Application of Microbial Biosensors to Complement Geochemical Characterisation: a Case Study in Northern China

Bo Zhang*, Min Qiao, Yunxia Liu, Yuanming Zheng, Yongguan Zhu, Graeme I. Paton

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


There are significant concerns about the impact of heavy metal contamination in soils as a consequence of urbanisation and industrialisation in developing countries. Routine chemical analysis of soils is used to measure the total concentration of metals from point source or diffuse activities, but this fails to put in context the bioavailability of the analyte or the potential toxicity of multiple contaminants. Bacterial biosensors provide a useful tool for assessing the toxicity of the bioavailable fraction of heavy metals in soils and for complementing chemical analysis. There are few examples of genuine environmental applications of biosensors for pollutant diagnosis. This study applied constitutively marked biosensors (which were comprehensively characterised) to soils collected from across Northern China (60,000 km 2). The biosensors were responsive to soils impacted by As, Cd, Cr, Cu, Hg, Pb, and Zn when compared to 'uncontaminated controls'. The response of the biosensor correlated with individual (or groups of) metals related to their concentration and source. The geo-accumulation index (I geo) assisted in explaining the biosensor response. The constitutively marked biosensors offered a focussed understanding of analyte bioavailability and placed in a relevant context the elemental analysis. When matrix-matched control samples can be collected, then such a biosensor procedure (as adopted here) is applicable to contrasting soils exposed to a wide range of contaminants. Biosensor applications complemented routine soil chemical analysis for this regional-scale study.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1409
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalWater, Air and Soil Pollution
Issue number2
Early online date8 Jan 2013
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2013

Bibliographical note

This work was funded by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (KZCX2-YW-Q02-06) and the Ministry of Science and Technology, China (2007CB407301).


  • Bacterial biosensors
  • Bioavailability
  • Heavy metal contamination
  • Soil


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