Portable testing laboratory screens millions of bacteria in water samples

Portable lab with the capacity to screen millions of bacteria in water samples could boost water safety.

A suitcase-size portable testing laboratory could cut back the time and money spent on monitoring water quality in developing countries.

Researchers have created a portable testing laboratory for screening millions of bacteria in water samples without the need to run multiple tests at a time.

Improving water quality is key to achieving several United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including clean water and sanitation. In Sub-Saharan Africa the process has challenges, including transportation costs and absence of real-time data to aid decision-making, according to a study published last month (10 July) in Water Research.

Researchers from Ethiopia and the United Kingdom verified the potential of a portable laboratory that fits into a suitcase and tests water samples to identify waterborne hazards in a faster, easier and cheaper way.

The study, which began in 2019, required an initial £10,000 investment for the portable equipment, including the sequencing device and computer for the toolbox, with an operational cost for reagents of about £1200 per ten samples.

"This is cheaper than the conventional benchtop sequencing machine, which requires an investment cost of about £50,000," says Jemila Mohammed, a co-author of the study and a postgraduate student at the Centre for Environmental Science, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia.

The process of identifying and removing bacteria in water samples requires several small items, including vacuum pumps and filtration units, Mohammed says.

In the suitcase laboratory, we assembled all the items needed for this process to screen millions of bacteria in water samples."

Jemila Mohammed, Study Co-Author and Postgraduate Student, Centre for Environmental Science, Addis Ababa University

"Overall, our field deployable … toolbox advances the capability of scientists to comprehensively monitor microbiomes [the collection of microorganisms in an environment] anywhere in the world, including in the water, food and drinks industries, the health services, agriculture and beyond," the study adds.

Smaller, less expensive versions of the specialist equipment found in state-of-the-art microbiology laboratories should be attractive to African countries, such as Ethiopia, that have limited resources, Mohammed explains.

The toolbox would enable governments to understand how safely managed sanitation can reduce risks to public health, she says.

But, Mohammed adds, despite the potential of the portable lab to screen for bacteria likely to be present in water samples, it is not always able to reliably distinguish between species of bacteria that are closely related.

Worlanyo Siabi, chief executive officer of Ghana's Community Water and Sanitation Agency, tells SciDev.Net that with increasing development in Africa, more liquid and solid wastes are being discharged into water bodies. He says that water treatment is vital to ensure safe water delivery to communities.

"Water resources are becoming more polluted, and it is also increasingly becoming necessary to pay attention to water treatment before supply," says Siabi.

"The cost of testing is also a major concern. Therefore, any new research which targets simplifying water testing, which may reduce cost, will play a significant role in increasing access to water."

But, Siabi adds that regulations may prevent the suitcase lab meeting local standards.

The Ghana Standards Authority is the regulator that establishes and reviews domestic water supply standards.

Siabi says he is concerned that the portable laboratory may not be able to keep up with local regulations. This piece was produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.

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