A cell-free sensor platform for the quantification of arsenic concentrations in drinking water

This project aims to develop a cell-free sensor for detecting and quantifying arsenic in drinking water.


Arsenic contamination of drinking water is a global issue affecting in the region of 150 million people. Arsenic poisoning is highly prevalent in countries surrounding the Himalayas such as India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan and arises from natural contamination of shallow tube wells. Currently, drinking water is predominantly tested via chemical sensors, which require toxic reagents, technical expertise and only produces qualitative results. Developments in synthetic biology have shown that biological components can be engineered for heavy metal detection, but methods are limited by GM contamination risks and only provide qualitative readouts. As such, an opportunity has been identified to develop a first-of -kind cell-free quantitative arsenic sensor which uses the synthesis of an electroactive metabolic enzyme for amperometric quantification of arsenic concentrations. This project was for a first proof of concept of such a sensor.

The system is based on a genetic circuit consisting of a promoter responsive to arsenic and a downstream reporter which produces an electroactive enzyme. The enzyme concentration will then be measured using amperometric detection methods allowing a quantitative measurement of arsenic concentration to be determined.

The Team

This ambitious project requires a technically diverse cohort.  The team consists of the 12 members of the MRes year students of the Sensor CDT programme at the University of Cambridge.

Project Leads

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Genevieve Hughes - Background in Earth Science



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Ralf Mouthann - Background in Physics



Synthetic Biology

Elise Siouve - Background in Biotechnology



Carolina Orozco - Background in Biotechnology


Sina Schack - Background in Biochemistry



Electrochemistry and Platform

Lisa Hecker - Background in Biophysics

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Alexandru Grigoroiu - Background in Biomedical Engineering



Sammy Mahdi - Background in Electrical Engineering



James Vereycken - Background in Organic Chemistry




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Francesco Tonolini - Background in Physics



Electronic Hardware

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David-Benjamin Grys - Background in Electrical Engineering




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Tess Skyrme - Background in Aerospace Engineering

Project Outputs

Project Report

Project report and documentation on Github

Project Proposal

Original proposal and application

Updates and further outputs

The Team presented their work at the following events:

They successfully applied for both a Biomaker Challenge grant in June 2017 and a £5000 OpenPlant Fund in July 2017.