December 10, 2007 A team of students from the University of Glasgow have designed the world’s first self-powered biosensor as part of the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. The device, which took first prize in the Environment section of the awards, would have the ability to detect toxic leaks in environments that are unsuitable for humans and could be used as an early warning system in a range of industrial applications.

The iGEM competition is based on asking whether simple biological systems can be built from standard, interchangeable parts and operated in living cells. iGEM competitors are provided with a library of standardized parts called BioBricks, and are asked to design and build genetic machines with them. Using this method the multi-disciplinary team of 11 students combined their knowledge of molecular biology, computing, engineering, mathematics and statistics to design the sensor which can can sense leaks at industrial plants, oil pipelines and landfill sites and potentially save lives and millions of dollars in the detection and prevention of industrial accidents.

Student Scott Ramsay said, “The research involved engineering a microbe that detects toxic chemicals - like those resulting from oil and natural gas refineries. When the microbes detect the offending chemicals they synthesize a chemical causing the fuel cells to generate electricity that can trigger a signal to act as an early warning system. It could be also integrated into a wireless early warning communications systems leading to a network of analytical stations in rivers, lakes and wells allowing industry to measure the amount of toxins in effluent so they can keep within environmentally safe and legal levels. The technology could also be further developed to detect pesticide levels, for example, pesticides in baby food or toxins in drinking water.”

The University of Glasgow are now looking to secure funding to develop the sensor further.