The students won first prize with their invention at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) awards at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. Over 50 teams from 20 countries presented their research.
The self-powered biosensor acts just like a canary down a mine shaft and could be used to warn of chemical leaks before they become too damaging to humans and the environment.
Industrial engineers spend millions of pounds each year on systems that aim to prevent industrial accidents. The biosensor is both simple and cheap. It can sense leaks at industrial plants, oil pipelines and landfill sites.
“The research involved engineering a microbe that detects toxic chemicals — like those resulting from oil and natural gas refineries", explained Scott Ramsay, one of the inventors. He added that when the microbes detect the pollutants they synthesise 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", Ramsay said. The University of Glasgow are now looking to secure funding to expand the concept. The technology could be further developed to detect pesticide levels in food stuffs and water, the students believe.
The competition which they participated in involved teams from leading universities around the world designing and building genetically engineered devices in the newly emerging field of synthetic biology.