Improved Biosensors for Soils

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Jonathan J Silberg, Caroline A Masiello and Hsiao-Ying Cheng, Rice University, Houston, TX, United States
Microbes drive processes in the Earth system far exceeding their physical scale, affecting crop yields, water quality, the mobilization of toxic materials, and fundamental aspects of soil biogeochemistry. The tools of synthetic biology have the potential to significantly improve our understanding of microbial Earth system processes: for example, synthetic microbes can be be programmed to report on environmental conditions that stimulate greenhouse gas production, metal oxidation, biofilm formation, pollutant degradation, and microbe-plant symbioses. However, these tools are only rarely deployed in the lab. This research gap arises because synthetically programmed microbes typically report on their environment by producing molecules that are detected optically (e.g., fluorescent proteins). Fluorescent reporters are ideal for petri-dish applications and have fundamentally changed how we study human health, but their usefulness is quite limited in soils where detecting fluorescence is challenging.

Here we describe the construction of gas-reporting biosensors, which release nonpolar gases that can be detected in the headspace of incubation experiments. These constructs can be used to probe microbial processes within soils in real-time noninvasive lab experiments. These biosensors can be combined with traditional omics-based approaches to reveal processes controlling soil microbial behavior and lead to improved environmental management decisions.