University of Calgary

University of Calgary

November 02, 2011 14:10 ET

University of Calgary: Students compete on world stage with biosensor to help detoxify tailings ponds

University of Calgary team to compete at Massachusetts Institute of Technology

CALGARY, ALBERTA--(Marketwire - Nov. 2, 2011) - A group of undergraduate students at the University of Calgary has developed a process that uses genetically modified bacteria to help monitor the levels of toxins in oil sands tailings ponds. The project has earned them a spot at the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) World Championship Jamboree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology November 5 – 7.

Eleven students from the Faculties of Medicine, Science and the Schulich School of Engineering created a biosensor – a sensor that is biologically based – to detect levels of naphthenic acids (NAs), which can be toxic in certain quantities. The students spent months growing bacteria in a laboratory and adding a mini genome to enable the detection of NAs.

Energy companies conduct regular sampling to monitor levels of NAs. The students believe the process they've come up with is considerably cheaper and faster than the methods currently used.

"Instead of using expensive sampling equipment, we've taken a bacterium that's naturally found in the environment and hooked it up to a computer to take readings from it," explains Emily Hicks, fourth-year biomedical sciences student and iGEM team captain. "We can find out how much toxin is present within a matter of minutes."

Last month, the team was among 64 competitors at the regional finals for the Americas in Indianapolis, Indiana. The University of Calgary brought home two of the eight awards given out: the award for the Best Measurement Approach and Best Wiki (team website). The team was one of 26 to advance to the world finals.

"The 2011 U of C iGEM team has made incredible progress. In just four months, they've gone from the basic idea for a naphthenic acid biosensor to showing in the lab that critical parts of the system work as expected," says Anders Nygren, one of the team's faculty advisors and a biomedical engineer at the Schulich School of Engineering. "Having students from three different faculties has been key to this success. It has allowed the team to coordinate work ranging from molecular biology to designing electric circuits in order to cover all aspects of the final product."

Students on the 2011 iGEM team are: Emily Hicks, Robert Mayall, Chelsea Leishman, Ellen Widdup, Felix Chung, Niko Hornbruch, Patrick Wu, Peter Qi, Saeed Qureshi, Stephen Dixon and Jacqueline Smith.

Advisors for the team include graduate students Margaret Renaud-Young and David Lloyd and professors Mayi Arcellana-Panlilio (Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology), Anders Nygren (Schulich School of Engineering), Lisa Gieg (Department of Biological Sciences), Doug Muench (Department of Biological Sciences) and Anthony Schryvers (Departments of Microbiology & Infectious Diseases and Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and director of the O'Brien Centre for the Bachelor of Health Sciences).

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