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FLC gets $75K funding from EPA to transform water quality testing, improve public health
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FLC gets $75K funding from EPA to transform water quality testing, improve public health

DURANGO, Colo. — Fort Lewis College has received a $75,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a new system that would allow for more rapid, accurate, and cost-effective analysis of bacteria in environmental water samples.

The grant is part of nearly $1.2 million in funding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) funding to 16 college student teams to research and develop innovative solutions that address environmental and public health challenges as part of the Agency’s People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) Program.

“Access to clean water is critical for protecting human health and the environment,” said KC Becker, EPA Regional Administrator. “Congratulations to these Fort Lewis College students, whose ground-breaking project develops innovative solutions to some of the most difficult water-quality challenges facing our region.” 

The new system being studied at FLC could be a game-changer for environmental research and public health, providing more accurate results in the field, and offering a cost-effective solution that is 100 times less expensive than commercial alternatives, said Yiyan Li, PhD, an associate professor of Computer Engineering and lead investigator in the project.

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

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.

Traditional Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) methods are restricted by the requirement for extensive lab work, costly equipment, and the inability to detect bacteria at very low concentrations, Li said.

The ddPCR technology proposed by FLC, however, hopes to overcome these challenges by partitioning water samples into millions of micro-droplets, allowing for single-cell detection and significantly enhancing the sensitivity of bacterial detection, Li said.

According to Li, ddPCR is a precise method for quantifying DNA and unlike traditional PCR methods that amplify DNA to detectable levels, ddPCR further partitions the DNA sample into thousands or millions of tiny droplets. This allows for more precise measurement of the DNA in a sample because it concentrates the reporting signal into micro-droplets.

With ddPCR water testing, Li said it’s possible to achieve a higher level of sensitivity and accuracy, making it possible to detect even a few bacteria in large volumes of water. 

The team at FLC aims to create an integrated, portable box that combines a homemade PCR thermocycler and optical detector for droplet digital PCR (ddPCR), dramatically reducing costs and improving accessibility. This open-source ddPCR system will enable precise detection of bacteria and pathogens in water samples, offering a practical solution for field workers and researchers alike.

“This could be a great contribution to this field of study,” he said.

Since the project began around 2019, Li said 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.

Because the advancement of this particular water sampling method involves several different fields of study, it has allowed students from a range of diverse backgrounds and interests to participate and hone their skills.

“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.”

As another benefit, Li said, the project emphasizes community outreach and education, collaborating with local environmental non-profits, high schools, and Native American tribes to highlight the importance of water resource protection. Li said presentations are planned at Diné College in Arizona as well as Navajo Technical University and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in New Mexico.

Upon completion, the project expects to validate the ddPCR system with samples from the Animas River in Durango, publish its findings, and host educational workshops to engage and train the next generation of environmental professionals.

Chris Frey, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development, added: “EPA is pleased to mark the 20th anniversary of our P3 program by announcing this impressive round of projects that are tackling critical issues such as removing PFAS from water, combating harmful algal blooms, and materials recovery and reuse,” he said. “I commend these hardworking and creative students and look forward to seeing the results of their innovative projects that are addressing some of our thorniest sustainability and environmental challenges.”

Read the EPA news release

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