Bio-prospecting for natural biosensors that detect pollution

Hundreds of dead fish, belly side up onthe edge of the Darling River.

We are working to develop real-time biosensors to monitor large scale toxic contamination. Image Credit: Facebook Debbie Newitt, ABC

The contamination of landscapes and waterways is a global problem. Sites suspected of toxic contamination can be tested by chemical analyses so that treatment or controls can be put in place. But, real-time monitoring across large areas is often cost-prohibitive.

In this project we will use the remarkable capabilities of microbes to create low-cost biosensors for detecting toxic contaminants in waterways. Using bioprospecting, we will search extremophile (organisms that inhabit extreme environments) genomes for regulatory parts (known as “riboswitches”) that can bind to heavy metals (a common toxic contaminant). Using synthetic biology, we will develop ways to modify these natural regulatory parts and then introduce them into robust hosts that can report the presence of toxins from within a simple device that can be deployed in waterways.

The biosensors we develop will help mitigate the impacts of environmental contaminants, protecting both ecosystems and human health. We hope the knowhow we generate will form the basis of future industries in Australia.

Lead: Yosephine Gumulya
Collaborators: Land and Water, Synthetic Biology FSP, University of Queensland