Team:Aalto-Helsinki/Human Practices

Aalto-Helsinki 2020



SINISENS: Main Issue and Our Values

As many Finnish social, economical and cultural values are deeply connected to the Baltic Sea, our thinking quickly turned towards protecting water resources. In recent years there have been growing concerns about micropollutants, due to the fact they are very persistent and biologically active. They include industrial chemicals, pesticides and pharmaceuticals. The latter are thought to be particularly harmful since they are designed to affect organisms at low doses [1]. Sources of pharmaceuticals include effluent water from wastewater treatment plants, human and animal excreta, industrial, medical or veterinary waste, as well as landfill leachate (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. Selected sources of pharmaceuticals in natural waters [2; modified].

Even though there is no evidence that such low amounts of pharmaceuticals in drinking water may be a threat to human health [2], these compounds may have a negative impact on the environment [1]. For that reason, the EU ‘watch list’ of pharmaceuticals for EU-wide monitoring in aquatic environments was created. It includes substances that are thought to be high-risk and high priority to monitor and to establish reliable methods of their degradation [3]. These substances are present in rather low concentrations, which makes their monitoring challenging. In addition to that, after reaching out to experts working in the wastewater treatment industry, we have realised that the detection is not the only issue: removal of pharmaceuticals is very resource-consuming. It requires the use of ozone and activated carbon, which are associated with a high carbon footprint and energy-consumption. We came to the realization that the biosensor may have a better implementation. It could be used to optimize the removal process of pharmaceuticals and thus, limit the energy and chemicals needed. One of the substances present on the EU ‘watch list’ since 2015 are macrolide antibiotics [4]. In addition to issues mentioned above, their presence in the environment carries another risk: development of antibiotic resistance by microorganisms that interact with it. In fact, antimicrobial resistance was listed by WHO [5], as one of top 10 current health concerns.

Why Macrolides?

Macrolide antibiotics include, among others, erythromycin and semi-natural azithromycin and clarithromycin, which are compounds characterized by a macrocyclic lactone ring (Fig. 2). They are said to have antibacterial, antifungal and anticancer qualities [6].

Figure 2. Chemical structure of selected macrolide antibiotics.

Macrolides are considered broad-spectrum antibiotics; they are capable of inhibiting gram-positive and selected gram-negative bacteria. They are usually prescribed for various human infections, such as pneumonia [7]. Due to their common use in hospitals and veterinary, especially in animals such as poultry and cattle [7], there is a growing resistance towards them [8]. Macrolides are often detected in effluent wastewaters and drinking water. The sources of this contamination mostly come from their use in healthcare and agriculture. The biggest part comes from faeces and using manure as fertilizer, however a portion of macrolides in water can be contributed to their improper disposal. Another significant source [2, 9] of macrolides includes hospitals and facilities producing pharmaceuticals. Since a lot of drug production takes place in developing countries the concentrations of macrolides may be higher there. However, it can’t be fully known since macrolide concentration in wastewater is not monitored [9].

Macrolides have been recognized as hazardous substances not only in the EU [4, 10], but also in the US, where they are included in Contaminant Candidate list 3 [11] and in China, which has given them a high priority based on their presence in water [12]. They are the second most widely used group of antimicrobials in EU past beta-lactams and penicillins [13].


An important part of Integrated Human Practices is ensuring our projects tackle actual local or worldwide problems. Inspired by iGEM & The Sustainable Development Goals seminar, we decided to evaluate if and how our project addresses the goals for 2030.

SINISENS would help to monitor macrolide antibiotics pollution in aid the improvement of their removal process. This aspect aligns with ③ Good Health And Well-Being, which aims to reduce the number of illnesses and deaths arising from pollution of soil, air and water. In addition to that, prevention of antimicrobial resistance is crucial to reduce the number of deaths from infectious diseases. A macrolide biosensor could also help with goals ⑥ Clean Water And Sanitation, ⑭ Life Below Water and ⑮ Life On Land, by improving the quality of water. Optimizing the removal process would ultimately help reduce the amount of pharmaceuticals released from wastewater treatment plants, which will end up in sea, fresh water and land. It is also worth noting that the removal process of micropollutants is quite energy-consuming. SINISENS would help to optimize this treatment by allowing easy and cost-efficient measurements of macrolide concentrations, which could help conserve energy, thus addressing the goal ⑫ Responsible consumption and production.


To further discuss potential negative social and environmental impact of our biosensor, we hosted an ethics workshops for Nordic iGEMs, all of which had a biosensor development as the end goal. The main discussed topics were the life cycle of the biosensor in the terms of sustainable production and proper disposal, risks of GMO, guidelines for the potential end users and interactions of the projects with the society.

Life Cycle of the Biosensor

Even though our biosensor aims to optimize highly energy consuming pharma removal processes and in that sense improve the environmental friendliness of the wastewater treatment, we have to ensure that the production of the biosensor itself is sustainable. The strip material should be carefully selected, nitrate cellulose as a one option, as it can be re-used for manufacturing of new strips. In addition, the one-time use biosensor strips could be sent back to the producer, where they could be properly sterilized. The other important factor to consider is the management of the wastewater sample that might have been contaminated by the modified organism. Here, minimizing the sample size is the key in terms for example of the energy required for the waste management.

Risks of GMO

Implementing the biosensor into the wastewater stream might cause possible leakage to the environment. For that reason, developing a separate system where the sample water is collected, for example as a 24-hour representative sample, is crucial. When considering the risks of GMOs, education plays an important role since lack of understanding might lead to negative reactions, prevent further research and use of GMO products.

Guidelines for the End User

In terms of safety, the prevention of physical contact is important to keep in mind already in the sensor design. The system could also be automated in the part of the process that poses most of the risk, for example periodically getting the strips in and removing them. In the sensing element itself, it would be possible to build a kill switch-system so that the microorganism survives only in the controlled environment. In addition to mentioned points, training of the maintenance staff is important especially during malfunctions in order to be aware of the risks.

Interaction with the Society

Environmental applications seem to be more acceptable than human or food-related applications. Moreover, GMOs used in the pharmaceutical or chemical industry usually are not met with strong resistance from the public. Usually, the most questioned aspect in the discussion of GMO is the safety. Open discussion should highlight the benefits of GMO and why, in some cases, they may be necessary for sustainable development. Moreover, the discourse should stay clear on possibilities, reality now, and risks that there might be. Overstating what science is able to do might lead to not meeting set goals and losing credibility.

To conclude, throughout our project we kept in mind the values we set in the beginning of the project.

  • Environmental: During the ideation it became clear that all our team members are concerned about current environmental issues. We settled on protecting water resources.
  • Social: In recent years, the concern of pharmaceuticals in water resources has risen as a global problem. Natural waters are used for recreational purposes and are economically valuable, which is why we need to step up with their protection.
  • Moral: We have wanted to be responsible and consider our project's consequences from many aspects, such as ethics. We have had the courage to think "outside the box", but on the other hand, we also wanted to do a project that has a real-world need. Here we have been assisted by several experts.
  • Scientific: Our project is not limited to one discipline; we wanted to combine many. We have ensured good scientific practice and honesty. Protecting the ecological status of Baltic Sea requires collaboration and open science between the Baltic Rim countries.


In order to ensure that our project is relevant and has a potential use in the real world, we contacted various experts from academia, industry, environmental organizations and legislation.

“The wastewater treatment plants play a key role in keeping our waters clean. As part of our national identity, surrounding natural waters have a strong social value, not only by supporting the livelihoods of many people, but also by creating a place of memories and adventures. Therefore, we settled on protecting water resources.”
— Aalto-Helsinki 2020 team

“Pharmaceuticals in wastewater currently pose a challenge due to their potential risks already in low concentrations, unclear regulations regarding their monitoring and removal requirements, and lack of cost-effective detection methods.”
— Anna Mikola, Aalto University

“Utilization of biosensors in environmental monitoring is a “topical topic”. Macrolide antibiotics are most likely an important group of pharmaceuticals, since they were selected to the EU ‘watch list’.”
— Matti Leppänen, Finnish Environment Institute

“The additional purification step, ozonation, is highly energy consuming and the production of activated carbon has high environmental footprint. Implementation of a biosensor before and after the purification step could be used for the optimization of the process.”
— Paula Lindell, Viikinmäki wastewater treatment plant, HSY

“If regulations come that require the removal of pharmaceuticals, a device will be needed to measure whether this removal process succeeds. In that sense, your innovation would be useful.”
— Ari Kangas*, Ministry of Environment, Finland

Below you can read the detailed storyline of SINISENS, which was refined by our interaction with stakeholders and the community. In the storyline, we use colours to describe the different phases of the project and to highlight our conclusions and the actions we have done after specific steps. In the future section, we summarize the compromises and possibilities for future development of our innovation.


