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Bacteria May Be Inexpensive Pollution-Detectors

Lincoln Ventures Ltd & Landcare Research
4-Mar-02

Bacteria May Become Inexpensive Pollution-Detectors

New Zealand scientists are using some of the world's smallest creatures to develop cheaper and easier ways to detect and measure toxic contaminants in water and soil. The technology, a new "biosensor", will help meet growing local and overseas demand for more cost-effective environmental monitoring, as governments and industry strive to minimise pollution and risk to public health.

Lincoln Ventures Ltd and Landcare Research are leading a $2M research project that will attempt to harness bacteria as the basis for a revolutionary biosensor kit, exhibiting capabilities previously unobtainable at the price envisaged. If the research is successful, the ultimate aim is to develop a new, export orientated, high technology industry for New Zealand around products that emerge from the research.

Current methods of measuring contaminants are mostly chemical and use very expensive instrumentation to measure individual toxic pollutants. The research programme will investigate the use of bacteria, which are very cheap to produce, to detect the toxins. The new biosensors will have the added advantages of detecting several contaminants in one analysis, thus further reducing costs.

Initial research is focussed on three common contaminants known to cause cancer: BTEX are a group of compounds found in the aromatic fraction of petrol and oil, while PAHs or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are associated with fuel combustion and are a proposed priority target contaminant for New Zealand. PCBs or poly chloro benzenes are banned compounds that were manufactured as insulating products. They still exist in the environment and can accumulate in the food chain.

The research is led by Dr Neil Pasco of Lincoln Ventures Ltd and Landcare Research scientist Dr Gareth Lloyd-Jones who generated the ideas that underpin the research.

Dr Pasco explains that bacteria exhibit a multitude of reactions capable of signalling the presence of a particular contaminant and that this provides an opportunity for developing a bacterium-based biosensor. The problem is in assessing, from outside the bacterial cell, information produced by the many activities going on within the cell. Dr Lloyd-Jones points out that the rewards that will accompany a successful outcome are considerable.

The project is funded by the Foundation of Research, Science and Technology's New Economy Research Fund, which funds research capable of generating new wealth creating, New Zealand enterprises. Lincoln Ventures Ltd and Landcare Research have put together a strong team to carry out the research with The Cawthron Institute, Lincoln University, University of Canterbury, University of Waikato, and the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology all providing specialist inputs to the project.

About Landcare Research

Landcare Research, a crown research institute established in 1992, is committed to excellent science and to delivering practicable advice on vital issues affecting New Zealand's environment. The institute works with New Zealand and overseas governments, local and regional authorities, corporates, private enterprises and industry, recreational land-users, and land owners.

Our science programmes contribute to global research projects, and we have a specialist consultancy team working on sustainable development and poverty alleviation in international aid projects. The institute has about 400 staff at nine sites throughout New Zealand, each at key locations on or close by university campuses.

Landcare Research works on all aspects of resource management, including: sustainability of land-use practices; documenting indigenous biodiversity and enhancing natural habitats; urban ecology and restoration projects; managing weeds, pests and biosecurity risks; maintaining the quality of soil, land, air and water resources; reducing pollution and mitigating contamination; minimising waste and using resources more efficiently; and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and enhancing carbon sinks.

Attention is also given to the economic, social and cultural implications of environmental management. We also develop innovative applications for technology (e.g., satellite imagery and remote sensing, radio telemetry equipment, and Geographic Information Systems) to assist resource management. We maintain a wide range of analytical laboratories including environmental health and toxicology services.

Landcare Research is a founding member of the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development, and a member of the EEO Trust. For further information visit www.landcare.cri.nz

About Lincoln Ventures Limited

Lincoln Ventures is a technology company wholly owned by Lincoln University with a turnover of $5 million. The company was founded in 1993 and has 50 staff operating from offices in Lincoln and Hamilton.

The company provides research, development and consulting services to a variety of private and public sector clients, and operates out of four divisions:

Lincoln Technology - electronics, biosensors, electronic and optical sensors Supply Chain Systems - remote data capture, data capture at point of sale, information provision in perishable supply chains Lincoln Environmental - groundwater, irrigation, water resources engineering, land waste treatment, environmental engineering Lincoln Analytical - residue analysis, agrichemical training

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