Swiss boffins have developed a new technique for measuring chemicals seeping from oil into water using bacteria.

During a research expedition at sea, they successfully used bacteria equipped with a protein that produced a blue light under a simple light-recording device to detect oil.

The scientists said the bacteria are more environmentally friendly than the current chemical detection agents, are cheap to produce, and are easy to use.

“Because bacteria have simple single-celled bodies, it is relatively easy to equip them with a sensor and a brightly coloured reporter protein which shows up under a microscope, alerting us to different substances leaking into the soil or seawater,” said Professor Jan Van der Meer, from the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland.

“Our own tests, and checks by other laboratories, have shown that pollution testing using bacteria is a remarkably robust technique and produces reliable results,” he added.

“The heart of our colour sensor system is the bacteria themselves. They reproduce themselves in a growth medium, which makes the whole set-up really cheap.”

The scientists hope their methods can be used as a first line of defence to judge the level of contamination. Then if necessary, more in-depth studies can be performed using chemical analysis.

They said the same methods could be used in hospitals or to study food samples.

More complex miniature sensors, using many different bacteria types which respond to different chemicals, could also be developed.

“You could imagine stand-alone systems such as buoys, in which bacteria sensors screen the presence of polluting compounds continuously,” Professor Van der Meer said.

“We don’t think this will affect people in any way. The bacteria that are used for the sensing are harmless and do not multiple very well in the open environment.”

Kate Martin

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