Sustainable Power through Brainpower

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A team of 24 undergraduate students are a part of the UCSC International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) team that has worked to develop a sustainable energy source to present at the Boston iGEM Jamboree. Photo courtesy of UCSC iGEM.
A team of 24 undergraduate students are a part of the UCSC International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) team that has worked to develop a sustainable energy source to present at the Boston iGEM Jamboree. Photo courtesy of Isabel Madau-Martin.

Over the course of ten weeks, a team of 24 undergraduate students who make up the UC Santa Cruz International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) team has worked to develop a sustainable energy source with hopes of showcasing its research at the Boston iGEM Jamboree.

This synthetic-biology jamboree will feature 260 teams from across the globe who meet to present their work in effort to solve environmental and ethical everyday problems. The undergraduates have worked to develop a biofuel to present at the jamboree on Sept. 24-28.

“People who attend the jamboree come back changed,” said lecturer, researcher, and team mentor David Bernick. “There are teams worldwide that are all working in some field of synthetic biology, that’s what iGEM is, there are teams doing almost anything imaginable in the field, and they are changing the face of the field.”

Bernick explained that with the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, evidence tells us that there will be heating, which will cause ice melt and excess water. That would mean nations we see today would be underwater.

“These students are currently getting a graduate level experience just doing the project, so going to an international conference as undergrads is insane. It’s just insane,” Bernick said. “It changes you. You present your work, you are presenting it to your peers and a community of scientists who are as engaged as anyone could ever be, and it changes you.”

Illustration by Owen Thomas.
Illustration by Owen Thomas.

Last year, the iGEM team travelled to Boston to present another project on biofuels, and brought home a bronze medal. This year the project builds on the team’s previous research, but applies it in a more viable method by focusing on the application of their project. With the same goal in mind this year, the team continues to work to eliminate carbon emitted into the climate that is a direct result of fossil fuels.

“Imagine who it is that’s causing [the carbon dioxide increase]. It’s not island nations in the South Pacific. They aren’t causing it, but it’s their nation that goes underwater,” Bernick said. “That will happen in 100 years. So it’s likely that the students who are working on this project today, they will see that. They will see complete nations gone.”

The iGEM team expressed that it can’t do this alone, and students of all fields should be interested and invested in alternative green energy.

“The idea of relying on scientists to solve these problems for us is not the right idea,” said team captain Nina Sardesh. “Without people in politics pushing for this, without people writing books about this and helping others understand why green energy is something we have to do, we wouldn’t be able to do this but relying on other people for that solution is not the way to go.”

So far, the team has developed a biofuel that will solely derive from cellulose from food waste to reduce dependence on fossil fuels as a primary fuel source. They then convert cellulose into butanol, a biofuel that can replace the carbon emitting fossil fuels and create a more neutral carbon cycle.

“One way that we are going to solve this problem is by change. There needs to be a community change, the idea of sustainable energy is something that our campus and entire city is driven toward,” said team captain Alonzo Lee. “We need as much support to get that change out there, if we make this option available, the change will only come if people know about it and support it.”

This year, the UCSC iGEM has looked to the salt ponds of Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge for a more sustainable energy source. Over the course of 100 years, these salt ponds change color depending upon their stage of evaporation process. When red, the ponds are 10 times saltier than seawater, allowing only extremophiles — or particularly hardy microorganisms — to survive there. iGEM hopes to create a renewable energy source by genetically enhancing these extremophiles so that they are able to break down plant waste and convert it into butanol, an alternative fuel source to gasoline.

Because of expenses, the iGEM team can only afford to send six researchers to the Boston Jamboree. The team hopes to raise $12,500 to cover hotel, food and travel expenses as well as the registration fee and research materials needed. As of Aug. 19, they have raised $11,062 — a portion of which is a grant from Hartnell College, where students have and continue to work closely with UCSC bioengineers.

“As a team, we represent the university to a global audience. We as researchers become more adept at networking and presentation — the backbone of research,” Lee said. “We are not only creating great scientific jumps and pursuits, but also creating 24 better researchers, who are going to take that experience and change the world in their own ways.”

To learn more or donate to the UCSC iGEM team, visit its website or crowdfunding page.