Dr Rob Sleat, founder of environmental biotechnology company EnviroGene, had developed the idea of using DNA tracer technology to identify the sources of water pollution.
The company needed a way of protecting the DNA molecules from degradation and other environmental influences.
Dr Sleat approached Dr Martin Garnett at the University’s School of Pharmacy. Dr Garnett had been working with a group of Italian scientists to develop a polymer to protect DNA in drug delivery applications. A formal collaboration was established to combine these technologies.
Both EnviroGene and the University have applied for patents on the technology, which is now being field tested. Work is underway on second- and third-generation polymers, and there has been a lot of commercial interest.
The cleanliness of beaches is of growing concern across the developed world. Here, the Blue Flag scheme tells us where the water is considered clean and safe. But when beaches fail to meet the required standard, primarily because of bacterial contamination from faeces, identifying the source of the problem is the first step towards a cleaner coastline.
When Dr Rob Sleat saw a new way to pin down the sources of pollution, and made the bold move of setting up his own company, EnviroGene, it was a collaboration with The University of Nottingham that gave the project – and the company – the impetus it needed to get off the ground.
“Conventional microbiology would tell you whether the bacteria derived from human or agricultural sources, but that’s only half the story,” says Dr Sleat. “If you know the problem comes from cow faeces, you may have several potential sources in the water catchment area. Rather than addressing each one, it struck me there would be tremendous value in trying to identify the major contributors.”
The technology he developed meant releasing unique DNA tracers at each potential source, then establishing which ones ended up at the impact point. If 90 per cent came from one farm, we would know to concentrate efforts there. The problem was that when DNA is released into the environment, it simply disappears. What was needed was “a way of wrapping up the tracer molecules, to protect them from environmental influences.”
That’s where the University came in. In 2004 Dr Sleat came across some promotional material from Dr Martin Garnett at the School of Pharmacy, who claimed to have a polymer that would encapsulate DNA molecules and was looking for partners in the pharmaceutical area. “We contacted the University and they were really interested in the idea of using their technology in an area they’d never even considered,” says Dr Sleat.
Establishing the link with The University of Nottingham was a key element in raising finance, allowing Dr Sleat to make the collaboration a formal one and, consequently, help secure EnviroGene’s future. The company now has five members of staff, plus a post-doctoral fellow working at the University alongside Dr Garnett.
One of the key considerations is the stability of the polymer DNA particles, and the ability of the polymers to protect DNA in different environments. Working with the University of Milan, Dr Garnett is looking to create second- and third-generation polymers that would produce more stable particles suitable for all environmental applications.
Dr Sleat has found the group at Nottingham very responsive: “It’s all to do with building a relationship, with a particular academic, and we’ve got a good working relationship with Martin Garnett.”
The work’s progressing well, and after months of trying to get permission to test the technology, the tracers have now been released at a test site. Nottingham has filed a patent application in conjunction with Milan, and EnviroGene has applied separately. While EnviroGene are not actively selling the technology just yet, there has been a lot of interest and Dr Sleat hopes such a tight intellectual property package will help attract investment. “We think there’s huge potential for applications in the US and Australia, as well as the UK.”