In order to get to know each other better and draw a very rough outline of what we envision our project to be, each of us picked the Standard Track Awards which we are the most interested in. We chose the tracks based on our study fields and personal interests. The common categories included: diagnostics, environment, food & nutrition and therapeutics.


We had a couple meetings where each person prepared presentations about previous iGEM projects and explained why they caught their attention. Later we analyzed which aspects of them could be implemented in our project.


We divided ourselves into three groups and tried to come up with as many ideas as possible, no matter how outlandish they felt. Then we rotated to see what the other teams came up with. At the end we discussed all of the ideas we liked and wanted to research further.


From all discussed ideas, we selected six potential topics that should be explored further. Each team member had an opportunity to vote on the topics they believed to be most promising. After presenting the research we had done, we voted on the topics so that each team member could rank the potential project ideas from one to six, one being the most and six the least favorite. The criteria we chose included practicality, usefulness, do-ability, and enjoyment. We decided to pick three out of these project directions to read more in-depth about.


After exploring chosen topics, we ruled out designing a quick diagnostics device for tick borne diseases, as they are already available on the market and did not seem to require a significant improvement.

When it comes to the two remaining ideas, we found out that there is a strong connection between the microplastics and wastewater related topics, since a primary source of microplastics in soil comes from wastewater. Therefore, we decided to focus more deeply on wastewater treatment. The WWTPs (wastewater treatment plants) play a key role in keeping our waters clean. These facilities prevent most of the pollution from entering the sea. However, certain types of contamination, known as micropollutants, are currently hard to detect and completely remove from wastewater.


It was important to us that this project reflects our values. During the ideation it became clear that all our team members are concerned about current environmental issues. As Finland is known as a land of thousands of lakes and is situated by the vulnerable Baltic Sea, we settled on protecting water resources. The Baltic Sea compiles different environmental, social, moral and scientific values. Protecting its ecological status requires collaboration and open science between the Baltic Rim countries. In addition, as part of our national identity, surrounding natural waters have a strong social value, not only by supporting the livelihoods of many people, but also by creating a place of memories and adventures. It was shown best on the Baltic Sea Day, launched by the John Nurminen Foundation, where our team, along with hundreds other people, shared our “Sea of Memories”.


According to Europeans, the main three concerns relating to water issues in their countries are chemical pollution (84% of participants), climate change (55%) and changes to the water ecosystem (49%). Chemical pollution has been increasingly considered as a threat since 2009. It became clear that the general public has identified it as an important problem.

After deciding on a general topic on wastewater treatment, all our team started to research various environmental problems involving waters in Finland, the Baltic Sea region and the European Union in general.


Next: Find the route in the sea of possibilities.


We came up with three possible directions to consider: removal of compounds, their recycling or detection. We needed to decide which one was the most feasible. Based on the research we conducted, our focus was mostly divided between microplastics, PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) and pharmaceuticals, but we were also playing with the idea of a system for pathogen detection. To get some insight from the field, we decided to contact and discuss with experts.


Benjamin Wilson, Staff Scientist in Department of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering, Aalto University

Degradation of PET, one of the most common microplastics in soil, could be promising with enzymes called cutinases, for example from Thermobifida or Ideonella sakaiensis. However, degradation of microplastics in soil can be time consuming and three months of lab work may not be enough to get meaningful results. An additional challenge can be the analysis of microplastics from soil samples, which is lacking standardized methods.

Microplastics seemed to be a hot-topic, but determining the amount of them in the water was a major issue, since they are particles of very different sizes. We were also considering whether the project concerned microplastics degradation was manageable, given limited time frame.


There are concerns about micropollutants and how they end up in the environment via WWTPs. Microplastics may accumulate in the soil if treated sludge is land applied and many pharmaceuticals and PFAs are hard to remove from the effluent water. Pharmaceuticals in wastewater currently pose a challenge due to their potential risks already in low concentrations, unclear regulations regarding their monitoring and removal requirements and lack of cost-effective detection methods. Their metabolites need to be taken into account because they transform in the wastewater treatment process. From the environmental point of view, it is challenging to find effective and sustainable methods for micropollutant removal.

When it comes to uptake or degradation of micropollutants, it does not seem plausible for our project. The development of a quick, cost-effective and reliable detection method for pharmaceuticals could be meaningful to counter the presented challenges.


Juha Heijari, Environment Specialist, Neste

PFAS are one of the challenges in the industry of wastewater treatment. When PFAS concentrations are on relatively high levels, the current detection methods are quite efficient.

In a previous iGEM project, a biological detection method for some PFAS has already been under development.


Merja Penttilä, Adjunct Professor in Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems, Aalto University

In iGEM competition, it is important to seek novel synthetic biology ideas. The unusual global situation allows the project to focus more on modelling. The detection of micropollutants is an interesting topic and synthetic biology provides excellent possibilities to detect compounds present in low concentrations in wastewater. For pharmaceuticals, the modelling would have wide potential.

Both topics of microplastics and pharmaceuticals in wastewater could be promising. However, it seems that a biosensor for pharmaceuticals would allow us to model more aspects of the project.


UNESCO & HELCOM (2017) [14] and SYKE (Finnish Environmental Institute) [15] reports have pointed us in the directions of pharmaceuticals. Increasing amounts of drug residues end up in the wastewater treatment plants as the usage of pharmaceuticals keeps growing. According to the HELCOM report, municipal WWTPs release 1,8 thousand tons of pharmaceuticals to the environment yearly. Furthermore, a significant part of all pharmaceuticals are only partially removed during the wastewater treatment process. The SYKE report states that the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals and WWTPs should monitor their pharmaceutical emission. This requires the determination of limit values for these compounds.


There are a lot of elements that make it hard to get reliable, representative samples, when measuring the concentration of pharmaceuticals in wastewater. One of them is the release of pharmaceuticals: the amount of pharmaceuticals related to the usage is quite stable, but the manufacturing-related release depends greatly on the time the given compound is being produced. The composition of wastewater might also contribute to variability between samples, especially when the samples are taken at different steps of the process, since it can affect specificity of liquid chromatography analysis.

Many factors need to be taken into account during pharmaceutical product development. In order to receive marketing authorization for a product, it always requires the evaluation of the environmental risks. However, in different market areas there are different authorities and marketing authorization processes.

The removal of micropollutants, such as pharmaceutical residues, fragrances, detergents and pesticides etc. is an issue that is increasingly drawing attention, especially in the municipal wastewater sector. During the wastewater treatment process, some of the micropollutants are removed, reduced or transformed into other compounds. Especially the transformation makes the study topic very challenging, as it expands the already vast group of target analytes even more.

Currently, only a few countries, like Switzerland, have opted for regulation and technology to remove such pollutants from water. Newly implemented purifications steps for micropollutant removal are most often either activated carbon or ozone treatment. Most of the contaminants, such as antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals are present in the wastewater in very small concentrations (around 0.01–10 mg/L). Therefore the analysis requires liquid chromatography combined with mass spectrometer (LC-MS).

We decided to contact Swiss WWTPs to get more insight on the methods they are using for pharmaceutical removal (see our final design section). In addition to that, current detection methods used for pharmaceuticals, such as LC-MS, are expensive and time-consuming.


Next: In search for the right compound.


UNESCO & HELCOM (2017) [14] report is a potential tool for guiding the selection of the right compound. Substances present at high concentrations in wastewater effluent, such as diclofenac or amoxicillin, could be possible targets for a biosensor. However, using a biological sensor can come with certain constraints, such as susceptibility to antimicrobials. Additionally, the presence of mixtures, including metabolites, as well as variable conditions make achieving good sensitivity and specificity challenging.

Based on these reports, we selected 20 pharmaceuticals present in highest concentrations in municipal WWTP effluents. The HELCOM report also mentioned the ‘watch list’ of pharmaceuticals for EU-wide monitoring, which caught our attention.


We researched the basics of biosensor design and average concentrations of pollutants that we could detect. According to the HELCOM report, the most frequently measured pharmaceutical compounds in the Baltic sea marine environment are analgesics, anti-inflammatory, cardiovascular and central nervous system agents [14].

The European Commission has created a ‘watch list’ of pharmaceuticals for EU-wide monitoring in aquatic environments [3]. It includes substances that are thought to be high-risk and high priority to monitor, and to establish reliable methods of their degradation. We included these pharmaceuticals in our research.

