iGEM Competition and the University of Athens team: Colouring Things Differently With The Morphæ Project

The world is changing and with it the way we do things.

Especially “things” that have an effect to the environment.

Governments create campaigns to inform the public about the choices we make and how those impact our environment, corporations have high goals by endeavouring to become carbon free and even normal, everyday people like us are trying to live a life that is more sustainable in the long run.

But one area that needs change and interests me particularly (being the reason for this article and interview) is the textile industry and fashion.

Maybe you do not know how polluting it really is for the environment and specifically for our water systems the chemical colors that bring “success” to the fashion industry and not only.

They bring success because that is what we consumers notice and get drawn to about a garment (if we speak about clothes).

So, alternatives are much needed now.

And, thankfully, there are quite a bunch of them that are going forward, bringing new coloring schemes to the market which are levels above more sustainable.

Companies like Hoekmine, Synovance and Kukka are doing an excellent job by bringing innovative solutions that manipulate the engineering nature of biology and precisely bacteria to produce pigments that can colour textiles! Cool right?

Nonetheless, I am mainly happy to see that not only established biotech companies did a step forward on the pursuit of solving this huge environment-related issue, but also the 2020 iGEM of the University of Athens.

Their project named “Morhpæ” addressed this issue and after communicating with them, I managed to snatch some informative and interesting answers to my questions.

My passion for bioengineering and its meta-applications, like in this project, got me instantly excited and I wanted to share my excitement with you,

I hope you will enjoy this next Q&A session I had with them, as much as I did!

  • What exactly does Project “Morphæ” aimed to achieve?

What constituted the aim of the Morphæ project was the production of a novel structurally coloured and biodegradable cellulose material capable of replacing common chemical dyes. The dyes that are used till today in numerous everyday products are toxic to humans and the environment.

  • What were the motives that drove you in choosing this particular project?

I think that all the members of the team unanimously agree that ultimately the factors that were the starting point and pushed us into this project were how imaginative and seductive the biology and physics behind the structural colour phenomenon look, as well as the significant environmental impact of

  • What difficulties did you stumble upon throughout the project, considering that it was happening during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how did you deal with them as a team?

The times we live in now were essentially unprecedented and certainly many difficulties that arose were a direct or indirect consequence of the pandemic. The main discouragementdi of the past year was the fact that we did not manage to carry out the experiments we planned, as due to the challenges posed by the virus, we did not have access to a laboratory in time and thus we did not have the necessary consumables to work with. For example, we needed to work with the Flavobacterium johnsoniae bacterium and while we ordered this strain in time, it came to our hands dead after the vial that had the bacterium inoculum spent a month at an airport. Also, the iGEM competition took place virtually and this upseted us a lot, as we were looking forward to our trip to Paris to meet and interact with other teams.

  • Who played a key role as your mentors and what do you admire about them?

We had a lot of people by our side this year, despite the overall difficulties of the year. Initially, there were members from previous iGEM teams who advised us on several crucial issues, but also helped us in practice during some critical instances when there was time pressure. We also had our PIs with us and of course Dr. Colin Ingham who provided us with the bacteria we have worked with and advised us a lot throughout the summer.

  • Do you see a relative applicability of the work done in this project in the Greek environment?

The problem of dyes’ toxicity is global, so we cannot report events specific to our country. The problem with chemical dyes lies primarily in the way they are made, because they use toxic substances with which industry workers come into direct contact and this can even lead to health issues that can be eventually lethal. Of course, the environmental footprint of these industries is huge, just think that 20% of the general water pollution is due to them. In addition, dyes can prove themselves deteriorating to consumers because of their ingredients.

  • As I understood, you have collaborated with prominent names in the field of biotechnology and in particular the realm of bacterial production of dyes, such as Dr. Ingham. How did you experience the collaboration with him and how much did he contribute to having a right direction during the project, being the same person who has many years of experience in the field?

