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Testing the Water

The Lucks Laboratory developed a home test that can detect common contaminants in water.

In a lab environment, Julius Lucks, wearing a dark suit and a purple striped tie, stands beside a Northwestern researcher wearing a light blue lab coat. Their mouths are open as though in conversation, and they are gesturing while looking at a laptop screen.
Julius Lucks, right, and other Northwestern researchers are engineering synthetic biological systems that will benefit humanity. Image: Jason Brown/JB Creative

Spring 2024

The collaborative research led by Julius Lucks, who co-directs the Center for Synthetic Biology with Danielle Tullman-Ercek, has two crucial and closely related components. First, Lucks and fellow researchers seek to uncover how natural biological systems sense and adapt to changing environments. Second, they use this knowledge to engineer synthetic biological systems that benefit humanity. 

This ambitious agenda spurred the Lucks Laboratory to develop a home test that can detect common contaminants in water, such as lead, pesticides or other chemicals. 

The technology, called ROSALIND, harnesses the “molecular taste buds” found in bacteria and programs them to glow when they detect a contaminant. Funding from the National Science Foundation will underwrite a multiyear pilot study to use the water test kits in Chicago-area households. 

“We are working hard to get the technology into the hands of the people who need it the most,” Lucks says. 

Lucks received a 2023 Guggenheim Fellowship to advance his research on RNA, a fundamental component of living systems with many potential biotechnology applications. By combining deep technical expertise with a multidisciplinary, big-picture approach, Northwestern can “responsibly innovate synthetic biology technologies that will benefit the most people,” he says. 

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