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RAPID: Collaborative Research: A cell-free synthetic biology platform for water quality monitoring - field testing and validation at the Camp Fire site in Paradise, California


Water quality is central to every human activity, yet, water quality is being increasingly threatened by environmental forces and disasters such as hurricanes, floods, droughts, and most recently, by the wild fires of California. These firestorms have resulted in the potential release of massive amounts of toxic metals and compounds into groundwater supplies. Successful remediation and safe human relocation require large environmental monitoring efforts to test water supply safety. However, these efforts are hampered by state-of-the-art water quality assessment technologies which are costly, centralized, slow and laborious. Therefore, there is a critical need for rapid, cost-effective and field-deployable water quality monitoring technologies. Towards addressing this need, the PI's laboratory recently developed a rapid, low-cost synthetic biology platform named RIViTS, that detects a range of toxic compounds in water samples. This project transitions RIViTS from the laboratory to the field by performing field use studies for the detection of toxic metals in water samples from Paradise, California. These samples are taken from the remains in the aftermath of the firestorm of November 2018. Field water samples at known contamination zones are tested with RIViTS and collected for independent validation using gold-standard environmental water analysis. Comparison of field and lab validation data is used to develop statistical measures of RIViTS performance, uncover factors affecting field performance and to study how RIViTS performance is dependent on metal ion complexation. As part of the project, RIViTS kits are distributed to undergraduate students at California State University Chico, to test the ability of non-experts to operate the platform.<br/><br/>The PI has recently developed a rapid, low-cost synthetic biology platform using regulated in vitro transcriptional sensors (RIViTS) that detect a range of toxic metals in aqueous samples. In this project RIViTS is field tested and assessed for non-expert usage. Field testing occurs at known contamination locations for the presence of lead, copper, zinc, cadmium and mercury. Water and soil leachate samples are collected and stored for independent validation. The project employs state-of-the-art analytical methods to determine metal concentration in collected aqueous samples, to validate RIViTS field tests. Metal speciation is measured to determine which species is detected by RIViTS. Kits developed for the RIViTS method are distributed to undergraduate students at California State University Chico, for monitoring metal ions after rainfall. The kits include RIViTS reaction tubes, handheld illuminators and a graphical field guide. This project is the first field testing and validation for a new technology that is a direct application of synthetic biology to environmental monitoring.<br/><br/>This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Julius Lucks; Jean-francois Gaillard
Northwestern University
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