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Alberta oil — canola, that is: U of C’s iGEM team solves real-world problems

By Kristy Koehler, December 5 2019—

Fourteen undergraduates helped to solidify the University of Calgary’s place on the world stage at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in Boston in early November. 

The iGEM competition is a worldwide event aimed at undergraduate students, but also includes high school and overgrad teams, giving them the opportunity to apply synthetic biology to real-world problems.

The U of C team finished with the best-ever result by a Canadian team — first-runner up. 

“There’s places like MIT and Harvard and Princeton and all of these really big universities that started synthetic biology and biotechnology, and they’re all leaders in this industry and now Calgary can be considered a leader,” said Christian Emond. “In the future, people around Canada participating in iGEM or similar competitions will look to Calgary as an example of how to proceed in their projects.”

The group tackled a different kind of Alberta oil — canola. According to research done by the team, the Canadian grown canola contributes $26.7 billion to the Canadian economy each year, including more than $250,000 jobs and $11.2 billion in wages. The green seed problem causes a significant loss to the industry and the iGEM team looked to ease that burden.

“Canola seeds contain the green pigment chlorophyll while they’re immature and usually, when they mature, they lose that chlorophyll pigment,” explains Sara Far. “But, if there’s an extreme weather condition like a frost or a drought hat hits the seeds early, that degradation doesn’t happen, so the mature seeds contain the chlorophyll. As a result, when the oil is pressed from those seeds, it also contains chlorophyll and that causes it to spoil a lot faster — there’s a bitter taste and there’s a lower smoke point, so there’s a lot of issues associated with it. It costs manufacturers a lot to purify the oil from the chlorophyll so we tried to design an alternate system to do it that’s more efficient.”

The team says they consulted with industry leaders and other stakeholders, including farmers, oil producers and government bodies that deal with the canola industry.

That engagement was critical to understanding the problems within the industry and developing the project, said Sebastian Alvarez. Not only did the team come up with a solution to the green seed problem, but they were able to come up with solutions in other areas as well. 

“As we learned more about the industry we realized that there were other things that were not as directly related to synthetic biology that we could propose,” said Alvarez. “One of the things that came up was the current way of grading the seeds. We found that out by communicating with farmers and other stakeholders — it causes a lot of discrepancy when they go to get their seeds priced.”

They came up with a way to automate the process and ensure some standardization.

“We learned so much more and we began to see things that we could address that we had no idea about before,” said Alvarez.

Sarah Walker presents at the iGEM Jamboree in Boston. // Photo courtesy Justin Knight/iGEMFoundation.

Sarah Walker says that iGEM is a special competition because it fluidly integrates science and problem-solving, involving the larger community as a whole.

“The idea is that you’re tackling projects that are relevant to your world and the community around you and the people in your area, the industries in your area. And for us, canola was a very clear fit,” said Walker. “It’s so relevant to Alberta and Canada as a whole. There’s been talk about diversification and building a strong economy outside of oil and gas and thats really important for us — to strengthen what we have that is providing for people in our community in Alberta.”

iGEM also encourages an interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving. 

“There’s a lot of great research happening at the University of Calgary and iGEM is really special because we can take different fields, bring them together and solve a problem while making a product and supporting that entrepreneurial spirit that the U of C is very focused on,” said Walker.

She says that because iGEM is branded as a synthetic biology competition, groups tend to take the approach of filling their team with synthetic biologists. The U of C iGEM team embraced the interdisciplinary nature — they have members from computer science, chemical engineering, plant biology, software engineering, biomedical science and statistics, among others. 

Walker says the team owes their success at this year’s iGEM to that diversity of expertise but also to teamwork and the project’s human-centered design.

“Our team is incredibly dedicated to the project, to one another, to seeing ourselves succeed, to building each other up and ensuring we have everything we need to do our work and that made coming in to work every day so much fun. We are all very inspired, consistently, to work together,” she said.  “Our project was based around people. We followed a human-centred design process — while we started with extracting chlorophyll from oil, as we spoke with stakeholders our project evolved to be something more meaningful and that was not only helping oil producers but farmers too and we really had that holistic approach.”

There are several different tracks in the competition, including diagnostics, food and nutrition, energy, manufacturing, software and therapeutics, among others. Not only did the U of C team come in first runner-up overall, they took home the ward for Best Food and Nutrition Project as well as the award for Best Integrated Human Practices — essentially stakeholder engagement — and Best Software tool, in addition to being nominated for seven other awards. 

The group, with several returning members from the 2018 iGEM competition, had planned to get an early start and have a fully-formed idea by the time work was due to start on the project. They had a project centred around beer and unfortunately — or perhaps very fortunately — that plan didn’t pan out and when the May 1 start date rolled around, they had no idea what their project would be. 

Ultimately, they pulled together the canola project in just six months. 

“Six months isn’t a long time for any research project,” said Alvarez. “To come as far as we did was directly enabled by our interdisciplinary nature and our emphasis on collaboration.”

“We continuously adapted and we never let any of our failed projects get to us,” added Emond. “We just kept building from the failures.”

“At no point did we get discouraged — we were always growth-oriented,” said Far.

Where do they go from here? The team hopes to continue developing the canola oil project — they’ve only just begun working on it — and hopefully turn it into profit. If they do manage to profit from the project, they enthusiastically agree that they’ll be giving back to iGEM at U of C, citing how much the program gave to them.

“Being on this team has changed my life,” said Emond. “I think it’s going to shape my career going forward. We all want to support iGEM Calgary in the future.”

“We want to empower fellow students to work on what they’re passionate about — I feel like I personally have been told in the past that ‘iGEM is just a student research team.’ Yes, we are a student research team but we are a team of very dedicated and committed students and with all of us together we actually can create a difference in our community,” said Far.

After such an intensive, immersive project, the team isn’t even tired of canola oil — or each other. Far joked that she judges her friends who cook with grapeseed oil and Alvarez says he’s given his family an ultimatum — canola oil is the only oil allowed in the house. They even plan to get canola oil tattoos together. 

“We’re all so proud to represent our respective faculties — the School of Engineering, the School of Medicine, the Faculty of Science — and really display not only the quality of education, but the caliber of students and researchers coming out of this school,” said Alvarez. “We’re really proud to represent U of C on the world stage.”

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