Researchers Hope To Create ‘Star Trek’ Machine That Can Easily Detect Hazards In Water

Mar 14, 2017

Each summer, managers of public beaches like those at Presque Isle State Park in Erie test their water to make sure it’s safe for swimming. 

Last year, the park issued more than two dozen advisories and closed beaches three times due to elevated levels of E. coli bacteria.

E.coli is a marker for dangerous water because it’s an indicator of what else could be there, such as viruses.

“A lot of the time what would actually make you sick if you swim at that beach isn’t that bacteria, its viruses,” said University of Pittsburgh assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, Kyle Bibby.

Bibby’s team of five Ph.D. students and several undergrads is looking for a better way to keep swimmers safe from things like norovirus and adenovirus.

Bibby said by using indicator bacteria like E. coli, officials could be closing beaches that are safe and leaving open beaches that are not. That’s why he’s working on a water test that would help find those viruses, instead of bacteria.

But rather than looking for the viruses themselves, Bibby’s team is looking for their DNA or RNA.

And the team isn’t starting from scratch. Bibby is taking some of the technologies that already exist and trying to improve them and link them together.

The process would most likely start by filtering water samples to collect the DNA.

“Right now, we don’t have good ways to do it,” Bibby said. “They’re expensive, slow, and mainly the people who do it are research laboratories.”

Once collected, the team would still have to parse through the multitude of DNA in even the smallest sample of lake water.

“DNA from bacteria, algae, even human cells,” Bibby said. “So you have to sort through this complete mish-mash of DNA and make sense of what’s there.”

Hand-held technologies to detect DNA do exist, but their scope is too narrow and their speed is too slow for Bibby’s work.

“Sort of the blue sky idea would be that maybe you get a water sample and you feed it into a machine … and it’s like a ‘Star Trek’ machine and it goes, ‘beep, beep, beep, here’s the viruses that are in your water, is it safe to swim in, is it safe to use or no,’” he said.

Beyond testing beach water, the tool could be used to check the water in irrigation systems or even to check municipal drinking water. By the end of the five-year project, Bibby said he hopes to have a technology that would be ready to be tested by other scientists working in the same field.

In this week’s Tech Headlines:

  • The Allegheny Health Network is using a $133,000 grant from its parent company to spur innovation in the field of electronic records. The network has launched a competition to create a wearable technology or application that would “securely hold elements of a patient’s personal health history.” The idea is for a person to have all of his or her information on them at all times in case they’re rushed to the emergency room, or can’t give information to a doctor for some other reason. The winning teams will get $10,000.
  • A leading provider of security, compliance and IT solutions says the rise of the industrial use of the Internet of Things could lead to an increase in Cybersecurity Attacks.  Tripwire, Incsurveyed professionals in the field and found 96-percent are predicting an increase in attacks this year. Fifty-one percent said they do not feel prepared for those attacks.  Tripwire’s chief technology officer David Meltzer said, “Either we change our level of preparation or we experience… significant consequences.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.