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Human Practices


Have you heard about the environmental debate surrounding oil sands? In Alberta, this is a heated debate involving many groups and many perspectives. Tailings ponds in particular frequent our media on a regular basis, often attracting much negative publicity within Alberta and also worldwide for their effect on surrounding ecosystems. This is a controversial topic, where environmental groups and other activists who want to see change are pitted against industry leaders and political figures who value the economic importance of the oil sands.

Our project has a lofty goal: aiming to convert some of the toxins present in these tailings ponds into useable hydrocarbons. Obviously, this would be a desirable outcome for many interested parties. Before undertaking this however, we need to make sure of a few things. We need to know that we are tackling a useful problem and that synthetic biology is in fact a tangible and realistic strategy to use. We also needed to ensure that each component of our system was developed with the concerns, priorities, and opinions of oil sands professionals, political leaders, policy makers and environmental activists in mind. Finally, in order to really make a difference, we needed to do this in a safe way and needed to find a way to relay what we’re doing to a broader audience.

Welcome to the human practices component of our project where we address all these issues.

Click below to learn more!


In order to assess if FRED and OSCAR have a real application in the oil and gas industry, we became involved in a synthetic biology dialogue with the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative (OSLI). Here we discovered that biosensors and tailings ponds remediation were two potential platform technologies which the oil sands could use, suggesting our project has relevance in the oil sands.

Interviews With Experts

In order to determine the relevance of producing a device capable of detecting and breaking down toxins in the tailings ponds, our group talked to some experts in related fields to try to get a sense for the relevance of a synthetic biology approach in the field, and how to design our system in the best and safest way possible. This allowed us to make informed design choices for our system!

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. In addition, we worked around these restrictions to maintain a structural design with expense and productivity in mind.

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 safety 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.