New biosensor modelled on the immune system can detect, track and guide the clean-up of oil spills

A new biosensor which uses antibody-based technology has been shown to detect marine pollutants such as oil cheaper and faster than current technology. Tests of the new biosensor, published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, reveal how it could be used for the early detection and tracking of oil spills.

The biosensor has been developed by researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and was tested in the Elizabeth River and Yorktown Creek which both drain into Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay.

“Our biosensor combines the power of the immune system with the sensitivity of cutting-edge electronics,” says Dr. Mike Unger of VIMS. “It holds great promise for real-time detection and monitoring of oil spills and other releases of contaminants into the marine environment.”

“Our basic idea was to fuse two different kinds of technologies — monoclonal antibodies and electronic sensors — in order to detect contaminants,” said Dr Stephen Kaattari.

The tests in the Elizabeth River took place during the dredging of a site contaminated by polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), the byproduct of the industrial use of creosote to treat marine pilings.

The biosensor demonstrated the ability to process water samples in less than 10 minutes and detected pollutants at levels as low as just a few parts per billion.

The portable biosensor carried out this sampling at a fraction of the cost of the expensive, slower, and laboratory-bound alternatives which are currently available, while remaining just as accurate.

The team used the biosensor to survey an area of almost 9,000 square meters around the Elizabeth River, providing information about the size and intensity of contaminants to engineers who were monitoring the dredging from the shore.

One promising use of the biosensor is the early detection and tracking of oil spills. “If biosensors were placed near an oil facility and there was a spill, we would know immediately,” says Kaattari. “And because we could see concentrations increasing or decreasing in a certain pattern, we could also monitor the dispersal over real time.”

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