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Application and Construction of Microbial Biosensors in Chemical Forensics

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posted on 2021-11-03, 22:20 authored by Couper, Justine

Forensic toxicologists are often required to rapidly determine if a suspicious substance, such as a white powder, contain toxins. Preliminary tests usually include screens for a wide range of 'Potentially Toxic Chemicals' (PTCs) such as cyanide, pesticides, herbicides, medicinal and illicit drugs. Subsequent analyses are generally very time-consuming and costly. Any protocol screening for a range of PTC's, prior to more robust chemical analysis, could therefore save significant analytical time. Microbial biosensors are ideal biological tools that can be utilised for these purposes. In vivo bioassays were developed for a range of PTCs using a suite of microbial biosensors, in a variety of complex matrices including water, white powders, soils and vomit to determine the effect of matrix complexities on the biosensors, as well as the toxins. The lux biosensor, Escherichia coli HB101 pUCD607, showed an EC50, (where EC50 is the effective concentration of toxin causing 50% reduction in bioluminescence), of cyanide in water of 20 mg/L. This biosensor still detected cyanide, in talc and flour, at EC50 values of 589 mg/L and 700 mg/L respectively. Vibrio harveyi showed good sensitivity to cyanide in initial water bioassays with an EC50 of 9.66 mg/L. The V. harveyi biosensor did not detect cyanide spiked in talc or flour when tested up to a maximum concentration of 10,000 mg/L. The Mycena citricolor ATCC 34884 fungal biosensor, showed lower sensitivity levels however it detected the presence of sodium monofluoroacetate (1080) at a concentration 1000 mg/L. Preliminary investigation of a novel, faster, solid-phase sample preparation method was also undertaken and its potential proven, particularly in PTC spiked white powders. Here the biosensor showed sensitivity to arsenate, arsenite, copper, cyanide and PCP at 1000 mg/L.This project highlighted the inability of current biosensors to reliably detect 1080 and the difficulty in constructing a specific biosensor. The utilisation of a reliable vector and inducible promoter are pivotal in biosensor construction.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Molecular Microbiology

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Science

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Chemical and Physical Sciences


O'Toole, Ronan; Horswell, Jacqui