We ranked these pharmaceuticals based on the efficiency of their removal at WWTPs, the environmental impact and currently available methods to quantify them. To better understand compounds that are problematic to WWTPs, we contacted stakeholders in academia and industry.


For wastewater treatment plants, many pharmaceutical compounds, such as diclofenac, certain antibiotics and X-ray contrast media are difficult to remove. Biggest load of pharmaceuticals to WWTPs comes from the households and pharmaceutical industry. Another major source of the emissions are hospitals.

Based on our previous research, we wanted to know if antibiotics, painkillers, BPA (Bisphenol A) or carbamazepine would be meaningful targets for our biosensor.

Carbamazepine is relevant because it is not biodegradable and it is not removed at all in the existing treatment processes. From the environmental perspective paracetamol and ibuprofen are quite easily bio-degraded and not persistent in wastewaters and environment. BPA is persistent, but it seems that the environmental concentrations are decreasing. This indicates that BPA might be efficiently controlled and replaced in different materials. Antibiotics are very relevant not only from the persistence point of view, but also due to the concern about antibiotic resistance. During these COVID-19 times this is of course even more acute than earlier, as we have seen a significant increase in antibiotic use.


Currently, one of the most discussed issues in WWTPs is the detection and removal of pharmaceuticals. At the moment, the analysis methods are insufficient, removal is challenging and energy-consuming. It would be essential to understand which of these compounds are harmful in the receiving waters and make people aware of pharmaceuticals' proper disposal in order to limit their presence in wastewater in the first place.

As for the legislation, there are no limit values for the effluent water from WWTP. However, the EU legislation regarding water issues is under fitness check and some of the directives will be revised. Moreover, WWTPs are required to operate in terms of environmental permits.

A biosensor for detecting pharmaceuticals sounds like an exciting idea for monitoring the concentration levels. The biosensor could be used as a tool for operating the process, especially if implementing new purification steps for pharmaceutical removal. It would be relevant to detect the compounds that are most difficult to remove. The EU ‘watch list’ could work as a good starting point when searching for the right pharmaceutical. These compounds often lack sufficient research and their behaviour in natural waters is unknown, which is why it would be reasonable to pick one of these compounds for monitoring.

The implementation of new micropollutant purification steps pose a significant challenge: the treatment methods are highly energy consuming or resource heavy. The meeting confirmed a potential need for a biosensor and guided us to start its development for optimization of the removal process of pharmaceuticals in WWTPs. In addition, we decided it would be essential to research how aware people are on how to dispose of pharmaceuticals properly. After all, prevention is better than cure: limiting the amount of pharmaceuticals in water is more resource-efficient than their removal. Also, it would be interesting to find out how disposal methods differ between countries.

There is a watch list for microcontaminants, which are currently not monitored. The reasons for that include technical difficulties, as there are many substances in the background, as well as no direct legislation concerning their allowed concentrations. Considering the above, a biosensor is a very interesting idea, this kind of device would have a potential to be used at WWTPs.

Sara Rantamäki, Production Engineer, Kurikan Vesihuolto Oy, Finland

As an important topic, there has already been a discussion concerning pharmaceuticals in wastewaters for several years. However, the WWTPs are operating according to the environmental permit. The change in legislation has to come first if new process steps for the removal of pharmaceuticals from wastewater are to be introduced. Also, implementation will probably take place first in the more modern and the bigger WWTPs in Finland.

For us, it was important to hear about the situation regarding pharmaceuticals in wastewater in smaller WWTPs in Finland. Also, we noticed that there is a big difference in the environmental permits between WWTPs and which compounds they are required to remove. We wanted to research more deeply what are the reasons behind these differences.

A biosensor could be interesting, especially if it is a quick and cost effective technique. Generally, it is expensive to analyse micropollutants, thus any new solutions are welcome.

Chemist in a Spanish Wastewater Treatment Plant

A biosensor could be useful for WWTPs as a detector of the presence or absence of specific compounds. Right now, there are no regulations regarding monitoring pharmaceuticals in the Spanish WWTPs. It could be beneficial for a biosensor to have a fast output, since some of the compounds in the wastewater are not very stable and tend to change rapidly. Macrolide antibiotics could be interesting compounds from the EU ‘watch list’.

Based on the feedback from wastewater treatment industry and academia, a biosensor for detecting pharmaceuticals could be a relevant project since the analysis methods are currently very challenging due to a lack of legislation and low detection limits. We also found out that antibiotics are problematic for WWTPs and could be a potential group to target.


Jari Männynsalo, Environmental Specialist, The Water Protection Association of the River Vantaa and Helsinki Region

When it comes to pharmaceuticals in wastewater, there is a need for further monitoring studies. It would be important to understand these compounds’ behavior in WWTPs. Thus, developing a biosensor for pharmaceuticals could be relevant, but very challenging. In the water ecosystems, pharmaceuticals and their transformation products might cause hormonal and toxic effects or changes to the behavior of organisms. There is discussion about the “pharmaceutical cocktails” and that their collaborative effects are unknown. Residues of antibiotics are one of the important classes of harmful compounds and the development of antibiotic resistance is a great global concern.

Utilization of biosensors in environmental monitoring is a “topical topic”. One of the biggest challenges of pharmaceuticals in wastewater is the mixture toxicity. For example, if it can be proved that the group of chemicals have a common, measurable influence on a given species, especially in a chronic time frame, it could be implemented in legislation using a threshold approach. Macrolide antibiotics are most likely an important group of pharmaceuticals, since they were selected to the EU ‘watch list’.


Antibiotics, macrolides being a major class of them, have become a global environmental and public health concern due to their possible contribution to the development of antimicrobial resistance. They might also have the above mentioned common effect on a selected species. WWTPs are considered as the main source of spreading macrolides and other antibiotics into the environment. The majority of macrolide pollution begins via excretion in feces and urine of humans and animals. Moreover, pharmaceutical production facilities and hospitals are point pollution sources for macrolides [7]. In addition to the accelerating antibiotic resistance, macrolide antibiotics among the other micropollutants can persist in nature, accumulate in organisms, and remain biologically active [16]. In the further development of the project, we decided to concentrate on the three most common macrolides: erythromycin, clarithromycin and azithromycin.


Indian iGEM team IISER Pune

In the meeting we have learnt that India's regulations regarding pharmaceutical disposal are much different than the ones in Finland. This got us interested: what does the legislation look like around the world?

We decided to dive in. The aim was to find out how significant these differences are, since improper disposal may cause drug residues to end up in the environment. Here you can find our map containing a summary of disposal guidelines around the world. Not only do these guidelines differ greatly between countries, but also people are often not aware of them.

We concluded that it might be beneficial to spread awareness of these guidelines, along with information on effects of improper disposal of pharmaceuticals. Thus, we created a campaign. Here you can find our campaign material, flyers, and a video.


Next: The heart of the matter - Biosensor Design.


We attended a seminar which focused on current trends in water analytics, contaminant removal and water treatment chemicals. It was useful to hear about the regulations concerning wastewater and about the different techniques used in measuring pollution in wastewater. One of the main things we learned from these presentations was that it is difficult to predict the effects of most substances in the environment. This makes it hard to impose new regulations concerning pollutants.

One of the most interesting presentations was from Law & Water Ltd regarding the regulation of micropollutants in the environment. We decided to contact this company later on in our project to find out more about the regulations concerning micropollutants in wastewater at the EU level and in Finland. See the “a real-world need” section of the project timeline here.


What are the types of biosensors?

Biosensors can utilize, for example, whole cells, antibodies, or enzymes as sensing elements. Even though enzymes are most widely used for recognition, protein purification is time and cost consuming, which doesn’t make them ideal for an affordable biosensor. Another challenge is to create a sufficient signal for a particular target. Often it requires multienzymes or cofactors [17].

We determined construction of whole-cell biosensor is more feasible for us, since they are cheaper to make and can respond to a wider range of stimuli.

What issues can we anticipate?

A common mistake during biosensor design is the fact that the chosen organism does not survive in the environment it is supposed to be used in. Another problem might be plasmid loss due to lack of pressure to keep it.

Since we are using our biosensor to detect compounds in wastewater, we ensured that our organism can survive in this environment. Wastewater contains a vast amount of different and also toxic compounds that can affect the viability of the organism used. See our viability tests here.

Which features are the most relevant?

Based on our research the most relevant aspects of biosensors seem to include sensitivity, stability, specificity and time of response [17].

