Deploying Synthetic Biology in the Water Industry

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Chemical & Biological Engineering


Urban water systems are key foundations of any modern society, impacting on the quality of life of millions of people. The key challenge is to continue to maintain the provision of safe water supplies, hygienic sanitation and good environmental management in a sustainable manner in spite of increased urbanisation, aging infrastructure and changing climate conditions. To achieve performance targets, current management strategies often focus on chemical or physical based techniques - which are expensive and energy intensive. In this cross disciplinary feasibility account, we aim to study the feasibility of engineering novel biological solutions ( Synthetic Biology ) to generate more sustainable solutions to these challenges without the need for large infrastructure investment or energy use. Synthetic biology is an emerging scientific field that applies engineering principles to biology. In essence, synthetic biology's main concept is to design and construct new biological parts and devices, using biological knowledge and engineering design principles, to manufacture new biological systems with features not found in nature, as well as re-designing or re-engineering existing biological systems for more useful purposes. Therefore, success in this new area requires communication, cohesion and collaboration from engineers and scientists within an appropriate ethical, social and legal framework. An overarching aim is to make things for the benefit of mankind. Synthetic biology's use in the water industry is highly speculative and so we will focus on testing the scientific feasibility of addressing two significant issues - pathogen detection and sewer flooding. The associated social interactions will also be investigated as these may result in barriers to uptake of this novel technology by the water industry, which, given its regulated nature is not normally associated with the implementation of potentially controversial technology. The activities supported by this outward looking and collaborative feasibility account will consolidate the core and emerging strengths of the Pennine Water Group (PWG) with expertise of the BBSRC funded Sheffield Synthetic Biology network MATEs. Interconnected research themes include (1) pathogen detection throughout the potable water supply (2) performance enhancement within existing sewer network infrastructure and (3) social contexts of technological developments and applications. These themes will be addressed through a series of activities based around workshops, scientific programmes and dedicated periods of dissemination and proposal preparation to extend the application of synthetic biology in the water industry beyond the lifespan of this account.

Planned Impact

Synthetic biology is dominated by groups in the USA, especially in the San Francisco area and at MIT. Businesses are being built in the area already. Of the 18 examples of companies engaged in synthetic biology given in the recent Royal Academy of Engineering report, only 4 were based in Europe and none directly in the UK [ref: Synthetic Biology: scope, applications and implications - Royal Academy of Engineering (2009) ISBN: 1-903496-44-6]. It is therefore strategically important for Europe, and in particular the UK, to take a strong role in this emergent field, or risk falling behind. It is also vital that synthetic biology techniques and philosophy be cemented into research and development in the UK, in an appropriate ethical and legal framework, so as to ensure successful future growth of new industries and/or improved efficiencies in established ones. We believe that this new collaboration is well placed to make progress in this important and emerging research area for the UK with regard to a large industrial sector. We base this on the fact that we comprise a powerful mix of expertise in engineering/physical sciences (biochemical engineering, systems biology, civil/environmental engineering) and the life, and social sciences. The broader beneficiaries are: 1. Scientific Community (a) Life Science and Engineering disciplines advance through mutual understanding of techniques and development of questions. (b) Collaboration between key academics already engaged in individual synergistic aspects, so ready to address new challenges. 2. Generic Skills (a) Science and social science through cross-fertilisation of ideas and upstream discussion (b) Social science, law and ethics, development of policy, regulation in parallel with emerging science, and generation of case studies 3. Industry (UK plc) Potential commercial application of a platform set of technologies (water industry and biotechnology companies etc) with public acceptance that can be used both in the UK and overseas. The development of new technologies for water supply and sanitation has been recognised as an emerging area by EPSRC via signposting and the funding of a Water Supply and Sanitation Technology Platform by the EU in the FR7 program. 4. Public/society (a) Non-passive acceptance of science to meet social need, socially robust science, dialogue with scientists (quality of life) (b) The general public - urban waters systems (supply and drainage) are used and funded by all members of society. The ability to maintain current performance standards and to provide the desired enhanced levels of public protection is becoming increasingly challenging. New technologies are required to meet these aspirations at reasonable cost. The UK water industry is relatively risk adverse when adopting new technologies but the scale of the challenges it is facing means that a step change in technological capability is needed to respond to the anticipated impact of new regulations and climate change.
Description Urban water systems are key foundations of modern society, impacting on the quality of life of millions of people. Synthetic biology (SB) is an emerging field that applies engineering principles to biology. SB use in the water industry is highly speculative and so the aim of this project was to investigate "what was possible" with regards to the deployment of SB in the water industry. This project brought together collaborators from Pennine Water Group and the Sheffield Synthetic Biology network MATES.

