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Fort Lewis College receives grant from EPA for water testing solutions

Program seeks to lower cost and time it takes to test for bacteria in samples
The project is part of a $1.2 million grant going toward 16 colleges across the nation. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Fort Lewis College has received $75,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a system that will allow for a quicker and more accurate way to test water samples for harmful bacteria.

It is part of nearly $1.2 million in funding given to 16 college student teams across the country to research and develop solutions that address environmental and health challenges as part of the agency’s People, Prosperity and the Planet program.

“Access to clean water is critical for protecting human health and the environment,” said KC Baker, EPA’s regional administrator, in a news release. “Congratulations to these Fort Lewis College students, whose groundbreaking project develops innovative solutions to some of the most difficult water-quality challenges facing our region.”

The system being studied by Fort Lewis College is intended to be significantly cheaper than other water sampling alternatives, said Yiyan Li, associate professor of Computer Engineering.

“We want to use this advanced technology to detect waterborne bacteria in the field faster and (more) accurately,” Li said. “The potential of this method could also extend to identifying DNA-based pathogens, including COVID-19 and other viruses and bacteria.”

The project – called the “Open-Source Droplet Digital PCR (ddPCR) System for the Rapid and Accurate Detection of Bacteria from Environmental Water Samples” – has received three grants from the EPA in the past five years – a testament to its potential impact, Li said.

The proposed ddPCR system costs less than $1,000 per system, according to the grantee research project results.

Li said traditional polymerase chain reaction methods tend to be restricted by the requirement for extensive lab work, costly equipment and the inability to detect bacteria at low concentrations.

The proposed technology seeks to overcome those challenges by partitioning water samples into millions of micro-droplets, allowing for single-cell detection and significantly enhancing the sensitivity of bacterial detection.

She said ddPCR is a precise technique for quantifying DNA, which involves dividing the DNA sample into millions of small droplets, in contrast to other PCR techniques that amplify DNA to detectable levels.

Since the project began about 2019, more than 15 undergraduate FLC students have participated, many of whom went on to work at major national laboratories such as Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory, both located in New Mexico, according to the release.

“It’s important to advance science, but as an educator and researcher at FLC, it’s more important to serve the students and their career path,” Li said. “These students were trained by the work in this project, they can apply skills directly to what they want to pursue in their careers and get good jobs. That's the most significant outcome.”

Li said in order to underline the value of protecting water resources, the project focuses on community outreach and education. It does so by working with nearby environmental nonprofits, high schools and Native American tribes. According to Li, presentations are scheduled at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in New Mexico, Navajo Technical University and Diné College in Arizona.

Once complete, the project expects to validate the ddPCR system with samples from the Animas River in Durango, publish findings, and host educational workshops to engage and train future environmental professionals.


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