of decolourisation. We are excited to announce that our short film has been short-listed from over 130 others for the BIO·FICTION Science Art Film Festival taking place over the 23rd to the 25th of October at the Museum of Natural History in Vienna. BIO·FICTION explores synthetic biology in an multiple disciplinary approach and includes performances, panel discussions, film screenings, presentations and more!

Or in higher res embedded from youtube

See pictures from the first ever viewing:

Through the short film featured above, we generated 524 views from 34 countries around the world. The weekly viewing counts below show that interest was sustained.

Exhibition Opening Night Gallery

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Social Media

In order to convey to the world of fashion and textiles that the problem of Azo-dye toxicity has to be addressed, we took to the global platforms of Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #UncolourMeCurious.

During our 3-month campaign, we reached an average of 673 people on twitter per day and often more. In all, we obtained 29,000 impressions as of the 15th of October,

Through this traffic, we generated 139 link clicks, and 78 retweets.

Contact Us

University College London
Gower Street - London
Biochemical Engineering Department
Phone: +44 (0)20 7679 2000

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