Local researchers developing at-home kit for faster water contamination testing

Medical Watch

What’s in the water? Imagine if you could test for yourself. It’s simple and it’s rapid. And it all hinges on harnessing the power of another natural resource — bacteria.

Local researchers are working on an at-home kit.

Well before COVID-19 reached our shores, researchers at Northwestern University were deep in the process of studying water, particularly how to detect what may be lurking in it.

Dr. Julius Lucks is with Northwestern University Center for Synthetic Biology.

“One of the biggest water quality issues for humans is we can’t often taste or see these contaminants,” Lucks said. “So you have a perfectly clear bottle of water it could have toxic levels of lead in it.”

There are existing laboratory methods to detect a variety of contaminants like lead, copper, flouride and antibiotics, to name a few.

“One of the coolest things about natural organisms is that they are constantly monitoring their environment. Some of the same things that are toxic to us are toxic to them,” Lucks said. “We don’t have to invent a new giant instrument or machine to detect these things. We can leverage what nature has already evolved to do this.”

Like Staphylococcus aureus or STAPH, a common bacteria in our environment that happens to have a natural mechanism in its infrastructure — that works like actual taste buds – to detect lead.

“What we’ve learned a lot about is how those little molecular taste buds work in nature. And figure out how to take them out of a cell and put them in a test tube. So when you put your water sample in there, they can activate and trigger these processes,” Lucks said. “These taste buds are encoded in a piece of DNA in their genome. So we can figure out what that DNA is, and we can make it in the lab.”

First, Lucks and his team extract the taste buds from the microbe and replicate the structures in the lab. Then, they add the synthetic material to a water sample. The taste buds have been reprogrammed to light up if they detect a contaminant.

“Inside each one of these tubes would be a different molecular taste bud,” Lucks said. “One might be for lead, one might be for copper, a few might be for different antibiotics.”

Lucks tested a sample from the WGN drinking fountain. The control tubes contained antibiotics and zinc, which lit up. But not the WGN water. There were no contaminants, no flourescense. It was clean. 

“It’s really just a matter of adding water to the tubes mixing waiting a little bit and then visualizing with this illuminator,” Lucks said.

Lucks and his team 3D-printed the illuminator in the lab at a cost of about $6.

“We see this as an early step in putting power in people’s hands to monitor their own environments and to protect their own health,” Lucks said. “And hopefully protect the health of the environment around them.”

And now the team hopes to use their test to detect COVID-19.

“We’re working as fast as we can with this idea you could do a handheld device to detect pathogen is present,” Lucks said.

Right now, the team is working on detecting SARS-Cov-2 particles in the lab using their water test fundamentals. The hope is to ultimately make COVID-19 testing faster and more widely available.

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