Potable water is our most important nutrient. We drink it every day. That's why it is even more important to know what sort of microorganisms are in the water we drink and what diseases these can cause in humans if they occur in sufficient numbers. Scientists at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Braunschweig are now coordinating an EU project that is exploring this question.
With this "Healthy Water" project, the European Union is aiming to learn more about the quality of its water and apply this knowledge toward improving its drinking water guidelines. The project will run over a period of three years at a cost of € 2.4 million. It is financed by the European Union.
"The drinking water quality in Germany," says project coordinator, Dr. Manfred Höfle, "is outstanding." Unfortunately, this same degree of safe and potable water does not exist everywhere in Europe. That's why one key focus of the project is on high risk water sources and distribution systems. Another problem is that monitoring water resources for pathogen impurities is less than satisfactory. "We currently only determine one particular bacteria count," says Höfle," and that is E. coli. We know virtually nothing about the frequency of other bacteria, viruses, or so-called protozoa, which are single-cell animals."
Helmholtz scientists hope to test and develop further a new kind of chip they are working on with the other nine EU project partners from industry and the research community. The chip is designed to detect microorganisms that have not been empirically catalogued in the past. Dr. Höfle and his colleagues are building on their experience with the so-called "aqua-chip", which has already proved effective in detecting bacterial pathogens.
"What we now want to do is increase the number of pathogens we can detect and make the chip sensitive to viruses," explains Dr. Ingrid Brettar, one of the scientists involved in the project. This requires a great deal of sophistication because for bacteria and protozoa DNA is used as proof. Many viruses, on the other hand, store their genetic information on RNA molecules. "The chip," emphasizes Brettar, "must therefore recognize both DNA and RNA."
The new chip will be able to detect previously ignored germs in our drinking water. This ability will open up new opportunities for protecting humans from water-borne infectious diseases. "We suspect that contaminated water causes more illnesses than generally believed," says Dr. Höfle. But to find out which infectious diseases in Europe are induced by unhygienic water, the consortium of scientists involved in the EU project is not banking on the new chip alone. "We also intend to conduct a broad epidemiological study, sending questionnaires to doctors in specific parts of Europe to identify factors that could suggest a correlation between infections and unclean drinking water," Höfle explains. "So far, we do not have this kind of structured data in Europe," he notes. "We think this will give us some indication which pathogens we should pay particular attention to when developing the chip. In doing so, we hope to make a significant contribution toward improving the quality of drinking water in Europe."
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