“It’s startling to watch birds drop from the air, flop around and die”, were the words of a St. Louis, MI, resident who was one of the many that came forward to report dystopian consequences in a town where a former industrial site once stood. Fifty years after The Velsicol Chemical Company, also known as Michigan Chemicals, was simply knocked to the ground and buried under a slab of concrete the people living around the former chemical plant are raising alarm.
The reason for birds falling to the ground, sky rocketing cancer rates and the need for an alternate water source all have a single reason behind them—the insecticide DDT. This pesticide is one of the best-known examples of how synthetic chemicals can harm an ecosystem, threaten human health and endanger the very existence of important species.
Banned in the United States in 1972, the chemical is infamous for persisting in the environment for abnormally long periods of time. It’s pollution of the Pine River is so colossal that it has led to the largest and one of the most expensive pollution cleanup projects in the state’s history. Ironically, the presence of DDT may have made it harder to deal with the original target pests.
For the 2020 worldwide synthetic biology competition, iGem (International Genetically Engineered Machine), The Alma College iGem team has proposed a way to help solve this perennial problem that plagues the perennial river.
“The iGEM Foundation is an non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of synthetic biology, education and competition, and the development of an open community and collaboration,” said Conner Arens (’23), a member of this year’s iGem team. “This is done by fostering an open, cooperative community and friendly competition. The goal of the jamboree, or competitions are not pitting teams against one another.”
The team that has competed with universities like the University of Michigan was ranked the highest of all midwestern universities participating in the 2019 competition and bagged the silver medal.
This project by the college team could be the be a new hope for a tale of pollution, destruction and environmental degradation that is bound to have everlasting impacts for many more generations to come.