Fluoride Action Network

Researchers detect fluoride in water with new simple color change test.

Northwestern University | January 4, 2023 | By Win Reynolds
Posted on January 4th, 2023
Location: United States, Illinois

Environmental contaminants like fluoride, lead and pesticides exist all around and even within us. While researchers have simple ways to measure concentrations of such contaminants inside lab environments, levels are much more difficult to test in the field. That’s because they require costly specialized equipment.

Recent efforts in synthetic biology have leveraged cellular biosensors to both detect and report environmental contaminants in a cost-effective and field-deployable manner. Even as progress is being made, scientists have struggled to answer the question of how to protect sensor components from substances that naturally exist in extracted samples.

A cross-disciplinary team of synthetic biologists at Northwestern University is developing a sensor platform that will be able to detect a range of environmental and biological targets in real-world samples. Using an established riboswitch to build a biosensor for fluoride, the team found they could both protect the sensor and operate similarly to the way cells do by encapsulating the sensor inside a fatty membrane.

In a new paper published today (Jan. 4) in the journal Science Advances, researchers demonstrated that by modifying the makeup and penetrability of the lipid bilayer membrane, they could further tune and control the performance of their sensor.

“So much data is being generated, and a lot of it is being driven by health apps like smart watches,” said Julius Lucks, a co-corresponding author and professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. “We can sense our heartbeat, our temperature, but if you think about it, we really have no way to sense chemical things. We’re living in an information age, but the information we have is so miniscule — chemical sensing opens enormous dimensions of information that you can tap into.”

*Original full-text article online at: https://news.northwestern.edu/stories/2023/01/fluoride-in-water-simple-color-change-test/