Spotlight on Research: Scientist Creates Tool to Test Quality of Water

Posted: March 19, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Patty Snellings

A few years ago, Jenefir Isbister, research professor in the Department of Molecular and Microbiology in the College of Arts and Sciences, was asked if it was possible to develop a portable, quick, and accurate tool to detect pathogens in liquids. Her answer produced George Mason University’s first patent–for her invention of a test for microbial contamination–and she followed up with additional research that led to a second patent and the development of commercially produced, biological test kits for total viable bacteria, coliforms and E. coli.

Jenifer Isbister
Jenefir Isbister
Photo by Evan Cantwell

The test kit for total viable bacteria, known as Kool Kount Assayer, is manufactured and marketed by Maryland-based IME Inc., an industrial equipment company that holds the exclusive license to the product. Peter Rising, the company’s president and chairman of the board, originally approached Isbister about developing a tool for testing water in cooling towers in large air conditioning units.

“A build-up of microbes on the wall of a cooling tower can interfere with efficient operation and cause the cooling process to break down,” Isbister explains. “Testing the water determines what maintenance modifications need to be implemented.” Kool Kount Assayer detects a mixed population of microbes and targets those that can cause potential problems.

Kool Kount Assayer is used to examine other seemingly harmless situations. For example, diesel fuel is susceptible to bacterial attack when water is present, which could compromise the operation of emergency power generators, hinder the interstate trucking industry, and affect marine operations. The mist generated by dental instruments may contain harmful microbes that could infect patients. Shallow ocean water at the shoreline, where young children play, may breed unhealthy bacteria.

The test kit is also used in biology and chemistry classrooms around the country. And Isbister was the leader in introducing it to her students. “Students can see firsthand how the technologies they study apply to their everyday lives.”

Depending on the application, test results are available within a few hours and are determined by comparing the color of the liquid sample to a color chart. Ampoules containing test samples are pocket-portable, allowing for convenient and practical field use. They are designed to incubate results in environments at or near 35 degrees Celsius.

“This test has changed complicated microbiology to simple practical biology,” Rising says. “There is no area where there is a need for front-line, accurate bacterial analysis that can’t benefit from it.”

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