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Synthetic Biology Solutions for Detoxification of Oil Sands Process Affected Water (OSPW)

  • Project Leaders: Vikramaditya Yadav, James Wells
  • Institutions: University of British Columbia (UBC)
  • Budget: $207,416
  • Competition: User Partnership Program
  • Genome Centre(s): Genome BC
  • Fiscal Year: 2016
  • Status: Active

Contribution of Canada’s energy sector to the GDP comes at a heavy toll on the country’s water resources. Among the culprits include, Oil Sand Process-affected Water (OSPW), generated during oil sand mining. OSPW contains persistent organic pollutants, such as napthenic acid (NA), that are toxic to aquatic life. Moreover, treatment of OSPW cost hundreds of millions of dollars to oil sand companies, such as Suncor. An efficient and economical solution to treat OSPW is critical for sustainable oil sand mining.
To this end, The Biofoundry, a research group led by Prof. Vikramaditya G. Yadav at UBC, and Metabolik Technologies Inc., a disruptive innovation company, have joined hands to develop potential technology platform that could detoxify OSPW in an energy efficient and economical manner for Suncor. Using synthetic biology tools and omics platforms, the team will develop a cold adapted bacteria (strain of E.coli) that can tolerate and rapidly degrade NAs. A genetic circuit in the engineered strain will modulate the biodegradation activity, whereas a built-in ‘kill switch’ will prevent dispersion of the bacterial population in the environment. Thus, this objective will achieve efficient bio­containment and allow safe release of treated OSPW into rivers without deleterious environmental consequences.

Once developed, the engineered strains will be tested for optimization and enhancement in pilot-scale engineered wetlands operated by Suncore, who anticipates the new bioremediation processes to come online as early as 2028. The technology is expected to save nearly $400 million annually for oil sand companies. It can be further applied for expedited rehabilitation of contaminated wastewater in many resource based industries in British Columbia, such as mine tailings and shale and natural gas deposits.