Real-time, sensitive detection of Escherichia coli in drinking water

2012-2013 E²SHI Seed Grant

Research Team

Rebecca Schulman, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, School of Engineering

Kai Loon ChenAssistant Professor, Department of Environmental Health and Engineering, School of Engineering


Escherichia coli O157:H7 is a food and water borne microbial pathogen that causes 73,000 illnesses in the United States annually. E. coli O157:H7 infection can lead to severe bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and even death. Further, exposure to just a few E. coli O157:H7 microorganisms can cause infection. While techniques exist to detect the pathogen in potentially contaminated waters or in drinking water treatment facilities, such testing currently requires 24-48 hours. Yet speed and sensitivity in testing are critical to detect E. coli in real-time and to prevent infections from spreading.

To address this issue, researchers Rebecca Schulman and Kai Loon Chen tested the feasibility of designing a real-time, sensitive method for detecting E. coli. They proposed to design DNA aptamer-based sensors that work with a quartz crystal microbalance (QCM) to detect pathogens in real time with the goal to develop a specific technique that can quickly and efficiently detect E. coli to prevent the circulation of contaminated drinking water. The study showed that the aptamer-based detection of whole cells on surfaces is a challenging task. However, this study has led to a range of projects that have been refined or evolved from this project. 

Photo credit: Jon Gosier

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