Detecting Pollution with Living Biosensors
Microbes are our friends; genetically engineered to glow flourescently and provide cheap and fast detection of contaminants, from oil spills to food supplies. If they keep these things out of the food supply, we'll be fine; I like technology, but I don't want my organic vegetables to glow.
Last spring, on a research vessel cruising through the North Sea, Swiss scientists examined tiny vials of bacteria mixed with seawater for hints of fluorescent light. By analyzing how brightly the bacteria glowed, and with which colors, they were able to diagnose and characterize the early aftermath of an oil spill.
"We were actually very happy that we could do this, and that it turned out so well," says Jan Van der Meer, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland. He announced his team's results last week at the Society for General Microbiology's autumn meeting in Dublin.
Living biosensors like these bacteria, which are engineered to glow a particular color in response to a given chemical, have graced petri dishes in research laboratories for decades. But it is only recently that they are being put to practical use, as scientists adapt and deploy them to test for environmental contaminants. Sensor bacteria give faster and cheaper--if somewhat less precise--results than traditional chemical tests do, and they may prove increasingly important in detecting pollutants in seawater, groundwater, and foodstuffs.