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This is a guest post written by Iain George and other members of the University of Calgary iGEM team. They will be contributing more posts to our blog pages between now and the final competition in November 2012.
We are iGEM Calgary, a team of twenty-seven undergraduate students at the University of Calgary, working on building new biological systems to help cleanup and recover more energy from the oil sands.
iGEM, the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition, is an annual research competition between undergraduate research teams from all over the world. Ten years ago a group of students at MIT began piecing together bacterial genes into Lego-like standardized parts and competing amongst each other to design and build bacteria that could do something new, different, and mildly synthetic.
In the iGEM competition, teams of students solve everyday problems by harnessing synthetic biology to implement their solutions. Synthetic biology brings together biology and engineering with the aim of developing new tools and standardizing the process of building these tools within biology. Through this method, we gather genetic building blocks from nature and assemble them to benefit people.
Northern Alberta is home to one of the largest oil reserves on Earth. The Athabasca oil sands contain bitumen, a thick form of heavy oil. However, conventional mining of this resource generates significant volumes of waste water containing an abundance of compounds which are acutely toxic to aquatic ecosystems. Because of these harmful waste products, untreated tailings water cannot be released into rivers, and must be stored in growing sites called tailings ponds.
Our goal is to develop a novel biological system to convert and reclaim these compounds as usable energy. By converting these waste products to fuel, we could potentially solve a pressing environmental issue while simultaneously improving economic viability of bitumen extraction from the oil sands. To accomplish this task, we introduce you to our project: FRED and OSCAR.
FRED is the Functional and Robust Elecotrochemical Detector, and his job is to measure the level of certain toxins at the beginning and end of our system. FRED enables us to detect toxins forty times cheaper than conventional chemical methods.
OSCAR, the Optimized System for Carboxylic Acid Remediation, serves to remove toxic components from waste compounds in tailings allowing the products to be converted to hydrocarbons such as diesel.
FRED and OSCAR work in tandem to detect and convert the toxic compounds in the Alberta oil sands tailing ponds into fuels. Through our synthetic biological system, we hope to be able to provide a cleaner way of developing Alberta’s oil sands to benefit all.
Genome Alberta is pleased to be one of the sponsors of the University of Calgary iGEM team this year. We look forward to more posts from them and of course wish them and the other Alberta teams the best of luck over the coming months. The website for the Calgary entry is at http://2012.igem.org/Team:Calgary and we have started a Picasa album of Calgary iGEM images.
There are other Alberta teams at http://2012.igem.org/Team:Lethbridge and http://2012.igem.org/Team:Alberta . The iGEM team sites are still under construction so be sure to check back regularly as they update the sites.