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It’s a dirty job … but Mizzou scientists are doing it

Testing water samples stock
Scientists at the University of Missouri are tracking COVID-19 infections, and the potential emergence of variants of the virus, by testing water from community sewer systems. (Source: Adobe Stock)

Researchers from the University of Missouri’s Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center in Columbia are testing the water in sewer systems throughout the state, to track and predict trends in COVID-19 infections within individual communities.

They are using a two-year, $4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to track levels of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in wastewater. Since virus particles can be detected in sewer waste from homes and businesses days before residents show symptoms, this method can reliably predict trends in COVID-19 prevalence and spread for a particular area.  

The Mizzou scientists will measure for the level of genetic material, or RNA, from the virus that’s present in wastewater samples. They will try to determine how much RNA an individual person carrying the virus can contribute to the level found in a particular community’s wastewater, as well as what general environmental factors can contribute to the amount of genetic material detected.

“In addition to measuring for the presence of the virus, we will now be able to start making sense of the numbers and expand the types of questions we can ask about the results,” said Marc Johnson, a professor in the university’s Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology. “I really think this type of testing will continue long after the pandemic, and I believe studies like this will be able to ‘flush’ out how the virus works by figuring out what we can do with it and identify our limitations.”

With the recent rise of COVID-19 variants in the U.S., Johnson said the analysis will also enable the team to determine the presence of any existing COVID-19 variants and identify potential new ones.

The Mizzou researchers are cooperating with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services on the project, part of a National Institutes of Health program to combat the current pandemic and prevent future outbreaks

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