Nic Kite grew up on a small farm in Nemaha County, and has fond memories of going to livestock auctions with his grandfather, where they’d survey everything from a heifer's midsection to its gait in an effort to try to size up its potential value.
A while back, when he was home during a break from studying biochemistry at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Kite had a dinner conversation about a methane gas-reduction effort in California.
Livestock is to blame for about a quarter of methane emissions released into the atmosphere, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and the gas it expels has about 25 times as much impact as carbon dioxide, making it a key contributor to climate change.
But many California dairy farmers decried a plan that would put the onus on them to change or face financial penalties. Derisively labeled the “cow fart tax” in several headlines in the fall of 2016, Kite said everyone at the dinner table agreed that taxing the problem wouldn’t fly in Nebraska, home to more than 6.4 million cattle, 60 to 80 of which are typically on the Kite family farm.
“We all thought it was a silly idea, but we all thought it was a concern,” he said.
This past year, Kite and six other students spent hours upon hours working on two different solutions, and their project was among those awarded a gold medal at an international competition attended by more than 4,000 students in November in Boston.
Rather than taxing farmers or streamlining costly methane digester systems found on some farms, the team aimed at the guts of the problem. And the project used E. coli — the bacteria often associated with contaminated food — as a key part of the solution, for now.
The students — Kite, Tyler Barker, Alexis Krepps, Jessica Harms, Nick Flaxbeard, Logan Uhlir of UNL and Lincoln East High School student Crystal Xu — are the second team assembled at UNL to participate in the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition, and the school’s first to earn a gold medal. Last year’s inaugural team earned a silver medal for its project, centered around reducing nitrate levels in water.
The annual competition brings together hundreds of teams and thousands of participants, most of them undergrad college students from an array of disciplines, to address key problems with genetically engineered systems. Many teams tackle problems germane to the region from which the students hail.
The team from Ghana wowed judges this year with a project that created a bio-mining organism to allow small-scale gold miners in the country to draw the precious metal from ore without using mercury and other toxic chemicals.
Kite said that as the Nebraska team brainstormed potential projects early in the yearlong process of readying for iGEM, the group agreed — it should be a Nebraska project.
“I think it helps a lot,” he said. “I felt when we went to the competition like we should represent where we come from.”
They come from a state that raises the second-most cattle in the country, behind only far-larger Texas. The team members, majoring in a variety of engineering and scientific disciplines (Xu, the high school student, intends to become a surgeon), addressed an issue that could reduce the state’s environmental footprint, as they stated in their project outline.
Methane is produced in the first chamber of a cow’s four stomachs as it begins the digestive process. A little more specifically, methanogens convert the hydrogen and carbon produced while the cows digest grass and other high-cellulose feed into methane gas, which they then belch into the atmosphere. (The “cow fart tax” headlines were a little off.)
Researchers have been looking for ways to reduce this problem for some time, and one of the ways that’d shown some promise is feeding seaweed to cattle.
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"I know," said Krepps, a Nebraska team member. "It's weird, let me tell you."
The compound of note in seaweed is called bromoform, and it inhibits methane production by up to 50 percent. But it also requires a lot of seaweed, which previous research shows might hamper digestion in other ways. And the bromoform produced in seaweed farms has its own hazardous ozone-depleting effects.
So the Nebraska team, in the spirit of the burgeoning field of synthetic biology, thought small. The team used what is referred to in the field as BioBricks — standardized sequences of DNA — to build potentially revolutionary new models.
The team tackled methane emissions in two ways, Kite said: They worked on a process that would reduce nitrate in a cow's rumen to nitrite, which could reduce methane emissions. And in an effort to distill the benefits of seaweed, they proposed taking a gene found in algae and cloning it into a common bacteria that has some negative publicity issues, E. coli.
A key portion of the iGEM competition involves input not only from experts in the field but also from the general public. And Krepps said the public knows quite a bit about the strains of E. coli bacteria that can cause illnesses. But the strain of E. coli the team used is non-harmful and present in the guts of animals and people, Kite said.
The team explained this to groups of people attending free-admission nights at Morrill Hall from the start of July through the end of September, while also surveying them about their thoughts on genetically modified organisms and climate change.
Nearly three-quarters of the team’s survey respondents said they would eat meat from a cow with genetically modified bacteria in its stomach if scientists had proven it safe. Of the same survey population — about a third of the nearly 600 total responses came from other iGEM participants — 42 percent said they’d eat that if it helped stop an issue such as global warming.
A total of 14 people who took the survey said that global warming didn’t exist. Meanwhile, 86 percent of the respondents said it’s an urgent problem that requires immediate action.
Still, team members said they would attempt to use a different strain of bacteria, in part to defuse public concerns, if they continued work on the project.
There will be another iGEM team at Nebraska, team mentor and UNL computer science professor Myra Cohen said. Even though the new teams are able to continue work from previous teams, she said she and other mentors give those selected to participate lots of leeway to come up with their own ideas and then take on the work in the lab.
That Nebraska's second team in existence not only earned a criteria-based gold medal but also garnered a top-six finish out of 313 teams for its safety measures shows the effort members put into the project, Cohen said. Judges, in their comments to the Nebraska team, agreed.
"This is a great project grounded in local concerns and developing some novel ideas," one judge wrote. "Your focus on methane reduction through microbiome modification shows a lot of potential, and is clearly integrated into concerns from both the ranchers and the scientists."
The next team will get started in January, and the bulk of the work takes place in the summer. Krepps, who'd never spent a day of her life in a lab before this, said her advice for those who join is to not be afraid of what they don't know going in.
“It made me feel really independent, and I think I learned more that summer than I learned in school,“ she said.