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Biosensors for better water quality control: A Canadian synthetic biology story

Updated: Jul 26, 2019



Biological systems can be engineered into detection tools for sensing specific components in a solution. These so-called biosensors can be developed for a wide breadth of applications, ranging from medical to environmental purposes. To learn more about cutting-edge biosensor systems, we spoke with Emily Hicks, president and co-founder of the Canadian biotech FREDsense Technologies in Calgary, AB. Founded in 2014, FREDsense develops biosensors for a variety of contaminants, including arsenic, iron and lead, providing a quick and easy-to-use method to assess water chemistry in the field.



FREDsense Technologies is a Canadian biotech developing biosensors for fast and convenient control of water quality.

Source: FREDsense Technologies


“We define biosensors as any type of sensor that uses a biological input”, Emily explains. Biological systems, such as whole cell bacteria, enzymes, peptides and even DNA, can be engineered to detect specific compounds and generate a response through a biological mechanism. The strength of the response is then used to determine how much of that compound is present in a particular solution. Among the best-known biosensor examples are those developed to detect glucose levels in blood. This is critical for people living with diabetes who need to frequently monitor their blood glucose levels. FREDsense, on the other hand, targets a different application for biosensors that is yet little explored. “At FREDsense, we are really focused on creating biosensors for environmental applications to detect different contaminants in water”, Emily highlights. In fact, only a couple of companies in this space are developing environmentally-focused biosensors This puts FREDsense Technologies among the forefront innovators in the field, especially in the water quality industry.


The idea behind FREDsense was born back in 2012 out of a project created for the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition – iGEM. At the time, Emily and the team at the University of Calgary were aiming to develop a system to detect and quantify toxic compounds found in oil sands tailings ponds in Alberta. These ponds are used to collect tailings, which are byproducts from the exploration of oil sands. “We started by developing biosensors for measuring a group of acids called naphthenic acids, which are very prevalent in tailings ponds and are really recalcitrant and toxic”, Emily describes. The successful performance at iGEM motivated Emily and the team to commercialize the technology. Soon after, they quickly realized that their biosensor technology had much broader applications. “Generally [speaking], getting water chemistry information such as how much arsenic, lead, cyanide or mercury is in a water sample is quite difficult and most industries still use the analytical lab”, Emily adds. “We realized that there was this big opportunity to use biosensors and be able to engineer different bacteria to detect these compounds, and allow people to start getting data in the field in a much easier to use way”.



“At FREDsense, we are really focused on creating biosensors for environmental applications to detect different contaminants in water” - Emily Hicks, president and co-founder of FREDsense.

Source: FREDsense Technologies


FRED stands for Field-Ready Electrochemical Detector. This biosensor uses live engineered bacteria to have different reporter genes associated with the bacterial sensory elements. When the bacteria interact with a compound they are engineered to detect, they produce a protein that acts on that solution, generating an electrochemical response. According to Emily, this is one of the main advantages of the FREDsense technology. “We are using electrochemistry because we found it’s easier to enable it [electrochemistry] in the field and we can work on all different types of water. It doesn’t have to be clear – the water can have sediment in it, it can have colour (…) because the electrochemical input is very robust.” Another advantage of the FREDsense system is the quick response times “With most of our sensors, we are able to see response times in less than 1 hour”, Emily explains.


Developing an efficient biosensor system goes beyond engineering the biological components that act as sensors. In addition to bacteria, the biosensor required robust hardware that can detect and analyze a biosensor response. “We had to engineer a cartridge system that allowed [us] to have the water sample, the bacteria, the sample, all come together inside a small chamber”, Emily details. Integrating all different components into a “one-pot reaction” and ensuring straightforward use in the field were also crucial in the development of the FREDsense technology. “The premise of FREDsense is to make devices that are easy for people to use. We found that [what] people had never really done was [to engineer] how to put that technology in the field. The integration and figuring out how [to] field-enable a biosensor that uses living bacteria was definitely the hardest part”, she describes. This means that ensuring the biosensor performed just as well in field conditions as it did in the laboratory was also an important part of developing the FREDsense system. To achieve this goal, the FREDsense team overcame several technological challenges. On top of developing the assay methodology, Emily and the team had to engineer a device that provided ideal conditions to preserve the bacteria and allow biosensor response, all in a single kit. “We had to develop a way to preserve the bacteria over a period of time: where they are alive but not growing so we could store them to be able to use in the kit.”


In addition to a quick response and field-ready technology, the FREDsense biosensors have other advantages – one the them being the use of bacteria to detect compounds in water. “By using the bacteria, we were able to make the test fairly simpler because the bacteria do most of the work and we were able to get very good accuracy. One of the exciting things is we are able to develop new strains of bacteria to detect different compounds”, Emily highlights. She also emphasizes that the technology is easy to use, making the FREDsense biosensor user-friendly even for people with no previous experience. “We have a software program that gives you the concentration so there is no analysis you need to do in the field, whereas some chemical kits involve quite a bit of analysis (…) We tried to automate [most of] the steps to make it easier for people to operate it correctly.”


“The premise of FREDsense is to make devices that are easy for people to use" - Emily Hicks, president and co-founder of FREDsense.

Photo courtesy of Emily Hicks


FREDsense has recently launched FRED-Arsenic, a biosensor system to detect concentrations of arsenic in water. High levels of this compound are a serious concern for human health and may contribute to cancer and cardiovascular diseases. “Right now, we are working with a lot of utilities [companies] and enabling them to measure arsenic in almost real time”, Emily indicates. “They are able to adjust their process, reduce risk for their community, save money by being able to do measurements faster, avoiding to send samples to a lab, and being able to do any adjustments to the process right away”. Emily also emphasizes that the goal is to make the technology more broadly available. “In the future, we are hoping to make water quality data more accessible, even if you are a homeowner.” And the potential applications forthe FREDsense technology are virtually endless. Emily points out it would be interesting to examine whether this technology can be modified to detect compounds in oils, juices and even soil.


FREDsense has received numerous awards throughout the years and is currently a recipient of the Build in Canada Innovation Program of the Government of Canada. For more information about FREDsense and their biosensor technology, check out their website at https://www.fredsense.com/ .



About the author:

Eduardo Gutierrez is an evolutionary biologist with a passion for research and science writing. He believes good communication can make science accessible and interesting for everyone. With a background in molecular biology and evolution, he also likes to keep up with the latest developments in biotechnology and health sciences.

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