Synthetic Biology applications to Water Supply and Remediation

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: College of Science and Engineering

Abstract

We propose to harness one of the most rapidly evolving frontiers in science, synthetic biology, to tackle one of the most pressing engineering problems, the supply and remediation of fresh water, in order to deliver innovative technologies into a rapidly expanding international market.

Synthetic biology is an exciting and potentially transformative scientific endeavour with apparently limitless applications. This basic technology is now being developed in laboratories across the UK, with significant academic impact . The frontiers of the field are being pushed back rapidly and scaling up to real-world applications now presents a significant challenge and opportunity. In this respect, the design of technology for water supply and treatment is an area that urgently requires the innovation that synthetic biology promises. In the Developed World, the engineers of the industrial revolution bequeathed us magnificent water infrastructure. But it is now aged, faulty, expensive to maintain, costly to run, energy guzzling and, consequently, unsustainable.

We will innovate in the basic-technology of synthetic biology to improve existing and create new biotechnologies for water supply and treatment focussing on two generic themes, namely: synthetic organisms as sentinels and signallers, and synthetic organisms as catalysts.

The chip-to-lab-to-pilot scale water engineering technologies in drinking water systems, membrane filtration technologies, anaerobic digestion, microbial fuel cells and bioelectrochemical systems currently being developed in the Environmental Engineering group will provide robust environments to test new ideas. We will use synthetic organisms as sentinels and signallers to engineer the formation and dissolution of biofilms and to optimise the recovery of valuable products in the anaerobic treatment of wastewater. We will develop minimal cell architectures as catalysts in detoxifying water. We will quantify the dynamics of populations of synthetic organisms in open microbial communities and explore responsible innovation in synthetic biology and governance of the emerging technologies.

Planned Impact

The water industry in the UK rivals the healthcare, energy, and telecommunications sectors in terms of direct access to the population and its impact on the public health and wellbeing. It is a testament to the success of 20th century water engineers that more than 95% of the UK population is connected to 1700 drinking water treatment plants (DWTPs) and 9000 wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) by more than 700,000 km's of pipes and sewers. But 3-5% of electricity used for water supply and treatment emitting more than 4 million tonnes of greenhouse gases and £120 billion was spent over the last 20 years to merely maintain and iteratively improve the existing unsustainable infrastructure. The industry desperately needs to move towards cheaper, more sustainable, low-energy technologies.

From source to sink water is teeming with life, consequently the greatest challenges in the engineered water cycle revolve around managing microorganisms; we try to kill them in water treatment processes, they clog filters, corrode water supply pipes, we nurture them in wastewater treatment plants to convert waste into something less harmful. Synthetic biology offers us the potential to control some of the key processes in a way that we have never been able to do in the past. In this Frontier Engineering award we will make the first concerted effort to take promising synthetic biology breakthroughs and advance them towards viable technologies in water engineering. If we can use synthetic organisms to tell us how to control the formation of biofilms we could reduce pumping costs or prevent corrosion. If we can engineer organisms to make useful products from wastewater we could change the economics of wastewater treatment. If we can make minimal cell architectures to detoxify water then we could devise new water purification systems. We will explore all of these along with the risk, uncertainty and governance of synthetic biology applications to water supply, treatment and remediation Our structured and less formal connections with key-players in the water supply chain will provide us with expert feedback on our research programme and the routes to deliver these impacts in this strategically important industry.

Publications

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Bautista-De Los Santos Q (2016) Emerging investigators series: microbial communities in full-scale drinking water distribution systems - a meta-analysis in Environmental Science: Water Research & Technology

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Caramelli D (2018) Networking chemical robots for reaction multitasking. in Nature communications

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Couto J (2017) Biofilms for Babies: Introducing Microbes and Biofilms to Preschool-Aged Children † in Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education

 
Title Brainwaves 
Description Prof Cronin has appeared on the BBC Radio Scotland "Brainwaves" program, in which he discusses his work, the origin of life, and his development as a scientist. (link below for a limited time only) 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact Scottish audience (but also available on-line) 
URL http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b070d3yb
 
Title Disruptive Interview 
Description In an interview for the 3D printing magazine "Disruptive", Lee Cronin discusses his approach of using 3D printing technology for drug discovery and pharmaceuticals, and the digitalisation of the chemical world. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact target audience 
URL http://www.disruptivemagazine.com/opinion/disruptive-interview-lee-cronin-regius-chair-chemistry-uni...
 
Title People Behind the Science 
Description Prof Cronin has appeared on the "People Behind the Science" podcast, where he shared his views on the Origin of Life, and on how chemistry gets complicated, as well as discussing his life as a scientist. 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact inspiration 
URL http://www.peoplebehindthescience.com/dr-lee-cronin/
 
Title Through the Wormhole 
Description Lee Cronin and Cronin group research were featured on the latest episode of Through the Wormhole. Lee explained his theory of chemical evolution that pre-dates biological evolution without genes. The episode was broadcast on the Science Channel, and the Cronin Group research can be seen in the first section of the 1-hour episode. (with Morgan Freeman) 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2015 
Impact Large audience. 
URL http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2qd2qu
 
Description We have identified keystone species in the formation of biofilms in drinking water and showed that their ability to catalyse the formation of biofilms is related to flow regime. We have developed synthetic communities of methanogens and their syntrophs in microfluidic devices the enhance the production of methane from wastewater. We have developed protocells that can harvest metal pollutants from wastewater. We have developed a cell analogues that can rapidly oxides waste. We developed a robotic platform to optimise the functioning of mixed microbial communities to treat wastewater. We have shown that synthetic organisms evolve rapidly when placed in stressful environments and thus have to be replaced on a regular basis. We have developed a responsible innovation framework to direct research and innovation in synthetic biology. we have shown that predatory bacteria can be used to clean water infrastructure
Exploitation Route Colleagues in the Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand and ATREE Bangalore India are using our methods for manipulating microbial communities in the design of new sanitation solutions for developing countries.
Sectors Environment

 
Description Working with AIT Thailand to commercialise small-scale bioreactors by creating a bioaugementation strategy.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Environment,Healthcare
Impact Types Economic,Policy & public services

 
Description BBSRC IBIOIC DTC
Amount £69,000 (GBP)
Organisation IBioIC 
Sector Academic/University
Country Unknown
Start 09/2017 
End 09/2021
 
Description Optimising decentralised low-cost wastewater infrastructure by managing the microbes
Amount £1,191,997 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/P029329/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2017 
End 04/2020
 
Description research grant
Amount £250,000 (GBP)
Organisation Scottish Water 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2017 
End 09/2021
 
Title Interviews conducted with Water Sector Stakeholders in the UK. 
Description  
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2015 
Provided To Others? Yes  
 
Title Lipid topology and linear cationic antimicrobial peptides: a novel mechanistic model 
Description  
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? Yes