Synthetic Biologists Find Innovative Solutions to Environmental Challenges

Scientific research has been integral in efforts to rectify environmental damage in recent decades. One approach for this challenge has come from synthetic biologists. These are engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs who are applying physical, biological and digital sciences in innovative ways towards environmental remediation.

Synthetic biology applies principles of engineering to biology in order to design lab-synthesized DNA to reprogram natural systems to undertake new tasks or existing tasks more efficiently.

Vikramaditya G. Yadav is one such synthetic biologist, whose team at the University of British Columbia is working with other scientists at Allonnia to create a treatment system for tailings ponds. Canada holds the third-largest crude oil reserve worldwide and the extraction of this resource over the years has resulted in over a trillion liters of waste in tailings ponds. Tailings ponds pose a significant environmental challenge, as they contain water, solids and organic contaminants.

Yadav is optimistic that progress can be made in curbing this environmental damage through synthetic biology. He is the founder of Metabolik Technologies (since acquired by Allonia), a company that is “developing an efficient and scalable bioremediation platform that enables microbes to reduce the concentration of naphthenic acids and other contaminants found in oil sand tailings ponds”.

The system is set to be tested at the tailings ponds in 2022 for fine-tuning and risk assessment purposes. Tests must be carried out to determine potential damage that the system could cause to the ecosystem. 

Yadav explains that projects such as this are a collaborative effort of synthetic biologists and industry personnel. He is also enthusiastic about the other potential applications that synthetic biology may have, such as tackling the challenges posed by mining for metals used in electric vehicles.

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