iGEM Dundee 2013 · ToxiMop

The MOP Campaign

It has been an incredible summer in much of the UK this year and the sun has been shining even here in Scotland. Just outside Dundee, in mid-July, a record breaking temperature of 28.9C (84F) was reported. The weather has been great for our vitamin D levels but it has been very bad for our local ponds, reservoirs and lochs. After reading multiple stories in the local news about “hazardous” algal blooms springing up around the city we decided to speak to the Senior Countryside Ranger, George Potts. George has worked at Clatto Reservoir in Dundee for many years, you can find an interview with George and a case study of the reservoir here. Clatto has been affected by algal blooms for several years and recreational water sport activities have now ceased entirely. This has resulted in a significant decline in visitor numbers to the surrounding country park, thus, impacting on the local economy.

We specifically asked George about why there are sign posts up at Clatto urging the public to avoid entering the water. We were told that the water has been deemed as potentially unsafe. He explained a little bit about how the water is tested and what the regulations are outlining water safety in regards to algal blooms. It turns out that the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) is responsible for testing water affected by algal blooms. The tests involve calculating the number of cyanobacterial cells per millilitre of water. SEPA follows the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendation that a concentration of 20,000 cells per ml has a relatively low probability of causing adverse health effects and a concentration of 100,000 cells per ml has a moderate probability of causing adverse health effects. SEPA tests the water at Clatto once a month (SEPA do offer additional testing) and having failed the test Clatto has been sign posted as unsafe.

After discussing this with George Potts and cyanobacterial experts who work at SEPA, and learning how erratic cyanobacteria can be (with potential for fluctuation on an hourly basis), it was questioned whether a monthly test was really appropriate. Additionally, it has been estimated that for each algal bloom there is a 60-70 % chance that it is actually toxic. These current regulations are of course in place to keep the public and their pets as safe as possible but we question whether the regulations are entirely appropriate.

Our MOP device and detector aim to deal with this problem by targeting the toxin specifically instead of the cells. Additionally, our Moptopus device aims to give real-time information to track the dynamic process of algal bloom formation and with an integration of the detector and Moptopus would potentially allow a daily monitoring of the toxicity of water.

Our Campaign - Interview with Joe Fitzpatrick MSP

We spoke to our local representative Joe Fitzpatrick who is a Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP). We explained our concerns regarding the current regulations governing water safety in relation to algal blooms. In response Joe wrote a letter to the Head of Ecology at SEPA, Roger Owen. Through this contact SEPA invited us to observe the sample analysis process in action.

Visiting SEPA

On the 15th of August 4 members of our team visited the Angus Smith Building (SEPA ‘head quarters’) to observe the process of sample analysis that SEPA carry out. We also discussed current regulations with Jan Krokowski, SEPA’s Senior Specialist Ecologist. This was an essential step for us in understanding the safety considerations that have led to the current set of regulations in use. Jan and the rest of his team described how, using microscopy techniques, they count the cells and classify the cyanobacteria according to a variety of keys. Pauline Lang from SEPA, very kindly, provided us with some pictures of cyanobacteria that were found in samples taken from our own Clatto Reservoir in Dundee (Fig. 1 and 2).

Figure 1: An image obtained of a water sample from Clatto Reservoir using an inverted microscope. The species is Microcystis aeruginosa, a species which produces the toxin microcystin. This image was generously provided by Pauline Lang of SEPA.

Figure 2: An image obtained of a water sample from Clatto Reservoir using an inverted microscope. The species is Aphanizomenon flos-aquae. Both toxic and non-toxic forms of Aphanizomenon flos-aquae exist in freshwater environments. This image was generously provided by Pauline Lang of SEPA.

Jan and the rest of his team at SEPA were also very interested in our project to try and mop up microcystin. They expressed concerns regarding the application of genetically modified organisms in the environment and emphasized that any steps to combat the problem have to be proportional to the risk that the toxins pose to the health of humans and animals.

The Conference

After speaking to Senior Countryside Ranger George Potts, a few issues were raised about the current guidelines governing water safety. We thought it would be a good idea to bring together a number of experts in order to have a constructive debate regarding the current regulations. The debate entitled: A Discussion on Algal Blooms, Clatto and Synthetic Biology was held at the University of Dundee.

The following people attended the debate (Fig 3):

  • Senior Countryside Ranger- George Potts
  • Biochemist and Park Ranger - Dr Kate Treharne
  • Dundee City Council- John Pratt
  • Cyanobacteria expert Dr Christine Edwards (Robert Gordon University)
  • Friends of the Earth Andrew Llanwarne
  • Synthetic Biologist Ciaran Kelly
  • Dundee iGEM Team member Philip Rodger
  • Dundee iGEM Team member Craig Johnston (Craig had spent time with Clatto residents in order to represent their views).

The debate was streamed live online and we had viewers from Germany to Pakistan. You can find the video recording of our debate at the bottom of the page.

Figure 3: Attendees to our discussion. From Left to Right: Dr Kate Treharne (Biochemist Ranger service), Dr. Edwards, George Potts, John Pratt, Ciaran Kelly and Andrew Llanwarne.

It was a real privilege to have Dr. Edwards in attendance. To open the debate Dr. Edwards explained what Cyanobacteria are and the reasons that they pose a threat to the health of humans and animals. George Potts then went on to talk about Clatto. He had many questions for Dr. Edwards regarding possible methods for clearing up the water body. Dr. Edwards also explained why current regulations are chosen and also the limitations of the sample analysis process. We also discussed our project and its possible applications. Andrew Llanwarne from Friends of the Earth made some excellent points regarding safety and the assessment of risk which is essential for any new application of technology, especially where the health of our environment is concerned. Additionally, Ciaran Kelly, Dr. Edwards and Dr. Treharne even suggested improvements which we have taken on board.

I believe it is fair to say that all of our attendees were impressed with our progress. They wished us the best of luck in our attempts to use a new approach (synthetic biology) to an old problem (toxic algal blooms).

Since the debate Councillor John Pratt, who is the Assistant Environment Manager overseeing Clatto, has held discussions with his managers in order to explore the options available to them for dealing with the problem at Clatto. We are glad that we have brought the issue of toxic algal blooms back into the limelight on a local level and wish George and John the best of luck in attempting to restore Clatto Country Park to its former glory.

Friends of the Earth is a global charitable organisation committed to keeping the planet safe for the future while ensuring that our human relationship with the planet is a positive one. This would result in a balance of healthy planet and healthy lives. As an outcome of the debate organised by the ToxiMop team, Andrew Llanwarne from Friends of the Earth Tayside invited us to present our project to the group at their monthly meeting. Their opinion on both the problem of algal blooms and using a synthetic biology approach to solve the issue was very valuable to us.

Visiting a group who are often critical of genetic modification, we were prepared for the challenging and thought provoking questions which were put to us; questions such as, “Are we tackling the root of the problem or is this simply an end of pipe solution?” and “If such engineered bacteria were to be released, what could their effect be on a geological timescale?”. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find the general response to our synthetic biological solution to be one of interest. The group were not opposed to the use of synthetic biology but rather critical of the method of its use and ways in which we could ensure that any products implemented would not be harmful.

To ensure that future teams at the University of Dundee are informed by such, often contrasting, opinions , we initiated a partnership with Friends of the Earth. This involves the promise that University of Dundee iGEM teams in the years to come will present projects at Friends of the Earth Tayside meetings.