Microbe Detectives Brings DNA Sequencing to Water

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett wants southeastern Wisconsin to be known as the “Fresh Coast.” Others have thrown around the phrase “Silicon Valley of water.”

Marketing verbiage aside, the conversation around turning this region on the shores of Lake Michigan into a fresh water business hub continues to grow louder.

Southeastern Wisconsin is home to the nation’s first graduate school for studying fresh water (at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and its first water business institute (University of Wisconsin-Whitewater).

The Milwaukee region has a cluster of more than 150 water technology companies, according to The Water Council, a Milwaukee-based organization launched in 2007 with the aim of making southeastern Wisconsin an international hub for fresh water research, education, and economic development. Xconomy plans to explore this sector with a series of stories on interesting water technology startups in the Milwaukee area. First up: Microbe Detectives.

Giving “Wet Lab” New Meaning

The growing speed and affordability of DNA sequencing has opened up all kinds of doors for scientists over the past decade, from pinpointing the genes involved in human diseases to solving the mystery of a dog’s mixed breed.

Now Trevor Ghylin is applying genome sequencing to the water industry.

His Milwaukee startup, Microbe Detectives, uses sequencing to analyze samples of wastewater, well water, and drinking water to identify and quantify all the bacteria present, such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Cryptosporidium. That last one is particularly infamous in Milwaukee, which suffered the worst waterborne disease outbreak in U.S. history 20 years ago. (A smaller set of cases this year was reportedly traced to pool water.)

Could daily monitoring of Milwaukee’s water system using DNA sequencing have prevented the big outbreak? Ghylin said it’s “hard to say for sure,” but there’s evidence that Microbe Detectives’ process is faster and more efficient and provides more complete information than the current test required by federal regulators, he and industry observers said.

“Certainly if a water utility is using this type of DNA monitoring on a daily basis for their water, they would see just about everything in their water,” Ghylin said.

The current standard for water monitoring involves a petri dish test for coliforms, bacteria that indicate potential fecal contamination, Ghylin said. The test is cheap, easy to perform, and largely effective—but not perfect, he said.

“Just because you don’t have coliforms growing in a petri dish does not mean you have safe water,” Ghylin said. “What DNA offers is getting a lot more information than just this one indicator bacteria. It’s a lot more powerful.”

Ghylin, a North Dakota native, has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of North Dakota and a master’s in civil and environmental engineering from University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Having worked as an engineering consultant for five years, he’s also in the third and final year of a PhD program in civil and environmental engineering at UW-Madison, where he focuses on fresh water bacterial genetics.

“The science side of me really found [fresh water bacterial genetics] fascinating,” Ghylin said. “The engineering side of me was always wondering, ‘This is interesting, but how can we use this for anything useful? Is this just a science experiment to try and expand our knowledge, or is there something useful to society here?’”

He started talking with environmental engineers who wanted to better understand the bacteria in their wells, wastewater treatment systems, and water distribution systems.

A few engineers sent him water samples and paid him for a DNA-based microbial analysis. Ghylin realized there was a market for this, and he founded Microbe Detectives in 2012 while still pursuing his PhD.

His startup is now housed in … Next Page »

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