We contacted the WWTPs to verify that these features are most relevant for them and is there something else we should take into account.

What have previous iGEM teams done?

We prepared an overview of all biosensor-related iGEM projects to see which compound was detected, what was the incentive for the project, was the biosensor whole cell based and which organisms were the most commonly used. Also, we looked at what kind of sensing systems were used and which of them we could possibly utilize. We were also very interested to see what we would be able to model, which softwares were used and which common mistakes we should avoid.

We went through almost 70 previous projects and highlighted the ones we found most inspiring. Most projects utilized E. coli which is a well characterized organism and there are a lot of synthetic biology tools available for its modification. We found that transducers were almost without exception optical: colorimetric or fluorescent.

For our mathematical model we took inspiration from the 2016 Australia team's "internal cellular modelling". We also got inspiration to use Rosetta for protein modelling from a couple iGEM projects, one of which was from the 2018 Washington iGEM team.

We found it challenging to find information on some of the wiki sites, and we decided to keep in mind that good documentation is essential for someone to build upon our project.

At this point of time, we set three sub goals to the project:


Tomi Laurila, Associate Professor in Department of Electrical Engineering and Automation, Aalto University

Biosensors can be used to detect small molecules. Electrochemical biosensors are rather robust and sensitive. Further, they can be used to detect both electrochemically active substances directly as well as products of an enzymatic reaction in case the target molecule is not itself redox active.

One of the biggest issues with electrochemical biosensors is the selectivity owing to the complex matrix where the measurements are carried out. Interfering elements often show redox peaks that overlap with those of the target molecule(s): you need a filtering mechanism or increase specificity by affecting the peak potentials by surface modifications of the electrode, for example.

Modelling biosensors is demanding, and most important is to formulate specific questions at different levels (e.g. electrode material, electrochemical interface, electrolyte, mass transfer etc.). Each level of these phenomena give different type of information that needs to be coupled together. By systematically proceeding step by step through the entire phenomenon, one can obtain a lot of useful information.


Paula Lindell from HSY held us an online WWTP tour and explained to us in detail about the wastewater treatment in Finland. Viikinmäki, as the largest WWTP in the Nordic countries, receives 270.000 m3 of wastewater every day. After the treatment, the effluent water is released to the Baltic Sea. In the current process, phosphorus, nitrogen and organic matter are the main components to remove so that these don't end up in the sea. As a side product from the treatment process, Viikinmäki produces treated sludge and biogas. Sludge is used in production of fertilize products and biogas for energy production. Viikinmäki WWTP produces almost all the energy it is consuming [18].

CLICK to see wastewater treatment process in short

Many people are not aware how the wastewater treatment process actually looks like, which ends up with many things, such as pharmaceuticals or diapers, being disposed improperly. We thought it might be helpful to transform this rather unattractive topic into something more exciting and approachable. Following the iGEM goal of promoting synthetic biology among the general public, we also wanted to show how microorganisms can be used in industry, as well as highlight the fact that they can be improved using biotechnology. We developed “Fix the Flow”, which is a strategic and informative tower defence game to educate about wastewater treatment process and synthetic biology. See “Fix the Flow” here.


Future removal methods for micropollutants in Viikinmäki WWTP would most likely include activated carbon and ozonation. However, the additional purification step ozonation is highly energy consuming and the production of activated carbon has high environmental footprint. Implementation of a biosensor before and after the purification step could be used for the optimization of the process. The sensor and future micropollutant removal steps would be located at the end of the process before releasing treated wastewater to the environment. An additional advantage to locate the biosensor at the end of the treatment process is the uniform structure of effluent wastewater, which makes the measurement more reliable.

Sara Rantamäki, Production Engineer, Kurikan Vesihuolto Oy, Finland

Ideal sensor would be located in the process and water itself. It should be easy to clean and maintain. Most importantly, it should be reliable and cost-effective.

The detection limits of pharmaceuticals are minimal and the concentrations vary significantly from time to time. It would be beneficial to be able to compare the content of influent and effluent water. It would be most convenient if the sensor was "online," easy to maintain and cost-effective.

As a conclusion, our innovation would be beneficial to guide the optimization of future micropollutant steps in WWTPs that are highly energy consuming. The sensor should be cost-effective, reliable and easy to maintain. The ideal sensor would locate in the process and wastewater itself with a continuous measurement feature. However, due to the risk of releasing GMO to the process, we chose to concentrate on developing a one-time use biosensor in the separated system from the process.


As mentioned earlier, we found out that only a few countries, such as Switzerland, have opted for regulation and technology to remove such pollutants from water. We wanted to take a deeper look at current treatment methods for micropollutant removal in Swiss WWTPs, with emphasis on how they are monitoring the process. Additionally, we asked if there are any decentralized treatment methods in point pollution sources, such as in hospitals.

Christoph Ort, Group Leader & Christa McArdell, Senior Scientist & Adriano Joss, Eawag/the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology

According to the Swiss law, those WWTPs which have to remove micropollutants, must remove micropollutants by 80%, measured on the basis of selected indicator substances. The water treatment methods, ozonation or treatment with activated carbon, being applied in Switzerland are applicable to any country. Before implementing the new purification steps it is recommended to have a well working biological treatment with nitrification beforehand.

Removal performance is monitored by the authorities via 48-hour composite samples and the indicator substances are analysed with LC-MS/MS. UV measurement (254 nm) is currently the best method for online supervision and online control. Energy consumption is one reason for online control of micropollutant removal to ensure the optimal dosing for powdered activated carbon or ozone. Dilution and loads may vary daily, seasonally as well as due to long term change. Thus, reliable and cost-effective methods to assess and control the required dose are of relevance.

Highly toxic wastewater is being treated at the source, in the industrial facilities or also in hospitals (e.g. chemotherapy wastewaters). However, loads of the average wastewater of hospitals is not sufficient to justify a separate treatment: for cost efficiency most wastewater from hospitals is treated at the municipal WWTPs.


Jaana Saukko, Chemist, MetropoliLab

The challenges of wastewater analysis come from the fact that wastewater can contain a wide variety of solid and liquid components as a matrix. The assay limits are very small for pharmaceuticals, so even small interfering factors in the matrix pose challenges. This requires samples to be subjected to various purification steps before the actual analysis.

We do not yet measure macrolide antibiotics. The compounds that are analyzed are based on current legislation. There will definitely be a demand for this kind of product since it is currently more and more important to get results as quickly as possible.


While researching biosensors, we noticed that in addition to optical biosensors, electrochemical biosensors are very popular. Electrochemical biosensors can measure turbid samples, which could be an advantage for us when working with wastewater [19]. According to our research, electrochemical biosensors tend to show higher sensitivity than optical ones, which is very important since macrolide concentrations are very low in wastewater. Based on our findings, we proceeded to search for a pathway that could provide E. coli with the ability to give an electrical output. Also, we contacted some experts in the field to get more perspectives.

When comparing electrochemical and optical biosensors, sensors relying on electrical output may lack specificity. In electrochemical biosensors, the creation of a signal is proportional to chemical reactions that take place on the electrode. Thus, anything that resides in the sample, including impurities, might cause current. There is a risk of unknown compounds getting oxidized on the electrodes and a risk of electrode fouling with wastewater. Many compounds might be able to attach to the electrode better than cells. Therefore, for analytical purposes, electrodes are often modified with molecules that are sensitive to one analyte only.

After searching for different options, we came across the Mtr pathway of Shewanella oneidensis. As E. coli is a model organism and our universities did not have experts working with S. oneidensis, we decided to research E. coli as a heterologous host for the Mtr pathway. To read more about the Mtr-pathway and our research with this topic, visit our contribution page.

The immobilization technique should be considered carefully, as conductivity might decrease because of certain materials' properties. For E. coli to utilize the Mtr pathway, there should be an anaerobic or anoxic environment. In wastewater treatment plants, the specific conditions might limit the applicability of the electrochemical biosensor. For instance, the presence of dissolved oxygen gas in wastewater might make the measurement challenging.

Silvan Scheller, Assistant Professor & Norman Adlung, Postdoctoral Researcher Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems, Aalto University

The Mtr pathway should work properly in E. coli before it would be sensible to use it for a biosensor application. The electrochemical biosensor seems challenging to be executed in three months. Also, the low concentration of macrolides in the sample might be a more significant issue than the sensitivity of the output signal.

The main identified obstacles with the Mtr-pathway were the immobilization of the cells to the electrode and the biosensor working in an anoxic environment. We decided that due to the limited time of three months in the laboratory and our lack of electrochemical background, we will focus on developing a macrolide-sensing circuit with optical output rather than improving the Mtr-pathway in E. coli.


