Pure Genius

Award-winning teen develops a faster way to detect E. Coli

Posting in Food

A 17-year-old recent high school graduate from Bangor, Maine, might have found the most efficient way to test for harmful E. Coli strains in our water.

A 17-year-old recent high school graduate from Bangor, Maine, might have found the most efficient way to test for harmful E. Coli strains in our water. Rebecca Ye was recently named the U.S. winner of the 2010 Stockholm Junior Water Prize, a student competition for water-related research sponsored by ITT Corporation.

Now, between gearing up to start her pre-med studies at Washington University in St. Louis this fall, Ye is preparing to represent the United States in the global competition as part of Stockholm World Water Week in September. I spoke with Ye this month.

Why did you decide to research E. Coli?

I've been doing research since halfway through my sophomore year. My junior year, I did a conventional microbiology project and I went to the Junior Science and Humanities Symposia. One of the projects there was about biosensors, which I thought was interesting. I talked to my chemistry teacher and the lady who runs the lab that I work at. She told me what they were doing with biosensors. They were using E. Coli already. I started reading through some of the literature. I thought, They use this with food a lot, but nobody really mentions water.

How did you develop a faster method for detecting E. Coli in water?

All of the food science papers, they use this machine I was using called a QCM. There's a small chip that goes inside and it oscillates at a really high frequency. You can see this on a PC readout. If you put stuff on the surface of the chip, it slows down because there's mass on the surface. You can figure out the mass compared to how much the frequency has slowed down. I used antibodies and localized them on the surface of the chip. Then, I flowed through bacterial samples and the bacteria were captured by the antibodies. I took gold nanoparticles that were conjugated with a second group of antibodies and I flowed them through as well. It gave higher frequency changes because gold nanoparticles are quite heavy. That's how you can see smaller concentrations of bacteria.

How much faster is your technique than what's used now?

Traditionally, what people do is they take their bacterial sample and they have to isolate their sample. They have to plate it, then look at the colonies and confirm that it's actually what they're looking for. Because there are antibodies that are specific for E. Coli 0157H7, that means that the detection time goes from a week to maybe about a day.

Where could this technique be used?

Probably within the industry or testing for water. I'm trying to optimize it to lake water testing and use it in testing lakes or maybe a waste water treatment plant.

What does winning the Stockholm Prize mean to you?

It's just really, really incredible. It was a really great honor to win that award and I wouldn't be able to do it without everybody who helped me. I think it was a really huge group effort and I'm honored that I was the person they picked to represent the United States. It's gradually sinking in right now.

Image: Rebecca Ye

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure