Beach closures are common on hot summer days in the Windsor area, with water contamination levels keeping people out of Essex County's recreational waters on a regular basis. For Daniel Heath and Doug Haffner of the University of Windsor's Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER), more precise science could tell a different story.
Together with their colleague Dr. Chris Weisener, they're among a team of researchers at the university who are using next-generation DNA sequencing to identify the presence and understand the source of pathogens in the water. The research could identify environmental factors that contribute to bacterial and algal outbreaks, as well as change how such testing is done in the future.
"It's such an obvious application of DNA technology," says Dr. Heath, a professor of conservation genetics who is executive director of GLIER. "We can more broadly screen for potential human health stressors in the water and do it faster," adds Dr. Haffner, Canada Research Chair in Great Lakes Research (Environmental Health) and a professor of aquatic ecology of large lakes.
Their research is being done in collaboration with regional, provincial and federal governments as well as private organizations, and earlier this year was given a more than $500,000 grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. Dr. Heath says it has significant implications for communities on the water looking for better testing methodologies to determine the health of their swimming and drinking water.
More accurate DNA testing "gives us a wide sweep of potential health hazards," Dr. Heath says, including additional bacteria types such as streptococcus, as well as algal blooms and other potentially harmful microbes. It can identify the danger level to human health that dictates beach closings. "We won't be guessing."
"We can more broadly screen for potential human health stressors in the water and do it faster."
Dr. Doug Haffner is Canada Research Chair in Great Lakes Research
The team will compare DNA sequencing with current coliform testing, which identifies E. coli, a group of bacteria found in human waste. One problem is that E. coli itself isn't necessarily unsafe, although its presence can indicate the presence of human waste containing other pathogens.
The first round of data analysis from this past summer's water sampling should be available to the partners in a month. "There's a lot of interest in our results," he says, especially with extreme weather events brought about by climate change that can wash more contaminants into the water.
Dr. Haffner says the DNA sequencing will show if pathogens come from urban or agricultural sources or exist within the lake, for example in bird droppings. "If we identify the source of the contaminants, there can be proper targeted remediation."
Next-generation DNA sequencing can be expensive, he points out, but costs have fallen and it can detect myriad microbes in the water in as little as eight hours. This compares with doing scores of individual sample cultures, which add up and can take two days for results to be available.
He thinks more precise testing could show the region's beaches end up closed when they might safely remain open. It will also help find ways to reduce harmful microbes in the future, he adds. "This could keep the beaches open."
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