Since 884 million people lack access to safe water supplies, and 3.573 million people die each year from water-related diseases, it’s clear that securing safe water sources in communities around the world is a pressing issue. Researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) have created a device that might help with the problem — the Swimming Behavioral Spectrophotometer (SBS) monitors the swimming patterns of protozoa — the world’s smallest animals — contained in the device to detect toxins in water. The device can be used to continuously monitor water sources — and not just those in developing countries but in large populous areas as well — and it provides instantaneous feedback on the water’s safety.
WHOI researchers discovered that the swimming patterns of protozoa in water change drastically when toxins or chemicals are introduced. They used this information as the basis to develop the SBS — with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense — as a quick and simple way to test water safety. There are tiny cameras inside the SBS that monitor the protozoa swimming patterns and detect changes in their movement. Right now the device is about the size of a portable gasoline container, but they are working on making smaller easily portable versions. The device expresses water safety using a stoplight code: green means it is safe to drink, yellow means further tests should be done, and red means don’t drink.
“Other, existing water tests with this spectrum of activity take from 24 to 72 hours to generate results and can cost anywhere from $50 to $250 per test,” says Bob Curtis, CEO of Petrel, a company that has licensed the technology for further development. “We estimate that the SBS will perform real-time biological testing and provide nearly instant feedback for just $1 or $2 per test.” The team hopes that the device will be used to monitor industrial waste water discharge, the security and quality of drinking water, and perhaps even the effects of hydraulic fracturing or oil wells on local water supplies. Though it will be a while before the technology is scaled down and perfected for world-wide use, this real-time water safety system could provide us all with a lot of much-needed information.
Via Science Daily