Natural sensory system such as bacteria engineered to detect pollution and placed in a self-contained portable box could be the most effective way to track pollutants. Such devices are being developed as part of BIOMONAR, an EU-funded project which follows on from its predecessors, ECODIS and TOXICHIP. "Bacteria like all living beings have very specific sensory proteins, which enable the [bacterial] cell to find its way around and detect toxic or edible chemicals," Jan van der Meer, project microbiologist at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, tells youris.com.
The project team relied on bacteria coupled to a molecular reporter system that is easily visible. As a result, bacteria light up through bioluminescence once the target chemicals are sensed. "Much of what we do is designing and testing genetic circuits, small pieces of DNA which contain the necessary information for the cell to produce the reporter signal in response to the environmental target compound," says van der Meer. For example, he has developed a biosensor to detect arsenic as a contaminant in drinking water by genetically engineering Escherichia coli bacteria.