A genetic tool may be used in the near future to get rid of harmful microbes and viruses from drinking water.
Developed by engineers from Duke University, the relatively new technology is known as RNA interference (RNAi).
In a series of proof-of-concept experiments, Duke University engineers demonstrated that short strands of genetic material could successfully target a matching portion of a gene in a common fungus found in water and make it stop working.
If this new approach can be perfected, the researchers believe that it could serve as the basis for a device to help solve the problem of safe drinking water in Third World countries without water treatment facilities.
"We envision creating a system based on RNAi technology that would look from the outside just like the water filters commonly used now," said Claudia Gunsch, assistant professor of civil engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering.
"This approach would be especially attractive in less industrialized countries without water treatment systems. This 'point-of-use' strategy would allow these countries to make safe water without the expense of water purification infrastructure," she added.
RNAi makes use of short snippets of genetic material that match - like a lock and key - a corresponding segment of a gene in the target. When these snippets enter a cell and attach to the corresponding segment, they can inhibit or block the action of the target gene.
According to Sara Morey, assistant professor of civil engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, "Pathogens, whether bacterial or viral, represent one of the major threats to drinking water in developed and undeveloped countries."
"Our data showed that we could silence the action of a specific gene in a fungus in water, leading us to believe that RNAi shows promise as a gene-silencing tool for controlling the proliferation of waterborne bacteria and viruses," she added.
In addition to helping solve drinking water issues in underdeveloped countries, this new approach could also address some of the drawbacks associated with treated drinking water in more developed nations, according to Morey.
The first prototypes would likely involve a filter "seeded" with RNAi that would eliminate pathogens as the water passed through it.
The researchers are currently conducting additional experiments targeting other regions of the fungus' genome.
For their proof-of-concept experiments, they tested RNAi on a non-essential, yet easy to monitor, gene. They are now testing this approach to silence or block genes essential to the viability of the pathogen.
They are also planning to test this strategy in water that contains a number of different pathogens at the same time, as well as trying to determine the optimal concentration needed in the water to be effective.