11/22/2013 01:18 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 04:01 EST

Taking Cues From Nature

A few weekends ago, I watched my neighbours rushing to rake and bag their leaves, trying to beat the first snowfall. I saw folks who applied compost to their empty gardens in the hopes that all those nutrients will be ready and waiting for their spring planting.

It's a cycle. We do these things every year in our front and back yards, knowing that the vegetables and flowers we've enjoyed all summer have depleted the nutrients in our soil. We put the effort in so future crops have a chance to thrive. Though not my personal labour of love, it is nonetheless, a labour of love for all the greenthumbs.

I am however, fascinated by how the earth's lessons can be applied to a much bigger picture.

At Ingenuity Lab, we've taken cues from nature and leveraged the findings from advances in targeted drug delivery. This information has led us to innovative discoveries that will improve our yield across industries and help us to better care for our planet in the process.

Ingenuity researchers are developing leading edge technologies - what we call biomining - that will enable the recovery of both valuable and harmful materials from soil, water and industrial process streams, such as tailing ponds.

It's exciting work for us. Especially in a province that is home to the third largest petroleum reserve in the world and as a result has more than 170 square kms of tailings ponds to manage responsibly, as just one example.

And it's only the beginning.

In scientific literature, biomining is defined as "the use of microorganisms to recover metals in industrial operations" and refers to bioleaching, bioremediation and biosorption. We believe that it's not limited to microorganisms and can be extended to the utilization of individual bio-molecules such as proteins and peptides.

Proteins are the central molecules of living organisms taking part in structural stabilization, enzymatic activities, molecular recognition and signaling pathways. Recognition and binding ability of proteins also take part in hard tissues organizations. Various examples of organic-inorganic hybrid systems in nature such as the magnetite particles stabilized with proteins in magnetotactic bacteria Aquaspirillum magnetotacticum, highly oriented hydroxyapatite crystals in teeth and layered silica formation in Sponge spicule inspire us to use these smart bio-molecules in the bio-mining area. With the combinatorial biology approaches, we have the power to identify bio-molecules (peptides in this case) with specific binding abilities for metals.

In other words, our peptide based engineered materials will have the capability to detect, bind and extract the rare earth and precious metals that exist in nature. Harboring natural recognition ability of bio-molecules in materials engineering will provide us the opportunity to work in mild conditions and eliminate utilization of hazardous chemicals. We also will increase the purification yield while minimizing required purification steps by incorporating selective detection capabilities to our smart materials.

These advances in molecular recognition mean we can extract valuable resources that up until now have been out of reach and we can recover other useful industry by-products that were previously considered waste. But most importantly, we are engineering solutions that hold great promise for removal of harmful toxic substances that threaten our province's economic and environmental future.

With nanotechnology, we are maximizing the utility of Alberta's resources with the confidence that we are leaving a positive legacy for generations to come.

We are indeed sowing the seeds for the future.