This project is aiming to bring cleaner water to communities through the creation of an easy-to-use device to detect harmful bacteria. The device uses colour differentiation to communicate safety of water.


  • Researchers have developed a low cost, polymer-based optical sensor that is capable of detection coli in water with high selectivity and sensitivity
  • Researchers are now working to expand the sensor technology to detect other harmful species (e.g. Salmonella, Leptospira)
  • An invention disclosure has been reported for the sensor’s ability to detect whole bacteria in water.


Researchers have developed polymer-based optical sensors that are capable of detecting proteins and DNA in solutions with high selectivity and sensitivity. The sensors are low cost, and easy to use/operate — a simple optical readout can report on the presence of harmful species with little sample preparation.  Researchers have also collaborated with IIT Bombay built new collaborations with Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University (PDPU), who will be bringing the sensors to rural regions of Gujarat soon.

PROJECT UPDATE (November 2015)

The objective of our project is to design a sensing technology that can be used in resource-limited settings for detecting harmful bacteria in drinking water. Since beginning this work, we have successfully developed polymer-based optical devices capable of detecting proteins and DNA with specific sequences in aqueous solutions. Importantly, we have also shown that our devices could be used to detect long sequences of DNA that are typically found in bacteria. We have accomplished this by utilizing DNA cleaving enzymes capable of shortening the length of the DNA of interest, such that their interaction with our devices, and hence the sensor signal, could be enhanced.

Future efforts will focus on making our technology more appealing for real world applications. For example, we are working on utilizing thermally triggered and isothermal DNA amplification protocols to achieve even more sensitive DNA detection. Within the next year, we would like to have sensors capable of detecting a single bacterium in a water sample. Furthermore, we are developing related nanotechnology-based approaches to detecting bacteria, and bacterial DNA, in water.


Water is an essential element of life, yet millions around the world are without stable sources of safe drinking water. While safe drinking water is simply as close as the nearest faucet for many, this is not the case in developing countries. Most in developing countries need to collect their drinking water from surface water sources, e.g., rivers and streams. It is most often the case that developing countries too have poor sewage infrastructure, hence the surface waters are typically infected with various harmful bacteria — the most common being Escherichia coli O157:H7 (E. coli O157:H7). Consuming water infected with bacteria (e.g., E. coli O157:H7) can lead to many complications, most commonly diarrhea, which can ultimately lead to death.

To combat this problem, some communities offer a communal water supply in the form of a container, from which the community inhabitants can draw from. This water, while from a “trusted” source (or has been treated by boiling) can become recontaminated quite easily, and ifthe water is not retreated, each person will consume bacteria infected water. Hence, a way to determine if a source of water is/has been contaminated with harmful bacteria would be a major breakthrough for improving health and saving lives. Here, we propose to develop an inexpensive and easy to use device for the detection of harmful bacteria in water. This device will exhibit different visual colors when exposed to “safe” versus bacteria infected water, allowing one to be sure of the water quality before consumption.

Project Team

Dr. Michael Serpe, University of Alberta
Dr. Soumyo Mukherji, IIT Bombay


Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University
Village of Poshina
TEC Edmonton
INO (Quebec)

Current Number of Students:  31

Key Outcomes

Publications: 34
Presentations: 84
Patents: 1