Lab Canada

Improved drinking water tests the goal of $3.2M project

Vancouver, BCJust over a decade ago, a small Ontario town was the epicenter of Canada’s most significant drinking water related disaster. Close to half of Walkerton’s 5,000 residents fell ill and seven people lost their lives due to the highly dangerous strain of E. coli bacteria found in their drinking water. A research team in the British Columbia Public Health Laboratories, located at the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), is currently using a novel approach called metagenomics to help prevent another disaster like the one in Walkerton.

Genome BC, Genome Canada and other partners are providing funding for a new research project, “Applied Metagenomics of the Watershed Microbiome,” which aims to develop a better way to identify the presence of the fecal pollution in watersheds (which is indicated by the presence of E. coli bacteria), and provide new tools to track sources of water contamination. Over the next three years, the $3.2 million project will not only develop a prototype for more effective water testing, but also aims to fundamentally change the current paradigm of slow and often imprecise culture-based bacterial testing.

Current drinking water testing collects samples from the tap, rather than at the source watershed, and testing for bacteria contaminants such as E. coli, often takes more than two days to complete. If a water supply has been contaminated, this processing time is simply too long as the water would already have reached people’s homes. Additionally, these tests do not always reflect contamination of water by non-bacterial pathogens such as parasites or viruses. By applying metagenomics, a much more robust method that can identify many pollutants at once, this research will improve current analysis methods by enabling faster testing at the watershed level. This simplified testing process will reduce days to hours, and provide profiles of all microbes present in a water sample rather than just E. coli bacteria.

Engaging in source water testing, rather than testing from the tap, will allow for more effective interventions in instances where contamination is found. Furthermore, with the microbial source-tracking tool that is being developed, the origin of the pollution can be identified quickly and then treated. By looking at all types of microbial pollution, the research will bypass the need to use E. coli as a baseline bacteria, as it is a poor indicator because it dies relatively quickly. Giardia, Cryptosporidium and other dangerous parasites can survive for months in cold water and currently there is no process for detecting them.

“This funding will allow us to develop methods for more effective source water testing,” says Dr Patrick Tang, project co-leader. “The next step will be implementation, and we are confident that the prototype we are developing will ensure that safe, rapid water supply testing becomes a reality.”

The BCCDC will be an early adopter of this testing method and the research project is partnering with the Canadian Water Network in the third year of the project to pilot the water-testing prototype in watersheds across Canada.

The project is addressing this significant challenge with a view to protecting not only Canadian water supplies, but also those around the world.

“Clean drinking water is a fundamentally important global issue. Even in a developed nations, like ours, we need to better manage our water supply,” says Dr Judith Isaac-Renton, project co-leader. “The tools we currently have at our disposal are simply inadequate. Through the work of the multidisciplinary team, substantial improvements to current water protection approaches will be realized. These new tools will go a long way towards water quality improvements.”

More information about the project can be found at