UC Santa Cruz iGEM team seeks a solution to plastic waste

Through campus shutdowns, wildfires, and a two-week quarantine, 13 UCSC students have been finding ways to research a solution to agricultural plastic pollution

researcher in lab wearing mask
Covid-19 and wildfires made lab work especially challenging for the students on this year’s iGEM team. Pictured here are Taylor Ziccardi (above) and Rachel Mace (below). (Photos by C. Lagattuta)
researcher in lab wearing mask
Every year, a group of undergraduate students at UC Santa Cruz forms a research team to participate in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, choosing a synthetic biology project that they hope will make a positive change in the world.

Last year, the iGEM team worked on creating a heat-stable vaccine for Newcastle disease, a common and highly infectious virus among chickens that can disrupt the food supply in remote regions. It was an ambitious project that ended up requiring more lab work than the team could complete in nine short months, so this year’s team decided to continue where their predecessors had left off. They assembled in January, led by Baskin Engineering students Melody Azimi and Sophia Sneddon and advised by David Bernick, assistant adjunct professor of biomolecular engineering.

Then the pandemic hit.

As campus shut down all in-person classes in mid-March, the iGEM team realized that the small and enclosed biosafety room that they were required to use to work on a virus like Newcastle would make social distancing difficult. The team quickly switched gears to a new project that they believed would be more feasible during the pandemic while still doing good for the planet: creating a cellulose-based biodegradable plastic for strawberry growers.

“If you go to Salinas or Gilroy you will see this black overlay of plastic stretching for acres and acres of land,” Azimi explains. “California grows 88% of the strawberries in America, so our plastic use in agriculture is very high. We want to be able to reduce that.”

Plastic coverings are a necessary part of strawberry growing, but regular polyethylene plastics break down into microplastics that are damaging to the environment. A cellulose-based plastic, on the other hand, would break down into glucose monomers that the microbes in soil could use as nutrients. This would allow farmers to simply till the plastic into the soil at the end of the growing season, keeping it out of landfills.

While iGEM 2020 was out of the lab at the beginning of the pandemic, they spent time researching their new project and what farmers needed in a plastic overlay. They spoke with experts in fumigation, plastics, and strawberry pathology, but one of their most motivating contacts was Mark Bolda, strawberry and caneberry farm advisor for Santa Cruz County. Bolda is working on a multi-state project to show growers biodegradable plastics, and told the team that once they were able to create a prototype, he would test it for them.

“He really wants to get this product out there. It was really exciting to hear from professionals how amazed they are that undergrads are working on something like this,” Azimi says. “They like that we are thinking outside of the box. That was really encouraging.”

Once the team was allowed back into the lab, with strict social distancing requirements and bi-weekly testing, they went to work on the wet-lab component of their project. Now they are racing against the clock to complete the difficult task of decrystallizing cellulose so they can make it flexible enough to add a plasticizing agent to it.

“It is something that people have tried before and spent years on,” Sneddon says. “Our strategy is different, and we are hoping that it works, but that is the biggest hurdle that we have to overcome.”

Multiple interruptions have made this effort even more difficult. Several months into the pandemic, the whole team had to quarantine when one of their members tested positive for Covid-19. Luckily the person was asymptomatic and strict safety procedures kept the rest of the team from being infected, but it kept them out of the lab for two weeks. Shortly after they returned, the whole campus had to evacuate for a week as wildfires raged dangerously close.

During these disruptions, the team was able to rally to complete work that could be done remotely, but the ongoing strain of the pandemic and the wildfires forced Azimi and Sneddon to step up their leadership in a way that would normally not be required for an undergraduate research project.

“What I have learned more than anything this year was how to handle the emotional side of managing projects with teammates who have to deal with heavy stuff,” Sneddon says. “It is a hard thing to learn, and I think this year has made me really grow in that way because you are dealing with things you wouldn’t normally handle in an iGEM year.”

With the new challenges has also come the opportunity for camaraderie, however. Azimi, who had the experience of being a member of the iGEM 2019 team before leading iGEM 2020, says that one of the biggest positive differences this year has been better communication between teammates as they have worked to compensate for having fewer people physically in the lab.

“I feel like I knew my teammates a lot more, so I think that is the best thing that could have happened out of 2020,” Azimi says. Sneddon agrees, noting, “The best part of doing iGEM this year has been not having to go through the pandemic and the fires and quarantine alone.”

Normally at this time of year, the team would be gearing up to travel to the iGEM Jamboree that is typically held at the end of October, but this year the competition has been postponed to November and will be entirely virtual. The team is looking forward to being able to present their work, but whatever the outcome, the experience of being a part of iGEM has provided them with an opportunity to learn and grow as researchers during an otherwise difficult year.

“It has been very challenging,” Sneddon says. “We have definitely felt the bad side of 2020, but we have gotten through it and we have done a lot of work toward our product. It has been inspiring to see our team work so hard.”