During the fundamental design of the project, we had to look for a lot of different information in the literature. One of the outstanding sources of such data and inspiration were the research works of Dr. Ingham. The biological systems he had developed and analyzed could be the basis for the further development of our ideas. Therefore, to our great delight, the collaboration with him was intense and frequent. Through our conversations, he helped us understand the basic mechanisms of the complex system of flavobacteria and gave us tips on how to deal with technical difficulties during the project design. Finally, he constituted a great influence for us as to how we would promote the beneficial applications of MORPHÆ, as well as he recognized the ecological and sustainable properties of the system.

The image shows a colony of the Flavobacterium IR1, 2 cm in diameter, growing on a nutrient agar plate. The cells in the colony are highly organised, thus forming a 2-D photonic crystal that interferes with light. This results in structurally coloured bright and angle-specific hues with a concentric ring pattern indicating subtle changes in organisation. Credit: University of Cambridge
  • You used a diverse set of methods of genetic engineering. How were your method choices made in relation to the “model” organisms used? I know, for example, how Flavobacterium was selected, which was based on the colouration effect of its biofilm, but could other model organisms be used?

The most common microorganism with which iGEM projects are carried out, but also in general genetic engineering experiments, is E.Coli . However, few bacterial microorganisms have the ability to produce structures in space that create structural color. For this we chose the bacteria of the genus Flavobacterium which intrinsically show the competence of structurally colored biofilm. These bacteria can produce such visual effects due to a very special movement mechanism they have: the gliding motility. With the help of this mechanism, they can be found in specific places in space, on the nanometers scale, and therefore interact with light. Taking advantage of this system, we force the flavobacteria to produce extracellular cellulose which will be able to preserve these nanostructures as a mold, thus producing a biomaterial, structurally colored. In the future we would be interested to see if we can transfer the system to E. Coli bacteria as it will make the method more accessible.

  • If you wanted to scale-up the production of more biofilm material, could you do it? Is there / was there a plan?

The main idea of the project was to find an alternative to the massively used toxic paints in industrial production. The perspective of scaling-up the process is, therefore, a desirable goal. This could be achieved by optimizing the production rate of the system, as well as the construction of special bioreactors that can maintain high amounts of bacterial biofilm. However, all this is still at an early stage and the meticulous study of the genetically modified system is paramount.

  • How did you / do you intend to treat the produced biofilm for multiple uses, such as those mentioned on your iGEM 2020 website?

In essence, the biofilm has a definite form and can produce “molds” of itself from cellulose. Therefore, for the study of the possible applications of the structurally colored biomaterial, its different mechanical properties should be examined, such as e.g. its elasticity, ductility and heat resistance. Based on this information we will be able to specify its possible applications that can range from technological products such as cars and mobile phones to clothing and food packaging.

  • The color of the biofilm depends – if I understood correctly – on the angle at which the light strikes it but also on its intensity. How can the technique be standardized so that you know what kind of color will be emitted each time?

The properties and characteristics of incident light do not affect the end result as much as the bacterial nanowires themselves. More specifically, it has been observed with the help of an electron microscope (TEM) that the bacteria are arranged in periodic, hexagonal arrangements which in space create a grid that can interact with light. This interaction consists of selective reflection of a certain part of the light with the result that we see only one color such as e.g green. Therefore, in order to change the color we observe, we only have to influence the bacteria so that the distance between them changes, thus reflecting a different part of the light spectrum.

  • Would a spin-off later be a possible scenario? Is there interest from external funding investors?

We find it particularly important to find a solution to the mass use of toxic dyes. The idea of business development of our project so that an alternative product is produced on a large scale, is a possible solution. Knowing that industries in recent years are trying to add environmental responsibility to their agenda, we are sure that they will show interest in such projects. Although we have not further analyzed this possibility, it is something we have not ruled out.

  • Finally, are you satisfied with the silver and what are your aspirations for the aftermath?

In a particularly tough period, our team decided to continue its work even in these unexpected conditions. Just the fact that we achieved a large part of our goals despite the many difficulties/hurdles, we definitely feel happy. The results of the competition, the silver medal as well as the award for the best promotional video in the undergraduate category, sufficiently express our efforts. With a new start being the end of the iGEM 2020 competition, we aim, equipped with a lot of experience and more enthusiasm, to continue our research activities and to participate in the iGEM 2021 competition.