University of Windsor DNA water testing gets $500,000 boost  Banner Image

University of Windsor DNA water testing gets $500,000 boost

Article and photo from the Windsor Star

Craig Pearson, Windsor Star
Published: March 1, 2016

Some University of Windsor scientists hope to make beaches safer by developing a new technique to analyze water with DNA testing.

The project — which uses a technique called next-generation DNA sequencing — looks so promising that a team of Windsor researchers just won a $500,000 grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

The team will compare DNA sequencing with current coliform testing — which identifies E. coli, a group of coliform bacteria found in human waste.

The problem is, E. coli itself isn’t unsafe in reasonable amounts. In fact, humans have a jumble of the stuff in their stomach, and would become sick if they didn’t. It’s just that the presence of E. coli can indicate possible human waste, meaning that sewage — containing other bad stuff — may lurk in the water.

“I expect that we’re going to find evidence of false positives,” said Prof. Dan Heath, project lead and executive director of the Great Lakes Institute of Environmental Research. “That is, times when E. coli would say ‘close the beach,’ and we’re going to determine there is no evidence of any human pathogenic bacteria.

“It could just be that a seagull pooped in the water.”

The DNA testing technique is about 10 years old. But the cost has dropped from about $20,000 per run of the machine to perhaps $1,000, and continues to fall.

Plus, DNA sequencing used to require a laborious one-by-one approach. Now the $150,000 human genome machine and other equipment at the University of Windsor can test for millions of bacteria all at once.

So the Windsor scientists brainstormed a thought: test beach water with a more accurate method. In other words, look for specific pathogens, not simply a possible vague indicator — sort of like targetting a criminal instead of a neighbourhood he might be hiding in.

Heath hopes the project will start in earnest in the spring at Essex County beaches and will continue in 2017. If all goes well after that, he thinks the technique could find use by health units in as little as three or four years.

The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit is on board, as is Environment Canada and the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change.

Five graduate students will be hired to assist, tracking the flow of pathogens and perhaps treating the problem at the source, thanks to the NSERC money. But Heath hopes for more help than that.

“The fun thing is we’re hoping to get citizen scientists,” who will collect water samples around the county and pop them in their freezers for later DNA sequencing. “It’s going to be a fun project.”

The other members of the team are: Great Lakes Institute professors Chris Weisener and Doug Haffner, environmental engineering Prof. Rajesh Seth, Environment Canada scientist Ian Droppo from Burlington, and post-doctoral fellow Subbarao Chaganti.

Chaganti thinks the potential exists down the line to use the University of Windsor technique to create commercial mobile test kits. And though coliform testing requires a couple of days while bacteria grow, DNA sequencing can work in about three hours.

“This project will help us develop more accurate, real-time testing tools,” Chaganti said. “Once we develop this it could be made available for anybody to go to a beach and test it.

“This is very exciting because it’s really new technology.”