Team:Harvard BioDesign/Human Practices

Harvard BioDesign 2016

Human Practices

To address all the components of our project, we had to talk to many different people, from both land and sea. On land, we consulted with experts in microbial fuel technology to understand how we could use our microbial fuel cell to power our device. We also participated in a public workshop on synthetic biology and were able to get feedback from people in our community. From the sea, we talked with the head of science at Seabin, a company that wants to rid the oceans of plastic with their unique invention. We also received plastic from Parley for the Oceans, an organization that “addresses major threats towards our oceans, the most important ecosystem of our planet.” Parley

On Land

Getting advice on the microbial fuel cell:

Although we were excited at the beginning of our summer by the prospect of designing a microbial fuel cell (MFC) and using our terephthalic acid waste product to generate electricity, we knew little about fuel cell design and were having a difficult time selecting an appropriate species of bacteria. We decided to reach out to Professor Derek Lovley of UMass Amherst specifically because he had an extensive background in microbial fuel cell research and had even collaborated with industry professionals in the past to optimize cell performance. In addition, Dr. Lovley had experience working with multiple species of bacteria beyond standard Geobacter and Shewenella that are frequently used in MFCs. He has also explored novel methods of transporting electrons produced by bacteria, such as using wires.We came into the conversation with the hopes that Professor Lovley would help improve our reactor design while it was still in its beginning phases, provide inspiration as to where we could find appropriate bacteria species, and help us explore electron transport options that would overcome the limitations imposed by the small size of our electrodes.

For more details on our conversations with Professor Derek Lovley and how we integrated his advice into our project, read on here.

In addition to talking to Professor Lovley, we also contacted Professor Girguis of Harvard University, which you can read about here.

Participation in Building with Biology and conversations with the public:

While it was important for us to reach out to people who are very knowledgeable on key topics of our project, it was also important that we talk to people around us that might not know so much about microbial fuel cells, synthetic biology, or plastic in the ocean. Our team volunteered at an event called “Building with Biology,” hosted at Boslab, a community synthetic biology lab in Somerville. At “Building with Biology,” we chaperoned activities that would teach visitors about synthetic biology and asked for their opinions on our project and synthetic biology in general.

At the “See DNA” station, we helped visitors both young and old see DNA extracted from wheat germ. We walked them through the process of breaking the cell wall with detergent, degrading proteins with meat tenderizer, and precipitating DNA with isopropanol. Although many visitors had heard of DNA before, it was different for them to actually interact with it. Many of them asked whether the DNA they had extracted was now usable - whether we could then manipulate the genes. We explained that the DNA was too crude to use, however, that we used a similar process of DNA extraction (miniprep) to obtain plasmids from bacteria.

Another activity, called “Vitamin A: You Choose!” allowed visitors to make a decision about where they would prefer their vitamin A to be sourced: from a once living source (fish), from chemical synthesis, or from biological production of vitamin A in yeast. The visitors enjoyed comparing plates containing regular yeast with those containing genetically modified yeast. Since the beta-carotene in the yeast made the modified yeast bright orange, the visitors were easily able to distinguish between the two plates and were impressed that there was no need to perform laboratory tests to determine whether a given colony of yeast would be a good source of vitamin A.

After describing each process, we asked visitors to “vote” on which method they found preferable. It was interesting to see how visitors across the board displayed a strong aversion to vitamin A produced in chemical labs. When we probed them on their decisions, visitors revealed that they were put off by the possibility that chemical synthesis could produce hazardous waste products. In comparison, yeast production seemed more environmentally-friendly. The main concerns that visitors had about genetically modified yeast actually related to costs: they wanted to know how many plates it would take to grow enough yeast to produce a bottle of supplements and how expensive those supplements would be compared to those derived from natural sources. We initially struggled with answering questions dealing with the economics of the yeast and ended up performing research into this area during our lunch break so that we would be able to better address the concerns of visitors.

Our experiences with the "Vitamin A: You Choose!" activity led us to rethink the potential challenges associated with our PlastiBack project design. Up to that point, we had been focusing our human practices on sound safety practices, however our time at the Building with Biology event revealed that individuals from the public are concerned not only with the ethical dilemmas of synthetic biology but also its cost competitiveness in comparison to other approaches of removing plastics from marine environments.

