Pollutant detection research given international award

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Xiaokai Zhang, a PhD candidate from the Department of Environmental Science at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, recently returned from the annual International Conference on Environmental Engineering and Sustainable Development (CEESD) where he received the award for the top presentation.

The conference, held in Thailand this year, is organised by the Asia Pacific Institute of Science and Engineering and is a platform where researchers, engineers, academicians and industrial professionals from all over the world present their research and exchange new ideas and application experiences to promote sustainable development.

Xiaokai (pictured above) presented on the topic of using live biosensors in environmental risk assessment; his results have also recently been published in the journal Environmental Pollution which is within the top 10% of Environmental Science journals according to Journal Citation Reports.

“In the big picture, this work seeks solutions to address the unprecedented levels of environmental pollution now arising globally, a circumstance which makes finding more rapid and reliable environmental risk assessment processes urgent,” explained Xiaokai.

“Using live biosensors is an important innovation because such organisms do not measure the total amount of a pollutant, but rather measure how much of the pollutant is biologically available, referred to as bioavailability,” he said.

Being able to measure true bioavailability holds the key to more efficient environmental management, as Xiaokai’s research supervisor Dr Mona Wells (pictured below, left), associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science at XJTLU, explained:

“Decisions can be made based on likely outcomes rather than chemical tests whose results are often not biologically relevant,” she said. “However, this work is not only relevant to clean-up of contaminated sites, but living biosensors also provide a way to test the environmental friendliness of materials.”

Very few types of living biosensors are suitable for work with pollutants in complex environmental samples. The type of biosensors that Xiaokai is using have been previously developed and demonstrated by Dr Wells working in collaboration with other EU project collaborators.

This research is part of a larger project that is funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China and includes project collaborators from the prestigious Nanjing Institute of Geographical and Limnological Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and top academics from Germany, Belgium, Israel, and the UK.

Dr Wells and collaborators were awarded the Schrödinger Prize for Excellence in Interdisciplinary Science in 2010 as a result of their innovative development and use of biosensor technology, a now-commercialised project that is having positive impacts for hundreds of thousands of people worldwide in providing a tool to ensure safety of drinking water.

This work is now being extended at XJTLU for application to China in a highly-interdisciplinary project involving professionals from the fields of biology, chemistry, environmental science, and biomedicine.

Xiaokai’s recent focus has been on lead pollution. In 2007, data showed that over 40% of children in 12 Chinese provinces had levels of lead in their blood above the World Health Organisation limits, which makes risk assessment for this particular pollutant critical. For children, lead can be very damaging to the development of the brain.

The next phase of work at XJTLU will involve developing live biosensors to test for the toxic effects of lead pollution and will be assisted by Dr Boris Tefsen of the Department of Biological Sciences.

The Sciences Cluster at XJTLU (that includes the departments of Biological Sciences, Chemistry, and Environmental Science) is educating qualified graduates who understand interdisciplinary issues and are able to apply their academic knowledge to support sustainable development.

story and photos provided by Dr Mona Wells; edited by Danny Abbasi and Jacqueline Bánki

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