Taipei American School to Compete in iGEM With Food Contaminant Detector

Taipei American School to Compete in iGEM With Food Contaminant Detector
Photo Credit: Taipei American School
What you need to know

Taipei American School will participate in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition with a student invention that can detect agricultural contaminants in produce.

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By Daniel C. ’20 and Dhirpal S. ’20, Taipei American School

Taipei American School (TAS), an international school based in Shilin district, will be participating in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in Boston from October 31 to November 4.

Representing Taiwan, the TAS students from the synthetic biology course will present a project on the detection of agricultural contaminants such as pesticides and heavy metals. The experiment team used synthetic biology to design DNA constructs that produce metal and pesticide binding proteins. These consist of numerous metal and pesticide binding proteins linked to different colors. After further testing on these constructs, they hope to find a visible concentration of the proteins so people can see the colored stains created by these proteins. Potentially, consumers would be able to dip their produce into the solution and observe a change in color, indicating the presence of metals and pesticides.

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Photo Credit: Taipei American School
Colored proteins indicate the level of agricultural contaminants.

In coordination with the experiment team, the human practice team aims to raise public awareness about the harmful effects of agricultural contaminants on the environment and living organisms. Students have tackled this problem by creating surveys and infographics, contacting farmers and distributors, and reaching out to government officials through a policy brief.

Pesticides and heavy metal residues can remain on produce even if consumers wash their fruits and vegetables before eating. Chronic exposure to pesticides may cause diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, endocrine disorders, and developmental disorders. About 200,000 to 300,000 people worldwide die every year from toxic exposure to pesticides. Similarly, heavy metals caused around 540,000 deaths in 2016, according to World Health Organization.

Green pears in the basket
Photo Credit: Depositphotos

Despite the dangers of pesticides and heavy metals, the public is not aware of the vast amount of produce that fails to pass the regulations. Over recent years, 10-15 percent of Taiwanese produce breached the maximum residue levels, which is drastically higher than those tested by the European Union and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at only 2 percent. In fact, Taiwan is ranked as the country with the highest pesticide usage per land area.

In a survey conducted during the TAS Spring Fair with parents from the community, only 38 percent of the people knew their produce can be contaminated with heavy metals, whereas 81 percent knew that pesticides are on their fruits and vegetables. Such disparity in knowledge between the two harmful substances emphasizes the need for consumers to be educated about the dangers of heavy metals being present in produce.

TAS students have also sent a policy proposal to the Food and Drug Administration, Council of Agriculture, Finance, and National Health Insurance branches of the Taiwanese government to introduce the new detection technology, hoping the legislature can better inform the public about food contaminants.

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Photo Credit: Taipei American School

In many traditional markets in Taiwan, there are already QR code stickers that lead consumers to Taiwan Agricultural Products Production Traceability System’s (TAPPTS) website, where they can find information on the produce they have purchased. Each producer has a dedicated page that shows testing results, but the TAS students have found many of these pages are empty. Therefore, in their policy proposal, they have urged the government to upload all testing results to TAPPTS’s website and include health warning labels on the stickers.

With these combined efforts, TAS hopes not only to raise awareness on the issue of pesticide and heavy metal residue in Taiwan, but also create a solution for everyday consumers to detect these residues on food and produce. Small changes can make a significant impact on the Taiwanese society’s health overall as the country’s agricultural practice still falls far behind international health standard.

READ NEXT: How Did Taiwan Become an Environmentally Conscious Society?

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

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