SPOTLIGHT | Checking for microbes in drinking water
with a mobile DNA device
In 2016 Marc van Bemmel was invited by a friend to analyse the treatment efficiency of the Tulip ceramic filter in Malawi. Marc leads the small lab company Orvion in Stolwijk village in the Netherlands. The company uses an DNA-based analysis to test water quality, and this assignment challenged him to see whether a mobile version of this analysis could be a fit for the African market.
Standard methods to analyse faecal contamination of drinking water use Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria as an indicator. Samples have to be kept at a stable temperature and quickly transported to a lab. Also, lab tests take at least 24 hours, as bacteria colonies have to grow before they become detectable. Therefore the testing is costly, time-consuming and often not done, or done without sufficient care with misleading results. Using the mobile DNA device in the field will lead to better results with easy logistics. For the DNA technology no cooled or incubated transport is needed and the results are available at the sampling location and on the Internet.
Marc invited Dick Bouman of VIA Water over to Stolwijk, to give input for this challenge: they discussed whether the ideas would be feasible, where a first pilot could take place, and whether VIA Water would be willing to support it. Dick suggested Mozambique to test the innovation. Not only because of the already established contacts, but also because of the accessibility of possible partners, the possibility to reach government stakeholders and the still poor water quality situation in the country.
The project is currently run by a team with Aleida de Vos (currently being replaced by Marc van Bemmel) and Annelise Herman of Orvion working from the Netherlands, and Tesse Bijleveld working at WE-Consult in Mozambique. Close co-operation is ensured with several local water sector players.
Since the start of the project, about 130 samples have been taken from different sources and places. These samples have been analysed on 5 microbial pathogens , including E. Coli, for which methods have been developed and implemented on the mobile DNA device. At this moment, the pilot is in a stage to test the applicability of the device and app for different situations and users. The actual version is not yet ready for use by the general public, meaning that the first user group will consist of trained lab-analysts and professionals. The data of the 5 microbial species in all drinking water samples will become available in the project report on short notice.
In a next round, costs and consumables might be reduced and the sampling will be simplified, which will make the device and services competitive when compared to current sampling technologies. Moreover, the data are digital, quantitative, available via an Internet portal and more reliable, which makes them more accessible than lab reports.
Annelise and Tesse demonstrated their innovation during the DUPC/VIA Water workshop in Maputo, early May. They attracted quite some attention to their interesting device: people were keen to see how you would be able to work without a big lab, by just having a smart phone, an app and a small sampling device and consumables. The fact that you do not need a 24 hours incubation time to get a mediocre result, but instead are able to get accurate results within 3 hours was another attractive property of the demonstration.
The project leaders assembled quite some learnings during their demonstrations at several organisations and government agencies in Mozambique. This input will now be used to further improve upon the technology, process ánd the business model. To learn more about this, read their blog here.
The project page, including the latest updates, can be found here.