Students create low-cost biosensor to detect contaminated water in developing nations

September 5, 2012

Diarrheal disease is the second-leading cause of death in children under five years old – killing as many as 1.5 million children worldwide every year. These startling statistics from the World Health Organization (2009) point to the reason why a group of undergraduate students from Arizona State University is working to develop a low-cost biosensor – a simple device that would detect contaminated drinking water.

An interdisciplinary team of nine students is participating in the 2012 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition – a prestigious global event that challenges students to design and build simple biological systems made from standard, interchangeable parts. ASU iGEM team Download Full Image

The ASU team started its research during the summer to prepare for the synthetic biology competition. Its goal is to create a user-friendly, DNA-based biosensor that can detect major pathogens. The low-cost device would be used in the field rather than in a laboratory.

“We are developing a biosensor that will detect pathogenic bacteria, such as Shigella, Salmonella and E. coli, that cause diarrhea,” said Ryan Muller, an undergraduate student in ASU’s School of Life Sciences and an iGEM team leader. “Ideally, you would use our biosensor to check different water supplies in third world-countries to determine whether the water is safe to drink.”

The team is working on two biosensor designs.

“The first one targets DNA,” explained Nisarg Patel, a molecular biosciences and biotechnology major in School of Life Sciences, as well as a political science major. “Since each type of pathogen has different DNA, we want to create complementary sequences – sequences that match a specific DNA. We will take bacterial samples from the water, pull out the DNA and check whether it complements our DNA probe. If it does, it will produce a color response and then we’ll know that the water is contaminated.”

Made for portability, Patel said the second design tests the membranes of bacteria. When using the device to test water, if certain proteins attach to a bacterial membrane, the sample will turn blue – indicating the water is contaminated with a pathogen and would not be safe to drink.

"The advantage of this design over previous designs in the field lies in the cheap production of probes and the enzymatic chain reaction,” said Abhinav Markus, a biomedical engineering student in ASU's Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “Samples can be tested in the field with minimal cost and high sensitivity.”

When the ASU iGEM team first met this summer, Madeline Sands, an anthropology major in the university’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, pitched the idea to build a low-cost biosensor. Sands previously traveled to Guatemala as part of an ASU field experience. There, she conducted community health research under the direction of Jonathan Maupin, a medical anthropologist. Sands realized that contaminated water presents a serious health problem for developing countries.

“With constant earthquakes, landslides and rains in Guatemala, it can often be difficult to determine if a water source is contaminated,” said Sands. “My time there made it clear that having a way to detect contaminated water could lead to a further reduction in the incidence and morbidity of diarrhea.”

In October, the team will present its device during the iGEM regional competition at Stanford University. If successful, they will move on to the global competition in November at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Other ASU iGEM team members include: Rohit Rajan, Ethan Ward, Hyder Hussain, Amanda Ispas and Ellen Qin. Kylie Standage-Beier, a biological sciences major and previous iGEM team member, serves as an advisor.

Arizona State University iGEM team sponsors include School of Life Sciences; Barrett, The Honors College; Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering; School of Biological and Health Systems Engineering; College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; School of Politics and Global Studies; and Departments of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Rebecca Howe, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, served as a contributing editor on this article.

Sandra Leander

Assistant Director of Media Relations, ASU Knowledge Enterprise


ASU announces Pueblo Indian doctoral project

September 5, 2012

ASU’s School of Social Transformation announced today it is launching a Pueblo Indian doctoral training project as part of its graduate programs in Justice and Social Inquiry.

Conducted in partnership with The Leadership Institute at the Santa Fe Indian School, the program will build local capacity within the 19 New Mexico Pueblos by facilitating the training of practitioner-researcher-scholars committed to developing Pueblo peoples and communities in the U.S. Southwest and beyond. Bryan Brayboy and Elizabeth Sumida Huaman Download Full Image

Two cohorts of Pueblo doctoral students will participate in the intensive three-year degree program, with one group of 10 beginning in 2012 and another in 2015.

The Pueblo Indian doctoral training project will be led by School of Social Transformation faculty members Elizabeth Sumida Huaman, assistant professor of Indigenous education and a senior researcher with The Leadership Institute, and Bryan McKinley Jones Brayboy, Borderlands Associate Professor of Indigenous Education and co-director of the Center for Indian Education

In close collaboration with Mary Margaret Fonow, director of the School of Social Transformation, and Mary Romero, professor and faculty head of Justice and Social Inquiry, professors Sumida Huaman and Brayboy have co-designed a doctoral training program within the Justice and Social Inquiry curriculum that highlights The Leadership Institute’s work on the issues of Pueblo governance, the environment, land and cultural resource protection, health, language, education, art, economic and community development, family, and Indigenous law and jurisprudence.

The program will be delivered through a mixture of video-conferencing, online and in-person courses. Also included are community visits, training in critical Indigenous research methodology and fieldwork, and training in writing for publication. Upon completion of studies, the cohort as a collective will produce a formidable alliance around the most critical issues facing Pueblo peoples, with both local and global application for other Indigenous communities.

“This project gives the School of Social Transformation an opportunity to rethink the way we construct and carry out doctoral education with Indigenous peoples,” observed Bryan Brayboy. “At its core, we’ve developed a program that is rooted in assisting Pueblo communities in building their local capacity to address the pressing problems in front of them.

"Dr. Sumida Huaman and I agree that projects like this are firmly embedded in ASU’s mission and our responsibility to serving others. We feel both honored and humbled by the opportunity to work with these communities and with The Leadership Institute.”

"The training of Pueblo doctoral students is a critical part of the strategic planning at The Leadership Institute, the Santa Fe Indian School, and in Pueblo communities,” said Carnell Chosa, co-director of the institute, whose award-winning multi-layered vision of community development includes doctoral education for Pueblos.

“That Drs. Sumida Huaman and Brayboy were also considering doctoral education with Indigenous peoples made for a beautiful fit at the right time,” Chosa said. “We highly regard their personal experiences, academic expertise, and most importantly the respect and humility they have shown in supporting the Institute in building a program aligned with our vision of capacity-building. As The Leadership Institute is engaged in program development and research to serve Pueblo children and communities, we are tremendously excited about this partnership with the School of Social Transformation, where there are outstanding faculty working under a vital mission to engage in social change. These are the reasons we are very pleased to partner with ASU."

Regis Pecos, former governor of the Pueblo of Cochiti and co-director of The Leadership Institute, added: "We are looking forward to have ASU collaborate with the Institute in our efforts to have more Pueblo peoples earning PhDs. It is a natural and mutually beneficial partnership."

The project, said Professor Sumida Hauman, is special for its intense emphasis on respecting and building on Indigenous knowledge. “There is very strong Indigenous knowledge still present in each Pueblo,” she noted, “that is on par with and even supersedes Western knowledge. I think that's why our project is so unique – this project values the knowledge in the Pueblos while offering additional opportunities and access in formal education.”

In addition to support from ASU’s School of Social Transformation in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the doctoral program will be carried out with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Santa Fe Community Foundation, Chamiza Foundation, and the McCune Foundation.

To learn more about The Leadership Institute at the Santa Fe Indian School, visit  For more information about ASU’s School of Social Transformation, visit

Maureen Roen

Director, Creative Services, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts