Developing biology-based sensors as a cost effective, long-term solution for monitoring environmental public health risks


Chromium VI is widely used in industry for painting and surface treatments. However, it is a known carcinogen – made famous by the film Erin Brockovich back in 2000 – with ever-tightening limits on the concentrations allowed in the environment.

Widespread remote measurement is still needed today to manage water supplies and help protect public health.


Based on published research, we designed and built prototype DNA parts – using our in-house DNA design framework – to re-programme E.coli to respond to Chromium VI by producing a fluorescent protein in a dose-dependent way.

These parts were transformed into living organisms and tested. We developed a novel high-throughput technique to characterise monoclonal cell colonies to find which design best met the performance requirements. 


Our biology-based sensor is a new approach to contaminant monitoring. By designing organisms that respond to Chromium VI, we can create high-sensitivity, ultra-low cost sensors with a long shelf life. These are then integrated into a robust field-deployable unit to contain the organisms and transmit the data.

This unique combination of sensor performance and cost, through biology, allows long-term widespread monitoring to be achieved.