Guelph students win international award for antibiotics biosensor for animal products like milk and honey

Students at the University of Guelph have won gold at the International Genetic Engineering Competition (iGEM) for creating an biosensor that can detect antibiotics in animal products like milk and honey.

Sensor testing changes to pink if an antibiotic is present

If an antibiotic is detected in a food product the colour turns pink. If there is no antibiotic the sensor changes from clear to green. (Submitted by University of Guelph)

Students at the University of Guelph have won an international award for creating a sensor that can detect antibiotics in animal products like milk and honey.

The team of 33 students created VioSensor, a diagnostic test that detects tetracycline, an antibiotic used to treat bacterial infections in animals.

The student researchers say it's important to be able to test for tetracycline because antibiotic overuse can lead to antibiotic resistance. 

"We were shocked by how detrimental the antibiotic resistance crisis is becoming and wanted to fight back," the students wrote on the website for the VioSensor project.

"Advances in agriculture and farming can only take place in a healthy and sustainable environment. Monitoring and understanding the effect of antibiotics and contamination of food products is a fundamental part of creating this sustainable environment."

Jehoshua Sharma is a grad student at the University of Guelph and served as co-president and director of research for the university's iGEM team.

He explained the VioSensor has two components: a sample container and the reaction compartment.

When a sample is put into the VioSensor, if tetracycline is detected, the unit turns pink. If there is no medication it turns green.

Sharma says they wanted to create an affordable device that helped farmers monitor the health of their livestock.

"Our group very much knew that we wanted to start looking at the antibiotic resistance crisis. We just didn't really know how we could physically help because ... a lot of people, especially in farms, use antibiotics not only for production purposes and keeping like animals healthy, but also as a way to increase their growth," Sharma said.

"We can't actually stop antibiotic use in agriculture as yet and so we thought that this would be a really good alternative to that."

Aim is to help farmers

The students won gold at the International Genetic Engineering Competition (iGEM) in Boston earlier this month. They attended the competition, which saw almost 6,000 students from 45 countries.

The Guelph team had four months to create the sensor. Sharma said the diagnostic tool could eventually benefit both local farmers as well as national food production firms.

"This was our first year creating such a large project that's still in its prototype stage and iGEM was able to recognize its value," Sharma said. "As we continue to make progress, it'll become even more impactful!" 

The team says on its website that the "natural progression" for the biosensor going forward would be to adapt it to detect other antibiotics.

The university says the competition "encourages students to find solutions to global problems using innovation in synthetic biology."

The gold medal also included recognition of the team's outreach efforts, which included hosting a conference of iGEM teams from Ontario and Quebec, as well as creating a program for a summer camp, producing a podcast and blog and work with Guelph Queer Equality to highlight LGBTQ contributions and representation in STEM fields.


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