Student team genetically modifies bacteria to mitigate greenhouse gases.
By Amy Brundeen
Some of the youngest student researchers at UNT believe they can help save the planet through their work. They have genetically modified bacteria as a step to make nylon from greenhouse gases – and they hope to reduce those gases in the environment dramatically. The team of eight from UNT’s Texas Academy of Mathematics and Sciences (TAMS) is the first group of UNT students to participate in the iGEM Competition, organized by a non-profit foundation dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology. Funds to enter the competition were provided by the UNT Honor’s College and TAMS. In the latest edition of this competition, teams from 45 countries each chose a problem they believe can be solved by synthetic biology. The inaugural UNT team focused their efforts on reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases in their project titled: “We will save the plants. The people. The environment. The world.”
The team goal is ambitious, but why start small?
The team began their project last summer. They chose a big problem, narrowed in on a solution and got to work learning the science behind the solution. Starting halfway through the pandemic, most of them had never even been in a wet lab, much less knew the basics of synthetic biology. Fortunately, their mentors, Calvin Henard and Mauricio Antunes, assistant professors of biological sciences, are experts in synthetic biology, working on the same type of big problems.
What is the problem with nylon?
“Nylon is a material that’s used in an array of things from making shoes to paints and other textiles,” Henard says. “Nylon is currently made from petroleum, and that process is not environmentally friendly, producing greenhouse gases.”
The team is trying to mitigate the environmental impact of nylon production, one of the largest producers of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is roughly 300 times stronger than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
“Nylon is omnipresent in industrial settings.,” says Etash Bhat, the team’s co-leader. “Production of its precursors from petroleum is the stage in the industrial process that creates the most pollution.”
As an alternative, nylon can be synthesized from chemicals made by bacteria, like gamma-aminobutyric amino acid (GABA), to reduce the environmental impact of its synthesis.
The big idea is to recycle methane gas from the air into nylon, creating a biological process for its sustainable production, rather than making it out of fossil fuels. The process would reduce the carbon footprint of nylon and contribute to the mitigation of methane, which is another significant contributor to global warming. It’s a win-win.
“Reducing greenhouse gases is the main goal of the project – not necessarily that we’re interested in making nylon as a product, but, rather, making a cleaner process for creating it,” says Caroline Jojo, one of the team co-leaders.
What about the bacteria?
Henard’s research lab in UNT’s BioDiscovery Institute focuses on using bacteria to convert methane gas, a renewable resource, into valuable products, rather than allowing it to be released into the atmosphere. If methane can be used to manufacture products such as nylon, currently made out of petroleum, it would reduce the need for petroleum, no new harmful greenhouse gases would be produced and the amount of methane contributing to global warming would be reduced.
“Our project is engineering methanotrophic bacteria, which are essentially bacteria that eat methane from the air and then converts that to nylon,” Bhat says.
Naturally, there is a series of reactions that produce compounds that could then be converted to GABA but involves additional steps. By introducing genes from E. coli into methanotrophic bacteria, they created a pathway that would break the hydrogen and carbon bonds in methane and directly produce GABA. The pathway also uses the carbon dioxide molecules that are formed during the methanotrophs’ natural metabolism to help create the GABA, which then produces Nylon-4.
“The overarching theme is to get the bacteria to go a step further,” Jojo says. “To completely make nylon rather than have to go through two steps.”
So far, the team has genetically engineered the machine – the bacteria to create GABA. Now they have to see if it works. They are optimistic of proving their bacteria successful within a couple of months.
“They genetically engineered a bacterium that expresses the DNA needed and hopefully can make GABA,” Henard says. “It has all the machinery to do so.”
This spring semester they are developing a test for the expression of GABA. If the tests are positive, the team and their mentors hope that their research could lead to a technology that would be adopted by industry to help reduce greenhouse gases.
“It has the potential to be really impactful, but that depends on how much GABA they make,” Henard says. “They may make a little bit of GABA, which wouldn’t make all the nylon that we need. That would be really far away from being scaled and commercialized. But that just means there’s more work to be done.”
When the team began last June, half of the TAMS students were in the early summer research program, starting in the lab before they even began classes at UNT. When Henard registered the group with iGEM as an undergraduate team and not a high school team, he had to explain their ages – the youngest is 15. TAMS is the nation’s first early-entrance, residential program for gifted students interested in pursuing STEM fields.
Jojo says that while two leaders had to be chosen for the team roster, they really work as a team. According to Henard, they have accomplished a lot in a short time. Jojo, Bhat and team members Aadhunik Sundar, Daphne Sahaya, Aneesh Mazumder, Vineeth Murugan, Srisha Veeramachaneni and Aishi Ranjan enthusiastically jumped in ready to tackle their ambitious project.
“Their work has been impressive”, Henard says, accomplishing by December what would have taken a graduate student a year in the lab. “They had a steep learning curve coming in, but they got up to speed quickly.”
“It was a crash course in molecular biology and synthetic biology,” Henard says. “Before we ever went into the lab, I spent hours with them, teaching them molecular biology that normally is a whole semester upper-level undergraduate course – in two weeks. But that group of students could handle it. They are very bright and very motivated.”
Both Jojo and Bhat were interested in biology and wanted to try their hand at research before they joined the team, but they had very minimal opportunities prior to the project. Working in the lab has been a challenge because they share space with Henard’s other research teams and to enable social distancing, they work in pairs rather than in larger groups. iGEM has been an invaluable learning opportunity, they say.
“I gained a lot of insight into the contextual paradigm of how a research laboratory works – as well as just a lot of biological concepts,” Bhat says.
Bhat, who is a first-year TAMS student, wants to go to medical school and one day own his own company to commercialize genomic technologies and provide accessible health care.
“I’ve been passionate about genetics and DNA for a really long time,” he says. “This research has fortified my interest in that.”
Jojo, who will graduate this spring, has applied to biological sciences programs at several universities, where she hopes to work in a research lab. She currently plans to go to medical school.
“iGEM has made me more interested in learning specifics behind genetics,” Jojo says. “Everything is connected. Biology gets more and more in-depth. Just seeing how everything I’ve learned in class can be applied to a real-life application is really interesting.”
View the team’s promo video to learn more about the project: