Cleaning up the oil sands

A group of University of Lethbridge undergraduate chemistry, biochemistry and neuroscience students is taking on the challenge of trying to help clean up toxins in oil sands tailings ponds.

The 11-member group has been awarded a $20,000 international research grant to help solve a challenge posed by a consortium of leading energy companies – find a biological solution to improve the environmental sustainability of Alberta's oil sands bitumen extraction, upgrading and refining.

"As a team from Alberta, we know of the economic benefit that the oil sands have brought to the province," says team spokesperson Justin Vigar. "Many members on our team have friends and family employed around the province in the energy industry.
"However, we are also aware of the environmental impact of the oil sands, specifically the tailings ponds. We feel it is important not only to clean the tailings ponds, but be able to extract the potential energy of the residue bitumen at the same time."

The students are members of the multiple-award-winning International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) team at the U of L. Each year, the iGEM team takes on a synthetic biology research project, which is then presented at an international competition held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, Mass.

The group was the only team in the iGEM worldwide membership to receive $20,000 from the Oil Sands Initiative to study how petrochemical-eating bacteria could be used to help clean up water in tailings ponds. The ponds are a byproduct of the bitumen refining process in which water that cannot be recycled is deposited into large ponds to settle.

Vigar adds that the iGEM team has previously worked on related projects, giving them a significant advantage when facing this new challenge.

"Our iGEM teams have designed a variety of synthetic biology components that all relate to this new project," he says. "One year, the team created a biological 'switch' that directed bacteria to move toward certain types of contaminants. The next year, we refined that to make the bacteria consume a specific chemical compound, and then stop reproducing – we called it a 'bacuum cleaner.' Last year, we designed what we called 'bio-batteries' that use bacteria with photosynthetic properties to generate electrical currents."

Vigar says the group hopes to accomplish several things with its research.

"We intend to create and characterize biological parts that can be used in the efforts of cleaning the tailings ponds, and those parts will be available to the general public for use in the future through the Registry of Standard Biological Parts, housed at MIT."

The other benefit will be to the team members as they progress in their academic and post-university careers.

"This experience will be extremely beneficial to enhance team members independent and critical thinking," says Vigar.
"As well, we learn how classroom knowledge can be directly applied in helping to solve everyday issues – specifically the application of synthetic biology to engineer solutions. iGEM has spurred our scientific creativity in what we can and cannot do, and has opened our eyes to not only the field of synthetic biology, but made us more aware of the research community in general."