Purdue Biomakers




Once we determined the areas in which we needed to consult experts, we setup meetings and incorporated feedback as we iterated our design. Below you can find specific design or direction changes we made based on our meetings.


EPA Dr. Jay Garland

After discussions with scientists and businessman at DAS, we decided to talk to policy experts in the government. We talked to one of our advisors who recommended we speak to Dr. Jay Garland at the EPA. We set up a conference call in which we discussed our early ideas for a phosphorus accumulating E. coli that could be used on agricultural fields. He encouraged us to focus on the larger context of our potential solution; focus on the mass balance of the system, energy usage, environmental impacts, and the entirety of the water cycle. He also encouraged us look into the phosphorus cycle and see where our Implementation could have the largest impact. He left us with one directive: to link innovative technology with sound ecological principles. From this discussion, we widened our focus to the entire phosphorus cycle, started looking at mass balance systems for phosphorus, and set up meetings with people involved in various stages of water cleanup like the USDA lab on campus, the Lily Nature Center, and the West Lafayette Waste Water Treatment Facility. More importantly, we started to look into possible ways to ensure safety in using E. coli to clean up water.

Dr. Kevin King

We attended a seminar on phosphorus given by Dr. Kevin King in which he talked about the “stickiness” of phosphates. He explained that phosphates can bind to soil, and so fields are often phosphorus rich before fertilizer is even added. He explained that this contributes to a buildup of phosphates in the system that doesn’t happen with nitrogen. This prompted us to return to the USDA to talk about the specifics of phosphorus application and the sustainability of current farming practices.


Advisor Meetings

We met with our advisors after our discussion with Dr. Jay Garland to discuss biocontainment and safety concerns. We thought we might want to design a bioreactor that could house our modified E. coli. We asked about immobilization of E. coli and were told about sol gel technology with TMOS. We decided we could form xerogel beads that encapsulated our organism using this method. As we did more research, we found that these beads were ideal for our project as the E. coli would be unlikely to escape and would be viable for up to 4 weeks. This helped us meet some of the design criteria that we arrived at with other experts.

Patent & Business plan

Large Scale:


Our first visit was to Dow AgroSciences (DAS) where we presented our still rough project idea. Coming away from this meeting we began to focus more on design criteria such as how much phosphorus we needed to retrieve, began looking at products that already existed, and broadened our scope of potential application.They gave us feedback and information we would need to provide them in order to pitch our product on an industrial scale.

Small Scale:


After the Midwest Clean Energy Forum we were approached by members of the Foundry and set up a meeting with them to discuss our product, our goals, and the potential for a patent and business plan. We discussed the parts of our project that would actually be patentable, and what steps we would need to take in customer discovery. This meeting especially made us consider our end-users and to consider our prototype as a potentially marketable product. This made us reconsider home application scenarios and products that people could readily buy. Ultimately, these meetings gave us a more business oriented approach to discussions and considerations of our project, and greatly influence our SYNENERGENE Application Scenario

Public Engagement

West Lafayette Wabash River Fest

From the outset of our project, we understood that we would receive pushback regarding the use of E. coli in water. Because of this we talked with professors on campus about strategies we could employ to communicate our science. Based on advice we received, we made posters to explain our project and set up a booth at the Wabash River Festival in West Lafayette to discuss the phosphorus problem, our solution, and what it means with people at the festival. We also set up a station for children to pipette water with food coloring into eppendorf tubes to simulate lab experiments. Candy DNA was also provided (that the kids could build). We used this opportunity to explain to both the children and adults how we do genetic recombination. This started a dialogue with the public and gave us valuable insight on further communication and presentations.

Product Design

USDA Part One

Our next stop in our discovery was the USDA National Soil Erosion Research Lab. The lab conducts extensive research in phosphorus runoff and is currently researching limestone and steel slag as methods of phosphorus clean-up. However, we learned that limestone is ineffective as it leeches phosphorus after sometime. Steel slag is good at retaining phosphorus, but it is much more difficult to remove the phosphorus once it is there. We resolved to design our system in such a way that the phosphorus was tightly held but also easily removable. Additionally, they discussed tile drains as a potential area for application of our system and encouraged us to attend Andi Hodaj’s thesis defense.

Andi Hodaj Thesis Defense

Andi Hodaj discussed tile drains in depth and gave us good information on how we could implement a phosphorus reclamation module within one. Additionally, Andi provided us with information on 2 stage ditches as both an alternative method of phosphorus reclamation and as a potential area for application of our method in conjunction with the ditches. This information again broadened our thoughts on potential application and gave us enough information of tile drains to begin brainstorming a potential prototype.

Dr. Thomas Sors

We met with the Chief Science Liason of Bindley Biosicence Center, Dr. Thomas Sors, who was very helpful throughout our project. He encouraged us to simplify our approach, and do some things very well instead many things decently. He also talked to us about his work with phosphorus, which gave us insight into our design. Most importantly, he talked to us about system modularity, which led to us designing our system so that many different projects could utilize it.

Midwest Clean Energy Forum

We were lucky in our discovery process to stumble upon the 2016 Midwest Clean Energy Forum that was held on campus. There were several speakers and forums that we participated in. From these discussions, we came away with ideas of important end-user considerations: cost effectiveness, ease of integration into existing practices, and approachability/ease of use. As Purdue President Mitch Daniels said, “It’s only innovation when it is useful to someone.”

USDA Parts Two and Three

At this meeting with the USDA we narrowed down design criteria for a prototype phosphorus reclaim module. We outlined our thoughts on end-user needs and received feedback on our packed-bed filter idea. We then held a design meeting in whoch we iterated to find a design that the USDA would develop for us. You can find more information on the Hardware page.