ASU startup works to create water contamination detector
Photo by Luu Nguyen
A humanitarian takes a sample of local water into a drinking glass — possibly the only source of fluid in miles — and drops a sugar cube into it. Slowly from the center to the outer edge, the fluid changes from a clear see-through color into a muddled black.
This odd transformation presents the aid worker with all the evidence they need to persuade a population to avoid drinking the water and possibly save countless victims. In undeveloped countries, death from water contamination is common. Yet, the remedy sits in a lab, rigorously being tested.
This is a prevalent problem in developing nations, such as in parts of Latin America and Africa, where processed, hygienic water is available in short supply and its inhabitants drink water wherever they find it.
According to the World Health Organization, bacteria and parasites in the water that cause cholera, dysentery as well as other waterborne illnesses, can manifest themselves in diarrhea. Over time, malnutrition and gradual dehydration caused by a persistent case proves deadly for impoverished habitants, especially children; about 2.2 million people perish annually from it.
The solution seems obvious and simple, yet somehow no one had thought to produce this invention until fall of 2012, when a local student startup at ASU, HydroGene Biotechnologies, was created with seed money from an innovation challenge.
Now, the sugar cube, set to premiere in a field test at an ASU field school in Guatemala this summer, will test efficiency for widespread application, and from there hopefully mass production.
One of the company's co-founders, Nisarg Patel, sat down talk with State Press Magazine to discuss this upcoming field test, the origin of using a sugar cube to test water, why the company found a niche in a vacuum and the money it eventually might save nongovernmental organizations and government entities. State Press Magazine: One of your lab partners in a class, now a co-founder of the startup, provided that initial spark of creativity. Is that right? Nisarg Patel: There are five co-founders total. Four of us are biotech/bio-engineering majors and one is a global health and anthropology major. So, the global health major [Madeline Sands] used to go to Guatemala frequently every summer for her research and noticed a lot of the children there were drinking contaminated water, only because they didn't understand that it was contaminated.
The water there is so relatively clear, and they don't understand that there's bacteria and viruses. So, she asked us if we could use bioengineering to help teach people in developing nations which water sources are contaminated and which are safe to drink. SPM: The machinery that is now being used to test water often has cumbersome equipment. What makes it not ideal for the application it is being used in?
NP: A lot of other organizations have made biosensors, mostly for the use of university labs, to detect things like contamination in petri dishes or in the lab.
Our problem was that a lot of them rely on the power of electricity, or that they're as big as a mini-fridge, or they'll cost in upwards of tens of thousands of dollars. It's not suitable for people to use in developing nations, they're complicated to use, they require a lot of power. Those resources just aren't available.
SPM: Where did the idea to use a cube as the biosensor originate?
NP: This idea was one of my other co-founders', who was reading a few papers about how to maintain proteins and vaccines at unstable temperatures because, in developing countries and in the tropics, it's harder to keep proteins from unfolding or denaturing. So, he found out that different sugars could preserve proteins and other molecules, and conveniently enough, sugar will dissolve in water. It really came up by chance and ended up being perfect. SPM: It's odd that it took this long for a simple solution to come to a complex problem like that.
NP: I think the only reason for that is that synthetic biology is a relatively new field and there aren't too many commercial applications for it. A lot of the ways it can disrupt existing types of technology haven't been explored yet.
SPM: What kind of contingencies are you planing for to make sure the field test goes as planned?
NP: We're trying to make the color response go as fast as possible to make it more competitive with other types of technologies. In addition to that, we also want to make sure it's stable at different ranges of temperatures. We're doing some lab tests and tweaking to make sure it's ready to go by summer.
SPM: What makes this an issue that you and your co-founders are passionate about?
NP: I think it's a problem that a lot of people overlook because it's not a very attractive problem to solve, but 1.5 million children die every year from it. It's definitely something that needs to be addressed.
SPM: Just out of curiosity, has your company calculated how much it would save NGOs and governments in the long term?
NP: Well, the leading biosensor on the market is upwards of $25,000, and assuming we gain mass production on the cube, it would be less than two cents a piece.