In early 2016 we knew we wanted to enter the iGEM competition. The problem was how to pay for it. Registration, paying for research, and getting a team from New Zealand halfway around the world to the giant Jamboree meant that this was not going to be a cheap project. The way we saw it, there were two choices available to us.
1. Attempt to find a supervisor with enough spare cash to bankroll our project and send a few of us to Boston.
2. Develop a project with enough commercial appeal to sell the IP rights for enough to fund our project and trip.
Option 1 seemed a lot easier for a small group of undergrads to pull off but academics funding us to do a project would probably want us to do a project close to what they’re already working on.
Option 2, while more difficult would give us autonomy, so long as we were working on something people wanted and were willing to pay for then we could design the project around what we’re passionate about. We chose option 2.
Development of expression, purification, and of PETase and METase for development into an enzyme solution capable of degrading PET plastic. We chose the environmental track for our project since our team is passionate about sustainability and conservation. We have a vision of utilising biotechnology to make the world a better, and more eco-friendly place. We started by looking at our own lives and personal habits and noticed that our usage and disposal of plastic is incredibly wasteful and damaging. More than 25,000 kg of plastic waste is discarded in New Zealand every day. Also, according to the newly-published findings of a global study it is estimated that between five and 13 million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in the world's oceans every year.
The bacterium Ideonella sakaiensis discovered at the end of 2015 possesses the ability to degrade PET plastic using two plastic degrading enzymes encoded in its genome. We aim to express part of the plastic degrading pathway in the model organism E. coli while also developing a secretion system that will allow the enzymes to be collected en-masse to be sprayed on plastic. The enzymes will degrade plastic into raw materials for plastic reproduction. This is exciting because the current plastic recycling rate is 6.7%. Only 7.7% can be combusted in waste-to-energy facilities, and it takes between 450 and 1000 years for the plastic to decompose.
Our aim is to significantly reduce the time and increase the efficiency of plastic degradation using a biotechnological solution. The bacteria, I. sakaiensis, that our plastic-degrading enzyme is found in does not degrade plastic with high efficiency. Our team’s target is to synthesize and secrete the plastic degrading enzyme in E.coli or S. cerevisiae (Baker’s yeast) in high amounts without requiring specific environmental conditions. By doing this, lots of the energy involved with current degrading practices can be saved and land used as landfill can instead be used more productively.
Based on this pitch, our team was able to raise $19,000 NZD (approx $12,000 USD) to cover registration and attendance at the giant jamboree and research costs. This money was raised by undergraduate team members not supervisors and came from two companies. The first company, Waste management Ltd gave $12,000 NZD in return for branding rights and first right of refusal for any IP that might come out of the project. The second, Biomaters Ltd gave $5,000 for branding rights. These investments by private companies demonstrate the strength of the case made to these companies in the teams pitch for investment.