An undergraduate team of researchers at the University of Leisester are heading up a project to identify and culture microbes that can devour polystyrene waste, and they are recruiting young (and probably not-so-young) citizen scientists to help them do it. The initial task is to find good microbial candidates to further enhance through genetic engineering until they create a bacteria that can break down plastic packaging that would otherwise take centuries to degrade:
The second-year students who make up Leicester’s International Genetically Engineered Machine team (iGEM) want to find examples of bacteria which already degrade polystyrene to help them design a more efficient organism.
In exchange for a small donation to the project, volunteers will receive a kit containing a piece of polystyrene which they can simply bury in their garden, allotment or plant pot and leave for several months before sending it back to the team in a postage-paid envelope.
The polystyrene pieces will be tested in the lab for traces of microbes that have colonised and might be consuming it.
These could include pseudomonas bacteria, which are common in soil and have the capability to degrade polystyrene very slowly, but there may be better, faster microbes waiting to be discovered.
The team will then locate the parts of the microbes DNA which give them this trait, and aim to transfer these genes to the new bacteria that they create.
The participant who uncovers the most active polystyrene-degrading bacteria will be invited to have their name included on a research paper at the end of this project, and runners up will receive an “Official Citizen Scientist” iGEM t-shirt.
Project leader Christopher Morton, 20, a second year biological sciences undergraduate, said: “The kits are a fun and easy way to get people involved in the experiment.
“The main aim of the experiment is to find the elusive polystyrene degrading microbes. We hope this will get people thinking outside the box to try and place an experimental kit in an unusual place which will result in us finding the microbes.”
You can read more about this project here.
The kits can be purchased for Â£2.50 from the team’s website at:http://uoleicesterigem2012.blogspot.co.uk/. Money raised will help fund the purchasing of equipment and resources for the experiment.