Scientist: Color-coded Bacteria Can Spot Spills and Leaks

Oil spills and other environmental pollution, including low-level leaks from underground pipes and storage tanks, could be quickly and easily spotted in the future using color-coded bacteria, scientists heard on Sept. 11 at the Society for General Microbiology's Autumn meeting held at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

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

"Chemical methods [of detection] are often cumbersome, require sophisticated equipment, costly reagents, or nasty materials," said Van der Meer. "In comparison, our sensing bacteria are very simple to maintain. Tests with the bacteria are therefore extremely easy to carry out and do not require noxious chemicals."

The new technique has been successfully tested during a research expedition at sea, when the scientists demonstrated that the bacteria could measure different chemicals seeping from oil into the water, showing up as the blue light of bioluminescence in a simple light recording device.

"This can help to trace back the age of a spill and helps us to judge the immediate danger," said Van der Meer. "The environmental benefits of this research are very clear. Our methods and results show how relatively simple and cheap assays could be used as a first line of defense to judge contamination in the environment. Once positive values are obtained, more in-depth studies can be performed using chemical analysis."

Technical research in this field is heading towards miniaturized sensors that can incorporate many different bacteria types, each of which responds to a different chemical. These miniaturized sensors could be used for rapid screening of samples with unknown compositions, such as water samples, but air could also be monitored for proper quality. "You could imagine stand-alone systems such as buoys, in which bacteria sensors screen the presence of polluting compounds continuously. We don't think this will affect people in any way. The bacteria that are used for the sensing are harmless and do not multiply very well in the open environment," said Van der Meer. "This makes it very safe."