iGEM Toronto Human Policy and Practices

The Human Policy and Practices team of Toronto iGEM has worked alongside the Wet Lab and Computational Biology teams to develop potential applications for our innovative project in synthetic biology. In addition, the team strives to focus on understanding the social, cultural, environmental and economic impacts of synthetic biology applications on various societal groups. Through community outreach in Toronto and Alberta, as well as research on the concept of vulnerable groups and the distribution of power within governments and industry, we were able to provide greater context for the legal and moral complexities of our project.

We decided to focus on the applications possible in the Athabasca Oil Sands in Alberta, Canda. Specifically, our aim is to show a viable method of toxin degradation and bioremediation within the very toxic Oil Sands tailings ponds, using synthetic biology tools.

The Human Policy and Practices team at the University of Toronto demonstrates community outreach and public relations regarding the ethical considerations of introducing our genetically engineered machine into the environment and how it effects the surrounding communities.

**There are four major streams of our P&P team:

  1. Community Outreach
  2. Technology Applications
  3. Alberta Oil Stories - National Outreach
  4. Techno-Moral Scenarios**

What are tailings ponds?

After the oil sands have been mined via open pits, oil is separated from the sand to be processed. Liquid “tailings” themselves are the leftover byproduct mixture of mostly sand, some water, clay and residual bitumen. Tailings ponds are large dam and dyke systems designed to contain and settle the water, sand, fine clays, silts, residual bitumen and other residual hydrocarbons of the extraction process including BTEX chemicals which are widely environmentally toxic.

Our project focused on degradation of toluene specifically, though the applications could easily be applied to the other BTEX compounds and toxic substances in tailings ponds in the future.

Indigenous Solidarity

Our research through the 2015 iGEM competition brought our team to a place of deep reflection on social issues facing communities in Canada and abroad. With help from Frontline Community Research Lead, Joanna Dowdell, the team became particularly aware of injustices seen against indigenous communities around the world in the past and present.
Our team operates at the University of Toronto on the traditional lands of the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Wendat people. It is important that we acknowledge we are people of the treaties, living on traditional indigenous lands. Our hope within the iGEM competition is to show solidarity with the Dene Tha' and Beaver Cree First Nations of Canada who have passionately recounted to our team the ways in which their rights to a healthy environment have thus-far been violated. Bringing awareness to this social and environmental issue is very important to our team, as is offering innovative solutions to some of the environmental strain faced by these communities.

Toronto 2015 cover-image-for-march-1024x1024.jpg

The main purpose of our exploration in Athabasca was to understand and recount the stories of water management within the Oil Sands, and how such management affects the communities living downstream of industry and potential pollutants. The goal of our blog is to provide a platform to share the stories of environmental health and water-based interactions of those on the front lines of the Oil Sands industry – often these are First Nations communities, who are fighting for their right to a healthy environment through free, prior and informed consent of what developments are allowed on their lands.