Researchers at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada, recently developed a quicker and cheaper method for communities to test the presence of potentially dangerous Escherichia coli (E. coli) in their drinking water.

E. coli is a gram-negative, enabling anaerobic coliform bacterium of the genus Escherichia, commonly found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded organisms (endotherms), and some types of E coli can cause serious food poisoning.

The new method of testing for E coli uses paper strips similar to those used in litmus tests to generate results in under three hours and at an affordable cost of 50 cents, as opposed to current tests that can take up to three days to provide results and cost around $70.

Sushanta Mitra, executive director, Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology, said: “This has the potential to allow routine, affordable water testing to help billions of people in the developing world avoid getting sick.”

The bottom of the paper strips is laced with sugar that begin dissolving the minute the paper is placed in water. E. coli bacteria are attracted by the sugar trail and get trapped in the porous paper when they come in contact with it.

As the water enters the paper strip, it carries the trapped E. coli into a section of the strip that contains a mixture of chemicals that reacts with the bacteria, turning the strip a pinkish-red, which signifies a positive test.

This is a wonderful breakthrough that can be used to enhance water safety in remote or rural areas of the developing world, where the current tests are too expensive. The tests will also help reduce testing costs for municipal treatment systems.

The tests are currently being refined by Glacierclean Technologies, and it is hoped that they will be available for use in the near future.

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