Fiona BrinkmanFiona Brinkman

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SFU scientists help to improve water-quality testing

April 16, 2012
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Simon Fraser University scientists are participating in a new project to transform the way Canadian agencies monitor water quality.

The project, Applied Metagenomics of the Watershed Microbiome, aims to improve identification of all types of fecal pollution in watersheds and develop new tools to track sources of water contamination.

“We’re trying to see if we can come up with a really good water-quality test that improves on the every ineffective coliform test that is currently used,” says Fiona Brinkman, professor of microbiology. “A fecal coliform count doesn’t detect all disease-causing microbes, so we’re doing a more thorough analysis.”

The project involves collecting water samples from both clean and dirty water sources and then studying all of the genetic material from all of the microbes in the samples.

The scientists will be seeking specific gene markers in the polluted water, in hopes of developing a faster and more accurate water-quality test. The test would replace the currently time-consuming process of growing bacteria in the lab to identify them.

SFU associate professor Rob Holt will be involved in sequencing the microbial samples’ DNA.

Brinkman and SFU PhD alumni Jennifer Gardy and Will Hsiao, now scientists at the BC Centre for Disease Control, will then use sophisticated computer analysis (bioinformatics) to identify the billions of microbial DNA sequences, and determine which microbial gene markers are associated with polluted versus clean water.

Brinkman says investigators can also use the DNA gene markers to link water contamination to the DNA of particular sources, such as septic tanks or animal agricultural runoff.

“If we can stop these contamination problems at the source, we can improve water quality overall, not just at the tap,” she says.

Genome BC and Genome Canada are funding the study, with primary co-funding from an SFU Community Trust Endowment Fund research grant.

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