Engineered protein biosensors to detect forever chemicals in food, crops, soil and water

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About This Project

‘Forever chemicals’ (i.e., PFAS) are omnipresent in our lives, where they accumulate in water, soil, crops, animals and us, and are considered toxic at any detectable level by the EPA. We have developed low-cost fluorescent biosensors to detect PFAS in cells, and will adapt this technology to direct detection in liquid and solid samples. The outcome of this project will provide a key tool to help protect people and the planet from PFAS.

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What is the context of this research?

The EPA has determined any detectable level of ‘forever chemicals’ (otherwise known as poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS) are hazardous to human health, yet there is a lack of accessible and inexpensive testing for consumers. PFAS is common in agricultural inputs; nearly 70% of chemical pesticides contain fluorinated compounds and biosolids containing PFAS are routinely used. A warming planet will contribute to further spread of PFAS through subsurface water, as these compounds become more mobile, ultimately contaminating drinking water as well as urban/residential soils. The EPA, GAO and others have identified new detection methods as critical in controlling the spread and exposure of PFAS, as well as for modeling their transport and environmental fate.

What is the significance of this project?

People currently do not have access to rapid, cost-effective and reliable testing for PFAS. Current analytical testing labs use LC/MS-MS, which is highly accurate, but expensive (>$200 per sample), slow (>5 days), limited to drinking water and not widely available. The Mi’kmaq Tribal Nation (Aroostook County, ME) contacted us to help them test their water, soil and crops located on land from a EPA superfunds site (Loring AFB). We quickly realized that this is a widespread problem, and our initial publications describing our engineered protein biosensor attracted additional interest from USDA and department of environmental protection from multiple states affected. Thus, government, farmers and consumers are all looking for a rapid, accurate and cost-effective method to detect PFAS.

What are the goals of the project?

The major criteria for success of this project are (1) developing a cell-based biosensor for soil, food and water samples, (2) engineering biosensors to detect major PFAS compounds PFOA, PFOS and PFHxS found frequently in the environment at 0.01-1 parts per billon (ppb) levels and (3) automate detection using flow cytometry to reduce time and cost relative to current LC/MS-MS detection methods. The most important goal of this work is to make a biosensor that is cost-effective and easily accessible to all, as PFAS is ubiquitous throughout the environment, linked to climate change and poses major health and environmental risks. Rapid, robust and reliable testing is essential to managing PFAS transport and environmental fate.


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This budget total includes funds to support a research scientist, reagents, travel and 3rd party testing.

Project Timeline

We plan to start as soon as funds are available; Dr. Mann is in the lab at the moment analyzing field samples from Maine we can use for this project. The main outcomes of this proposal are (1) to improve biosensor limit of detection to < 1 ppb for PFOA, (2) engineer detection of PFOS at < 1 ppb, (3) maximize detection in cell-based biosensors grown on solid and in liquid samples to < 1 ppb.

Nov 01, 2023

Begin project

Apr 30, 2024

Improve biosensor detection for PFOA and PFOS to < 1 ppb

Aug 31, 2024

Validate soil and liquid field samples using LC/MS-MS and benchmark PFOA/PFOS detection with cell biosensor

Meet the Team

Bryan Berger
Bryan Berger


University of Virginia
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Bryan Berger

Bryan is passionate about using biotechnology to solve challenges in sustainability, biomanufacturing and agriculture. His academic lab is an eclectic, spirited and fun-loving mix of humanities, life science and engineering students working together as a team to take on these and other grand environmental challenges in collaboration with USDA, industrial and other academic partners. Bryan also founded Lytos Technologies in 2018 to commercialize protein biopesticides to replace chemical pesticides; he and his team are committed to removing dangerous chemicals like PFAS used in pesticide formulations, reducing environmental damage due to pesticide overuse, and making products that are safe for people, pollinators and the planet. With a rapidly growing population and a changing climate, it is even more critical that we use biotechnology to develop sustainable solution if we are to survive and flourish as a society.

This proposal is a direct outgrowth of Bryan's academic and commercial work. Farmers in Maine and elsewhere in the world are suffering due to contamination of their land with PFAS, making them unable to sell their products and ultimately lose their livelihoods through no fault of their own.

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