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Forensics help SA Water


1 February 2006


Forensics help SA Water deliver top drop in State


A new rapid method for testing water quality further enhances SA Water’s emerging global reputation as a world leader in research and development


SA Water delivers reliable and high quality drinking water to over 1.4 million South Australians.


Reminiscent of the popular television program CSI, SA Water’s scientists from the Australian Water Quality Centre (AWQC) at Bolivar have been trialling high tech water analysis technology, to take the lab to the field, or in this case, to the dam, river or stream.


SA Water’s Research and Development Manager, Associate Professor Chris Saint says the focus of this ground-breaking research has been to develop an assay which allows for the rapid detection of a variety of problem-causing micro-organisms in water.


“This new technology provides results in as little as an hour, which is crucial when dealing with toxic cyanobacteria (blue-green algae),” Assoc Prof Saint says.

There are several advantages to using the technology — it can be taken out to relatively remote testing sites, samples can be run soon after collection so that degradation doesn’t occur and analysis of water storages over time is easily performed.


In the case of toxic types of blue-green algae, the technology does not have to be super sensitive.  Scientists are interested in levels of 1000-3000 cells per millilitre (ml), which given the right environmental conditions can rapidly bloom to dangerous levels of 100,000 cells per ml or more.


Research Microbiologist Dr Paul Rasmussen is using the system to identify and quantify the presence of genes that lead to the production of toxins in blue-green algae.  Typically, the presence of the blue-green algae is identified through microscopy, which provides information on the number of algal cells per ml, while the toxins are detected using chemical analysis methods such as liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry (LC/MS).


“This two-step process is time-consuming and expensive and sometimes results show that the algae present are not producing toxins at all,” Dr Rasmussen said.


“The new method investigates whether the genes required for the production of toxins are present in the first place.


“Very low levels of DNA can be detected from specific genes found in blue‑green algae and this information can show whether toxic algae may be present and what type of algae they might be…the technology works in much the same way as a forensic investigation, where the DNA from a crime scene can be used to identify the criminal,” Dr Rasmussen said.


The mobile detection device, which is about the size of a car battery and runs from a laptop computer, allows for multiple water samples to be taken and analysed quickly and efficiently.


This new method has helped SA Water establish more flexible laboratories, resulting in time and cost savings and improved accuracy of water testing processes.


Chris Saint will speak at the Water Industry Operators Australia (WIOA) Conference, Tuesday 4 April in Rockhampton Queensland.  Chris also delivered a platform paper on this technology at the Ozwater Conference in Brisbane in May 2005.


Paul Rasmussen was invited to Central Queensland University as part of the Distinguished Visitors Program in December 2005 to discuss his post-doctoral research on rapid PCR testing.


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