This week we mainly worked on defining the scope and objectives of the iGEM project. As a group, we had already decided that we wanted to focus on an issue concerning tailing ponds; our discussion of tailing ponds centered around environmental reclamation and three central issues around it: fine particles, naphthenic acids, and problematic byproducts of microbial respiration. This discussion was critically necessary to define the scope of our project. We also discussed how we would apply for additional resources from various companies, organizations, and consortiums like the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative.
Naphthenic acids are a largely inclusive group of acids which contribute to the toxicity of nearby soil and groundwater; naphthenic acids are toxic to aquatic and terrestrial wildlife, and delay the development of healthy ecosystems after reclamation.
Fine particles are small, lightweight particles (such as silt) which take on the order of hundreds of years to settle fully within tailing ponds. Fine particles matter because tailing ponds can only be reclaimed by the environment after enough material has "packed" to the bottom of the pond, meaning that reclamation is indefinitely postponed by fine particles.
Bacterial Strains Native to Tailing Ponds
Lastly, the tailing ponds are home to a variety of aerobic and anaerobic organisms, the latter of which consists of methanogens and sulfur-reducing bacteria. Potentially, both bacteria produce greenhouse gases; improvements could be made to the ratio of bacteria (they are competitive species), and on whether they can contribute to naphthenic acid degradation.
Discussion of Solutions
Five ideas bubbled up from our discussion of solving these two issues. To handle densification, we considered building a biofilm for filtration purposes, and engineering a bacteria to assist in particle-densification itself. To handle naphthenic acids, we considered naphthenic acid degradation and sensing. A final idea was to devise a way of manipulating the number of methanogens/sulfanogens in the tailing ponds to minimize harmful byproducts.
The group unanimously settled on building a biosensor for naphthenic acids, and started to read previous literature on the field. Upon reaching this consensus, work began on a funding application to the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative (OSLI) to secure more funds for the summer research. The rough draft of the application was written by the students, which was finished on Friday.