A primer on emerging field-deployable synthetic biology tools for global water quality monitoring

Walter Thavarajah, Matthew S. Verosloff, Jaeyoung K. Jung, Khalid K. Alam, Joshua D. Miller, Michael C. Jewett, Sera L. Young, Julius B. Lucks*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

53 Scopus citations


Tracking progress towards Target 6.1 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, “achieving universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all”, necessitates the development of simple, inexpensive tools to monitor water quality. The rapidly growing field of synthetic biology has the potential to address this need by isolating DNA-encoded sensing elements from nature and reassembling them to create field-deployable “biosensors” that can detect pathogenic or chemical water contaminants. Here, we describe current water quality monitoring strategies enabled by synthetic biology and compare them to previous approaches used to detect three priority water contaminants (i.e., fecal pathogens, arsenic, and fluoride), as well as explain the potential for engineered biosensors to simplify and decentralize water quality monitoring. We conclude with an outlook on the future of biosensor development, in which we discuss their adaptability to emerging contaminants (e.g., metals, agricultural products, and pharmaceuticals), outline current limitations, and propose steps to overcome the field’s outstanding challenges to facilitate global water quality monitoring.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number18
Journalnpj Clean Water
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology
  • Pollution
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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