Cornell iGEM

web stats

Project Background

Health Risks

Nickel is a natural element that constitutes approximately 0.009% of the earth's crust. Nickel sulfides, silicates and oxides are commonly used in mining and natural resources.[1] The most common nickel sulfide mineral is pentlandite (NiFe)9S8, which accounts for the majority of nickel produced globally.[2,3] Domestic nickel production comes from the smelting of natural nickel ores, refining nickel matte, an impure metallic sulfide product from smelting of sulfides of metal ores, reclamation of nickel metal from nickel based or non-nickel based scrap metal, including salvaged machinery, sheet metal, aircraft and other vehicular parts and discarded consumer goods such as batteries.

Nickel compounds are used in construction, mining, smelting, electrical equipment manufacturing, and battery and fuel cell production, among numerous other materials. During construction, there is a high risk for nickel contamination. They can also make their way into the household through ceramics since they often form the bond between enamel and iron.

Nickel compounds are so toxic because they are highly resistant to corrosion and oxidation in air and aqueous environments; they are resistant to corrosion by organic acids and exposure to chlorine, fluorine, hydrogen chloride and molten salts.

Estimated average daily dietary intake is 0.1-0.3 mg/day.[4,5] Less than 0.2 mg/day of which is consumed via food and 5-25 ug/day from water.[2] Dermal exposure is one of the most common routes of exposure and even low levels of exposure may cause nickel allergic dermatitis.[6-8]

Common Effects:[1]
  • Gastrointestinal distress like: nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Dermatitis (eczema like effects: rash, itchiness)
  • Neurological effects
  • Nickel specific asthma
Extreme Cases:
  • Coma
  • Death

Case Study

New South Wales, Australia: In 2004, New South Wales, Australia observed a huge spike in nickel concentration in their drinking water. (See graph) Although scientists don't know the exact reasons for how nickel concentrations increased so dramatically, as shown in figure 1, they hypothesize that it could be the result of a natural reduction of flow rate during a period of drought and the subsequent introduction of mine water into the drinking water supply. Overall fluctuations of nickel concentrations over the three years were attributed to natural dilution and changes in demands of water.

The Australian Drinking Water Guidelines mandates a safety threshold of 0.02 mg Ni/L water, a value that is based on 70 kg (154 lbs) average body weight, 2 L water consumed daily and 1000 as the safety factor to account for uncertainty of extending animal study results to humans. The residents of New South Wales are assumed to have a similar diet to the rest of Australia's population so that the results of the study can be extended to the whole country. The study also assumed that the entire population of New South Wales was nickel-sensitive. This would lead to a lower Lowest Observed Adverse Effect Level (LOAEL) and set stricter limit for tolerable mean nickel concentrations. The result of the study showed that the mean nickel concentration, 0.03 mg/L with a 95% confidence interval of 0.02-0.04 mg/L, is only approximately 7% of the LOAEL. Thus the mean nickel concentration in drinking water in New South Wales appears to have no health risks.
New South Wales, Austrailia
Although no real risks were detected, the town implemented increased surveillance of nickel concentrations and made plans to use alternative sources to supplement drinking water supplies during droughts. This study shows the importance of continued vigilance in maintaining high water quality standards at all times, had the concentration of nickel increased past the LOAEL, health effects could have been more drastic.[9]

Current Remediation Techniques

Cyclic electrowinning/precipitation (CEP) : use of electrical current to transform positively charged metal cations into a stable, solid state where they can be easily separated from water and removed.
Drawback: concentration of cations must be high (threshold of 100 ppm)

Chemical precipitation: use of hydroxides and sulfides to precipitate cations.
  1. Well-established, many available chemicals and equipment
  2. Convenient, self-operating and low-maintenance due to closed system nature
  1. Formation of toxic sludge from precipitate, which is environmentally and economically costly to remove
  2. Requires extra flocculation/coagulation due to precipitation
  3. Each metal has a distinct pH for optimum precipitation
  4. Corrosive chemicals increases safety concerns
Ion exchange: reversible chemical reaction where ions from water or wastewater solution are exchanged for similarly charged ions attached to a stationary solid particle that are usually inorganic zeolites or resins.

Reverse osmosis: effective molecular filter to remove dissolved solutes through a membrane
  1. Reduces concentration of all ionic contaminants, not just the heavy metal in question
  2. Can be scaled up easily
  1. Expensive
  2. Requires high pressure
  3. Too sensitive to operating conditions
Phytoremediation: use of plants to remediate heavy metals in contaminated soil, sludge, water etc.

Microbial remediation: use of microorganisms to degrade hazardous contaminants


The transport protein being utilized for this project is nixA from Helicobacter pylori. This protein resembles many eukaryotic integral membrane proteins and represents a high-affinity nickel transport system when expressed in E. coli.[10] The nixA gene has been introduced into E. coli previously to sequester Ni2+ from water at 4 times the level of wild type cells.[11] We hope to improve upon this system by combining the nixA gene with a different metallothionein than previously used, utilizing a different regulatory system, and creating modular genetic parts.


  1. Sullivan, R. J. (Litton Systems, Inc.) Air Pollution Aspects of Nickel and Its Compounds. NTIS No. PB188070. September 1969. p.18.
  2. Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology. Third Edition. Volume 15. John Wiley and Sons, Inc. New York. 1980. pp.787-797.
  3. Nriagu, J. O. ed. Nickel in the Environment. John Wiley and Sons, Inc., New York. 1980. p. 55.
  4. Christensen OB, Lagesson V. Nickel concentration of blood and urine after oral administration. Ann Clin Lab Sci 1981; 11: 119–25.
  5. Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food Consumer Products and the Environment. Nickel leaching from kettle elements into boiled water. London: Committee onToxicity; 2003. Available from: (Cited 24 October 2008.)
  6. Beattie PE, Green C, Lowe G, Lewis-Jones MS. Which children should we patch test? Clin Exp Dermatol 2006; 32: 6–11.
  7. Militello G, Jacob SE, Crawford GH. Allergic contact dermatitis in children. Curr Opin Pediatr 2006; 18: 385–90. doi:10.1097/01.mop.0000236387.56709.6d
  8. Silverberg NB, Licht J, Friedler S et al. Nickel contact hypersensitivity in children. Pediatr Dermatol 2002; 19: 110–3. doi:10.1046/j.1525-1470.2002.00057.x
  9. Alam, Noore, Stephen J. Corbett, and Helen C. Ptolemy. "Environmental Health Risk Assessment of Nickel Contamination of Drinking Water in a County Town in NSW." NSW Public Health Bulletin (2008): n. pag. Web.
  10. Mobley, H., Garner, R., & Bauerfeind, P. (1995). Helicobacter pylori nickel-transport gene nixA: Synthesis of catalytically active urease in Escherichia coli independent of growth conditions. Molecular Microbiology, 97-109.
  11. Krishnaswamy, R., & Wilson, D. (2000). Construction and Characterization of an Escherichia coli Strain Genetically Engineered for Ni(II) Bioaccumulation. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 5383-5386.