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COVID-19 is a threat to our health and the fight against it has resulted in a collapsing economy. This is undoubtedly concerning the majority of humans all around the globe at the moment. Whilst many people rightfully point out a lot of the negative consequences this pandemic generates; we attempt to seize the opportunity of the current situation. The tremendous improvement of air quality in mega cities, the rebound of marine life and the recreation of insect populations indicate some sort of recovery of our nature. One might argue that these improvements are only temporary. Nevertheless, our team notices a serious possibility to use the gained experience and the growing public awareness to establish broader ecological sensibility.

We are the iGEM team of Ulm University. Participating in our first iGEM competition this year we decided to contribute our part to the conservation and recovery of nature. Therefore, we will tackle the global problem of plastic po­llution, especially the third most abundant plastic: polystyrene. Despite the existence of various possibilities to contribute to the preservation of our nature, we chose to intensely study ways to break down plastics into biodegradable matter. Some might ask themselves: why did we take this path?

We conduct basic research in the field of biological degradation of plastics. By improving the natural properties of mealworms, we can actively contribute to the rescue of (endangered) species on our planet by minimizing the threat of plastic for animals. In the future our strategy could help to remove plastics from food chains. Microplastics would no longer find their way into our food and the food of other species. In addition, a reduction of plastic pollution would help to prevent marine life – and many others – from ending up in life-threatening traps. Therefore, our iGEM project 2020 could potentially make an important contribution to the conservation of nature and wildlife. 

The WWF estimates that by 2050, plastic waste in the oceans will take up more space than all the fish swarms across the world together. Millions of animals, including birds, fish, amphibians and mammals, are one way or another killed by plastic every year.

Plastic in our environment affects wildlife as well as wildlife habitats. The ocean, beaches and lakes are flooded with plastic, which harms many species. Turtles and seagulls might mistake plastic particles as food, which cannot be digested by them and lead to them dying of starvation. According to the United Nations, solely the ingestion of plastic kills an estimated one million marine birds and 100,000 marine animals each year. Almost 700 species, including endangered ones, are affected by plastics.

We can all agree that a relief of (plastic) pollution will help our nature on its way to recover and prevent further losses of endangered species. Thinking about our participation in the iGEM 2020 competition we first discussed the meaning of conservation for us as individuals. Conservation describes the careful utilization of natural resources in order to prevent depletion. The term also covers measures to protect ecosystems and restore disturbed ecological interrelationships. Conservation is based on the value of nature itself and the knowledge that destruction and overuse, just like the associated reduction in biodiversity, can have dramatic consequences for the natural balance.

The importance of nature also has a huge impact on humans. A study of the German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation has shown that experiencing nature have a positive effect on the mental and physical health, as well as the social health of individuals.

In our project we will modify Tenebrio molitor’s gut bacteria to produce acetone, which is a solvent for polystyrene. Thereby we intend to improve their natural digestion of plastics, and the waste product will be further biodegradable matter. Like for other teams, the pandemic complicates our work, as we for example only get limited access to the university and lab spaces. Nevertheless, we are already conducting some pretests to achieve optimal preparation for our upcoming work. If our project is successful, we could not only decrease the already released polystyrene waste, but also prevent more waste from being dumped into the environment as it could be easily decomposed by then. With our findings humanity could solve a tremendously huge problem with just a microscopic change.