‘Can we build a cheap, practical and reliable arsenic biosensor?’

Many global health-related problems are simply due to the lack of safe drinking water. Addressing toxic arsenic contamination of drinking water supplies in Nepal, Bangladesh and India requires a comprehensive and detailed understanding of the problem. Monitoring individual wells on a regular basis requires a cheap, practical and reliable testing method. Nature provides us with a possible solution because organisms like the common soil-dwelling bacteria Bacillus subtilis can live in arsenic contaminated water and detect the poisonous substance. By harnessing this natural power, we can adapt the bacteria to identify arsenic-contaminated wells and particularly the level of contamination. Bacillus subtilis exists virtually everywhere on earth and has been part of the human diet for centuries. It grows easily in various environments and so it should be a robust foundation for a cheap, practical and reliable arsenic biosensor.

‘Arsenic contamination in drinking water affects 100 million people’

Arsenic contamination in drinking water affects on the order of 100 million people in some of the poorest regions on earth including India/West Bengal, Bangladesh and Nepal. From the Himalayas to river basins in Southeast Asia, arsenic contamination of groundwater has become a major health problem, largely due to the proliferation of shallow tube wells installed to provide clean, pathogen-free drinking water. Experts consider the arsenic problem to be ‘the largest poisoning of a population in history’, where continuous consumption of contaminated water results in the development of typical skin lesions, multiple organ pathologies and ultimately, cancer.

‘We bring together several technologies and combine them’

Engineering the arsenic biosensor requires the implementation and integration of several types of technologies in order to build a robust arsenic sensor device. For the biological components, two areas need development: the ‘chassis’ and the detection system. We have selected Bacillus subtilis as a chassis and will include built-in mechanisms to make it unable to persist in the environment.

The detection system will use the bacteria’s natural arsenic sensing capability so that arsenic will trigger the production of a pigment that is visible to the naked eye. The physical container is designed to be robust, allowing the growth of the bacteria whilst being very resistant to mechanical damage.

‘Fieldwork gave us first-hand knowledge of the situation in Nepal’

In February 2013 our team ventured to Nepal to meet with stakeholders including government officials, NGO’s and crucially, the potential end-users. We wanted to gain first-hand knowledge of the Nepali culture and environment as it affects chronic arsenic consumption and the disease it causes. In the villages we visited, we found that there is good of understanding of arsenic contamination of drinking water and associated diseases, largely due to educational programmes at the local level. We received excellent feedback on what users would like to see in an arsenic biosensor and how using such a device may impact their lives.

In February 2013 our team ventured to Nepal to meet with stakeholders including government officials, NGO’s and crucially, the potential end-users. We wanted to gain first-hand knowledge of the Nepali culture and environment as it affects chronic arsenic consumption and the disease it causes. In the villages we visited, we found that there is good of understanding of arsenic contamination of drinking water and associated diseases, largely due to educational programmes at the local level. We received excellent feedback on what users would like to see in an arsenic biosensor and how using such a device may impact their lives.

‘The Collaboration negotiates social, scientific and regulatory issues’

Making an arsenic biosensor and implementing a water testing programme involves a complex mix of social, political, geographic and science/engineering issues. Responsible Research and Innovation (RR&I) frameworks the development of the bacterial arsenic biosensor by providing the structure for an effective network of stakeholders.

Stakeholders include individuals from biological research, engineering, social science, business, government, NGOs and affected populations. The RR&I network will guide all aspects of the project and in particular we believe that any arsenic biosensor that might be used in Nepal, Bangladesh, India or other affected region should be subject to the conditions for use in the UK and the EU.

‘The Team consists of individuals working on the core project’

Team members: Orr Yarkoni, David Radford, David Nugent, James King, David J. Grimshaw, Jim Haseloff, Chris French, Jim Ajioka.

‘Our funders and partners are vital components of the Collaboration’

The Arsenic Biosensor Collaboration consists of a primary funder, the Wellcome Trust and strategic partners from the range of stakeholders. Our partners are a subset of the stakeholders with whom we have direct working relationships. Our partners are a vital component of the Collaboration because they support and facilitate the arsenic biosensor core project by providing advice and guidance on technical, regulatory and social issues both here in the UK/Europe and in affected regions like Nepal.

The Arsenic Biosensor Collaboration consists of a primary funder, the Wellcome Trust and strategic partners from the range of stakeholders. Our partners are a subset of the stakeholders with whom we have direct working relationships. Our partners are a vital component of the Collaboration because they support and facilitate the arsenic biosensor core project by providing advice and guidance on technical, regulatory and social issues both here in the UK/Europe and in affected regions like Nepal.