Dec. 7, 2017

iGEM team's poop-to-plastic concept wins international gold medal

UCalgary student project converts human waste into useful bioplastic items for deep-space missions
iGEM team 2017
iGEM team 2017 iGEM team

There is an accepted, NASA-sanctioned recipe for simulated human waste, and it includes cellulose, yeast, peanut oil and miso paste.

Squeamish information for many, but for a team of University of Calgary students testing a breakthrough biological plastic for 3D printing in space, the formula was the difference between using fake feculence or finding a volunteer to provide the real deal.

“We actually tried to pursue the route of using the real thing, but no one wanted to have it inside the lab,” laughs Alina Kunitskaya, a fourth-year chemical engineering student at the Schulich School of Engineering.

The result was pure gold — a gold medal, that is.

Earlier this month, Kunitskaya helped lead the University of Calgary’s iGEM 2017 team to a top prize at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation’s Giant Jamboree in Boston, where nearly 5,000 students representing 330 universities presented their best ideas on synthetic biology.

UCalgary’s gold-medal project, entitled Astroplastic: From Colon to Colony, tests the theory of using human waste as the foundation for a bioplastic that can then be used in 3D printers to build tools — a process that would be especially useful to astronauts on deep-space missions.

“With space travel, such as a three-year mission to Mars, there are major challenges to overcome,” explains Kunitskaya, who specializes in biomedical engineering.

“Transporting material is difficult and expensive, and how do you anticipate every challenge and everything you need over three years on a trip to Mars? Recycling waste is another major challenge.”

Making plastic out of poop could be the answer, and the Calgary team — composed of 14 undergraduate students from the Faculty of Science, the Cumming School of Medicine, and the Schulich School of Engineering, with mentoring from six faculty advisers from the three disciplines — decided to find out.

“We got the team together at the beginning of the winter semester and started brainstorming ideas, and each person came up with their own idea,” says Kunitskaya.

“The only criteria is having synthetic biology which is engineering bacteria to do something useful. And at first, our idea was to make plastic out of wastewater.”

A visit to Calgary’s wastewater treatment plant and further brainstorming refined that idea into a solution for deep-space astronauts. And, armed with the advice of real space travellers like Chris Hadfield and University of Calgary Chancellor Robert Thirsk, the team had its mission.

“This year, the University of Calgary's project involves using genetically engineered E. coli to turn human waste into bioplastics,” reads the team summary of the project.

“We envision our project as a start-to-finish integrated system that can be used in space to generate items useful to astronauts during early Mars missions. This will solve the problem of waste management by upcycling solid human waste into a usable product.”

And yes, it works. More than just an exercise on paper, the iGEM team actually produced the bioplastic in the Bachelor of Health Sciences laboratory, where the team worked all spring and summer, carefully documenting every detail of their collaborative work on a wiki website.

The detailed research and stringent attention to the iGEM requirements not only earned the team a gold medal, the Astroplastic project was nominated for Best Manufacturing Project at the Boston event — the world’s premiere student team competition in synthetic biology.

“The jamboree was their time to shine, and shine they did — for the University of Calgary,” says Mayi Arcellana-Panlilio, senior instructor in biochemistry and molecular biology at Cumming School of Medicine, and lead faculty adviser of the iGEM team.