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Northwestern's ROSALIND water testing platform. Photo courtesy of Northwestern University

A new platform uses synthetic biology to quickly identify contaminants in a single drop of water.

Why it matters: Water pollution is a major health risk, especially for poor and minority communities. Technology that can cheaply screen water supplies for contaminants like lead could help anyone easily determine if their water is safe.

How it works: Bacteria in water are capable of sensing potentially toxic contaminants using molecular "taste buds." The new technology platform, detailed in a study authored by scientists at Northwestern University, uses synthetic biology techniques to remove the taste buds and rewire them to produce a visual signal.

  • The reprogrammed taste buds are freeze-dried — "like you're making astronaut ice cream" says Northwestern's Julius Lucks, lead author of the study — and placed in test tubes.
  • Adding water to the test tube and flicking it causes the buds to glow in the presence of a contaminant, similar to how an at-home pregnancy test changes color based on its result.
  • Right now the platform can detect 17 contaminants, including lead and copper, though Lucks is confident scientists will be able to engineer new bacteria capable of detecting a wider range of contaminants, including human-made ones.

The big picture: The presence of lead and other contaminants in water remains a major problem, especially for the poor. A study published on Monday found children in homes relying on private well water were 25% more likely to have elevated blood levels than children who use community water.

  • Lucks and his colleagues did some initial testing of the platform in Paradise, the California town destroyed by wildfires in 2018. They found traces of toxic metals in the town's water that had resulted from cars melting in the intense heat.
  • "With water quality crises like Paradise and Flint, we knew this test could have a major impact if it worked," says Lucks.

Go deeper

IG report: FEMA struggled to send food, water to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

People wait on line for free food and health supplies passed out by the nonprofit Lets Give on Dec. 19, 2017 in Utuado, Puerto Rico. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

FEMA lost track of nearly $257 million worth of supplies — 98% of which was food and water — meant to help Puerto Rico recover from Hurricanes Maria and Irma, the agency's inspector general found in a report published Thursday.

Why it matters: Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 hurricane, was the worst natural disaster to hit the island, and resulted in an estimated 3,000 deaths just two weeks after Hurricane Irma skirted the island and left over 1 million residents without power.

Woman who allegedly stole laptop from Pelosi's office to sell to Russia is arrested

Photo: FBI

A woman accused of breaching the Capitol and planning to sell to Russia a laptop or hard drive she allegedly stole from Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office was arrested in Pennsylvania's Middle District Monday, the Department of Justice said.

Driving the news: Riley June Williams, 22, is charged with illegally entering the Capitol as well as violent entry and disorderly conduct. She has not been charged over the laptop allegation and the case remains under investigation, per the DOJ.

Biden will reverse Trump's attempt to lift COVID-related travel restrictions

Photo: Tasos Katopodis via Getty

The incoming Biden administration will reverse President Trump's last-minute order to lift COVID-19 related travel restrictions, Jen Psaki, the incoming White House press secretary, tweeted.

Why it matters: President Trump ordered entry bans lifted for travelers from the U.K., Ireland, Brazil and much of Europe to go into effect Jan. 26, but the Biden administration will "strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19," Jen Psaki said. Biden will be inaugurated on Wednesday, Jan. 20 and Trump will no longer be president by the time the order is set to go into effect.