Antimicrobial resistance and pollutants: interactive studies and novel sensor technologies

Lead Research Organisation: Heriot-Watt University
Department Name: Sch of Engineering and Physical Science


Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) represents a major threat to modern healthcare. Since India has one of the highest per capita uses of antibiotics it faces very significant challenges. It is also now known that antibiotic-resistant microbes found in the environment (e.g. water) contribute to the transfer of resistance and in recognition of this the World Health Organisation Global Action recognises the important role played by water. Of particular importance here is the way in which pollutants promote AMR. For example heavy metals in water correlates with AMR. Likewise the wide scale use of compounds such as triclosan (e.g. in soaps, shampoos, toothpaste) is leading to the development of AMR to a range of clinically important antibiotics. However this issue and link between pollutants and AMR is poorly understood. Thus we have a scenario where in India we have very high-levels of antibiotic use and AMR and high levels of pollutants that will exacerbate the problem.

This proposal brings together a team lead by Heriot Watt University and includes the world leading Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, the James Hutton Institute and the University of Edinburgh, building focused, proactive and long-term interdisciplinary partnerships.

This team will develop novel sensors to detect and monitor pollutants focussing on studying AMR co-selectors to improve the understanding of how these pollutants mediated and impact AMR with five integrated work-packages that will

WP1: Identify novel polymers for pollutant pre-concentration (potentially removal at source) and integration into sensors.

WP2: Develop novel sensors to detect and monitor heavy metals, antimicrobials and AMR genes.

WP3: Create low-cost paper-based sensors for pollutants.

WP4: Create easy-to-use, robust, low-cost integrated detection systems.

WP5: Undertake case studies to identify the main AMR genes and levels of pollutant at test sites in India and the UK, and validate the performance of detection methods.

As part of our impact and engagement activities we will provide end-users with information and solutions that will help tackle the significant AMR problem that is linked to India's water quality issues. By leveraging the breadth of our international leading science and engineering excellence across the entire team the team will implement and deploy affordable and practical technologies with the capabilities required by researchers in the field helping to promote sustainable economic growth and welfare within India.

Planned Impact

The primary purpose of this project, and basis for impact and engagement, is to provide a better understanding of the prevalence of different pollutants in water and their impact on AMR, developing new sensor technology to support this monitoring, and to thereby inform the development of management strategies and technologies to reduce pollution levels. This problem exists globally but is particularly critical in India. To achieve long-standing impact, the following measures will be carried out:

- Building and maintain focused, proactive and long-term interdisciplinary partnerships.
- Leveraging the breadth of our international leading science and engineering excellence across the entire team to implement and deploy affordable and practical technologies with the capabilities required by researchers and end users in the field.
- Promoting knowledge transfer, innovation and a culture of indigenous entrepreneurship, while
- Promoting the economic development and welfare of our international partners such that the project outcomes are exploited locally.

The project will impact on a range of stakeholders beyond the academic sphere including the water utility companies, the water regulators, Government policy makers, public health bodies, the commercial private sector of the water industry, sensor and microfluidic manufacturing companies and the general public. We are committed to engaging with all stakeholder groups to maximise the impact of the research outputs from this project with the key objective of developing long-term, sustainable partnerships that promote societal welfare and economic growth in India and will do this through the following activities:
- Outreach Programmes from School Pupils to Universities: The team will design low-cost, fun and engaging activities, explaining the project, to run with school children at science festivals in Scotland, e.g. Bang goes the Borders, Dunbar and Midlothian Science Festivals and European Researchers Night. These resources will be shared with India for use in local schools, educating the local community on the risks of AMR and the role of water/wastewater.
- Media and Public Activities including a Public-focused Website
- Focused Workshops: The plan allows for Workshops both in the UK and in India and these will be funded to allow local industries and policy makers to be invited and to be appraised of the outcomes and successes of the work, with a view to encouraging engagement and (commercial) uptake of the outcomes of the research. Additionally, a workshop with the Sensors for Water Interest Group will be organised in the UK.
- Involvement of policy makers: The data will directly support decision-making by local government agencies, who will be included in the project through invitation to the regular project meetings and dissemination workshops. This will help both India and the UK achieve the Clean Water & Sanitation Global Goal targets of universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water. Policy briefs (individual for UK and India) will be written using the new data generated within this project at the end of year 3 for policymakers in water and public health sectors and environment. These briefs will be written in collaboration with colleagues from the Water Research Centre (Robert Pitchers) in the UK and Tamilnadu Pollution Control Board in India.
- Commercial Exploitation: The entire team have a very strong record associated with the exploitation and application of their research outputs and entrepreneurship. Clearly the technology, knowledge and systems developed in this project are of commercial interest and could potentially result in new products and services. One set of potential customers are the water utilities as well as with private commercial companies acting within the water sector, who will be approached via existing contacts and through the Heriot-Watt Commercialisation Team


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Description The aim of the project is to develop technologies to monitor the spread of antimicrobial resistance via the environment, specifically water, comparing new technologies to existing methodologies in a study of the prevalence of antimicrobial resistance (AMR), and chemicals which influence this, in both India and the UK. Monitoring in India is ongoing and particular AMR genes have been identified to play an important role. New technologies are under development and at present the detection approaches are being linked with sample processing advances to enable the appropriate limit of detection and use in environmental waters.
Exploitation Route Knowledge of the prevalence of genes can inform design of monitoring protocols to ensure water quality and to monitor the effectiveness of treatments and other solutions designed to reduce the spread of AMR through the aquatic environment
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

Description We have used the project to support delivery of public engagement activities through an article and Skype-a-Scientist sessions
First Year Of Impact 2020
Sector Education
Impact Types Societal

Description Low-cost sensor technology to enable end- user testing of drinking water quality: paper-based microfluidics for the detection of faecal indicator organisms
Amount £10,000 (GBP)
Organisation Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2019 
End 10/2020
Description New research collaboration 
Organisation University of Strathclyde
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We are sharing prototype read-out systems in return for support on biological functionalisation protocols
Collaborator Contribution We are sharing prototype read-out systems in return for support on biological functionalisation protocols
Impact Not yet Multidisciplinary - biology, engineering
Start Year 2020
Description SIREN network 
Organisation University of Strathclyde
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We applied for funding lead by University of Strathclyde to establish a network around antimicrobial resistance challenges. We are contributing the expertise developed in our project.
Collaborator Contribution Expertise and knowledge relating to AMR based on previous projects. Time to organise workshops. Further funding will be discussed
Impact First workshop has just been organised Multidisciplinary - biology, chemistry, physics, engineering
Start Year 2020
Description Futurum article 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact We partnered with Futurum to write an article focussed on the project. This was sent out to all Futurum subscribers.
This is your article, which links to a downloadable PDF and the activity sheet:
Here's your activity sheet, which also links to a downloadable PDF:
Here's your activity sheet in the activity sheet landing page:
This has been very useful in underpinning future engagements particularly through Skype-a-Scientist where it was used as the basis for the school children to initially research and develop questions. Via Skype-a-Scientist approx 60 teenagers have been reached at 2 schools in the US. One teacher commented: "One of my students asked more questions today than I've heard him ask all year, so you must have really inspired him"
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019,2020