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New Biosensor that Attaches to Phone Uses Bacteria to Detect Unsafe Arsenic Levels in Drinking Water

A smartphone device could possibly prevent millions of people from drinking arsenic-contaminated water.

Scientists have created a biosensor that can be attached to a phone and uses bacteria to detect risky arsenic levels in water. Designed at the University of Edinburgh, the device produces easy-to-interpret patterns, just like volume-bars, which show the level of contamination.

Scientists are of the view that there is an emergent requirement to offer affordable, simple, on-site solutions for contaminated water sources. Resource-limited countries are in need of amply experienced personnel and healthcare facilities to test water for contamination. Investigators state that new devices could be used in the place of current tests, which need specialist laboratory equipment, are difficult to use, and can release harmful chemicals.

Global Health Issue

The contamination of water by heavy metals is a global health problem. UNICEF estimates that over 140 million people around the world are consuming arsenic-contaminated drinking water.

Scientists tested the arsenic sensors using environment samples collected from contaminated wells in Bangladesh, which have some of the highest levels of arsenic-contaminated groundwater in the world.

It is estimated that around 20 million people in Bangladesh—predominantly poor people from rural areas—drink contaminated water. Long-term exposure to hazardous levels of arsenic results in skin lesions and cancers and is associated with 20% of all deaths in the worst-contaminated areas.

Scientists developed the biosensor by manipulating the genetic code of the bacteria Escherichia coli. They incorporated genetic components to function as amplifiers upon detecting arsenic.

Water samples were supplied to a plastic device consisting of bacteria suspended in a gel. This resulted in fluorescent proteins that could be viewed in the presence of arsenic.

Scientists hope that the method could be employed to detect other environmental toxins, to diagnose diseases, and to find landmines. The research, reported in Nature Chemical Biology, was funded by BBSRC, Leverhulme Trust, and Wellcome.

We tested our sensors with samples from wells in a village in Bangladesh. The arsenic levels reported by the sensors were consistent with lab-based standard tests, demonstrating the device’s potential as a simple low-cost-use monitoring tool.

Dr Baojun Wang, School of Biological Sciences, University of Edinburgh

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