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Rapid Method for Testing Water, Air and Soil Pathogen Screening

A highly sensitive, cost-effective technology to rapidly detect bacterial pathogens in the air, soil, water and agricultural produce in as little as 24 hours has been developed by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“Rapid and reliable pathogen detection in field samples is critical for public health, security and environmental monitoring. Current methods used in food, water or clinical applications rely on labor and time-intensive culturing techniques while activities such as dairy farming, wastewater and runoff treatment necessitatesreal-time monitoring of pathogens in environment samples,” explained Dr. Ezra Orlofsky, who led the research while working on his doctorate at the BGU Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research.

The study, which was published in the Water, Air & Soil Pollution Journal, defines an accurate, inexpensive, high-throughput and rapid alternative for screening of pathogens from various environmental samples.

The other researchers participating in the study were Maya Benami; Prof. Amit Gross and Dr. Osnat Gillor from the BGU Zuckerberg Institute for Water Research; Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research; and Michelle Dutt, an environmental engineering student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The research was supported by the US–Israel Binational AgriculturalResearch and Development Fund (BARD), Israel Water Authority, BGU’s Kreitman School for Graduate Studies and the Maccabi Fund. Michelle Dutt was supported by a fellowship from Kraft Foods Group Inc. and the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MIT-MISTI).

“This is the first study to comprehensively assess pathogen concentrations in such a broad variety of environmental sample types while achieving multiple pathogen detection with complete parallel testing by standard (or traditional) methods,” Orlofsky explained.

“We accurately identified Salmonella (S. enterica) in environmental soil samples within 24 hours, while traditional methods take four to five days and require sorting,” Orlofsky said. “We also successfully identified a sometimes-fatal infection, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, in aerosols generated by a domestic wastewater treatment system. The results suggest that the developed method presents a broad approach for the rapid, efficient and reliable detection of relatively low densities of pathogenic organisms in challenging environmental samples.”

In order to evaluate the technology, a variety of environmental samples, including aerosols, soil types, wastewater and vegetable surface, was spiked with Salmonella enterica and/or Pseudomonas aeruginosa which are pathogens the researchers chose because they are leading causes of illness, have a high survival potential in the environment and are considered difficult to detect accurately at low concentration.

“When applied to non-spiked field samples, our method outperformed the standard methods substantially, while detecting pathogens within a day of receiving the samples,” Orlofsky said. “Since this focused and economical screening procedure tells us exactly where to look within a day, we don’t need to monitor hundreds of samples and sub-samples over several days.”

According to the researchers, the two techniques used concomitantly are an evolved “Most Probable Number-type enrichment” used in microbiology testing, coupled with quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) that’s widely used in molecular biology to monitor the amplification of DNA in real time.

Orlofsky said, “We considerably shortened previous protocols, do not use any name-brand expensive re-agents for DNA extraction and purification, and increased the procedure and workflow to segue easily from raw sample to qPCR assays.”

Although detection in soil, water and vegetable samples was highly sensitive (as low as one cell per test), the researchers said they believe additional steps are required to further improve the detection levels so that they reflect low pathogen concentrations, especially ones with low infective doses in aerosols.

The researchers recommend applying this method in the future to other pathogens such as Legionnaire’s Disease, Staph infection and Campylobacter jejuni, the second most common cause of foodborne illness.

 

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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