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University of Kentucky

Superfund Research Program

Sensing Superfund Chemicals with Recombinant Systems

Project Leaders: Sylvia Daunert (University of Miami), Sylvia Daunert (University of Miami)
Co-Investigators: Leonidas G. Bachas (University of Miami), Leonidas G. Bachas (University of Miami)
Grant Number: P42ES007380
Funding Period: 1997-2014

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Project Summary (2008-2014)

There is an on-going need for simple, rapid, and cost-effective analytical methods capable of detecting toxic substances in the environment and in biological samples. Among these toxic compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been extensively studied and proven to be harmful to humans and the environment; they are, consequently, classified as Superfund chemicals.

More recently, hydroxylated PCBs (OH-PCBs) have also been more closely examined as potentially exhibiting significant toxic health effects. Due to the toxicity and environmental and biological persistence of PCBs and OH-PCBs, it is necessary to have efficient and economical methods to detect and quantify them. Currently employed traditional analytical methods are costly, time- and labor-consuming, not amenable to field analysis, and not appropriate for extensive monitoring of target analytes in biological samples. To that end, the long-term objective of this proposal is to design and develop molecular biosensors that employ genetic engineering tools that are selective, sensitive, portable, and inexpensive, and also propose them to be viable alternatives to traditional analytical methods for the detection of PCBs and OH-PCBs in biological and environmental samples.

Specifically, whole-cell biosensors will be constructed; these are based on bacteria engineered to harbor a plasmid containing the genes encoding for the proteins involved in the catabolic pathways of Superfund chemicals coupled to those of a signal-producing reporter protein. Additionally, the regulatory proteins of bacterial resistance, operons, will be redesigned to improve their binding selectivity to target analytes, and will then be incorporated as the recognition elements in a new biosensing format. These redesigned proteins should be able to act like molecular switches to detect the presence of the target compounds in samples. The newly developed biosensing systems will be miniaturized and integrated into enabling technologies for in situ detection and field studies. As part of the enabling technologies, the transformation of bacterial whole-cell sensors into spores, as long-term, highly rugged storage and transport elements, will be explored. These spore-based biosensors, as well as the molecular switches, will then be incorporated into portable miniaturized microfluidic platforms for field sensing. These biosensing systems will provide new tools for monitoring human health and the environment; therefore, they are of high relevance to public health.

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