Organisms naturally monitor their environment and react accordingly. This innate ability to detect and sense has long been tapped by humans, such as the bygone use of canaries to detect poisonous gases in coal mines. With the advent of molecular biology techniques, it became possible to harness nature’s toolbox to develop synthetic monitoring systems known as biosensors. Biosensors are analytical devices encompassing a biological sensing element coupled to a physicochemcial transducer for the detection of target compounds. Conferring exquisite specificity and sensitivity, the biological entity includes enzymes, antibodies, receptor proteins, DNAs and even living cells.

Biosensors find application in medicine, process control, food and environmental monitoring, of which the estimated US$15 billion global market is driven largely by medical diagnostics, a result of an ever-increasing need for reliable diagnostic tools for the rise in chronic and infectious diseases. Emerging concerns on food safety and environmental contamination and the elevated threat of bioterrorism has also spurred the design of biosensors for the detection of a growing array of targets such as pesticides, heavy metals, organic pollutants, pathogens and toxins.

The building blocks to biosensors can be taken directly from natural systems, engineered from naturally occurring elements, or constructed entirely in vitro, aided by the rapidly advancing field of synthetic biology. Synthetic biology provides a rational framework for the modular design and reprogramming of genetic regulatory circuits into biosensors, opening the possibility of creating more sophisticated constructs for the development of multifarious affinity biosensors for complex diseases such as cancer. Armed with promising new tools in synthetic biology and improved materials from nanotechnology, our research group is working towards developing novel cell-based and cell-free biosensors built on both microbial and mammalian systems.

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