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Water-Related News

UCF students receive $25,000 EPA grant to develop toxin biosensor for drinking water

The biosensor will be an onsite, early detector of harmful blue-green algae blooms, which are known to cause health problems in humans.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has awarded a $25,000 grant to a team of UCF engineering students for the development of a biosensor that can detect harmful algal toxins in drinking water sources.

The UCF Knights – environmental engineering majors Jennifer Hughes and Lance-Nicolas Rances and environmental engineering doctoral student Stephanie Stoll, along with associate professor and principal investigator Woo Hyoung Lee – are one of 21 student teams to receive the funding through the agency’s People, Prosperity and the Planet (P3) Program. This program is designed to support research that addresses environmental and public health challenges.

“I am thrilled and honored to have received this award for our research,” Hughes says. “For the past year, I have focused on microcystin-detecting biosensors, and it feels great to be recognized for my undergraduate research.”

Microcystins are the most common toxins found in fresh water, and the most harmful type is microcystin-LR (MC-LR). When high levels of MC-LR accumulate in water, they form a blue-green algae bloom that can disrupt the aquatic ecosystem by depleting oxygen, blocking sunlight and altering the nutrients that marine life feeds on. In Florida, blue-green algae is a common problem due to the warm temperatures, excess nutrients and stagnant water found in lakes, rivers or ponds. When ingested by humans, it can cause abdominal pain, a sore throat or gastrointestinal distress. At elevated levels, it could lead to damage of the liver or kidneys.

To test water sources for MC-LR, samples must be transported to a laboratory where they can be examined by trained technicians. The process can be both time-consuming and costly, but the UCF-developed biosensor could solve those problems.

The UCF-developed device would be portable, cost effective and located onsite, so that MC-LR blooms could be detected early on. The device will use an antibody to detect the harmful algae, and the students are currently fine-tuning its detecting capabilities.