Often in research, solutions are years, if not decades in the making. But researchers at Michigan State University and Wayne State University have taken their decades of experience to focus on shorter timelines with a series of near-term solutions that will help farmers, scientists in the field, and ultimately the Great Lakes as a whole.

Solutions in the palm of your hand

Waterborne diseases cause about 1.8 million human deaths annually, and 88 percent of those deaths are attributable to unsafe water supply, sanitation and hygiene, according to the World Health Organization.

More than 10 years ago, Evangelyn Alocilja, a professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering with Michigan State’s AgBioResearch, saw a presentation at a conference about the concept of a biosensor. Driven by her desire to save lives, she started developing a sensor that could detect waterborne pathogens in the Great Lakes and beyond.

“If a farmer can find out that the water being used on his crops contains, for example, E. coli, he can take action and stop the contamination,” she says. This discovery helps farmers to save money by not sending contaminated products to market and ultimately having to pull them out of the marketplace. “It can become a double jeopardy situation. Many times, a recall caused by something such as E. coli can bankrupt a company and threaten the whole industry.”

Alocilja is using nanotechnology to develop biosensors that detect infectious disease agents. To use the sensor, a scientist in the field can put a reagent in a sample of water. Then the sample is separated with a magnet. The magnetized product is reconstituted and put into a small biochip. This chip then goes into a handheld reader, which provides a final readout in about an hour.

Each test costs about $2, significantly less than currently available technology, making it a perfect research output for commercialization. nanoRETE, a commercial company funded in part by MSU Technologies, agrees. Alocilja decided to take the step to commercialize when a colleague said, “If you are doing this to save lives, you will never save lives if it stays in your lab.”

Wayne State team developing detection system for invasive species

Over the next two years, Wayne State University researchers Jeffrey Ram and Amar Basu will work to create a device ships can carry to avoid bringing new invasive species into the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes Protection Fund has granted $823,000 for the Automated Ballast Water Treatment Verification Project.

“If successful, this effort will eliminate one of the greatest challenges facing invasive species control: the ability to get feedback at any time of day, and even while ships are underway, that their ballast treatment systems are working to prevent the discharge of live organisms that may have come from other ecosystems,” says Ram, who is a professor of physiology with Wayne State’s School of Medicine.

To create the new system, the researchers are applying automation technology to adapt chemistry used to detect live saltwater organisms to fresh water samples from the Detroit River and elsewhere in the Great Lakes. The method is based on a vital staining process in which a colorless chemical interacts with enzymes to produce bright fluorescence in living organisms.

“Our goal is to develop a simple, rapid method that can be used in the field to make measurements when the ballast water treatments are actually being accomplished so that users can get immediate feedback as to whether their treatment is effective or not,” explains Basu, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, biomedical engineering in the Wayne State College of Engineering.

Speed, ease and automation are necessary to accommodate the ship schedules, Basu adds, noting schedules are constantly subject to last-minute changes. Government agencies, which are also cooperating on the project, also need tools that are easy to use so they can confirm compliance with new ballast water regulations set to take effect in 2016.

In the first two years of the new grant, the team will create a series of increasingly sophisticated prototype systems and test them in the laboratory. Researchers will then use those results to build several prototype versions of the system for testing at the land-based ballast water testing facility of the Great Ships Initiative (GSI) in Superior, Wisconsin. GSI will compare the performance of the automated systems to current labor-intensive microscopic methods established by the EPA’s Environmental Technology Verification Program.

By the middle of the second year, researchers expect to begin shipboard testing, using fully automated devices on at least two working vessels. One of those, the Ranger III, is operated by the U.S. National Park Service and serves Isle Royale National Park. Tests on the other vessel will be set up by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

“The eventual outcome should be a device that is ready for market that stakeholders in ballast water treatment verification are informed about and hopefully will enthusiastically adopt,” says Ram. “This will be a great step forward in protecting the ecology of the Great Lakes.”

Technologies for water research have broader reach

Wherever there is water, there are microbes, and in a state that’s almost half comprised of water, that’s a lot of room for bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa. In most cases, these microbes are just part of the normal biological experience, but once they carry antibiotic resistance it can mean trouble.

“Antibiotic resistance has become a huge human problem because there are some extremely resistant strains of pathogens that are resistant to all known antibiotics,” explains Michigan State AgBioResearch Scientist James Tiedje. As a University Distinguished Professor of Crop and Soil Sciences and of Microbiology and Director of the National Science Foundation Center for Microbial Ecology at MSU, Tiedje’s extensive research has led to a technology that has a much greater impact than just identifying microbes in water.

Together with Syed Hashsham, professor of civil and environmental engineering at MSU, and through a grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp., he founded a university spin-off called AquaBioChip. Identifying antibiotic resistant pathogens among microbes in the Great Lakes will improve researchers’ ability to identify pathogens in plants, water and ultimately food. To do this, the company has developed a device called Gene-Z that is ready to be manufactured. The inventors are working with MSU Technologies to bring the product to market.

To use the Gene-Z device, researchers take a swab for pathogens and transfer the sample to a microfluidic chip, which is inserted into the device. Used with an iPod Touch or Android-based tablet, Gene-Z can identify the pathogen, its genotype and its amount in 10 to 30 minutes.

“We’ve already successfully proven Gene-Z’s capacity for qualifying cancer markers,” says Hashsham. “With this application, we can speed the analysis of pathogens in plants, water and food with the ultimate goal of improving the safety and security of food supplies anywhere in the world,” a particularly important point for a water-rich state such as Michigan.

Whether it’s hand-held devices, iPod integration, creating safer food through better water or researching through a ship’s ballast, the near-term solutions spinning out of Michigan’s universities are having a real impact in the short- and long-term.