Smog, chemicals in rivers, particular matter from copying machines in offices – human beings are exposed to many toxic influences. Environmental medical specialists are investigating the effect that these kinds of substances have at the same time as trying to find ways to reduce their influence on human health as much as possible. Molecular and cell biologists and even biotechnologists all have a key part to play in these efforts. On the one hand, they particpate in the investigation of the biological effects of environmental toxins on the cellular and molecular levels. On the other hand, they develop tools – so-called biosensors - for the early detection of environmental toxins.
Although drinking water is monitored more strictly than almost anything, our water supply network is still not immune to accidents, wear and tear or targeted attacks. A one-minute warning system for toxins and other substances in water hazardous to health could set off alarms in future if there is a danger.
Continuous monitoring of environmental air quality has been mandatory in the EU since 1996. However, state-of-the-art technical measurement systems are expensive and lack mobility. A European consortium led by biologist Prof. Dr. Ralf Reski has developed a new system that uses peat moss in so-called ”MOSSpheres” for monitoring air pollution. The project MOSSclone started in April 2012 and funding ended in March 2015.
Hardware and software applications have become an integral part of the everyday life of life sciences researchers, developers and service providers. It is impossible to imagine life science applications without effective hardware and software applications – from computer-assisted drug screening to the automatic production of biosensors for rapid, mobile, purse-size bacterial test devices. Trends such as automation and miniaturisation lead to ever smaller and more independent devices. Will machines soon replace humans?
Synthetic biology focuses on the development of biological systems with new defined characteristics assembled according to the principles of engineering. Synthetic biology has the potential to be used for a broad range of applications and has solutions in store for major problems of the future. It also fuels fears that human beings are playing the role of creators and going beyond natural boundaries.
Empa Testmaterials AG focuses on the research and development of test systems and materials that enable biofilm to be successfully removed from washing machines as well as controlling the level of hygiene of individual wash cycles. As a competence centre in washing and cleaning the company specialises in the assessment of washing and cleaning processes in terms of effectiveness energy efficiency damage and hygiene.
Microorganisms and sensitive cells that are grown in bioreactors need a well-regulated environment and a food supply in order to do what they are supposed to do: grow and produce biomass and metabolites. Many fermenters are equipped with sensors that continuously measure critical bioprocess parameters, including temperature, pH value and oxygen. Online glucose and ethanol sensors are not yet used in regulated bioreactors, even though they would make the bioprocess much quicker and more economical.
Fireflies use light to attract mates and hunt prey the zebrafish in Dr. Thomas Dickmeis laboratory mainly glow in situations of stress. The biologist from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology KIT and two of his doctoral students have created a zebrafish line that can be used as a high-throughput test system for glucocorticoid hormones. Pharmaceutical companies might in future be able to use living vertebrate models i.e. zebrafish to test new drugs that reduce inflammation and are associated with fewer adverse effects on the organism. The test system would also help scientists to better analyse the effects of certain environmental toxins.