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Heavy Metals in Water – New DNA Testing Method

Written by Janice M on . Posted in Water & Environmental

Heavy metal contaminants, such as lead, uranium, copper, mercury, cadmium and zinc, are commonly found in the environment. The problem can arise from several sources:

  • Heavy metals such as uranium can naturally exist in ground water.
  • Lead can be present as a result of lead solder in copper piping.
  • Mercury and cadmium can be a result of power plant emissions.
  • Additionally, a variety of industrial processes can produce problematic heavy metal concentrations in discharged water from factories that are harmful to humans and can contaminate agricultural land.

A new Fluorimeter and catalytic enzyme DNA sensor Test Kit has been developed, based on core research done at Dr. Li Yu’s lab at the University of Illinois. This new technology offers on-site analysis in real time without expensive sample transportation and preparation. It represents a break-through in efficiency, testing accuracy and ease-of-use. Personnel with no special skills are able to use the portable Fluorimeter and consumable DNA based sensors. Water samples can be tested within two minutes and the results displayed at the push of a button.

DNAzyme Technology

Important research on DNA /RNA has led Scientists to discover that DNA / RNA are not only materials for genetic information storage and transfer, but also catalysts for a variety of biological reactions, and thus called catalytic DNA / RNA, (deoxy)ribozymes, or DNA / RNAzymes.

Because metal ions play essential roles in the structure and function of DNAzymes, the study and application of these new metalloenzymes has become a new frontier in bioinorganic chemistry.

The core technology resides in the one-time-use sensors:
  • The sensors detect and measure the amount of metal ions in solution at low ppb levels (typically 1 – 2 ppb).
  • Measuring the metal ions is done through a reaction that occurs between the metal ion and the DNAzyme when a water sample containing a target metal ion contaminant, such as lead, is introduced to a sensor specific for that contaminant.
  • This reaction produces fluorescence (light) in direct correlation to the amount of metal ion present in the water sample.
  • The amount of light is measured by a fluorimeter.
  • The fluorimeter reading relates directly to the amount of metal contaminant in the water solution.


Testing for heavy metals at part per billion (ppb) levels is essential to meet international established limits. Limits on heavy metals in waste water and drinking water are often stated in parts per billion (ppb) and are heading in only one direction: down.

A portable alternative allows regular monitoring and high contaminant concentrations can be detected before harm is done. Industrial Process Engineers can make adjustments to chemistry parameters, discharge treatment controls and pre-discharge quality control testing without the need to send samples for lengthy laboratory testing.

This method is not without limitations. Complex water matrixes can interfere with the testing method and not all heavy metals are targets for DNAzyne technology.

The initial applications are metals such as uranium, mercury, copper and cadmium, but the science is progressing to allow many more contaminants in water to be detected by this technology.

Fluorimeter & Sensor Kits

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