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Five collaborating laboratories win German innovation award

Mülheim Water Award for rapid E. coli test with RT-PCR

KWR, AquaLab Zuid, Het Waterlaboratorium, the Vitens laboratory and Waterlaboratorium Noord have won the German Mülheim Water Award 2020. The collaborating laboratories received the award for their work on a new molecular-biological technique (RT-PCR) as a rapid E. coli test in drinking water. The innovative test produces a result within four hours, which is at least six times faster than usual.

The Mülheim Water Award is a prestigious prize accorded to innovations for a sustainable water management, and a safe and secure drinking water provision. The winners have distinguished themselves in the development of innovative, practice-oriented concepts and application-ready solutions for future challenges in the area of water systems and water analysis. The award was presented in the Mülheim town hall.

Representatives from the drinking water laboratories receive the Mülheim Water Award. In the foreground (from left to right): Rik de Vries (WLN), Liesbeth Vissers (Aqualab Zuid) and Leo Heijnen (KWR). Directly behind them (with white badges) the representatives of the award’s sponsors (RWW and Gerstel). They are all wearing face masks because of the strict corona measures.

Worldwide breakthrough

The use of RT-PCR represents a worldwide breakthrough in the monitoring of drinking water quality, which not only benefits public health (rapid signalling of and reaction to contamination), but also the efficiency of work activities on the distribution network (rapid confirmation of hygienic conditions in the context of pipe repair or replacement).

Power of collaboration

In 2018, the collaborating laboratories and KWR already won the BTO Implementation Award for the RT-PCR technique with E. coli. This prize is awarded to research within the Joint Research Programme of KWR and the water utilities, with the aim of rewarding successful collaborations between water utility/Vewin staff members and KWR researchers, in which the knowledge transfer results in application in practice. Participation of “De Watergroep”, Pidpa and water-link strengthened this collaborative effort and resulted in the implementation of RT-PCR in the Flemish part of Belgium. Leo Heijnen, a researcher at KWR, sees the collaboration producing even more benefits besides the direct implementation of new developments. ‘Thanks to this approach, we produce uniform methods that are applied in the same manner in all the labs,’ says Heijnen. ‘This promotes the quality of the work. The collaboration also runs smoothly because the participants, in terms of their knowledge and skills, complement each other well.’

Leo Heijnen BSc
Leo Heijnen BSc

Award-winning technique

For Heijnen, the RT-PCR technique’s success in winning the Mülheim Water Award means that, for the first time, there is a recognition of the importance of having a method, other than the traditional E. coli culture, that can and may be applied in determining the hygienic quality of distributed drinking water.

Very promising future

Now that the RT-PCR’s DNA technique has been unlocked for the drinking water sector, it can be further developed to supplement the sector’s toolkit. Thus, for example, work is ongoing on the development and validation of methods that would also monitor other microbial parameters covered by statutory obligations, such as intestinal enterococci. ‘The future of molecular-biological techniques for the rapid and effective monitoring of the microbial safety of our drinking water is very promising,’ says Heijnen.

Mülheim Award 2022

The Mülheim Water Award was first presented in 2006. During the course of the seven competitions that have been held so far, a total of 150 submissions have been made from 25 different European countries, covering the entire spectrum of water management. The next award will be presented in 2022, and it is expected that the competition will begin in December 2021.