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Fast, Inexpensive Test for Water Bacteria Developed

E. coli bacteria

E. coli bacteria (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

18 May 2016. A team at York University in Toronto designed a water-testing kit connecting to a smartphone that makes testing for water-borne bacteria faster and less expensive. The Mobile Water Kit, from the lab of engineering professor Sushanta Mitra, is described in a recent issue of the journal Analyst (free registration required).

Developers of the kit started a spin-off company from the university, Glacierclean Technologies Inc. in Toronto, to commercialize the technology. Mitra is one of the company’s founders.

Mitra and colleagues at York University created the system to meet a need for easier ways to test for microbes in water, such as E. coli bacteria. While water-borne bacteria are a major public health problem in developing regions, contamination of water supplies happens in economically developed areas as well. In 2000, some 2,300 of the 5,000 residents in the the rural town of Walkerton, Ontario fell ill from E. coli contamination in their drinking water, leading to 7 deaths. News reports of the incident quote a regional public health official saying the outbreak could have been prevented.

Current water testing technologies require taking samples and sending them to a remote lab for testing, a process that often takes a whole day or more. The Mobile Water Kit returns results on the spot in 1 to 2 hours, with a simple color test to indicate the presence of E. coli in the sample. The testing device then sends the results to a smartphone app for display and transmission.

The test kit uses a hydrogel matrix with a combination of enzymes and chemicals the York team tested to find the optimum mix for E. coli detection. The hydrogel, a material containing mainly water with enough substance to form into a 3-D gel matrix, fits into a plunger-tube assembly that mixes with the water sample. If the sample contains E. coli, the enzymes react to the presence of bacteria and change the water to a visible red color. If there are no E. coli in the sample, the color of the water does not change.

“This is a significant improvement over the earlier version of the device” says Mitra in a university statement, “that required more steps, handling of liquid chemicals and so on.” The researchers also estimate the kit can return results for about CAD 3.00 (USD 2.30) a test, much less expensive than current methods.

“We have received a significant number of queries from related industries,” says Naga Siva Gunda, president of Glacierclean Technologies and a co-author of the research paper. “We strongly believe that the product is in a unique position as the only one available in the market for rapid detection of E. coli.”

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