The success of the project depended on communication and collaboration from engineers, bio and social scientists and stakeholders from the UK water industry. This was achieved through 4 activities:
(1) "First date" Workshop: The aim was to establish and inform the stakeholder network, to understand where SB could be beneficial, and to identify potential barriers for delivery. 27 delegates from academia and the water sector attended. 8 key drivers for the water sector, and 13 potential applications of SB were identified. The attendees also identified barriers to the uptake of SB. A workshop report was widely circulated.
(2) "Courtship" Period: 3 feasibility studies were undertaken, including an undergraduate student project that was part of iGEM 2010, an international competition based on the deployment of SB.
-Theme 1 explored the feasibility of using SB for pathogen detection in potable water. Through engagement with water professionals, the challenges and shortfalls of existing systems were identified. This review led to considering the adaptation of molecular and immunological techniques. The iGEM team assessed the application of engineering an organism for model pathogen detection in potable water.
-Theme 2 investigated the feasibility of biologically coating pipe walls to adjust their hydraulic character. A review identified potential genetically modified bacteria and likely technical constraints. A small-scale rig was built to test if bacteria could be grown on pipe walls and their ability to hydraulically smoothen pipe surfaces.
-Theme 3 challenged the assumptions for interdisciplinary SB research. Activities were undertaken to understand issues of interdisciplinarity and the social context and limits to acceptability of SB in the water industry. Factors were identified for interdisciplinarity to flourish using socio-technical circuits. Processes of developing SB applications were studied ethnographically and in relation to the social context and differing perspectives of stakeholders.
(3) "Engagement Party" Workshop: The aim was to disseminate the conclusions of the feasibility studies and to develop a vision for SB to inform future grant applications. Over 20 delegates attended. The outcomes included an understanding of needs, better multidisciplinary research concepts and a new network of collaboration. A report of the workshop was widely circulated.
(4) Marriage Arrangements: The deliverables for each theme were widely disseminated:
Exploitation Route -A review of current sociological knowledge surrounding application of SB led solutions for environmental applications - Paper submitted to Science And Public Policy and a further journal paper in preparation, also presented at workshops.
-A device for enabling cross-disciplinary research to be instructive - developed socio-technical circuits to enable visualisation and discussion of interdisciplinarity, which was used as part of iGEM project and Engagement Party. Paper submitted to BioSocieties and presented at international conference and workshops.
-A report on the technical feasibility of Theme 1 and Theme 2 - Paper submitted and presented at international conference (FIPS2011), results also published on Environmental KTN website and iGEM2010 wiki. The iGEM team presented their results at MIT and were awarded a Bronze medal.
-A prioritised list of ideas to take forward - Developed at Engagement Party. EPSRC since funded a SB project on water desalination.
Sectors Environment

Description Biodesalination: from cell to tap
Amount £1,040,620 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/J004871/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 08/2011 
End 10/2014
Description Pennine Water Group (PWG); Urban Water Systems for a Changing World
Amount £1,201,728 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/I029346/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2011 
End 04/2016
Description ROADBLOCK: Towards Programmable Defensive Bacterial Coatings & Skins
Amount £605,234 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/I031812/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2012 
End 09/2015
Description Using a synthetic biology approach to engineer urban water system biofilms
Amount £246,458 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/M017680/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2015 
End 12/2016