Urgency and transparency drive research

Application of RT-PCR after disinfection

Demand-driven research and open communications: two success factors in sector research for water companies (BTO). That has been demonstrated by the development and legal approval of a rapid RT-PCR test for the detection of faecal contaminants in drinking water. ‘Everyone has the same drive,’ says Adrie Atsma of the Water Expertise Centre of Vitens N.V.

Traditionally, culture techniques have been used to demonstrate the presence or absence of indicator organisms for faecal contamination in drinking water. This is a time-consuming approach for which water companies would like an alternative. Drinking water laboratory WLN laid the foundations for a rapid RT-PCR test that uses molecular techniques so that detection takes only a few hours instead of two days. This opportunity for innovation was picked up enthusiastically in the context of sector research. As part of the thematic research looking at biological safety, a project group was established with representatives from the drinking water laboratories WLN, Aqualab Zuid, HWL, De Watergroep (Belgium), Vitens Water Expertise Centre and the KWR research institute. In a relatively short period of time, they succeeded in transforming the RT-PCR test from an experiment into a legally approved method. An extraordinary achievement that was recognised by the BTO Implementation Award.

Committed, open and transparent

As the chair of the project group, Atsma believes that this award was entirely merited. And he is proud of the commitment of the participants. ‘From the outset, I said that we needed an open and transparent approach in the project group and that we should not see ourselves as competitors. That has worked wonderfully. We share each other’s knowledge and also the concerns we have. Sometimes, decisions are made that you won’t agree with 100%. But we accept that from each other. Everyone has the same drive. It’s all about providing the customer with the best possible quality of drinking water.’ Atsma agrees that a cultural shift is taking place in the collective research programme for the drinking water sector. In other project groups as well, it is clear to see how participants make each other stronger. ‘For example, a drinking water laboratory has no chance of getting legislation passed on its own. And by working together, you can acquire an enormous amount of knowledge. You learn something new at every meeting.’

Demand-driven research

Another trend that Atsma has observed is the increasing involvement of the scientific research sector. ‘Research could often be quite remote from actual practice. We are now seeing KWR coming to us with client-oriented questions. There is an ongoing improvement in the orchestration of what is needed in the field of drinking water.’ The Vitens Water Expertise Centre provided the field data for the validation of the RT-PCR method. KWR studied the possibilities and properties of the technique, for example by looking at developments around the world. Leo Heijnen, a KWR researcher, explains: ‘This project generated a lot of molecular knowledge. We can use that to develop new techniques. The rapid RT-PCR test has now received legal approval for E. coli. We are currently working on validation for enterococci.’

Demonstrable urgency

The RT-PCR test has now been legally approved for two years. It takes time for an innovation of this kind to get established in the system, as demonstrated by the fact that traditional bacterial cultures are still being used alongside this test. If there is a positive result for E. coli, a second check is still required. Atsma believes this is because we are still in the transitional phase. ‘We need to get a better feel for the results first. And of course, we remain critical. For example, after disinfection, we sometimes found E. coli in water samples with the rapid method but not with the culture method. We conducted additional research to find out why. And the RT-PCR test is still standing.’ Heijnen applauds the flexible approach that the research field has adopted to address additional questions of this kind from the field. ‘It shows how urgently drinking water companies need this method. New projects start up quickly, which means we can anticipate any problems easily. The good relationships between the participants are enormously helpful in that respect.’

Added value

In terms of urgency as a driving factor, Atsma points to the added value of the rapid RT-PCR test for drinking water companies. ‘Particularly in emergencies, the crux for us is to be in a position to downgrade recommendations to our clients to boil water. That is good for our image. In addition to speed, the increased sensitivity of the innovative technique also gives us a better picture of the status of the drinking water. E. coli is sometimes missed with the traditional culture technique. The new molecular approach makes it possible to look for better indicators of faecal contamination. And we are also looking at how we can use RT-PCR technology more widely, for example to limit the duration of cleaning operations using discharges. This saves water and matches the Vitens N.V. philosophy: Every Drop Sustainable.’

Changes to operations

Because it is a sensitive rapid test, the RT-PCR technique does have implications for the operations of drinking water laboratories. Atsma: ‘People have to be flexible during emergencies anyway. For example because they have to conduct tests in the middle of the night. In addition, the technique requires specific equipment. And investments are needed for clean working. All the drinking water laboratories are happy to cooperate with the introduction of molecular techniques.’

Vision of the future

The jury report for the BTO Implementation Award that was awarded to the research into the rapid RT-PCR test painted a picture of the future in which the microbiological safety of our drinking water can be monitored in real time. How realistic is this vision? Researcher Heijnen: ‘Some challenges still have to be overcome before we reach that stage. This is a very sensitive technique that involves measuring very low concentrations of bacteria. A simple dipstick that you can also use outside the laboratory is, in my opinion, a dot on the horizon. But I wouldn’t rule it out in the distant future.’