Date August 24, 2023
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Eric Sorge: Leveraging synthetic biology to clean arsenic-poisoned water

Building on a deep interest in synthetic biology, the rising Brown University senior spent his summer helping to develop a sustainable alternative to arsenic detection and removal methods.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Eric Sorge isn’t afraid of GMOs — and he doesn’t want anyone else to be, either.

Despite scientific research demonstrating their safety, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are often met with public opposition, skepticism and fear. But Sorge, a rising Brown University senior concentrating in biochemistry, says most concerns are scientifically unfounded and that tinkering with microbial genetics may provide solutions for a more equitable, sustainable future.

“We can use biology to tackle the types of issues we’d normally take on in really resource-intensive, environmentally harmful ways,” Sorge said. “I like to imagine a future where people don’t see ‘GMO’ as a bad word and instead are inspired by the fact that we can leverage microorganisms in ways that are beneficial to ourselves and the environment.”

The transformative power of GMOs is the cornerstone of a summer research project Sorge has been conducting with Professor of Chemistry and Engineering Vicki Colvin in an effort to design genetically modified bacteria that can filter toxic chemicals out of drinking water.

If we can program [bacteria] the way we want, we can build little tools with huge potential to sustainably solve countless issues — far more efficiently than we ever could on our own.

Eric Sorge Class of 2024
Eric Sorge walks through Vicki Colvin's lab

Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical element that can easily leach into groundwater and cause serious or even fatal health complications if consumed even at low levels. For people who receive their drinking water from treated municipal water sources, the risk of arsenic poisoning is low. But for those who draw their water from private wells, particularly in rural areas, the risk increases significantly. And it’s not easy for those people to test their own water sources for arsenic.

The process involves collecting samples and sending them to a third-party lab for testing via a machine called an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer. If arsenic concentrations  are above 10 parts per billion, the highest safe level recommended by the World Health Organization, they need to start an expensive remediation process involving inorganic sorbents.

“The current solution isn’t really a solution,” Sorge said. “People often know that they can’t get their arsenic levels low enough, or they can’t even afford to test it, so they just end up not implementing filtration systems.”

In Colvin’s lab, Sorge and a team of three other Brown Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award recipients are the latest contributors to a years-long project offering a new solution: biosensing and biofiltration. They are working to engineer a biology-based system containing a new strain of bacteria that both detects and “eats” arsenic.

“I know it sounds a bit counterintuitive to put bacteria in your water to clean it,” Sorge said. “But arsenic is too small to filter out itself. So the idea is that you can trap the arsenic inside of these modified bacteria, then you can filter out the bacteria — then, wow, you’ve got clean water.”

An initial study of the team’s findings is expected to go into review soon — the first step in a long process of translating and implementing the research into low-cost, sustainable filtration systems for rural users. 

“Bacteria have been developing ways to tackle difficult problems in their struggle for survival for millions and millions of years, much longer than we have,” Sorge said. “If we can program them the way we want, we can build little tools with huge potential to sustainably solve countless issues — far more efficiently than we ever could on our own.”

That’s a sentiment that has motivated Sorge long before he joined Colvin’s lab.

Sorge said he’s always been interested in biology, but found most academic programs in biology focused on either medical science or ecology, neither of which fully matched his particular intellectual curiosity.

So he bridged the two in his studies by delving into synthetic biology — a field that focuses on redesigning organisms for useful purposes by engineering them to have specific abilities. In addition to Colvin, who specializes in physical chemistry, Sorge said he’s received guidance from Assistant Professor of Chemistry Megan Kizer, who lends a more biology-focused approach to his research.

Early on during his time at Brown, Sorge co-founded the Brown Alt Protein Project, which advocates for more research on and implementation of plant-based meat and lab-grown proteins for sustainable food applications. And last summer, he continued his work in that field as an intern with a company that uses precision fermentation to grow proteins for animal-free meat — a process similar to what vegan meat companies like Impossible Foods use.

“The systems I’m learning about in the classroom can be tweaked with synthetic biology to positively impact lots of people while preserving the planet, ” Sorge said.

Though he’s now dialed into an academic calling at Brown, Sorge said it took him a while to get there. It was ultimately Brown’s Open Curriculum and one-on-one interactions with faculty members that set him on his path.

Sorge first intended to study astronomy. But during his first week on campus, he struck up a conversation with Professor Emerita of Geological Sciences Jan Tullis, who listened to his interests and urged him to explore planetary sciences . During his geology courses, Sorge said he gained a great appreciation for the natural workings of the environment — as well as his duty to live sustainably as a part of it — and realized he was more drawn to the realm of biology. From there, he took a step further and dove into synthetic biology, where he hopes to spend his post-collegiate career.

Now, as he enters his fourth year, Sorge said the work he is doing under Colvin and Kizer’s leadership motivated him to pursue a second concentration in engineering, or perhaps a combined fifth-year master’s degree.

“I know it’s a bit of a time crunch, but it’s a nice way to combine my interests in environmental and chemical engineering with biochemistry” he said. “ I’m excited to build on this knowledge and ultimately bring what’s done in the lab into the real world”