Lethbridge High Schoolers are Tackling Tailings Ponds

One thing I love about the iGEM competition is seeing how students get engaged with real-world problems.

I think a lot of Albertans will appreciate the challenges that the Lethbridge High School iGEM team decided to take on this year. This year, they’re tackling the remediation of oil sands tailings ponds.

But what’s more interesting about this team’s story is how they arrived at this problem at all.

The First Prototype

The team had started their journey looking at a different problem. They wanted to provide clean water to less fortunate areas by desalinating seawater. Their first concept, called “Ctrl-Salt-Del”, attempted to sequester dissolved sodium to do just that. (I also find this project’s name incredibly clever.)

Unfortunately, the team discovered that there would be no way to scale up the system they designed. In order to make seawater potable, they would need to remove billions upon billions of salt ions from the water, which was not practical.

Further Market Research

Instead–like any good startup–the team pivoted and examined where their system could be more useful. This led to a trip to the local water treatment plant. There, the team learned that they might be able to remove metals from wastewater instead of salt.

But, as they learned through more interviews, heavy metals aren’t a major concern for treatment plants. Their system would be easy to integrate, but it wouldn’t be solving a significant problem.

So they needed to pivot yet again.

The Final System

The final system, called “Cu Later”, targets oil sands tailing ponds. For those who are unfamiliar, tailings ponds are large, man-made reservoirs that store wastewater from oil sands mining and processing.

Tailings ponds are nasty things. The water contains all manners of toxins, including acids, oils, and heavy metals. It is a hazard for birds that land in the ponds, and if tailings leach into groundwater they can also poison fish and other wildlife in nearby river systems.

So these students designed a system that contains: a metal-binding protein to soak up copper ions, a phage capsid that can be used as a scaffold, and an elastin-like polymer (ELP) that acts as a rope to anchor the two together. What’s neat is that if heated, ELPs will start aggregating together, meaning you now have clumps of protein that have soaked up copper. All you would have to do is separate the clumps out.

You can read more about the details of their system on their wiki.

Innovation Through Iteration

Startup Calgary runs something a few times a year called Startup Weekend. They teach aspiring entrepreneurs to always challenge and validate their assumptions. This is especially true when you’re looking at your target market. Is it a real problem your customers have, or is it a problem you think they have?

Whether these 16 high schoolers know it or not, they learned the importance of market validation and customer discovery. This summer was a hands-on lesson on how to adapt when your first idea isn’t perfect, and how to take what you’re already using and repurposing it.

And as a bonus? The original desalination concept was published in BioTreks, a peer-reviewed journal for high school synthetic biology. That isn’t something people can usually say until they reach their Masters.

The Lethbridge High School team will be presenting at 3:15pm EST on October 26th, just after their undergraduate colleagues.

Be sure to follow their adventures on their Twitter account as they get ready to head to Boston!

This is Part 4 of a six-part series on Alberta’s iGEM teams. Be sure to check out UCalgary’s, UAlberta’s, and ULethbridge’s projects if you missed them!

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