Building Better Bugs
This summer, university students across the country will be basking in the sun, working jobs to pay for next year’s tuition and, ideally, pursuing the art of happiness. And in some cases, these students will also be creating a new direction for the world’s future, for fun, as part of iGEM - the international Genetically Engineered Machine competition.
iGEM is North America’s premier undergraduate Synthetic Biology competition, based out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Student teams are given a kit of biological parts at the beginning of the summer. Working at their own schools, they use these parts and new parts of their own design to build biological systems and operate them in living cells. Challenges can vary, from designing cells that ‘blink’, to cells that can detect arsenic in water and respond by turning colour... iGEM has produced incredible biological machines since its inception in 2003.
The Oil Sands Leadership Initiative (OSLI) is working with the Oil Sands Research Information Network at the University of Alberta and the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy at the University of Calgary on an iGEM initiative. OSLI is looking for opportunities to use biological organisms to reduce the environmental impacts of oil sands extracting, upgrading and refining.
In 2009, OSLI companies supported a ‘field trip’ for microbiology students to tour the oil sands operations and get a sense of the immensity and complexity of some of the challenges. Issues the students discussed as having potential biological solutions included using engineered bugs to manually separate the oil, sand and water, reducing the viscosity of the bitumen, and accelerating the separation of mature fine tailings ( MFT’s - the fine clay particles suspended in water) from the water in tailings ponds.
“It was a great experience for these students, who are used to working at the level of altering a DNA sequence, to see the scale of the oil sands operations first hand.” says Jill Lang, a ConocoPhillips Canada contractor who works with OSLI’s Technology Breakthrough Working Group. “We learned a lot about the different perspectives they can offer... when they see tailings ponds, they think of bugs inside the ponds that digest mature fine tailings, and they talk about engineering those bugs to speed up the process. It’s quite remarkable.”
Following up the field trip, in 2010 OSLI sent out the call for iGEM proposals. The University of Lethbridge was the first to take up the challenge, proposing the creation of a dry powder that will enzymatically degrade tailings ponds with no live bacteria. “It’s a neat idea” explains Lang, “similar to taking a lactase pill to break down the lactose in your stomach if you’re lactose intolerant, the team wants to create a pill to break down the MFT’s in the tailings ponds.” OSLI is supporting this U of L team with $20,000 and ‘raw materials’ in the form of bitumen and tailings water.
Additional inquiries about the OSLI supported iGEM initiative have come from universities as far away as Tokyo and the Netherlands to Canada’s own University of Toronto and University of Alberta. OSLI’s intention is to support three or four of the most promising projects and see how these teams do competing against the brightest in the world at the iGEM competition in Boston at the end of October.