With an intensive literature research we found MphR, a transcription factor that can bind to macrolide antibiotics [20]. MphR acts as a repressor protein binding to pMphR promoter, see more on our parts page. Using this transcription factor, we designed our genetic circuit for the optical biosensor to detect and quantify macrolide antibiotics in wastewater. See our detailed design here.


During our research, we found that the only known transcription factor that detects and binds macrolide antibiotics is MphR. We found that a research group has applied for a patent regarding this natural gene. The patent application claims the use of any mutated form of MphR and its use in biosensor. We contacted an innovation expert and the iGEM HQ to identify if we still can use this transcription factor in our project.

Expert in Innovations and Patents

CLICK to see more about Patents

The document [21] would appear to be an international PCT patent application, not yet a patent. By using a different gene manipulation than that described in that application, it may be possible to protect the innovation. In any case, the matter in that publication is public, that is, it can no longer be protected like any other public information.

The application does not (yet) have patents granted. However, one US application is pending, and that may be accepted. It is worth following this in what form it will be granted and what its exact scope is.

As iGEM HQ and the expert confirmed, we were allowed to use MphR in our project since the patent application is still pending. However, we need to follow the process and consider our actions if the patent would be issued.


SINISENS, our solution, is an optical biosensor to detect and quantify macrolide antibiotics in wastewater. The end-user we designed our biosensor for are WWTPs to optimize the micropollutant removal process. Below is a schematic picture of our device.

A sample of wastewater is to be placed in the biosensor: if macrolide antibiotics are present, green fluorescence would be created.

We decided to have fluorescence as an output for the biosensor. Since macrolides are present in extremely low concentrations in wastewater, we set our third sub goal to focus on increasing the sensitivity of the biosensor. This altered our initial experimental plan.


Next: Improving the key points, sensitivity and specificity, of the sensor.


The most challenging aspect of macrolide antibiotics quantification is their low concentrations in wastewater. Using modeling, we confirmed that in order to achieve satisfactory detection limits and reliable output signal, concentration of macrolides may be necessary.

We also considered a different way of improving biosensor sensitivity, which included selecting MphR mutants with alterations at the binding site that would increase the binding affinity of MphR for macrolides and, thus, potentially lower the detection limit. We used the Rosetta software to predict these mutations. We sought guidance to confirm that our approach is feasible and how to decide between different protein modifications due to limited lab time.

Since the macrolide antibiotics are typically present in very small concentrations in wastewater, it will be important to ensure that the MphR regulatory system can be used to detect them. Using sophisticated Rosetta modelling and site-directed mutagenesis of MphR should allow improving the binding affinity towards the three macrolides if necessary. It would also be useful to test whether E.coli cells can accumulate the macrolides as this could potentially increase sensitivity of detection.

When comparing the results in Rosetta, the overall score should not be calculated as an average of all the scores: it is important to evaluate which of the characteristics actually differ significantly. One of the most important variables to consider is the dG_separated, which measures the binding energy of the protein. However, it is impossible to predict which ones will work best in practise and therefore as many mutations as possible should be tried out in the lab.

We decided to focus more on the recommended parameter to predict the best mutations for the MphR transcription factor in order to increase the binding affinity to macrolides (see our modelling page). After obtaining the modified sequences from Rosetta, we chose the six best ones and ordered them to be tested in the laboratory.


We considered microfluidics as one possible solution for concentrating macrolides.

Microfluidics has three classes of benefits: portability, improved performance, and the fact that the structure can be the same size as target molecules. The portability aspect would most likely benefit your project.

A sample can be concentrated by evaporating the solvent or by using absorption-based techniques. If microfluidics were involved, maybe the most feasible technique to solve the macrolide concentration issue would be the gradient technique.

From the gradient techniques, we decided to test isoelectric focusing (IEF). With IEF, the analyte can be concentrated up to a thousand times [22]. This method would allow us to increase the macrolide concentration in wastewater to more easily detectable levels. As a proof of concept, we tested this technique.


We found out that controlling the number of cells in our biosensor could be crucial for the measurement to be successful. The cell proliferating could affect the measurement as the amount of fluorescence correlates with the number of cells present. Also, considering our final product, we would want to integrate our cells on a hardware platform, and we are considering immobilization as the technique. We have considered different matrices and methods for immobilization.

Immobilizing the cells would be advantageous if one would like to integrate the cells on some hardware platforms. If the sensor cells would be prepared in advance on a microtiter plate, for example, and keep it refrigerated until use, encapsulation is probably a very good idea.

By immobilizing cells on a suitable polymer, the cell growth could be minimized, and then the proliferation should not interfere with the measurement. After confirming with experts that immobilization on a suitable polymer could be advantageous for our SINISENS biosensor, we decided to test it. To find potential immobilization methods for our biosensor, we tried immobilizing our sensor cells on different matrices. See our results here and more of the immobilization experiments here.


To our final design, we would immobilize our biosensor cells on a hardware platform using entrapment technique to inhibit cell proliferation from interfering with the measurement. By site-directed mutagenesis to MphR transcription factor and suitable microfluidics technique we can increase the sensor’s sensitivity to desired level.


Next: Taking a deeper look in the legislation field.


We contacted the following experts in the field of environmental law with three different areas in mind: EU level decision making, pharmaceutical industry and wastewater treatment.

Josep Maria Prat Garcia, Lawyer specializing in Environmental Law, Spain

Pharmaceutical Industry:

In Spain, the agency that regulates the life cycle of pharmaceuticals is the Spanish Agency of Pharmaceuticals and Sanitary Products (Agencia Española de Medicamentos y Productos Sanitarios (AEMPS)). This agency depends on the Sanity Ministry and it is coordinated with the European Medicines Agency (EMA), to respect the rules and regulations established by the European Union regarding pharmaceuticals. AEMPS evaluates every drug and gives the authorization to commercialize it based on quality, security and efficiency criteria.

Regarding the environmental impact of the medicine production, lots of institutions are focusing on carrying out “green chemistry”. With this, they want to (1) reduce the chemical risk associated to the use and manufacturing of chemical products, (2) reduce the impact of wastewaters and the dispersion of pollutants to the atmosphere, (3) reduce the intensive use of water and energy, (4) reduce the environmental impact of the chemical products once used and (5) minimize the flux of matter from the not renewable natural resources to the productive processes.

Wastewater Treatment:

Pharmaceutical compounds are conceived mainly to perform physiological processes and to resist their inactivation before they do that. This is what also makes them difficult to biodegrade and gives their potential toxic effects in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Also, these can bioaccumulate and manifest in conditions that could drive some aquatic populations to extinction. Medicines (including antibiotics) arrive to WWTPs as emerging contaminants, and normally they are only partially degraded because WWTPs don’t have specific removal systems for them. Currently, there are studies going on about the introduction of a combination of treatments called tertiary treatments, which would be able to remove emergent compounds and would improve the quality of the effluent water.

Could there be Green Stickers for pharmaceutical products to enable consumers to take environmental considerations into account?

In order for consumers to take into account the environmental impact of a medical product, the development of a green labeling system for drugs is viable. It could be based on this green chemistry of pharmaceutical producers.

EU Legislation:

At the EU level, there are only common environmental laws for micropollutants regarding water ecosystems. WWTPs are also able to show responsible actions, even though there would not be new laws to guide the operation.

Pharmaceutical Industry:

The operation of pharmaceutical manufacturers is regulated by environmental permits. One tool to control the environmental impact in terms of released wastewater could be industrial wastewater agreement. The industrial wastewater agreement is settled between an industrial enterprise and a corresponding treatment plant. In the agreement, limit values for wastewater and a monitoring program are drawn up. However, these agreements are not required by the law; moreover, pharmaceuticals are rarely part of them. If there would be limit values for micropollutants for wastewater in the future, WWTPs probably have pressure to determine the sources of pollutants. In order for official limit values to take place in legislation, monitoring studies about harmful effects of pharmaceuticals are needed.

Wastewater Treatment:

Pharmaceuticals in wastewater have not received much attention in environmental permitting to date and more information about the amounts of them should be gathered systematically. However, currently even ordering the correct analysis for micropollutants is challenging and not the top priority for WWTPs.

It was highlighted that more monitoring studies and information about pharmaceutical’s environmental effects are needed in order to determine the official limit values for them in wastewater. To get more insight for EU level decision making, Vieno suggested us to contact Ari Kangas from the Finnish Ministry of Environment.

