Engineering Cell-Based Biosensors for the Detection of Environmental Pollutants and Toxins

EPA Grant Number: F13A30124
Title: Engineering Cell-Based Biosensors for the Detection of Environmental Pollutants and Toxins
Investigators: Younger, Andrew
Institution: Northwestern University
EPA Project Officer: Lee, Sonja
Project Period: July 1, 2014 through July 1, 2016
Project Amount: $84,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2013) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Chemical Engineering

Objective:

The primary objective is to determine if cell-based biosensors can rapidly and reliably detect environmental pollutants and toxins.

Approach:

To determine if cell-based biosensors can rapidly and reliably detect environmental pollutants and toxins a platform biosensor technology will be developed. This involves using synthetic biology approaches to engineer metabolite-actuated transcription factors that respond to environmental toxins. A modular protein-based biosensor will be designed to bind specific toxins and regulate expression of a genetic program integrated into the microbial host. This requires the engineering of both the ligand binding and DNA binding domains of the synthetic transcription factor that will be the cornerstone of this cell-based device. A microbe will then serve as the testing device to determine if environmental toxins or pollutants are present, in a safe and environmentally friendly manner that does not require harsh chemical testing reagents.

Expected Results:

Once built, the cell-based biosensor is expected to be able to detect low levels of a given toxin or pollutant and give a visible output signal. This will be accomplished by linking the detection mechanism to the production of a fluorescent protein that can be detected by the naked eye. In this way, the culture of cells will simply change color if an unsafe level of the toxin or pollutant is present in the water that is being tested. The microbes will be self-contained in the testing kit and will be unable to survive outside the confines of the kit to prevent unwanted environmental release.

Potential to Further Environmental/Human Health Protection

A cell-based synthetic biosensor could provide a novel and environmentally friendly way of sensitively detecting pollutants and toxins in ground water, a way that does not require harsh chemical testing kits. This will allow rapid and safe testing of water found in wetlands, sewage treatment centers and agricultural or industrial run-off.

Supplemental Keywords:

groundwater, sensors, synthetic biology

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2015
  • Final