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Festival of science Friday, 8 September, 2000, 14:55 GMT 15:55 UK
Bright future for glowing bugs
BBC
By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

Glowing bugs that diagnose pollution could be the "canaries" of the future.

Miners once took the colourful birds down the pits with them to detect dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.

Now scientists have developed the bacterial equivalent - luminescent micro-organisms capable of detecting contaminated land or water.

These bacterial "biosensors", which contain a gene taken from marine organisms, glow when they are "happy" but fade progressively as they encounter increased levels of toxicity.

As well as diagnosing pollution, scientists can also use the microbes to predict whether a location can be decontaminated using bacterial strains capable of breaking down undesirable chemicals.

Bacterial 'canary'

The technology works very fast to establish the extent of pollution at a location.

"Miners used to take canaries with them down into the mines to detect carbon monoxide," said Dr Anne Glover of the University of Aberdeen, UK. "A canary is basically a biosensor, it's a biological organism that senses its environment. We have bugs that do essentially the same."

There are 3,000 hectares of contaminated land in the UK alone. This land cannot be used unless it is decontaminated.

"The government are saying that 60% of all new housing has to be built on brown field sites, something that has been used previously industrially," Dr Glover told the British Association's Festival of Science. "You need a way to be able to identify the toxicity and to bring the land back into use, and minimise risk."

Animal testing

The research might also lead to other applications.

Glowing yeast, containing a gene derived from the firefly, are being developed as test systems for cosmetics or pharmaceuticals and for the detection of toxins in food.

The metabolism of yeast is more like that of animals than bacteria, so glowing yeast are potentially more useful for health applications.

The glowing biosensors have been tested on industrially contaminated sites in the UK and Europe over the last four years. They are now being applied commercially.

The technology has been awarded Millennium Product status and is displayed in the Millennium Dome.

See also:

12 Oct 99 | Sheffield 99
22 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
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