*Note: The following is the opinion of an official individual and does not represent the Ministry of the Environment's general position.

Wastewater Treatment:

Switzerland is the first country to force the requirement to remove micropollutants from wastewater. Currently, the removal methods are activated carbon and ozonation, which are non-specific removal methods. They use particular indicator compounds to monitor the progress of the removal process. These indicator substances have been selected based on their chemical, biological, and physical properties as they can represent certain chemical groups. By tracking that these substances are removed in the process, it is relatively certain that other harmful substances have been removed.

EU Legislation:

The European Union has published a communication on its strategic approach to reducing the environmental impact of pharmaceuticals [23]. It is to be expected that a similar trend to Switzerland’s is coming elsewhere as well.

The list of priority substances includes substances for which there is proof that they harm the environment. More research information is needed for substances on the watch list before assessing whether some of the compounds should be transferred to the priority list. Adequate research data is the keyword in this matter. It should also be noted that in the wastewater treatment plant’s environmental permit the emission limit values are set according to the environmental quality standards.

The reform of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, on which wastewater treatment is based, is currently underway. It sets minimum requirements for what should be removed from wastewater. In Finland, the environmental permits require much stricter wastewater treatment than required by the current directive.

Ten years could possibly be the timeframe for setting new requirements for wastewater treatment in the EU framework. There are a few projects ongoing in Finland to study removal methods of pharmaceuticals from municipal wastewater and hospital wastewater.

Macrolide antibiotics are on the EU watch list of harmful substances. If regulations come that require the removal of pharmaceuticals, a device will be needed to measure whether this removal process succeeds. In that sense, your innovation would be useful.

How can science affect the creation of a new environmental policy?

Eventually, legislation is politics. However, no political decisions can be made without research information. In decision making, those who have evidence based data are most likely the ones to make the change.

As a conclusion from these meetings, there is a lot of discussion on the topic of pharmaceuticals in water resources today, showing the possible direction of decision making. Decision-makers seem to be aware of the problem of pharmaceuticals ending up in the aquatic environment. Currently, many drugs, such as macrolide antibiotics, are being considered for transfer from the EU ‘watch list’ to the list of priority substances.

The tertiary treatment processes for micropollutant removal, including ozone and activated carbon treatment, are being studied and piloted in some Finnish wastewater treatment plants. If Finland follows the techniques used in Swiss WWTPs, the efficiency of the micropollutant removal process could be monitored by using indicator substances. Clarithromycin, belonging to the group of macrolide antibiotics, is used as one of these indicator substances [24]. Therefore, SINISENS has potential use in wastewater treatment plants to monitor the removal performance of micropollutants [24].


Next: As excited as we are about our work, it is still a long way to go!


The storyline summarizes the steps we have taken during the development of SINISENS. The following section discusses the potential advancements that can be done to improve our innovation in future as well as all the necessary compromises.


Tomasz Płociniczak, PhD in Microbiology, University of Silesia, Poland

It should be considered that wastewater may contain inhibitors that may interfere with the GFP signal. In addition to that, loss of plasmid may be an issue. Final product may have to have the sequences integrated into the bacterial chromosome. The proliferation of bacteria can be controlled by using poor media or lowering the temperature of the culture.


Due to safety reasons, we used sterilized wastewater for our experiments when developing and testing our biosensor. However, the biosensor should be tested in fresh and non-sterilized wastewater to optimize its performance further. Also, it should be noted that in the wastewater treatment process, both pH and temperature may vary slightly. Therefore, it would be beneficial to study more closely how these variations affect the biosensor's performance.


Electrochemical biosensors may be more sensitive, which is an important feature given the low concentrations of macrolides in wastewater, but the development is more resource-consuming. Moreover, we are aware that it would be easier to quantify the output with an electrochemical biosensor, which is an essential feature for the end-users. Therefore, we could consider improving our biosensor by changing the output signal.


As discussed in the storyline, the ideal sensor would locate in the process and wastewater itself with a continuous measurement feature to meet the WWTP’s need for operating the removal process of pharmaceuticals. Due to the risk of releasing GMO into the process, we chose to concentrate on developing a one-time use biosensor in a separated system outside the process. The sensor could be located next to the water flow, where the sample is collected and pumped into the device. In addition, the process of replacing the sensor could be automated. See more about the implementation here.



In order to assess feasibility of our project and make sure we are utilizing all of the synthetic biology tools that are available, we contacted various experts working in academia, that specialize in microplastics, pharmaceutical research, biosensor design and many others.

Jukka Hassinen

Aalto University, Finland

Jukka Hassinen, D.Sc. (Tech) in Applied Physics, has expertise in the preparation and advanced characterization of nanomaterials, and their applications in water purification and photonics.

Benjamin Wilson

Aalto University, Finland

Dr. Ben Wilson is a Staff Scientist at Aalto University who has an extensive international research experience in materials and the circular economy of metals. He is currently involved in research related to the sustainability of batteries/WEEE, wastewater purification and use of biorefinery wastes for value added applications.

Anna Mikola

Aalto University, Finland

Anna Mikola is responsible for wastewater related research in the Group of Water and environmental engineering in Aalto University School of engineering in Finland. Her main research topics at the moment are biological nitrogen removal and gaseous emissions, nutrient recovery processes and removal of micropollutants and microplastics from wastewater and sludge.

Merja Penttilä

Aalto University, Finland

Merja Penttilä is a research professor in biotechnology at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and an adjunct professor in synthetic biology at Aalto University. Her interest is in using cell factories to produce chemicals, fuels, materials and proteins. She has been promoting and developing synthetic biology technologies and concepts in Finland and led many large academic and industrial projects on these topics. Recently, she established with Wihuri foundation funding the Centre for Young Synbio Scientists (CYSS), which also includes a BioGarage space.

Henri Xhaard

SUDDEN, Finland

Dr Henri Xhaard, Docent, PhD in computational modelling (Åbo Akademi University). More info can be found here.

SUDDEN is a research project that aims at reducing the environmental hazards related to the life cycle of pharmaceuticals.

Tomi Laurila

Aalto University, Finland

Tomi Laurila is an Associate Professor in Microsystem technology in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Automation at Aalto University.

Lasse Murtomäki

Aalto University, Finland

Professor of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry, Aalto University, Dept. Chemistry & Materials Sci. Lasse Murtomäki received his doctoral degree at Helsinki University of Technology in 1992; the topic of the thesis was electrochemistry in immiscible water-oil systems. Prof. Murtomäki’s expertise covers, in addition to electrochemistry, transport processes and pharmaceutical applications of physical chemistry.

Michael Lienemann

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland

Michael Lienemann, Dr. rer. nat., is an Academy of Finland Research Fellow, affiliated with the VTT Enzyme and Material Biotechnology research team and has previously engaged in international collaborations at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Montana State University and Stanford University. During his early academic career, he has investigated the structure-function relationships of carbohydrate-binding and amphiphilic proteins and currently investigates the structural basis of CO2 reduction by cathode-bound enzymes.

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd. is one of the leading research and technology companies in the Nordic countries that performs demonstrations, piloting and proof-of-concepts.

Silvan Scheller

Aalto University, Finland

Silvan Scheller is currently working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems at Aalto University. The biochemistry group, led by Prof. Scheller, uses metabolic engineering to construct new pathways for the conversion of CO2 to fuels. They utilize biocatalytic transformations that occur in nature, but that are currently not possible in classical chemistry. In order to utilize such new metabolisms and enzymes, we first need to understand them in detail. For this reason, they carry out fundamental research in microbial physiology and mechanistic enzymology.

Norman Adlung

Aalto University, Finland

Norman Adlung is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher in the biochemistry group led by Prof. Scheller at Aalto University. He has a background in molecular biology and uses the methanogenic model organism Methanosarcina acetivorans to study regulatory processes and anaerobic oxidation of methane. Previously, Norman achieved his PhD in the field of molecular plant-pathogen interactions.

Ville Paavilainen

University of Helsinki, Finland

Ville Paavilainen is a tenure track group leader at the Institute of Biotechnology at University of Helsinki-HiLIFE. The Paavilainen lab uses chemical and structural biology to study protein subcellular targeting and biogenesis. In this project, he has provided advice and feedback on various aspects of the project, including functional test of reporter cell lines.

