Taming the Pesticide Dragon

The Challenge

IT DOESN’T SOUND like the most exciting research discipline for a 28-year-old girl who wants to have a tangible impact on the world, yet Priyanka’s path-breaking biochip electrochemical sensor is just that. Conventionally, testing for trace particles of pesticides in soil and water is a sensitive and expensive process — there are rigid requirements from the testing process such as stability, sensitivity, speediness and specificity. Already hard-pressed farmers, however, are loathe to take on the tedious process. What suffers? Human health, since the undegraded residue from diuron and other phenyl urea herbicides remain in surface and groundwater in levels not permissible for a healthy environment.

The Idea

DEVELOPMENT OF A plastic biochip sensor that does the job at a fraction of the money and effort traditionally involved, something Priyanka started work on when she joined the CSIRfunded Institute of Microbial Technology (IMTECH) in 2008. The sensor is part of a lowcost, disposable immuno-sensor kit that is capable of detecting environmental pollutants. Called LC-LAGE, the plastic chip has been designed and fabricated using a low-cost polyester substrate that then has a custom-designed threeelectrode system patterned on it. The electrodes exhibited high-sensitivity for diuron even at trace levels, and the process itself is significantly faster than conventional testing. The chip, which costs a staggeringly low 5, can successfully determine the specific bacteria that is capable of degrading soil from pesticides and other substances.

The Innovator

PRIYANKA HAS A passion for the environment. After acquiring a Master’s in Environmental Sciences from Panjab University, she started on her PhD. Her research is cuttingedge and focusses primarily on environmental nanobiotechnology. She has been a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Nanotechnology, Northwestern University, Chicago, as well as a volunteer research scholar for the Children’s Memorial Research Centre, Chicago. She has also won innovation awards from a host of forums, including the prestigious DST-Lockheed Martin India Innovation Growth Programme 2012.
The Impact

WHILE THE IMPACT is yet to be felt on a large scale, researchers from India and around the world have already acknowledged the transformative potential of Priyanka’s work. It’s a true game-changer — the innovation simplifies and makes inexpensive a process that has long been a deterrent to testing soil and water and paves the way for innovations in allied domains. Even more gamechanging is the potential of the biochip sensor to transform clinical diagnostics, thanks to its ability to detect specific bacteria occurring at minute levels.

The Way Forward

PRIYANKA ACKNOWLEDGES SHE has always been clear about her goals: to use her research skills to address global environment issues and make a tangible impact. She’s keen to stay at IMTECH for now, where she is part of a close-knit team that has been doing excellent work in the monitoring of environmental pollutants. Her future interest, though, is in an expanded interpretation of her current work — she is keen to research nano-bioprobes for diagnostic and therapeutic applications in cancer.