Davison’s Matthews on medal-winning Alma College iGEM team

ALMA — The Alma College iGEM team, competing at an international synthetic biology competition for only the second time, won a gold medal in November for a project being developed to break down the chemical compounds in contaminated soil at the Velsicol Superfund site in St. Louis, Michigan.

Marleigh Matthews, a senior from Davison, was a member of the team.

The nonprofit International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation brings together more than 6,000 participants from across the world every year for its annual Giant Jamboree, which they deem “the largest synthetic biology innovation event in the world.” Synthetic biology is a field of science that involves redesigning organisms for useful purposes by engineering them to have new abilities.

The Alma College 2019 team won a silver medal at the Giant Jamboree last year for their project, the development of a counteracting bacterium to degrade Trimethylamine, or TMA, which promotes plaque formation in arteries. Devin Camenares, assistant professor of biochemistry and IGEM coordinator, said this year’s team improved to win a gold medal, despite restrictions put in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There were definitely challenges in terms of organizing the team and getting the work done, but the students rose to the challenge,” said Camenares. “They did a really job good of preparing themselves, communicating over the summer and completing their projects. I’m excited to see what they come up with next year and beyond.”

Abbey Killian, of Traverse City and vice president of the Alma College team, said the team focused on two aspects of the ongoing soil cleanup project: one that made the project less expensive and another that made it less harmful to the environment.

Velsicol Chemical Corporation, and its predecessor Michigan Chemical Corporation, produced various chemical compounds from 1936 until 1978, when the plant shut down. The chemicals polluted the groundwater, soil and Pine River that bordered the plant. In the early 1980s, the factory was demolished, but pollution remains to this day. Federal and state agencies, as well as local groups and volunteer organizations, have for many years committed to cleaning up and rehabilitating the site.

Killian said the Alma College team is working to develop a bacterium that, when applied to soil and water samples from the Velsicol site, would be able to determine the severity of toxicity in those samples. Such a measuring stick would enable groups like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to better focus their resources on impacted areas.

“We did a cost-benefit analysis and determined that this biosensor could save hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars annually,” said Killian. “When we made contact with the EPA and told them about our findings, they were very interested. We think our biosensor could not only save money, but also time.”

In addition to the “biosensor,” the iGEM team is also working to develop a new way to break down the chemical compound dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) and its derivatives, which are some of the most common contaminants at the Velsicol site. By capitalizing on the fact that full or partial pathways to degrade DDT already exist in nature, Killian said, the team is showcasing how synthetic biology can be used in a practical way.

The Alma College team created content for a number of media platforms to discuss the raw science it was producing in college laboratories, including a podcast, a website and a web video that mimicked a 1980s TV broadcast. iGEM teams typically present their findings in person at the Jamboree, but Camenares said that this year’s event was entirely virtual due to the pandemic.

Creating the “TV broadcast” led to collaborations with the student-run production company Bitworks, as well as the Alma College Theatre Department. With student “reporters” carrying large microphones on-screen, and distortion that resembled a video cassette recording, Killian said the video was an especially memorable way to get their message across.

Alma’s academic programs encourage students to put the ideas and theories they discuss in the classroom to work in real world settings through internships, research, campus leadership, study abroad and service to others.