Maria Sammalkorpi

Aalto University, Finland

Dr. Maria Sammalkorpi leads the Soft Materials Modelling group in Aalto University School of Chemical Engineering, Finland. Her cross-disciplinary research program bridges biotechnology and bio- and polymer materials. She uses molecular level and mesoscale computational approaches to study e.g. colloidal assemblies, films and molecular coatings, and biomacromolecular solutions for materials applications. More information available at:

Shimshon Belkin

University of Jerusalem, Israel

Dr. Shimshon Belkin is a Professor of Environmental Microbiology and the Ministry of Labor & Social Welfare Chair in Industrial Hygiene at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. A microbiologist with over 25 years of experience in the development of genetically engineered whole-cell biosensors, he is an international authority on the synthetic biology of microbial-based biosensors.

Ville Jokinen

Aalto University, Finland

Dr. Ville Jokinen is a University Lecturer at Aalto University School of Chemical Technology. His fields of interest are microfabrication, microfluidics and wetting, especially when these are applied to biomedical applications.

Tomasz Płociniczak

University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland

Tomasz Płociniczak is a PhD in the department of Microbiology at University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland.


We wanted to make sure our product could be utilized in the industry. For that reason, we have contacted WWTP from different countries, pharmaceutical and other chemical manufacturers. We inquired about the most important issues in the industry and asked what they think of our biosensor idea.

Juha Heijari


Juha Heijari is an Environmental Specialist at Neste.

Otto Järvinen


Otto Järvinen has studied environmental engineering focusing on water and waste management in Tampere University. He has interests in environmental engineering and sustainability. He specializes in industrial wastewater management and life cycle of pharmaceuticals.

Orion is a globally operating Finnish pharmaceutical company - a builder of well-being. Orion develops, manufactures and markets human and veterinary pharmaceuticals and active pharmaceutical ingredients. The company is continuously developing new drugs and treatment methods. The core therapy areas of Orion's pharmaceutical R&D are central nervous system (CNS) disorders, oncology and respiratory diseases for which Orion develops inhaled Easyhaler® pulmonary drugs.

Katriina Rajala


Katriina Rajala works as a research scientist at Kemira and she focuses on water and wastewater treatment, especially on emerging contaminants. She has studied water and environmental engineering in Aalto University and chemistry in University of Helsinki.

At Kemira, we use our chemistry to improve your everyday. We add optimal quality, functionality and strength to paper and board products, we ensure safety and hygiene of water and food packaging, and we maximize yield from energy resources. Our areas of expertise are pulp & paper, water intensive industries & municipal water treatment, and oil & gas. Through our global network of dedicated experts, production facilities and R&D centers, we serve customers around the world and improve their product quality, resource efficiency and sustainability.

Paula Lindell

Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority HSY

Paula Lindell (MSc, Chemistry) works as Group Manager in the wastewater division for the Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority HSY and has over 10 years of experience working in the water sector. She has a diversified background in the water sector on engineering, operation and research and development on national, Baltic sea Regional an European level.

Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority HSY is the most prominent environmental public body in Finland. It produces waste management and water services for over 1 M residents throughout the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. In addition, it is responsible for air quality information, and it provides geographic information about the regional development and promotes climate work. Greater Helsinki’s wastewaters are treated at two of Finland’s largest wastewater treatment plants: Viikinmäki in Helsinki (PE 1,3 M) and Suomenoja in Espoo (PE 0,4 M). Plants are operated by the Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority HSY. Through collaboration HSY works to meet the vision, to transform the Helsinki Metropolitan area into the world’s most sustainable urban region. The prerequisite for reaching this goal is to be at the cutting edge of environmental responsibility and resource efficiency, high reliability in performances, smoothly running services and a stable economy.

Natalia Gemza

New Technologies Centre (CNT)

Engineer with degrees in both Chemical and Environmental Engineering. Currently works as a Specialist Engineer in New Technologies Centre of MPWiK where she took part in several research projects co-financed by the National Centre for Research and Development. Her free time is spent on various crafts and conducting a PhD in Mathematical Modelling of Wastewater Treatment at Wrocław University of Technology.

MPWiK S.A. in Wrocław is a Polish municipal water and wastewater company. The New Technologies Centre (Centrum Nowych Technologii – CNT) is an R&D department of MPWiK S.A in Wrocław. A basic goal of CNT is to work towards technological development of the company in order to improve efficiency of water and wastewater management for the sake of environment.

Sara Rantamäki

Kurikan Vesihuolto Oy

Sara Rantamäki works as a Production Engineer in WWTPs of Kurikan Vesihuolto Oy. She is M.Sc. (Tech.) in Environmental Engineering and has a major in Water and Waste Management Engineering.

Kurikan Vesihuolto Oy produces water services in Kurikka, Jalasjärvi and Jurva in Finland. Their customers are households, industry and cooperatives in the area. In addition, the company sells water to Poronkankaan Vesi Oy. Supply water is produced by their own groundwater intake stations. The wastewater is treated with biological and chemical based treatment methods in two operating plants. Kurikan Vesihuolto Oy works with quality service, economical and sustainable values in mind.

Jarkko Laanti

Turun seudun puhdistamo Oy

Jarkko Laanti (M.Sc. (Tech.) in Industrial Engineering and Management) is an experienced Quality And Environmental Manager with a demonstrated history of working in the environmental services industry. He has 15 years experience in Quality Management, Risk Management, Operations Development and Continuous Improvement with 9 years in the sector of water services.

Turun seudun puhdistamo Oy is a wastewater treatment service provider that is owned by 14 municipalities and offers high-quality wastewater treatment services to its owners. The company is responsible for the operation and treatment results of the Kakolanmäki wastewater treatment plant, with the aim of providing an optimal purification performance. The plant processes the wastewater of almost 300,000 residents in the Turku region, in addition to the industrial wastewater of the region.

Cristoph Ort

Eawag, Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, Switzerland

Christoph Ort is a Group Leader in the Department Urban Water Management in Eawag. He’s interests lie in source typing and tracking of water-borne pollutants such as personal care products, pharmaceuticals and illicit drugs in both the built and natural environment. He combines full scale measurements, modeling (deterministic and stochastic) and laboratory experiments. Furthermore, he develops new measurement devices and work flows to gain unprecedented insight into pollutant dynamics and the spatio-temporal variability of environmental variables.

Eawag is the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology and is part of the ETH Domain, which includes the two universities of ETH Zurich and ETH Lausanne (EPFL), the four independent research institutions of Empa, PSI, WSL and Eawag. Firmly anchored in its home country of Switzerland, but with a global network, Eawag is concerned with concepts and technologies for dealing sustainably with water bodies and with water as a resource.

Adriano Joss

Eawag, Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, Switzerland

Dr. Adriano Joss works in the Department of Process Engineering in Eawag. He expertises in wastewater, micropollutant and ozonation.

Eawag is the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology and is part of the ETH Domain, which includes the two universities of ETH Zurich and ETH Lausanne (EPFL), the four independent research institutions of Empa, PSI, WSL and Eawag. Firmly anchored in its home country of Switzerland, but with a global network, Eawag is concerned with concepts and technologies for dealing sustainably with water bodies and with water as a resource.

Christa McArdell

Eawag, Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, Switzerland

Christa is a Senior Scientist and Group Leader in the Department Environmental Engineering in Eawag. Her research interests lie in input and fate of organic contaminants, e.g. pharmaceuticals, from urban settlements in the aquatic environment, wastewater treatment processes and strategies for the removal of organic micropollutants and development of analytical techniques for the determination of organic pollutants and transformation products in sewage and ambient waters.

Eawag is the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology and is part of the ETH Domain, which includes the two universities of ETH Zurich and ETH Lausanne (EPFL), the four independent research institutions of Empa, PSI, WSL and Eawag. Firmly anchored in its home country of Switzerland, but with a global network, Eawag is concerned with concepts and technologies for dealing sustainably with water bodies and with water as a resource.

Jaana Saukko


Jaana Saukko graduated from the University of Helsinki with a master's degree in food sciences focusing on food chemistry. Bachelor's degree studies Saukko performed at Seinäjoki University of Applied Sciences in the biotechnology and food engineering program. At present, Saukko works at MetropoliLab Oy as one of the persons in charge of water analyzes in the organic chemistry team and as the leader of method development projects for various analyzes of organic chemistry.

MetropoliLab is an impartial, independent laboratory T058 accredited by Finas, the Finnish Accreditation Service according to the standard SFS-EN ISO 17025 located in Viikki Campus area. Our analytical strengths are: foods, their microbiological and chemical quality, contaminants, composition and additives; chemical and microbiological analyses of different environmental samples (water, soil etc.); the quality of indoor and outdoor air; microbes causing moisture damage; and contaminated soils and sediments. Our laboratory services cover the most important analyses, in situ measurements and sample taking and/or collection tasks for food, water and environmental testing and inspections.

