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Human Practices


Have you heard about the environmental debate surrounding oilsands? Well, majority of the toxic byproducts are contained in what are known as tailings ponds in the environment. One of the major toxins in the tailings ponds is naphthenic acids, which is essentially a mixture of many carboxylic acids. Naphthenic acid poses a huge risk factor to the environment, and current methods for its detection are expensive, time-consuming, and labor-intensive. Thus, We have constructed an efficient solution using genetically modified bacteria to better detect and detoxify naphthenic acid in tailings ponds.

The Calgary 2012 iGEM team saw safety, ethics, and human practices as one of the most important elements in clearly developing our project. When it comes to fighting current environmental issues with genetically engineered bacteria, safety is our top priority. We wanted to fix the problem that toxic oil sands byproducts imposes on our environment without escalating current issues with our bacteria. To this end, we have carefully designed a two-step security mechanism strictly prohibiting the genetically engineered bacteria from leaking into the environment. FRED concentrated on effectively detecting these acids while the project OSCAR focused on removing the toxic components of these toxic acids and converting them into usable fuels.


Before developing the synthetic biology systems, we aimed to ensure that each component is to be developed with the concerns, priorities, and opinions of oil sands professionals and political leaders in mind. Through various interviews with specialists, outreach activities, the development of physical and genetic safety elements, and the production of a synthetic biology video game, our group complimented the wetlab work with relevance to our community and end users. To read more about this, click here!

Interviews With Experts

In order to determine the relevance of producing a device capable of detecting and breaking down naphthenic acids (NAs) in the tailings ponds, our group conducted a series of interviews. Individuals within Alberta's oil and gas sector with various different backgrounds shared their knowledge and experience with us. The purpose of these interviews was to obtain a general impression of what kind of safety or ethical concerns these individuals had. This work allowed us to better define our project for its intended use. Through the interviews conducted, our group concluded that in order for the remediation system to serve in the oil and gas sector, safety and controls have to be incorporated into every part of our design. To read more about this, click here!

Physical/Engineered Design Considerations

Based on findings from our conversations with experts, we wanted to design a contained and safe biosensor and bioreactor. We took care in designing enclosed systems with structural safety mechanisms in place.

Genetic Killswitch

While the physical design considerations served as indispensable first steps to ensuring the containment of our systems, we also felt it necessary to implement genetic safety mechanisms. This took the form of a killswitch, which selectively destroys the genetically engineered bacteria in the rare case of their escape from our biosensor or bioreactor. Keeping both our environment and industry concerns in hand, we developed a novel ribo-killswitch system for containing our organism using exo/endonucleases.


We take great care in making sure our project is safe for not only the environment, but also to all of the team members working on FRED and OSCAR. There are a number of considerations that we have taken from the sections above in order to ensure that the construction of FRED and OSCAR was done in the safest way possible.


Speaking to many of our industry experts, we learned that many of them knew very little about synthetic biology. We designed a diverse outreach program to interface with our community. We targeted a variety of audiences in fun and creative ways.