iGEM 2017 Manchester: On the Mission to Save Phosphorus Reserves and Clean Water

iGEM Manchester 2017 is a team of nine students participating in iGEM, the biggest synthetic biology competition in the world. In their project, iGEM Manchester aims to solve two imminent environmental dangers, which threaten our ecosystem: eutrophication and rapid depletion of phosphorus reserves. Their solution involves designing phosphate-accumulating bacteria in order to recycle phosphorus from waste-water and polluted eutrophic rivers and lakes, thus killing two birds with one stone.


iGEM Manchester 2017 started their work in early February, by analysing assorted environmental, energetic, and medical problems to be solved in society. This is a standard procedure for each of over 300 teams participating in the competition. “We considered projects ranging from fungal bricks to synthetic amino acids, from directed evolution to plastic degradation. In the end, however, we decided to focus on phosphorus exhaustion. Phosphorus is the main ingredient of agricultural fertilizers, forming the backbone of 21st-century food supply methods,” says Maciej Słowiński, a member of the team.

In fact, phosphorus is a finite resource, 99% of the reserves of which can only be found in four countries. Its reserves are predicted to be exhausted in 50–100 years. This will deliver a serious blow to the rising world population: meeting increasing demand for food might become an impossible task. At the same time, significant amounts of phosphorus end up in rivers and lakes as agricultural waste-water, giving rise to a major environmental problem: eutrophication. New recycling methods could mitigate this issue, and soaring food needs coupled with depleting phosphorus reserves create a huge incentive to develop such methods.

iGEM Manchester Team saw it as a chance to design and engineer phosphate-accumulating bacteria, thereby potentially solving two problems with one environmentally friendly and sustainable approach. The team intends to mutate the enzyme Polyphosphate Kinase (PPK) and encapsulate it in a synthetic microcompartment within E.coli. This would allow for significantly increased accumulation and storage of phosphorus inside the engineered cell compared to existing methods. Phosphate gathered in this process could be used as an organic fertilizer on farmland.

As part of the iGEM Competition, the Manchester Team will be building a business model based on the bacteria designed. To this end, the team is speaking to experts in the water industry to determine the relevance of their project and feasibility of implementation on a large scale, as well as to understand the GMO legislation framework affecting this work. In order to reach a wider public, the team also started illustrating their project on a Wiki page.

The finals of the iGEM Competition, the Giant Jamboree, take place in Boston in November. The Giant Jamboree gathers students, academia, researchers and company representatives to celebrate synthetic biology accomplishments, feature team presentations, and hold workshops as well as social events. This is where iGEM Manchester Team will compete against other universities. “We would love to receive the gold medal at the competition. For now, however, let us focus on carrying out our experiments… and on finding sponsors. After all, without them, we will not be able to complete our project,” concluded Jessica Burns, one of the team’s members.

For more information: http://2017.igem.org/Team:Manchester