Environmental Organizations

The value we had at heart when we were developing our biosensor was protecting the environment. We contacted water protection-related organisations to ask about the most relevant issues that should be focused on.

Jari Männynsalo

The Water Protection Association of the River Vantaa and Helsinki Region

Jari Männynsalo has finalized his studies in limnology and currently works as an environmental expert in The Water Protection Association of the River Vantaa and Helsinki Region. He specializes in wastewater related topics.

The River Vantaa is the closest river system to a million inhabitants in the most densely populated area of Finland. The 100-kilometre long river bed flows into the Gulf of Finland in Helsinki. The Water Protection Association of the River Vantaa and Helsinki Region monitors the water quality, biota and the operation of wastewater treatment plants in the catchment area of the River Vantaa. Monitoring is conducted objectively at a river basin scale for different activities requiring environmental permits. The Water Protection Association is also actively implementing various projects to improve the status of the river system. The non-profit association was founded in 1963. The Association is a member of the Federation of Finnish Water Protection Associations whose members comprise 12 regional water protection associations

Matti Leppänen


Matti Leppänen (Senior Research Scientist, PhD) works as an ecotoxicologist in the Ecotoxicology and Risk Assessment –group in SYKE where the major tasks relate to biotesting of environmental samples and chemicals, expert guidance for the environmental administration (local and central) and research in aquatic environment.

SYKE (Finnish Environment Institute) is both a research institute and a center for environmental expertise, providing knowledge and solutions enabling sustainable development. SYKE forms part of Finland's national environmental administration and works under the auspices of the Ministry of Environment. With the staff of ca. 570 employees, SYKE covers all aspects of our living environment from urban areas to pristine locations and from environmental policy to laboratory analysis.


To make sure our biosensor is compliant with current regulations that WWTPs have to obey by, we contacted environmental lawyers and the Finnish Ministry of the Environment. We also wanted to confirm our work does not infringe on any intellectual property rights, so we consulted with a patent expert.

Josep Maria Prat Garcia

Lawyer specializing in Environmental Law

Josep Maria Prat Garcia, Lawyer specializing in Environmental Law, Graduated from the University of Barcelona (1995), Postgraduate in Environmental Management and Administrative Law; Research proficiency for the doctorate in Law from the University of Barcelona; WEEE Auditor (Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment) and Environmental Management Systems Auditor; Collaborating professor in different university centers in Environmental Legislation, Environmental Law and Administrative Law (Fundació Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya, IL3 - University of Barcelona, Private Foundation University Institute of Applied Technology IMF, Fundació Layret - Camilo José Cela University); Author of the book "The Ecological Crime" CEDEX Editorial (2.000)

Niina Vieno

Law and Water

Niina Vieno has a Doctor of Technology degree in Environmental Engineering. She has worked within the environmental sector for 20 years, mostly related to water treatment and hazardous substances. Her passion is to improve waste water treatment of industry and municipalities, to cut down environmental burden caused by hazardous substances and to inform and educate people how to reduce their chemical footprint.

Law and Water offers legal and water technology related services for companies and communities. Company offers the combination of juridical and engineering know-how and looks into subjects of water quality, industrial waste waters, public procurements and environmental permits.

Ari Kangas

Ministry of Environment, Finland

After finalizing his studies in environmental protection technology, microbiology and chemical engineering at the Helsinki University of Technology Mr. Kangas has been working around wastewater issues the whole of his professional career. He has worked as a research engineer, operational chemist, and operational chief at the WWTP and then as a consultant and private entrepreneur before changing over to permitting authority, supervising authority and finally to the Ministry of the Environment. In his present position, Mr. Kangas is coordinating national projects covering wastewater treatment, nutrient recovery and sludge utilization.


1. "Science for Environment Policy": European Commission DG Environment News Alert Service, edited by SCU, The University of the West of England, Bristol.
2. Word Health Organization. (2012). Pharmaceuticals in drinking-water.;jsessionid=92C5C34CF349252FBA6682E38FFFB69C?sequence=1
3. Decision (EU) 2015/495 of 20 March 2015 establishing a watch list of substances for Union-wide monitoring in the field of water policy pursuant to Directive 2008/105/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council ' (2015) Official Journal L78, p. 40.
4. Robert Loos, Dimitar Marinov, Isabella Sanseverino, Dorota Napierska and Teresa Lettieri, Review of the 1st Watch List under the Water Framework Directive and recommendations for the 2nd Watch List, EUR 29173 EN, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2018, ISBN 978-92-79- 81839-4, doi:10.2760/614367, JRC111198
5. WHO’S top 10 threats to global health in 2019. (2020). Retrieved 16 October 2020, from
6. Kanoh, S., & Rubin, B. (2010). Mechanisms of Action and Clinical Application of Macrolides as Immunomodulatory Medications. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 23(3), 590-615. doi: 10.1128/cmr.00078-09
7. ECDC/EFSA/EMA second joint report on the integrated analysis of the consumption of antimicrobial agents and occurrence of antimicrobial resistance in bacteria from humans and food‐producing animals. (2017). EFSA Journal, 15(7). doi: 10.2903/j.efsa.2017.4872
8. Leclercq, R. (2002). Mechanisms of Resistance to Macrolides and Lincosamides: Nature of the Resistance Elements and Their Clinical Implications. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 34(4), 482-492. doi: 10.1086/324626
9. Schafhauser, B., Kristofco, L., de Oliveira, C., & Brooks, B. (2018). Global review and analysis of erythromycin in the environment: Occurrence, bioaccumulation and antibiotic resistance hazards. Environmental Pollution, 238, 440-451. doi: 10.1016/j.envpol.2018.03.052
10. Barbosa, M., Moreira, N., Ribeiro, A., Pereira, M., & Silva, A. (2016). Occurrence and removal of organic micropollutants: An overview of the watch list of EU Decision 2015/495. Water Research, 94, 257-279. doi: 10.1016/j.watres.2016.02.047
11. Contaminant Candidate List 3 - CCL 3 | US EPA. (2020). Retrieved 16 October 2020, from
12. Li, Z., Li, M., Liu, X., Ma, Y., & Wu, M. (2014). Identification of priority organic compounds in groundwater recharge of China. Science Of The Total Environment, 493, 481-486. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.06.005
13. European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Antimicrobial consumption in the EU/EEA, annual epidemiological report for 2018. Stockholm: ECDC; 2019.
14. UNESCO & HELCOM. (2017). Pharmaceuticals in the aquatic environment of the Baltic Sea region – A status report. Baltic Sea Environment Proceedings No. 149.
15. Finnish Environment Institute. (2019). SYKE POLICY BRIEF - Views on environmental policy.
16. Patel, M., Kumar, R., Kishor, K., Mlsna, T., Pittman, C., & Mohan, D. (2019). Pharmaceuticals of Emerging Concern in Aquatic Systems: Chemistry, Occurrence, Effects, and Removal Methods. Chemical Reviews, 119(6), 3510-3673. doi: 10.1021/acs.chemrev.8b00299
17. Park, M.; Tsai, S.-L.; Chen, W. Microbial Biosensors: Engineered Microorganisms as the Sensing Machinery. Sensors 2013, 13, 5777-5795.
18. Helsinki Region Environmental Services. (2018). Water services. Referenced 7 October 2020, from
19. Lagarde, F., Jaffrezic-Renault, N. (2011). Cell-based electrochemical biosensors for water quality assessment. Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, 400, 947-964, doi:10.1007/s00216-011-4816-7
20. Kasey, C. M., Zerrad, M., Li, Y., Cropp, T. A., & Williams, G. J. (2018). Development of transcription factor-based designer macrolide biosensors for metabolic engineering and synthetic biology. ACS Synthetic Biology, 7(1), 227-239. doi:10.1021/acssynbio.7b00287
21. Williams, G. J., Kasey, C., Li, Y. (2017). Genetically Encoded Biosensors For Detection Of Polyketides. International Patent Application No. 031962.
22. Zhao, C., Ge, Z., & Yang, C. (2017). Microfluidic Techniques for Analytes Concentration. Micromachines, 8(1), 28.
23. European Commission. (2019). European Union Strategic Approach to Pharmaceuticals in the Environment. Available from:
24. Verordnung des UVEK zur Überprüfung des Reinigungseffekts von Massnahmen zur Elimination von organischen Spurenstoffen bei Abwasserreinigungsanlagen, 814.201.231 § 2 (2016).

Special thanks to HSY for all their support

Kemistintie 1, Espoo, Finland