The News Gazette
November 5, 2000

UI Researchers Turn DNA into Lead Detector

Published Online November 5, 2000
Copyright 2000 The News-Gazette


Too much lead in the body can lead to brain damage potentially severe enough to cause mental retardation in children, whose neurological systems are developing and hence more vulnerable.
The health risk has made detecting lead in our environment a national concern.
 And University of Illinois researchers have developed what could prove to be a simple, fast, inexpensive method of on-site lead detection, using a DNA-based sensor designed to glow like a microscopic lightning bug in the presence of even tiny amounts of the metal.
   The process also could be modified to sense other toxic metals, such as mercury. That metal became a particular concern in Illinois this year when Nicor Inc. began investigating mercury contamination in dozens of homes in the Chicago area, caused by the company's old gas regulators.
   In their lab work, published in the Oct. 25 issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, UI chemistry Professor Yi Lu and graduate student Jing Li were able to detect lead at levels about 50 times below the amount considered dangerous.
   "This DNA is very selective for lead," Lu said.
   "The process of finding it (evidence of lead) costs a lot less, the time and the effort," he added.
   Eventually, Lu hopes to see portable lead detection devices employed using the process, which is being patented. He's already working with researchers in the UI College of Engineering on hardware designs.
   Lu said such a device could be feasible in as little as five to 10 years.
   Others, such as Anthony Czarnik, a bio-sensing specialist and editor of the Journal of Combinatorial Chemistry, also see the research leading to a marketable device.
   "I think this work could serve as the basis for real-world (lead) sensors," Czarnik said in the most recent issue of Chemical & Engineering News.
   The basic problem with overexposure to lead is the neurological damage it causes, especially in young children. Even when it's not severe enough to lead to retardation, it can contribute to hyperactivity, learning disabilities and hearing problems, said Ron Brown, acting chief of the state Health Department's Division of Health Assessment Screening.
   People who are "lead compromised" also may suffer headaches, bone pain and organ damage, said Garry Bird of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District, who has two decades of lead investigation experience.
   Bird and Brown said the most common source of lead exposure remains lead-based paint in older buildings.
   Soil and water contaminated around heavily trafficked areas by past burning of lead-containing gasoline in automobiles also can be a problem.
   "When it burned off as an emission, it fell to the ground," Brown said. "It doesn't break down."
   Some manufacturing processes, batteries and munitions are other common sources of lead contamination.
   The standard method of detecting lead now is sampling, say, paint or soil at a site and testing the samples in a lab with mass spectrometry, essentially burning them to measure the tell-tale signs of burning lead. That's both expensive and time consuming.
   Bird said there are some existing on-site testing methods, but they either don't provide an accurate reading of the lead level or cost too much, particularly for local health departments.
   Lu's method uses DNA, the genetic material that carries the codes, or sequences, that make us blue-eyed, red-haired, lanky and the like.
   In this case, the DNA was manufactured rather than naturally occurring, and culled by Lu and Li from a huge pool of different DNA types for its reactivity to lead.
   Basically, tiny lead particles, called ions, strike and cleave a strand of the DNA when the metal is present.
   In its normal state, the DNA is fluorescent, Lu said. The method he and Li developed attaches the DNA strand to a "quencher" that prevents the glowing.
   When the lead ions cleave the reactive DNA, it separates from the quencher and lights up, which gives off a signal. The more lead present, the greater the signal's strength.
   Lu is now searching for types of DNA that react similarly to other metals, such as mercury.
   In the future, he envisions a chip with several different types of DNA attached that can detect different kinds of metals. The idea isn't unheard of, Lu said. The nose works largely on the same principles in detecting a variety of smells.
   "We have to come up with all the DNAs," he said. "I think it has a lot of promise."