Ensuring water bodies are clean and pollution-free

Growing up in Kolkata, Shamayeeta Ray would regularly witness the unchecked pollution on the Hooghly river, which is an essential lifeline for the people of West Bengal

So when she decided to pursue research, it came as no surprise that the subject she chose was, 'Structural Characterization of regulatory proteins useful in developing biosensors for water purification system'.

With rampant industrialisation worldwide, controlling water pollution has become one of the most vexing problems in recent times, as industries recklessly discharge toxic aromatic compounds and other wastes into water bodies.

Shamayeeta is a research student with the IITB-Monash Research Academy, a pioneering joint-venture research partnership between two leading institutions in India and Australia. It offers research scholars the opportunity to study for a dually-badged PhD from both IIT Bombay in India and Monash University in Australia. Students spend time in both countries over the course of their research, and many work on projects that are strongly-interdisciplinary in nature and with an applied research focus.

Water Pollution from Industrial Sewage (Picture courtesy Google)

Large scale water purification systems are expensive, hence there is an urgent need to develop eco-friendly and cheaper techniques that can eliminate the pollutants in real time. Researchers like Shamayeeta and her supervisors—Dr Ruchi Anand, Dr Santosh Panjikar, and Prof Matthew Wilce—are convinced that bioremediation is the best bet. "In bioremediation," explains Shamayeeta, "organisms are used to remove or neutralise pollutants from a contaminated site and break down hazardous substances into less toxic or non-toxic substances".

Shamayeeta's project involves a few bacterial regulatory proteins that can not only detect aromatic pollutants in aquatic systems but also bind them and lead to their successive degradation. Structure determination of the regulatory proteins can give a good insight into the mode of capture and binding of these aromatic pollutants.

Fig. 2: Biodegradation Scheme for aquatic aromatic pollutants (Pic courtesy Shamayeeta Ray)

Explaining her work so far she says, "We have selected three proteins that can detect and capture aromatic pollutants like phenol and benzene from aquatic systems and subsequently help in their degradation. We have the structure of one of the proteins with the pollutant attached to it which would be a great help to design biosensing devices for water pollution purification. We have selected regulatory proteins—DmpR, XylR and mopR—which can bind and capture phenol, phenol derivatives, xylene and benzene. We have got the structure of the sensing domain of MopR with phenol bound to it. This can give us a good insight into the binding mechanism of these aromatic pollutants."

Says Prof Murali Sastry, CEO, the IITB-Monash Research Academy, "The Academy is an exciting chapter in Indian-Australian relations that will see both countries creating binding links. This will enable us to tackle the research challenges that lie ahead and generate some long-lasting high impact outcomes for society." "It would be really interesting and challenging to capture these aromatic pollutants by the bacterial regulatory proteins so that we can extend that knowledge to design biosensor devices that will detect aromatic pollutants from aquatic systems in real time in the foreseeable future," concludes Shamayeeta.

So, the next time you pass by rivers like the Hooghly and see them relatively clean and pollution-free, you know whom to thank.

Fig. 3: Structure of MopR with bound phenol aiding in biosensor design (Pic courtesy Shamayeeta Ray)

Research scholar: Shamayeeta Ray, IITB-Monash Research Academy

Project title: Structural Characterization of regulatory proteins useful in developing biosensors for water purification system

Supervisors: Dr. Ruchi Anand (IIT Bombay), Dr. Santosh Panjikar (Australian Synchrotron)

Contact details: shamayeeta.ray@gmail.com

This story was written by Mr Krishna Warrier based on inputs from the research student and IITB-Monash Research Academy. Copyright IITB-Monash Research Academy.