UConn has a lot going for it, but maybe, just maybe, the thing that the school will one day best be known for is its cutting edge research - on poop.
The school was just designated as one of the country's nine "Centers of Excellence" for its wastewater-based epidemiology. UConn was one of the first universities in the nation to test wastewater for Covid-19.
"It's a really way to monitor the presence of viral load in a particular sewage system, oftentimes, before people show symptoms," explained Rachel O'Neill, director of the Institute for Systems Genomics at UConn.
"So the biggest challenge with sewage wastewater is that you have large volumes and a lot of dilution, right? So how do you capture enough virus that you can detect it and then measure those levels over time. And so Kendra spent quite a bit of time over at the beginning of the pandemic, really narrowing down this protocol and getting this to work on wastewater on campus. And it allowed us to look at campus as a whole and areas of campus that may be hotspots for increases and Covid cases. And then she was able to expand that to support local communities and do that kind of testing. By adapting that technology to more mobile technology, ones that didn't require a pump that we could actually just, you know, stick something into a hole and measure SARS-Cov-2 levels."
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Adapting that technology doesn't mean they're now using some high-tech equipment. They're using something very simple.
"It's just an absorbent material that you put in the wastewater stream and let sit there for 24 or 48 hours. This is a really classic microbiology technique. We actually used a commercially available product known as a tampon, and tied that to fishing line and throw it into the sewer stream," Kendra Maas, facility director for microbial analysis, resources and services (MARS) facility.
So now that we know how they're getting the samples of our waste, why is it some important?
The researchers say they've been able to predict Covid-19 outbreaks in an easier and faster method than individual testing.
"I think this is a very cheap way to monitor Covid and influenza this winter, we know that both of them are going to go higher," Maas said.
"I think it's something that's really impactful, particularly for this part of the state, where so many towns and so many schools, for example, may not be on city water. And so you know, this offers opportunities for local testing. That may not have been available before, O'Neill said.
The future of the program expands beyond Covid-19. This same method could be used to detect viruses like the flu and RSV. And that's just the beginning.
"Another big possibility is to look at antimicrobial or antimicrobial-resistant genes. So if you've heard about this, antibiotics are losing their potency, because bacteria are learning to fight them off. So you can use the same techniques or very similar techniques to look for particular resistance genes, which can also let public health and hospitals know. Alright, go we've got a problem over here, where you can't use myosin or some particular antibiotic," Mass said.
Ceres Nanoscience, which has been working with the UConn researchers, also received an $8 million grant from their work through the National Institutes of Health.
Yale has also been conducting wastewater testing in seven cities and towns across the state.
Correction (Nov. 18 2:23 p.m. EST) A previous version of this article misstated who was awarded the NIH grant. The grant went to Ceres Nanoscience, not UConn.