Two teams of Greek students from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and from the University of Thessaly were distinguished for two separate projects in the acclaimed international competition in synthetic biology, iGem 2023, which took place in Paris earlier in Novemeber.
The team from the University of Thessaly, competing in the category of Bioremediation, was voted among the top 10 overgraduate teams worldwide and received a gold medal for overall project performance, with nominations in five prizes.
Their undergraduate colleagues from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, competing in the Conservation category, won the silver medal prize for Best Sustainable Development Impact. This is the fifth win for the team since 2017.
The iGem Thessaly team, which has been participating in the competition since 2019, described in a Facebook post the “nine months of painstaking and uninterrupted research, experiments and events” that preceded their win, adding that their projects each year are self-funded, which means their entire effort and participation are supported by sponsors.
Recycling olive oil mill wastewater into eco-friendly plastics
Project oPHAelia, developed by the iGem 2023 team of the University of Thessaly, proposed a method of recycling Olive Oil Mill Wastewater (OMW) into biodegradable polyesters.
Their project offers solutions to two distinct environmental issues. First, the effective management of the toxic by-product that OMW is, and, second, an eco-friendly alternative to plastics.
“Greece is the third-largest olive oil producer globally, and in our region, Thessaly, OMW poses a significant problem due to the substantial quantities generated every year. The absence of effective OMW management methods has posed challenges for olive oil producers, often resulting in improper disposal that threatens the environment,” the Greek students explained in their pitch.
Their proposed method, oPHAelia, constitutes an innovative approach relying on a synthetic consortium comprised of two bacteria, Escherichia coli BL21 (DE3) and Pseudomonas putida KT2440, with the dual objective of detoxifying OMW and harnessing the waste’s potential to produce a high-value product, called Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs).
“PHAs are a family of biodegradable polyesters that resemble synthetic plastics, offering a promising solution to the global plastic pollution crisis,” they conclude.
Boosting the natural regeneration of forests with a SynBio solution
Having observed that nature’s regeneration mechanisms after a wildfire are slower than in the past in today’s conditions, the 14-member team of Greek undergraduate students proposed a three-level approach that acts as a soil conditioner and biofertiliser to accellerate the process.
A special hydrogel layer that they created in the lab, would enrich the soil with important nutrients like nitrogen and organic matter.
“After a fire, a hydrophobic layer is created over the soil, increasing in this way the water runoff and the danger of soil erosion,” the students-researchers explain on the project’s website.
The combination of polysaccharides, pectin and chitosan that they discovered, creates an hydrogel matrix, which aims to increase the water absorption of the soil. Alginate-pectin microspheres are included inside the hydrogel, hosting the microbial consortium.
“EuPhoresis is a project that consists of a biopolymer and two different strains of microorganisms that aims to accelerate the soil restoration after forest wildfire. In occasions of increased danger of desertification, seeds from the local area will be added inside the hydrogel matrix,” the project explains.