Lab-on-a-Paper for Point-of-Use Microbial Source Tracking

Lead Research Organisation: CRANFIELD UNIVERSITY
Department Name: School of Water, Energy and Environment


Water contamination with microbial organisms in water systems, including drinking, ground, recreational, and wildlife, is a global issue. Even with well-operated drinking-water treatment plants, such as those available in Scotland and the UK, drinking water distribution systems are vulnerable to episodic pathogen intrusion (from pressure losses, repairs or rain-induced run-off of dirty water), presenting high risks to human health and significant economic losses. For example the Centre for Disease Control in the United States (one of the safest drinking water systems in the world) estimate that there are 4-32 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illness per year from public drinking water systems. Contamination is also impacting local distribution systems with decentralised facilities, such as those present in many low and middle-income countries (LMICs) as well as remote areas of 'developed' countries (such as Scotland). In this Fellowship, low-cost, deployable paper-based biosensor devices (lab-on-a-paper) will be developed for the online monitoring of water quality.

Using sensors built around simple and low-cost paper-based devices to process water samples, we will develop rapid, sensitive and easy-to-use testing devices that can detect genetic markers of pathogens, along with co-markers of their origins, a key capability to identify multiple pathogens in drinking water and track their source. For example, the detection of human DNA markers could potentially infer a human faecal contamination, while animal genes (e.g. cattle, pig, etc...) could help identify agricultural sources. By deploying these portable sensors, we will obtain data on contamination patterns and dynamics, which in turn will provide the ability to not only rapidly respond to the contamination and curtail it before consumption of drinking water, but also design new surveillance systems and build new understandings of the pathways taken by the contaminating pathogens in the environment.

The detection of microbial contamination together with its tracing and tracking in the environment is currently performed mainly by isolating, culturing and identifying the pathogens against known contaminants, through a long process that can take many days and extensive technical expertise. New procedures have been improved to enable faster testing via the molecular detection of specific genetic markers or the pathogens (< 1 hour), but these currently require centralised facilities and skilled personnel, preventing their use in the field. The technologies developed in this Fellowship will allow the detection of multiple genetic markers rapidly, in the field. These highly multiplexed assays will provide the capability for industry to provide a rapid and dynamic response to a contamination, and to identify and track its source.

Working with Scottish Water, we will validate the devices in the field in Scotland. Our close collaboration will ensure that the developments are relevant to the end-users, such that the translation into practical use can be accomplished with minimal delay and risk. This will have the potential to enable "sustainable communities and sustainable homes", an initiative of Scottish Water for small rural communities which is particularly important in Scotland as well as affording opportunities for growth internationally.

Beyond rural communities in high-resources settings, decentralised water systems are also present in low and middle-income countries. Through interactions with NGOs, we will aim to explore the impact of the technologies developed in this Fellowship in the wider community, globally.

In future, our biotechnological platform will also enable source tracking and monitoring in the wider environment (e.g. agricultural processes), including antimicrobial resistance, thus providing a cornerstone in solving challenges arising to maintain a healthy population, a key strand of the UK Industrial Strategy.


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Jeffrey P (2022) The status of potable water reuse implementation. in Water research

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Pan Y (2022) Paper-based devices for rapid diagnosis and wastewater surveillance in TrAC Trends in Analytical Chemistry

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Spatola Rossi C (2023) Microfluidics for Rapid Detection of Live Pathogens in Advanced Functional Materials

Description Through the past year research, we have developed a new paper-based device for the organism detection in drinking water. This platform allows for the multiplexed detection of several microbial contamination within less than 1 hour. The sensing device is also very cheap and easy-to-use. Apart from this, we have also developed an paper-microfluidic electrochemical biosensors for the rapid detection of protein biomarker, however, this electrochemical aptamer sensor can be adapted to detect a range of chemical contaminants for rapid monitoring of water quality. We also have extend the platform to test a range of water contaminants.
Exploitation Route This sensors platform has significant advantages of fast responding time (from sample to answer less than 1 hour), cost-effective and user-friendly. We have developed paper-based sensors, allowing for the detection of the chemical and microbial contaminant in water, as well as for SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater. This could be of significant help for the industry in water sector, for example, our industry partner Scottish Water.
Sectors Agriculture

Food and Drink




Description We have now been attracted wide interests by the water utility companies, and we hope that we can transfer this technology for the industry. The main findings have been filed a UK/PCT patent and we are hoping the technology can be scaled up for surveillance.
Sector Chemicals,Environment,Healthcare
Description Lab-on-a-Paper for Point-of-Use Microbial Source Tracking
Amount £266,568 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/R013349/2 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2019 
End 07/2021
Description National COVID-19 Wastewater Epidemiology Surveillance Programme
Amount £791,191 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/V010441/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2020 
End 11/2021
Title Raman sensors- WR-2021 
Description Experimental data for the article 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2021 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Provide temporal and spatial data sets for illicit drug use as a literature reference. 
Title Apparatus and Method for Rapid Monitoring of Pathogens in Water 
Description It provides a rapid and on-site method for the enrichment and detection of pathogens in water and wastewater. 
IP Reference  
Protection Patent application published
Year Protection Granted 2022
Licensed No
Impact It provides a rapid and on-site method for the enrichment and detection of pathogens in water and wastewater.
Description Researchers Seek a Simple, Rapid Test for SARS-CoV-2 in Sewage 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Onsite testing at wastewater treatment plants could aid efforts to monitor for outbreaks of COVID-19 around the world, but such technologies are in the early stages of development.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020