How can we engineer a riboswitch to maintain a safe level of fluoride in water?

East Chapel Hill High School
Durham, North Carolina
BiologyEarth Science
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  • $340
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  • 11
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About This Project

We're studying the effects of engineering E. coli riboswitches, parts of mRNA that target small molecules, on maintaining safe fluoride levels in water. 1 in 10 people worldwide is without a safe source of drinking water, so this project is imperative to improving global health, especially since the current method of monitoring fluoride is extremely expensive. We were inspired to do this project after the water system in our hometown was contaminated with excessive fluoride.

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What is the context of this research?

The current methods of maintaining safe levels of fluoride are expensive, so using an alternative solution would be much more efficient. By engineering the genetic composition of riboswitches in nonpathogenic E. coli, our team will be able to develop a synthetic biology tool that can be used to detect and sequester fluoride from water. Also, since fluoride-sensing genetic mechanisms in bacteria were recently discovered, these riboswitches need further characterization. Speaking from personal experience, this project is especially applicable today, as our town just had the water supply contaminated with excessive levels of fluoride, forcing the water to be rerouted, which caused a water main to break and lose millions of gallons of water.

What is the significance of this project?

783 million people worldwide don't have access to safe drinking water, and in 2010, 41% of children in the United States between the ages 12-15 had some form of dental fluorosis, a disease that can cause tooth damage. Global access to safe, clean water is becoming increasingly limited - over 315,000 children per year die from diseases caused by unsafe water. As the amount of contaminated water increases from pollution and manmade causes, it is even more important that the water people drink is safe. That is why our project is so crucial - it will make possible a method to maintain safe fluoride levels to improve global water quality.

What are the goals of the project?

We would like to raise $4500 to make the investigation into these riboswitches possible at the iGEM competition. We also believe that this project will raise important questions about water safety and ensure that all people have access to safe drinking water. We are working with a graduate mentor at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, who has helped us formulate a hypothesis and research methods. We are planning to acquire the materials, such as the E. coli, from local companies, and we will be using both UNC's and ECHHS's lab facilities beginning in May through September to test the responsiveness of fluoride riboswitches and determine if we can improve the properties of this natural switch.


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Our project requires $4500 for our team registration for the international genetics competition (iGEM ( ) in Boston, Massachusetts. We are also trying to raise the $695 (per person) Giant Jamboree fee for the team members to attend the competition. We will also need additional funds for travel and lodging, which is nearly another $400 per person.

Endorsed by

I'm excited about this project because high school students are attempting to genetically engineer bacteria that will identify fluids with high fluoride concentrations. If successful, it could be used as a tool to identify water sources with toxic-levels of fluoride. It will be especially useful in countries where common chemical analyses are not available. These students are very bright & ambitious; I applaud their efforts to learn outside the classroom and undertake a difficult task utilizing the latest techniques in genetic engineering.
The project selected by the East Chapel Hill High students to engineer bacterial riboswitches to manipulate fluoride levels in drinking water is highly important on a global scale and technologically on the cutting edge. Thus, their work could have significant impact.
Innovative solution with feasible plans for a serious real-life issue. They are extremely proactive, fast-learning, collaborative and have so much potential. Their idea is fresh and they have the right students to make this project a success with potential for actual industrial application.
The project is very exciting and innovative. The team is working very hard to go to competition this year and I am proud of their motivation. They are a group of very smart students with lots of potential. I wish them luck with their project!

Meet the Team

Sophie Buchheit
Sophie Buchheit
Joseph Harrison
Joseph Harrison
Research Professor


University of North Carolina
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Cecilia Lee
Cecilia Lee


East Chapel Hill High School
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Micah Schulman
Micah Schulman

Sophie Buchheit

I am a high schooler fascinated with natural science and organic chemistry. I compete in the North Carolina Oceans Bowl and Science Olympiad, and I became interested in environmental biology after helping to run local efforts to clean up waterways.

Joseph Harrison

I am a protein scientist studying the role of ubiquitin in biology, although I am interested in just about all types of science. One of my motivations is to share my enthusiasm for science with younger people and teach them how to apply the scientific method to problems. I am also interested in finding ways to communicate science with the general public more effectively.

Cecilia Lee

Student Leader

Micah Schulman


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