These students are working on a new way to clean Baltimore's harbor - Technical.ly Baltimore

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Dec. 8, 2016 7:30 am

These students are working on a new way to clean Baltimore’s harbor

At Baltimore Underground Science Space, the six-member Baltimore BioCrew is developing a bacteria that can break down the plastic that pollutes the harbor.

Team BioCrew.

(Courtesy photo)

Last week’s introduction of a second trash wheel near Canton once again focused the community on the need for new solutions to clean up Baltimore’s harbor.

So here’s one such solution: A team of students are working on a project that could have a big, if less visible, impact.

At the Baltimore Underground Science Space (BUGSS) in Highlandtown, six high schoolers known as the Baltimore BioCrew have been working since the beginning of the summer to genetically engineer the cells of bacteria to make plastic bottles disappear.

The team includes homeschooled student Ella Coleman; Mercedes Thompson, Eseni Tafah, Julius Gingles and Oumaima Driwech of Poly; and Western High School student Rachel Avidor.

Meeting on Saturdays throughout the summer, the students decided they wanted to focus on a topic that would benefit the city and clean the environment, said BUGSS Lab and Program Manager Sarah Laun. Through research, they found a 2014 discovery by Japanese researchers that found bacterium that could degrade PET, a particular polluting plastic. Soon, they recognized how it could be adapted to clean the Inner Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay.

The students worked to isolate the specific enzymes in one kind of bacteria that are responsible for breaking down plastic, and synthesized them into E.coli bacteria in the lab.

Bacteria growing at BUGSS. (Photo by Stephen Babcock)

Bacteria growing at BUGSS. (Photo by Stephen Babcock)

As the whirring of a machine at BUGSS suggested during a visit last week, the project is still in its incubation period. For now, the bacteria is growing in a culture tube, with a piece of plastic inside. The students have been returning to test whether the bacteria had an effect.

The project already received recognition. In October, the work to date was recognized with a bronze medal at the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGem) competition in Boston, which gathered more than 300 teams from around the world.

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The students found they had a hot topic, as five other teams were also building off of the research. Each group had its own take, though, so it turned out to be a learning experience.

“They got to compare their work with other teams who are approaching the problem differently, which is a really nice thing for them to see as young scientists,” said Lisa Scheifele, a biology professor at Loyola University Maryland and a BUGSS board member.

Work will continue on the project with the next meeting set for Jan. 21. The group also wants to design a model that would contain the bacteria to be deployed into the natural environment.

The project introduces the students to a number of areas, such as synthetic biology, engineering and mathematical modeling. Laun and Scheifele said they’re right along with the students in the learning curve.

“It’s all driven by them,” Scheifele said.

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Stephen Babcock

Stephen Babcock is Market Editor for Technical.ly Baltimore and Technical.ly DC. A graduate of Northeastern University, he moved to Baltimore following stints in New Orleans and Rio Arriba County, New Mexico. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Baltimore Fishbowl, NOLA Defender, NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune and the Rio Grande Sun.

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