Removing estrogen from drinking water

Robert Braun

Bielefeld University students participating in MIT competition

This release is available in German.

A biological filter to remove estrogens from waste water and drinking water — 15 Bielefeld students submitting this project to the ‘international Genetically Engineered Machine competition’ (iGEM) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, USA are setting their sights high. They are persuading internationally active companies and associations in the biotechnology and chemistry sector to contribute several ten thousands of Euros to cover the costs of entering this rapidly expanding global competition in synthetic biology. Since May, they have been spending their free time in the laboratory making new DNA building blocks, reproducing them, and producing enzymes. First results give reason for optimism.

The birth control pill is a widespread contraception method. However, large amounts of these modified estrogens leave the body again in urine. The conventional methods in sewage treatment plants are unable to treat this waste water sufficiently because the most frequently used estrogen ethinylestradiol is very difficult to break down. As a result, the hormone finds its way into rivers and lakes and also accumulates in drinking water with serious consequences for fish and other aquatic life. These range from reproductive and severe developmental disorders to the formation of female sexual characteristics in males. The long-term consequences of increasing estrogen pollution for human beings are still largely unknown. Nonetheless, declining sperm counts and thereby increasing infertility in men living in industrial nations may well relate to this hormonal pollution. In addition, testicular and prostate cancers as well as osteoporosis (a reduction in bone density) could be a consequence of overly high concentrations of estrogen in the human body.

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