Monitoring water quality from a lab in a suitcase

Friday, 24 July, 2020

Monitoring water quality from a lab in a suitcase

Experts from Newcastle University have been working with the Addis Ababa Water and Sewerage Authority (AAWSA), Addis Ababa University (AAU) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) to ensure waterborne hazards can be identified in a quicker, easier and ultimately cheaper way, anywhere in the world.

Genetic analysis can bring to light numerous hazards potentially present in water, but such analysis is currently carried out in a laboratory, using large and expensive machines. These facilities are often not available in developing countries, and the process of sending samples from the affected country to the UK for detailed analysis can take more than a month.

The scientists have now developed a portable lab, made up of smaller and less expensive versions of the same type of specialist equipment found in state-of-the-art microbiology laboratories, that fits into a suitcase. Believed to be a world first, the suitcase lab enables screening of millions of bacteria in a single water sample, instead of running many tests in parallel to look for different pathogens.

The portable lab means scientists can go directly to the location where a waterborne disease is thought to be present and screen a water sample for genetic material — with results available within a day or two. The data can be used for measuring the effectiveness of wastewater treatment, faecal pollution source tracking and the identification of waterborne hazards in surface and groundwater. The rapid data generation gives public health officials more opportunity to quickly identify and deal with local hazards, potentially saving countless lives.

After initial onsite testing on samples collected at Birtley sewage treatment plant in North East England, the suitcase lab was used to carry out water quality screening in the Akaki River catchment near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The results have since been published in the journal Water Research.

“With our portable laboratory we successfully screened millions of bacteria in Akaki River water samples and discovered a high prevalence of Arcobacter butzleri, a still poorly understood waterborne hazard that can cause watery diarrhoea,” said Newcastle University’s Dr David Werner.

“By taking advantage of innovative technologies to make it easier and faster to carry out onsite water quality assessments, and with our Ethiopian colleagues, we have demonstrated a way to study genetic material with affordable resources almost anywhere in the world.”

As well as reducing the time required to measure water quality, the project aims to enable the independent use of the tools by researchers and water systems engineers in Ethiopia. As noted by Dr Alemseged Tamiru Haile from the IWMI, “The equipment items we have assembled in the portable laboratory are affordable for AAU and AAWSA.”

Newcastle University’s Dr Kishor Acharya is an early career scientist who led the development of the portable molecular toolbox. He said the portable lab kit could easily be used in many different contexts to screen for dangerous pathogens.

“In the future, this kit could potentially be used as a way to assure food and drink safety, efficient health services, productive agriculture and beyond,” he said.

Image credit: Newcastle University, UK

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