iGEM Bielefeld 2015

Future scenarios

Here you find some future scenarios for the application of our biosensor.

Image by Boris Štromar, published on Wikipedia (picture modified)

What is our project about? Why are the topics we deal with important? Above all, how could our easy to handle biosensor with its simple evaluation change the world of tomorrow? To answer this question we worked on future scenarios for the applications of our biosensors. These fictitious scenarios in form of newspaper articles are based on actual news and interviews with experts.

Short resumée of our project

Regarding biosafety we elaborated two strategies for cell free biosensors as part of our project: One comprises Cell Free Protein Synthesis (CFPS) by in vitro transcription and translation in cell extracts and the other is based on an interaction of DNA with an immobilized protein, called Protein Repressor Interaction Assay (PRIA). To show that our detection systems are easily and flexibly expandable, we proofed the functionality of our biosensor by the detection of different heavy metals besides the detection of date rape drugs which are a growing problem in our region.

Facts about heavy metals

Since water is a vital requirement for humans, animals and plants, contaminations with harmful and toxic substances are a serious problem because of the numerous and diverse health consequences. Repeatedly, these contaminations are associated with heavy metals. Due to the fact that heavy metals in the water are still a global problem, we decided to work with BioBricks from previous iGEM projects dealing with the detection of heavy metals and thereby showing the expandability of our biosensors. In this context we decided to detect arsenic, nickel and mercury. In addition, we developed new biosensors for heavy metals including lead, copper and chrome VI.
Heavy metals are natural constituents of the Earth's crust and the intake as trace elements is important for the human body, as the absence of essential trace elements leads to deficiency symptoms. But as soon as the specific limits (Tab. 1) are exceeded a heavy metal poisoning is implicated. Due to their accumulation in the human body heavy metals can cause serious long-term damage (Lenntech, 2015). Beyond the typical symptoms of a poisoning like abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting also a liver failure or kidney damage is possible (Pfeil et al., 1997). This collapse can even result in death. Moreover, heavy metals affect the income of crops impairing the agribusiness.

Furthermore, conventional methods for the detection of heavy metals are mainly complex laboratory tests like atomic absorption spectrometry. These are time consuming and comparative expensive test, which cannot be carried out by everybody oneself.

First, let us take a look into the past…

Recently, on August 5th 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released by mistake about three million gallons (11.4 million liters) of toxic water into the Animas River in Colorado (Davis, 2015). Actually, the aim was to clean up the Gold King Mine, which had been shut since the 1920s and have long been known to slowly leaking contaminated water into the surrounding rivers. Since the contaminated water is full of heavy metals swimming in it or drinking from it has been recommended (Fig. 1). Therefore, towns and cities downstream were prompted to shut off their water intake from the affected waters to protect the drinking water. Nevertheless, this does not solve the problem for those who have their own wells and does not prevent getting a ‘stigma’ in public perception.

Fig. 1: Animas River in Colorado before (left) and after (right) the spill. After the spill about three million gallons of toxic water that is full of heavy metals dye the river yellow. Photo by Charles W. Bush/Flickr (left); Riverhugger (right).

Back to the future…

In consideration of the incident in Colorado it is conceivable that our biosensor for heavy metals could be a useful solution in the future. With this easy to handle and not expensive biosensor affected residents with own wells or own business all over the world will be able to protect themselves (Scenario 1).

Fictitious future article 1.
Fictitious future article 2.

Moreover, we want to enable the application of our biosensor system not only in industrial, but also in developing countries. The use of such a biosensor is even more important there, especially regarding the quality of drinking water. For this reason a simple and uncomplicated application as well as a low-cost production is important. As one 15 µl reaction of our CFPS merely costs $ 0.16 (in required materials) we could imagine a future scenario, in which our biosensor could be part of a social development project in collaboration with local governments or charity organizations comparable to the prosperous “Liter of Light” campaign (Scenario 2). Such a charity project would not only enable an easy and fast water quality control but also create new jobs.

An additional important advantage of our biosensor besides the easy handling, the fast detection and the low costs is its modularity. Particularly, the THW (Technisches Hilfswerk Ortsverband Lemgo), a local aid organization in Germany, was very enthusiastic about the possibility of testing a water sample for different substances at the same time. This is time-saving and enables thereby new tests which otherwise for reasons of time cannot be performed. The THW would like to try out our biosensor in their everyday operation.

Facts about date rape drugs and future scenarios

Substances for knocking somebody out are used to perform a crime in connection, mainly robbery or sexual offence. The Institute of Forensic Medicine in Munich could proof 92 cases of date rape drug misuse from 1995 to 1998. In this cases 47.8 % of the crimes in connection were robberies, 13 % sexual offence and 5.4 % killing or other crimes (Christmann, 2003). Lately, media coverage about such cases has increased, but there are hardly concrete data because of the high estimated number. This is due to the difficulty of proofing the application of date rape drugs (ElSohly et al, 1999). On the one hand the proof of such substances in blood or urine is only possible in an extremely short time frame, partly only within 8 - 10 hours after administration (Ärzteblatt, 2009), and on the other hand the victims are not able to recollect the incident due to a phase of unconsciousness or amnesia anterograde.

Fictitious future article 3.

Substances which are very often associated with date rape drugs are Gamma-hydroxybutyric acid (GHB, ‘Liquid Ecstasy’) and Gamma-butyrolactone (GBL). An overdose of GHB (> 2.5 g) has a strong soporific effect and can cause a sudden narcotic sleep (Ärzteblatt, 2009). The big problem with date rape drugs is that they can only be proven after intak. With our biosensor we enable the detection of date rape drugs before taking (Scenario 3).
However there are further problems. As we interviewed a local pediatrician he shifted our attention to another problem: Many young people are not well informed about the problem of date rape drugs and the dangers arising from date rape drugs. In order to ensure the application of our biosensor and the related reduction of crimes with date rape drugs, it is imperative to do elucidation work regarding these topics. In this case education seminars with school classes are conceivable for the future.


Aerzteblatt, Dtsch. (2009): Knock-Out Drugs: Their Prevalence, Modes of Action, and Means of Detection. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 106(20): 341-7; DOI: 10.3238/arztebl.2009.0341

Christmann, J. (2003): Zum Vorkommen von K.-o.-Fällen im Untersuchungsgut des Rechtsmedizinischen Institutes der Universität München in den Jahren 1995–1998. Diss Med München.

Davis, J.L. (2015): EPA Accidentally Contaminates River With Millions Of Gallons Of Toxic Waste. Iflscience. URL: (14.09.2015)

ElSohly, M.A.; Salmone, S.J. (1999): Prevalence of drugs used in cases of alleged sexual assault. J Anal Toxicol. 23: 141–6. MEDLINE.

Lenntech- Heavy Metals (2015). Online verfügbar unter, last checked on: 14.08.2015.

Pfeil, S.; Kerber, T.; Maraun, W. (1997): Belastung des Trinkwassers in Frankfurt/Main mit Blei, Kupfer, Nitrat und Nitrit - eine IfAU-Studie. IfAU Institute.