Webinar Outcomes: “Biosensors and Environmental Monitoring – New Developments in Environmental Biotech”

SYNOPSIS

(Video of Dr Zhugen Yang available here; Prof Kasprzyk-Hordern’s talk currently embargoed to non-attendees)

The new EBNet Webinar series is designed to replace our annual Research Colloquium with top-quality, specialist webinars on a range of EB topics. Providing insight for our second offering, with a look at “Biosensors and Environmental Monitoring – New Developments in Environmental Biotech”, were Professor Barbara Kasprzyk-Hordern, University of Bath and Dr Zhugen Yang, Cranfield University. Professor Kasprzyk-Hordern shared her extensive experience in waste water surveillance at a community level which detects numerous legal/illicit substances – including SARS-CoV-2. Complementing this, Dr Yang’s work has been to develop a paper-based sensor able to detect pathogens – which naturally also includes SARS-CoV-2 – as the focus of his current activity. This exploration of current activity and future potential in the field of biosensors was co-chaired by Professor Fred Coulon, Cranfield University and Dr Tony Gutierrez, Heriot-Watt University.

Urban environmental “fingerprinting” acts as an extra tool in support of the development of a system for large-scale, real-time public health monitoring. Waste water contains many biomarkers which provide a fingerprint of a community’s health and lifestyle. It is possible to detect both the stressor (drug/pollutant) as well as the biomarker(s) – unique metabolic by-products indicating human exposure. Prior work has focused on drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Currently, with SARS-CoV-2, the indicator is RNA. However, interpretation of the results is complicated by many factors. Sampling, local conditions, population size and industrial or alternative sources for the biomarkers must all be factored in when interpreting results. The data holds valuable information on community level exposure and can tease out information ranging from occupational BPA exposure to antibiotic usage and its relationship to AMR resistance.

Paper origami sensors provide a low cost, rapid method for waste water and diagnostics testing that is particularly helpful for point-of-use situations (away from the lab). The market for these kinds of test is increasing beyond the well-known pregnancy test or glucose meter. The test works by combining a biological component with a physicochemical detector. The bioreceptor could be an antibody, aptamer, DNA or enzyme. However it must have certain characteristics, amongst which are sensitivity and selectivity. Results can be as fast as one hour. Whereas prior work was focused on detecting cocaine in sewage, ongoing work right now is to detect “hot-spots” in Covid areas.

These highly topical insights into the track record of biosensors for specific stressors and situations only demonstrate how much more is possible. Bespoke testing is evidently both achievable and achieved. Looking ahead, it is clear that multiresidue analysis will be helped by supporting research in data handling, sampling protocols and correct interpretation. But the way is clear to imagine wider uses of this upcoming technology – perhaps directed at further Environmental Biotechnology applications.