09/03/2010 12:04 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Speeding up Detection to Protect Our Water

In a world where it takes only seconds to locate nearby restaurants, retailers and even friends, why does it take several days to detect potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7 in our food and drinking water?

As the public is becoming increasingly aware, E. coli O157:H7, which was first found in 1982, can easily threaten public health and safety through contamination in food and water. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report an estimated 73,000 cases of infection and 61 resultant deaths each year in the U.S.

Yet the conventional methods to detect E. coli O157:H7 are time consuming, and can take several days to a week for results. Given the severe health and safety risks, it is evident that a faster method of detecting E. coli O157:H7 is highly desirable.

Working in a lab at the University of Maine, my research is for just that -- a rapid method to detect E. coli O157:H7 in water, enabling quick corrective action to be taken upon its detection--in hours as opposed to days.

But why the focus on water?

With water quality becoming an increasing concern in the public eye, it is important to recognize that E. coli O157:H7 poses a threat not just in meat and produce but in drinking water as well. E. coli O157:H7 in drinking water usually indicates sewage or animal waste contamination and poses an enormous threat to human health through killing the cells of the intestinal lining, destroying the kidneys, causing blood clots in the brain, as well as causing seizures, paralysis, and respiratory failure.

The method we developed is an alternative to the traditional labor-intensive and time consuming method, which requires waiting for cultures to grow and then counting individual bacterial cells. By applying microbiology and nanotechnology principles, we optimized a biosensor capable of detecting E. coli O157:H7 in water in a much shorter time.

Our research was recently selected as the U.S. winner of the 2010 Stockholm Junior Water Prize, sponsored by global water leader ITT Corporation. And now just a few days after starting my freshman orientation at Washington University in St. Louis, I've packed my bags and am heading off to Stockholm, along with students from over 30 other countries, for the international leg of the competition during World Water Week (September 5- 11).

What is next?

It is my hope that this research will contribute to the scientific community's collective endeavor in the continuous improvement and the mainstream adoption of a rapid method for detecting E. coli O157:H7. As a result of this research, I have become more interested in the environmental sciences -- and may consider pursuing additional studies in that direction. After all, the environment is our most precious resource.