Reaching Out to the Sea

The Seabin Project

Throughout the summer, our team aimed to constantly evaluate the direction and societal impact of our project. We understand that our research was (and still is) more than just “science,” but rather a systematic investigation into a particular societal problem, and thus we had to take into account questions of large-scale product design, economic viability, and other challenges faced by plastic pollution research groups when designing and executing our experiments. As a result, we contacted Pete Ceglinski, ex-product designer and co-founder of recent startup, The Seabin Project. The Seabin is an “automated rubbish collector” that can be attached to the back of a boat or yacht and used to filter seawater of everything from detergents and oil to plastic and full-sized bottles and cans. According to Ceglinski, in the products’ promotional video, the goal of the startup is to “create a world where we [will not] need the Seabin.” Pete, when responding to our inquiry request, redirected us to the Seabin’s Head of Science, Sergio Ruiz-Halpern, Ph.D., who researches “biogeochemical cycles with a clear focus on the effects on, and effects of biota.” To gain a better understanding of the Seabin (one of the main inspirations behind our project) and get feedback on our own project, we asked Dr. Ruiz-Halpern the following questions:

  1. Q: One of the goals on the Seabin website states "converting captured plastics into energy."Is there currently a plan in place to do that? Could you see something like our system, if it progressed past the proof-of-concept stage, coexisting with the Seabin in the future?

    A: Dr. Ruiz-Halpern expressed that it would be exciting to use collected plastic to generate electricity. However, due to being a recent startup, the project’s goal of “converting captured plastics into energy” remains far into the future.

  2. Q: The press release article describing your partnership with Poralu Marine states that the Seabin is "connected to an electric pump which creates a flow to attract floating waste and hydrocarbons to the collector". How much power is required to operate the pump? We are curious if our project could hypothetically provide some power to a Seabin device.

    A: Dr. Ruiz-Halpern told us that the pump used to power the Seabin takes 24V. Our current system produces electricity in the range of 0.3V. Knowing this, we realized that we would probably not be able to power the Seabin with current microbial fuel cell technology. However, we can harness the small amount of electricity in a much more valuable way by using it as a signal to detect PET.

  3. Q: Can the Seabin collect microplastics? If so, how?

    A: Dr. Ruiz-Halpern’s answer was that because the Seabin operates within a controlled environment (seaport), it aids the problem of microplastic by preventing the creation of more microplastic, as opposed to directly removing it from the ocean.

  4. Q: What have you been doing with the floating rubbish, oil, fuel, and detergents that the Seabin collects? The video on your website states that you are trying to use some of the plastics to build new Seabins; what do you plan to do with the rest of the waste that you collect? Also, roughly speaking, what percent of the trash currently collected is plastic and of this how much of it is PET-containing items, such as bottles and food packaging?

    A: Dr. Ruiz-Halpern explained to us that The Seabin Project values “circular economy” and aims to eliminate plastic pollution via a “domino effect”—using seabins to make more seabins. However, The Seabin Project currently does not have statistics on what percent of trash collected by the Seabin is PET plastic.

Given his background into biogeochemical research, Dr. Ruiz-Halpern also informed us that ocean plastic ranges in age and in degree of weathering, a fact that we then considered throughout the rest of our project. In a follow up encounter, he suggested that, down the line, Seabin and our project could pursue the following collaborations:

  1. “The Seabin Project can provide real world PET gathered from our Seabins to trial on your bacteria [to] see how [it] behaves.”

  2. “As the voltage generated by [your device] will not be very large, we could aim [to try] to power other devices [aka not the Seabin’s pump]. For example, we might use (if needed) fish deterrent technology that will need to be powered and that could be provided by your contraption. This will take some time, but who knows!”

Lastly, he referred us to Parley for the Oceans, an organization “where creators, thinkers, and leaders come together to raise awareness for the beauty and fragility of our oceans and collaborate on projects that can end their destruction.”

Parley for the Oceans

After reaching out to Parley for the Oceans, we were redirected to their Junior Project Manager, Lisa Gran, who sent us 10g of “mixed raw plastic” from the organization’s most recent beach cleanup. Future directions of our project would include characterizing degradation of the acquired mixed plastic to simulate a real-world situation and work towards optimizing our system.