Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology

, Volume 102, Issue 11, pp 4863–4872 | Cite as

Modulating the sensing properties of Escherichia coli-based bioreporters for cadmium and mercury

  • Yerin Kang
  • Woonwoo Lee
  • Geupil Jang
  • Bong-Gyu Kim
  • Youngdae YoonEmail author
Applied genetics and molecular biotechnology


Despite the large number of bioreporters developed to date, the ability to detect heavy metal(loid)s with bioreporters has thus far been limited owing to the lack of appropriate genetic systems. We here present a novel approach to modulate the selectivity and sensitivity of microbial whole-cell bioreporters (WCBs) for sensing metal(loid)s via the znt-operon from Escherichia coli, which were applied to quantify the bioavailability of these contaminants in environmental samples. The WCB harboring the fusion gene zntAp::egfp was used as a microbial metal(loid) sensor, which was turned on by the interaction between ZntR and metal(loid) ions. This design makes it possible to modulate the selectivity and sensitivity to metal(loid)s simply by changing the metal-binding property of ZntR and by disrupting the metal efflux system of E. coli, respectively. In fact, the E. coli cell-based bioreporter harboring zntAp::egfp showed multi-target responses to Cd(II), Hg(II), and Zn(II). However, the WCBs showed responses toward only Cd(II) and Hg(II) when the amino acid sequence of the metal-binding loop of ZntR was changed to CNHEPGTVCPIC and CPGDDSADC, respectively. Moreover, the sensitivity toward both Cd(II) and Hg(II) was enhanced when copA, which is known to export copper and silver, was deleted. Thus, our findings provide a strong foundation for expanding the target of WCBs from the currently limited number of genetic systems available.


Cadmium copA Heavy metals Mercury Whole-cell bioreporter Znt-operon 


Funding information

This study was supported by the Basic Science Research Program of the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF) funded by the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning (2015R1C1A1A02037275 and 2017R1E1A1A01073894 to Y.Y.)

Compliance with ethical standards

Ethical statement

This article did not involve any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

253_2018_8960_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (124 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 124 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Environmental Health ScienceKonkuk UniversitySeoulRepublic of Korea
  2. 2.Department of Agricultural Biotechnology and Research Institute of Agriculture and Life SciencesSeoul National UniversitySeoulRepublic of Korea
  3. 3.Department Forest ResourcesGyeongnam National University of Science and TechnologyJinju-siRepublic of Korea

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