Contaminated drinking water is the cause of thousands of illnesses and disease every year. Without access to clean water, food production, drinking water, and recreational use can cause individuals to be exposed to many preventable health risks. According to the World Health Organization, at least 2 billion people globally are affected by feces-contaminated drinking water. One dominant bacterium, E.Coli, is found prevalently in contaminated water.

What is E.Coli?

Escherichia coli, or E.Coli, is a common type of bacterium that originates in the intestines of animals and can also be found in human guts. While many strains of E. Coli are not harmful to humans, there are several strains that can lead to illness and infection. E. coli O157: H7 is one strain that causes severe illness and infections in humans. The strain produces Shiga, a powerful toxin that can lead to infection in the intestines. Severe diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and pain in the abdomen are common symptoms to those exposed, and in severe cases, the infection can be life-threatening especially to those with weaker immune systems. Other types of E.Coli can cause urinary tract infections and can lead to respiratory illness, pneumonia, and meningitis.

The presence of E.Coli in drinking water strongly indicates the water has been contaminated by feces in addition to several other pathogens. Animal waste is the main source of E.Coli presence and can contaminate water when their waste enters our water systems. This can occur in several different ways, including pollution and agricultural runoff, sewage overflows, flooding, and poorly maintained sewage systems. This water contamination can occur anywhere but is more common in rural areas and developing countries.

Determining the presence of E.Coli and other pathogens in the water can take an extended amount of time. However, one new test offers a solution to quickly detecting and eliminating the presence of E.Coli in water.

Research conducted by associate professor of food science at Cornell, Sam Nugen, has led to a new test that not only cuts time and costs of identifying E.Coli but can actually eliminate the presence of the bacterium.

T7 coliphage is a type of bacteriophage that can detect and infect most strains of E.Coli. Researchers genetically engineered the bacteriophage to carry a gene for an enzyme NLuc luciferase. The enzyme was developed based on a deep sea shrimp who carries a similar luciferase enzyme that is released as a defense mechanism, producing a bioluminescent glow. Luciferase is also found in the glow produced by fireflies.

This newly designed bacteriophage, named T7NLC, will find and infect E.Coli that is present in water and will glow. Nugen explains, “This bacteriophage detects an indicator. If the test determines the presence of E. coli, then you should not be drinking the water, because it indicates possible fecal contamination.”

Public health and the development of communities are strongly impacted by contaminated water. Outbreaks of foodborne illnesses are common, leading to thousands of preventable health risks every year. Research and tests like the one developed by Professor Nugen and his team offer a promising solution to quickly detecting and eliminating the presence of E.Coli, improving the quality of life for people all over the world.