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A new water-soluble, lead-sensing chemical is the first to detect the toxic metal in live cells, chemists report.

Christopher J. Chang of the University of California, Berkeley and his coworkers synthesized a molecular sensor that combines a fluorescent dye with a receptor that binds to lead. On its own, a solution of the sensing molecules weakly glows green in response to visible light. Upon binding to lead, the sensor glows 18 times as brightly.

In lab tests, the sensor detected lead in water at concentrations as low as 15 parts per billion, which is the Environmental Protection Agency's limit for the metal in drinking water. Chang and his team also demonstrated that other metal ions, such as iron and potassium, don't interfere with the selectivity of the sensor.

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