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WashU receives $744,000 EPA grant for microbial 'kill switch' research

WashU receives $744,000 EPA grant for microbial 'kill switch' research

Moon WashU EPA Grant

Washington University professor Tae Seok Moon (left) shows his bioengineering lab to Ed Chu, EPA region 7 acting administrator (center).

ST. LOUIS — Washington University announced on Wednesday a grant to fund a genetically engineered “kill switch” to prevent pollution-eating microbes from running rampant in the environment.

The grant, $744,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency, is one of five to universities across the country for research into the environmental impact of bioremediation, or the use of microorganisms to “eat” pollutants such as plastic, oil or other toxins in water or soil.

“These microbes act like Pac-Man, cruising through toxic spills or hazardous waste storage tanks and chomping through the chemicals they are designed to destroy,” said Ed Chu, EPA region 7 acting administrator. “And the research you do here is a switch that causes the microbe to self-destruct, like a tape for Ethan Hunt in ‘Mission Impossible.’”

Chu presented the grant to Washington U. professors Tae Seok Moon and Kim Parker. Moon’s team developed the kill switch and Parker’s specializes in the effect of pollutants on water and soil systems. They will together test the switch’s effect on the environment.

Parker and Moon said the research is focused on making sure the microbes are used safely and don’t have unintended impacts.

“These are genetically engineered, so we don’t know the consequences of the bacteria in the environment,” Moon said. “And my work is to make sure that bacteria cannot survive in the environment where we don’t want it to.”

Moon said the bio-engineered microbe and kill switch technologies can have an impact on a wide range of environmental science.

“The big thing is carbon dioxide reduction, of course,” he said. “But at the end of the day, (genetically engineered microbes) can do anything.”

For instance, he said, some engineered microorganisms can light up, called biosensing, when they come into contact with specific substances. Others can eat plastic and garbage, reducing the need for incinerators or other carbon-emitting trash disposal.

The EPA grant is for $3 million in total. Other universities involved include Georgia Tech, University of California San Diego, University of Colorado Boulder and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

“What’s so good about this grant, and much of the work that we do here, is that it brings together faculty to do things they couldn’t do on their own,” said Aaron Bobick, dean of the Washington University engineering school.

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Metro News Intern

Nick Robertson is a junior at Syracuse University studying journalism and political science. He is a summer intern with the metro news department.

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