When most of us hear an article title like “biosensors to detect environmental pollution”, we’re plagued by one question: what on earth is a biosensor? The answer is both surprising and ingenious, and as a group of students at the University of Glasgow learned, the answer is one of the most hopeful developments yet in the continuing war against environmental pollution.
Biosensors, as Latin scholars already know, are living creatures or other forms of life used to detect some chemical or physical change in the environment. The classic example of a biosensor is the canary in the mine. The canary is placed in a cage and kept in mines to check for the presence of natural gas. If the canary dies, there’s gas in the mine, and everybody very quickly runs somewhere else. This is, technically speaking, a good use of biosensors to detect environmental pollution, but not nearly to the degree of sophistication needed to diagnose and treat environmental problems on a grand scale.
What the students at the University of Glasgow have found is a much more practical and advanced use of biosensors to detect environmental pollution. The students developed their biosensor technology in 2007 as part of a competition among international students: the International Genetically Engineered Machine Awards, held by MIT in Boston. The winning entry was a genetically-engineered microbe, designed to detect toxic chemicals. Specifically, the microbe was meant to detect industrial runoff and natural gas, exactly like the canary, but on a much smaller scale. The microbe was then placed into a fuel cell that would receive an electric charge when the microbe detected the toxic chemicals. As a result, the electrical cell would fire, warning signals would be activated, and the presence of environmental pollution would be confirmed.
Admittedly, the scale of the students’ project in the field of biosensors to detect environmental pollution was small: a single working microbe culture and a single fuel cell, built as a proof of concept for the technology. Currently, the University of Glasgow is seeking funds for additional research along the students’ lines. According to project leader Scott Ramsay, the technology could be easily expanded to a series of warning/monitoring stations running on biosensor principles, designed to check the air and water quality levels in a given region and report any abnormal levels of pollution to authorities or to a central database. Clean air and water laws, notoriously difficult to enforce due to problems with measuring air and water pollution, could them be more effectively monitored and enforced, helping to curb the problem of pollution.
It’s a big job, especially for a modern canary in a mine. But biosensors to detect environmental pollution may be the best hope we have yet, assuming that you believe that big hopes can come in small packages.