Improving the Smell of Composting

A team of bioengineering students are participating in the International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation global competition that showcases synthetic biology projects. The iGEM student team is developing a solution that would make compost smell like mint and lavender by targeting the microbial process. They also recently received a PEAK Experience Award from Northeastern.

This article originally appeared on Northeastern Global News. It was published by Cesareo Contreras. Main photo: Northeastern students Mia Weisman, Zoia Okulova and Karina Millican work in an ISEC lab. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Can you remove the foul odor from compost? These Northeastern engineering students want to make it smell like mint and lavender

Sometimes being green can get a little stinky.

Take the act of composting. A compost pile should simply smell like dirt, but things can go awry.

A pile may pick up a foul odor for a number of reasons. Maybe it hasn’t been mixed well enough, hasn’t received enough oxygen or is too moist. It’s also not uncommon for people to get confused about the right combination of browns and greens they should have in their piles. Many add too many plants or throw in pieces of meat or dairy products, causing an unpleasant smell.

Because of these potential issues, many are reluctant to start composting at all, especially individuals who live in small urban settings and have concerns that it will create a bad smell in their living spaces.

A group of Northeastern University bioengineering students are hoping to reduce that barrier by developing a solution that would make compost smell like mint or lavender by targeting the microbial process. It’s the first project to come out of Northeastern’s revitalized iGEM competition team, which is composed of about 16 undergraduate students.

IGEM stands for the International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation. Every year, the foundation puts on a competition in which university and high school students from around the world showcase original science projects in the synthetic biology realm. This year’s competition will take place in late October at the Paris Convention Center.

Zoia Okulova, an incoming fourth-year bioengineering major and president of Northeastern iGEM, says the team decided to tackle composting, given Northeastern already has its own strong composting program. The university composts food at the dining halls on the Boston campus and at four dorm buildings: East Village, and West Village B, C and E.

“We came up with this idea of incorporating compost because we know Northeastern has a very big involvement in the sustainability pipeline,” Okulova says.

“We had a really long process of ideating the entire time and figuring out what people were interested in,” adds Mia Weisman, an incoming fourth-year bioengineering and biochemistry student and vice president of Northeastern iGEM. “People were super interested in composting because you see it every day in Northeastern’s dining halls.”

Composting will be a good target for Northeastern students, and more broadly Boston residents, given the limited amount of space they have in their dorms or living spaces, the group says.

The team recently received the PEAK Experience Award from Northeastern’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships to help fund the project.

“Imagine if a student is keeping compost in their dorm,” Weisman says. “They might not want that to smell up their entire small room. So this project is a way to increase accessibility to composting.”

So, how will they do it?

At a fundamental level, composting is a microbial process, explains Benjamin Woolston, a chemical engineering professor at Northeastern University and one of faculty advisers for Northeastern iGEM.

“There’s microorganisms living in the material that’s being composted. They are helping to break it down from really complex fibers and sugars into simpler components,”says Woolston.

The team understands the process that leads to compost smelling poorly has to do with “enzymatic pathways” that make up the microbes in the piles, he says. The key is to disrupt that process by engineering microbes that can produce compounds that have a more pleasurable odor. This process will involve the team working with three different bacteria strains including Escherichia coli, Bacillus subtilis and Pseudomonas putida.

Read full story at Northeastern Global News

Related Faculty: Elizabeth Libby

Related Departments:Bioengineering