‘Lab in a suitcase’ could provide safer water for millions

Lab in a suitcase

Potentially hazardous bacteria in water can be screened rapidly to save lives anywhere in the world thanks to a testing laboratory that fits into a suitcase.

The portable testing lab is believed to be the first of its kind.

It has been developed by experts from Newcastle University and across Ethiopia as part of UK Research and Innovation’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Water Security and Sustainable Development Hub.

The lab allows researchers to go to any location where waterborne disease is thought to be present and screen the water samples, enabling hazards to be identified:

  • quickly
  • easily
  • cheaply.

The data can be used on-site to:

  • measure the effectiveness of wastewater treatment
  • track faecal source pollution
  • determine water safety.

The affordability of the equipment and the speed of sampling gives public health officials a better opportunity to identify and deal with local hazards, potentially saving countless lives.

About the project

The suitcase lab initially carried out on-site testing of samples collected at Birtley sewage treatment plant in north-east England. It was then used to carry out water quality screening in the Akaki River catchment near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Dr David Werner, Professor in Environmental Systems Modelling at Newcastle University, and the team have been working in the Akaki River catchment with:

  • Addis Ababa Water and Sewerage Authority (AAWSA)
  • Addis Ababa University
  • International Water Management Institute (IWMI).

Dr Werner explains:

With our portable laboratory we successfully screened millions of bacteria in Akaki River water samples and discovered a high prevalence of Arcobacter butzleri, a still poorly understood waterborne hazard that can cause watery diarrhoea, which is, unfortunately still a leading cause of death among children under the age of five.

We have also established strong association of Vibrio cholerae hazards in these samples with human sewage pollution.

Portable tools

The portable tools required for the analysis include:

  • a mini vacuum pump and filtration unit to screen out bacteria from water
  • a vortex and mini centrifuge for the extraction of DNA from the captured bacteria
  • a mini-PCR machine to amplify specific genes which are found in all bacteria
  • a memory-stick sized MinIONTM sequencing device from Oxford Nanopore Technologies which reads millions of gene sequences to classify the bacteria
  • a powerful laptop computer to rapidly interpret the sequencing data
  • various small equipment items such as:
    • pipettes
    • tips
    • biohazard waste bags.

As well as reducing the time required to measure water quality, the project enables the independent use of the tools by researchers and water systems engineers in Ethiopia.

Dr Alemseged Tamiru Haile from the IWMI is confident that this scientific break-through will make a difference in Ethiopia:

I am very happy with the successful collaboration and training that enables early career researchers in Ethiopia to independently investigate bacterial hazards in urban river and wastewater samples with state-of-the-art molecular diagnostics.

Trainees at molecular microbiology workshop AWASA

Trainees at a molecular microbiology workshop.

Ms Jemila Mohammed, who spent time at Newcastle University training to use the kit and is now Head of the Wastewater Quality Control Laboratory Subprocess at AAWSA says:

I am now in charge of World Bank investment into building a state-of-the-art wastewater laboratory for AAWSA and what I have learnt from Newcastle University researchers about advanced microbiology methods and their application to water quality and the monitoring of environmental antibiotic resistance is invaluable in guiding me in this work.

Impacts of the project

The initial investment of the ‘lab in a suitcase’, which includes a £1,000 sequencing device from Oxford Nanopore Technologies and powerful laptop computer, was approximately £10,000.

Dr Werner added:

This is an order of magnitude less than the equivalent conventional equipment and affordable for our partners overseas.

Their challenges now mainly relate to complex purchasing procedures and the lack of reliable supply chains.

We work with Oxford Nanopore Technologies and other equipment manufacturers to support our partners in Africa and beyond.

The teams achievements have been published in Water Research and Science of the Total Environment.

Further development

They are now collaborating to further develop the portable water analysis field kits in Tanzania, with:

Colleagues from Ardhi University, Tanzania, are sequencing environmental DNA

Colleagues from Ardhi University, Tanzania, are sequencing environmental DNA.

The Newcastle University team have also secured support from the Reece Foundation to develop a mobile ‘lab in a van’. It was successfully field tested in autumn 2021 to monitor human sewage marker genes in urban stormwater discharges.

In the future, the mobile ‘lab in a van’ will be used to track down sources of river pollution across catchments in north-east England. There are also plans to visit local schools to educate and inspire the next generation of environmental engineers.

Find out more

Funding for the initial project was received from UKRI through GCRF.

Read more about the GCRF Water Security and Sustainable Development Hub.

Watch a YouTube video from the Early Career Network.

Top image:  'Lab in a suitcase'

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