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ASU student team wins gold for cleaning arsenic from drinking water

December 17, 2021

The team developed a strain of mutant algae for the international synthetic biology competition

A team of biomedical engineering students at Arizona State University last month won a gold medal in an international synthetic biology competition.

Their accomplishment? Engineering microalgae to bind arsenic in water, reduce it and sequester the toxic contamination.

“We won a gold medal for excellence in the design, development and execution of our project!” said team co-captain Emma Lieberman.

While more than 99% of Arizonans who obtain drinking water from public water systems are served water which meet the Safe Drinking Water Act arsenic standards, arsenic is a major concern and cost for small public water systems and the 5% of Arizonans who get their water from private wells.

Prolonged exposure to arsenic can cause nausea, vomiting, negative effects on cognitive development, cancer and death.

The ASU team developed a strain of mutant algae that significantly captures arsenic in tandem with a filter system.

The team of seven was led by Lieberman and Maggie Cook, both seniors majoring in biomedical engineering.

They entered the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGem) competition, vying with 351 other teams.

Cook started a club called DIY Bio in summer 2020.

“We did this sort of shark tank competition, where we had like three teams of probably six students generate some crazy idea they wanted to address and then present on it in a more technical manner, get some background research done,” Cook said. “And then we had a competition with some faculty, and judges picked a project.”

Cook and Lieberman, along with team members Joel Joseph, Jared Lee-Kin, Priyati Sharma, Tohma Taniguchi and Sonakshi Sharma, worked from December through March, fundraising, getting organized, getting biosafety approvals and other preliminary work.

Work in the lab began in June and continued right up to the October deadline. Judging took place in November.

Their reaction when they found out they won gold? “Shocked,” both Cook and Lieberman said.

“We initially had our sights on silver and then I sort of decided let's go for gold,” Lieberman said.

Their award-winning work cannot be introduced to the public because of strict rules about releasing genetically modified organisms into the environment. (Any approval would have to go through the governor and state Legislature.)

Funding for the competition was provided by university President Michael Crow.

“This is a project that should continue,” Lieberman said. “Next year, we hope to have an ASU team again. Maggie and I will no longer be leading it, however,” adding that the new team is just starting recruitment and has not picked a topic yet.

Students interested in joining the team can apply here.

Top image courtesy of Pixabay

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News

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Year in review: ASU's top stories

December 17, 2021

From poets to pups to peering into the past, Sun Devils have continued to create, discover and help others

As the pandemic nears the end of its sophomore year, it's worth taking a moment to acknowledge the compassion, grit and creativity of the Arizona State University community. Despite the unpredictable challenges of COVID-19, Sun Devils continued to take care of one another and the wider community.

And as effective vaccines became widely available this past year, we were able to come together more often; there is undeniable joy and encouragement in a campus again abuzz with learners. And in spite of the shifting obstacles of the past year, that sense of discovery has never waned — as some of the top stories of the past 12 months can attest.


As we thankfully left 2020 behind, the pandemic and political upheaval of the previous year traveled with us into the new one. Through it all, the health and well-being of our communities stayed at the forefront, with Sun Devils continuing to pitch in to help others.


With COVID-19 vaccinations dominating headlines — including the Feb. 1 opening of the state's second COVID-19 drive-thru vaccination site at ASU’s Phoenix Municipal Stadium — people were finding creative ways to support and beautify their communities safely. 


Space news was big, along with continued top-10 rankings, workforce efforts to help address a critical skills shortage in the U.S., and the ribbon cutting on a biomedical facility in downtown Phoenix to expand medical education and research in the metro area.


The encroaching summer heat prompted the state vaccination site that was at Phoenix Municipal Stadium to move indoors at ASU's Desert Financial Arena, and Sun Devils continued to break ground in a number of ways.


Health care innovations and more than one snake story kept readers busy this month.


ASU leaders said hello and goodbye (and goodbye) to new roles this month, Poly got some new feathered friends and Sun Devils got news that Broadway shows were returning to the ASU Gammage stage. Oh, and ASU got its second ever home-grown Pulitzer Prize (find out more in the gallery below).


The long-awaited 2020 Summer Olympics kicked off this month, and the ASU community was able to cheer on 20 Sun Devils in competition.


As the Tillman Center turned 10, ASU welcomed a record first-year, on-campus class — including the largest, most diverse and highest credentialed class in ASU Law history.


The Downtown Phoenix campus marked 15 years of transforming a once-quiet area into a vibrant zone of learning and community connections, and Mirabella senior-living residents — who started moving in at the new year — found many ways to plug into campus life.


People were excited to return to familiar autumn events like Homecoming and Halloween — and to help keep everyone safe, the community kept up its use of ASU's saliva-based COVID-19 test, which passed 1 million tests processed.


At 10 years old, Project Humanities is a spry youngster compared with Sparky, who marked 75 years this month. Here are other notable headlines this month.


As ASU returned to an in-person commencement — still with pandemic adjustments — the university marks the end of a year of discoveries, service and generosity.