OCT 01, 2018 10:54 AM PDT

A Virus That can Help Ensure Water is Clean

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

It’s estimated that 780 million people worldwide don’t have access to clean drinking water, and contaminants in the water like Escherichia coli bacteria can make people very sick. To make it easier for people to know when their water has been contaminated with E. coli, researchers at Cornell University have created a test that can be used on the spot, instead of having to send samples off to a lab and then wait days for the results to come back. Their work has been reported in The Royal Society of Chemistry.

"Drinking water contaminated with E. coli is a major public health concern," said Sam Nugen, Ph.D., Cornell associate professor of food science. 

The researchers have employed a virus that infects a bacterium, a bacteriophage, that they genetically modified with a detection system. 

"These phages can detect their host bacteria in sensitive situations, which means we can provide low-cost bacteria detection assays for field use - like food safety, animal health, bio-threat detection and medical diagnostics,” explained Nugen.

One bacteriophage in particular, T7NLC, has a gene called NLuc luciferase; it encodes for an enzyme that emits a glow. (It is similar to a protein in fireflies.) In the bacteriophage, the luciferase is connected to a sugar. When the E. coli bacterium is infected by the bacteriophage, the phage DNA is shot into the bacterium, and the fusion enzyme is generated. "That is the beginning of the end for the E. coli," said Nugen. 

The phage rips the bacterium open, releasing the fusion enzyme, which then glows. Additional phage particles are also released, which can infect other E. coli bacteria. The fusion enzyme has a sugar on it, which will make it stick when it's passed through filter paper. The contamination can then be seen.

"This bacteriophage detects an indicator. If the test determines the presence of E. coli, then you should not be drinking the water, because it indicates possible fecal contamination,” explained Nugen.

The work on this bacteriophage is ongoing; first author Troy Hinkley is a graduate candidate at Cornell that has gotten an internship at  Intellectual Ventures/Global Good. They are interested in a philanthropic project to develop this bacteriophage so it can be used in a humanitarian effort.

Technology that uses phages as a detection system is important to Hinkley and others who want to apply their work where it can make a simple change that can make people’s lives much better. "Global Good invents and implements technologies to improve the lives of people in the developing world. Unfortunately, improper sanitation of drinking water leads to a large number of preventable diseases worldwide,” said Hinkley.

"Phage-based detection technologies have the potential to rapidly determine if a water source is safe to drink, a result that serves to immediately improve the quality of life of those in the community through the prevention of disease," he added.

Learn more about how long a person can survive without access to clean water from the video above, by UNICEF.


Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! via Cornell University, CDC, Analyst/The Royal Society of Chemistry

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on 28 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 60 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
JUL 23, 2018
Genetics & Genomics
JUL 23, 2018
Developing Self-fertilizing Plants
Plants of the future may not need to be fertilized; they might create their own nutrients. That could be a huge relief for the planet....
AUG 10, 2018
Videos
AUG 10, 2018
Can the Black Death Make a Comeback?
The bacterium that causes plague was never wiped out....
AUG 14, 2018
Microbiology
AUG 14, 2018
Germs are Gaining Resistance to Hand Sanitizers
Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are not as effective as they once were....
AUG 27, 2018
Microbiology
AUG 27, 2018
Why Some Viruses are so Infectious
If you've seen a headline about norovirus on a cruise ship, you know some viruses are known for their ability to spread through a population....
SEP 03, 2018
Microbiology
SEP 03, 2018
A Cell Phone for the Microbiome
This work is a step toward bioengineering the microbes in the gut for improved human health....
SEP 05, 2018
Earth & The Environment
SEP 05, 2018
Climate change increases prevalence of parasites among livestock
A warming climate will ultimately favor some species over others. One such species is a parasite called the liver fluke, which infects livestock with a dis...
Loading Comments...