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 over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
SEP 02, 2020
Microbiology
A Common Bacterium Can Evolve in the Stomach
SEP 02, 2020
A Common Bacterium Can Evolve in the Stomach
Helicobacter pylori can be found in as much as fifty percent of the world's population.
SEP 17, 2020
Microbiology
Animals May Sense the Magnetic Field Because of Bacteria
SEP 17, 2020
Animals May Sense the Magnetic Field Because of Bacteria
Animals can sense magnetism, an ability called magnetoreception. Scientists have been trying to understand this sense, w ...
OCT 13, 2020
Microbiology
Bacterial Biofilms Can Take on Some Animal-Like Characteristics
OCT 13, 2020
Bacterial Biofilms Can Take on Some Animal-Like Characteristics
Bacteria are everywhere, even inside of our bodies, and they are thought to date back to the early days of life on Earth ...
OCT 25, 2020
Microbiology
Over Time, Plague Infections Spread Faster
OCT 25, 2020
Over Time, Plague Infections Spread Faster
From the time of the Black Death, around 1348 and the Great Plague of 1665, epidemics of plague occurred in Europe. Rese ...
NOV 30, 2020
Plants & Animals
How to Help Plants Thrive While Reducing Fertilizer Use
NOV 30, 2020
How to Help Plants Thrive While Reducing Fertilizer Use
Soil helps provide plants with some of the nutrients they need, like phosphorous. Fertilizers may include phosphorous, w ...
DEC 04, 2020
Microbiology
Why Cases of COVID-19 Tend to be Milder in Children
DEC 04, 2020
Why Cases of COVID-19 Tend to be Milder in Children
Although children can get infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and spread it to others, they are mo ...
Loading Comments...