Microbes in Alberta oilsands tailings ponds are getting some attention
Athabasca University researcher Dr. Shawn Lewenza is a microbiologist with great interest in using microbes to help clean the wastewater stored in the Alberta oilsands tailings ponds. One of the major challenges facing oil sands production is what to do with the water after the oil has been extracted.
Although the water is reused to limit the use of fresh water, the current solution is to store wastewater in vast tailings ponds. Ultimately, Alberta needs to find a solution that can effectively remediate the excess water. Given the scale of the challenge, bacterial bioremediation is one possible solution.
Exploit the naturally occurring oil sands microbes
There are thousands of microbial species naturally occurring in the oil sands. These microscopic organisms can survive here because they feed off of the organic compounds found in the natural environment within the oil sands region of Alberta. Lewenza is looking at this diverse community of natural microbes and is exploring the ways that they can be used to detect pollutants and ultimately break down pollutants.
Lewenza is using synthetic biology to engineer the oil sands bacteria to detect naphthenic acids (chemical within the oil sands), which also emit light, or bioluminescence (see above), in response. By identifying the genes expressed in the bacteria in response to a particular pollutant, this information can be used to create the biosensor technology to detect and measure the levels of specific organic compounds of concern.
This is significant because it allows scientists to analyze what exactly is in the water and how much of a certain chemical is present. Using the microbe biosensor is a cost-effective, sensitive, and scalable way to monitor what is in our water.
Detection and remediation
The next step is to screen the microbes in the tailings water for the genes necessary to degrade the organic compounds of concern. Because the microbes are already there and are capable of degrading the organic compounds present, he’s hoping to further explore how communities of microbes or engineered microbes can speed up this degradation process.
“We can’t grow all the oil sands bacterial communities in the lab yet, but we’re using our biosensors as a gene-mining tool to screen their DNA and determine how bacteria degrade the pollutants”– Dr. Shawn Lewenza
Research using microbes to detect compounds of concern has been in progress for decades. Low cost, sensitive biosensors are available in developing countries for use in detecting arsenic in drinking water. By investing in the technology in Athabasca University, Lewenza hopes to support environmental monitoring programs and water treatment here in Alberta.
The oil sands industry have taken notice of Lewenza’s research. This research is partially funded by Canadian Natural Resources Limited (Canadian Natural) and has two main objectives—to design a new, simple detection method, with future potential to impact water remediation.
“It’s an exciting opportunity where the government and industry sees value in the research and finding solutions for an important problem”– Dr. Shawn Lewenza
Lewenza said that he’s getting great research opportunities being a part of AU and is excited that industry partners see value too. It’s an adaptable and innovative area of AU research that optimizes environmental impact, while building important partnerships beyond the academy.