Hope College is participating in a new statewide initiative to monitor the presence of E. coli at Michigan’s beaches using a faster way of testing water samples.

The work is being conducted through a program announced by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in June that involves county health departments and other organizations across Michigan, with an emphasis on the Great Lakes.  Hope, which is testing samples collected along the Allegan County lakeshore, is one of five academic institutions participating in the statewide effort and the only undergraduate college in the mix.

The testing method, known as quantitative polymerase chain reaction (QPCR), quickly identifies E. coli DNA in a beach’s water sample.  It has been used by researchers at Hope for the past four years, beginning with the college’s participation in the community-wide examination of the origins of pollution in Lake Macatawa conducted through a major grant to the Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway.

“This is what we started doing in the summer of 2011 with the Lake Macatawa project,” said Dr. Michael Pikaart, an associate professor of chemistry at Hope, whose laboratory is conducting the testing.  “It is faster than the traditional method of growing a culture from the bacteria, allowing for results the same day instead of the next day, which will help agencies respond more quickly in determining whether or not a beach should be closed.”

The college is conducting the testing on behalf of the Allegan County Health Department, which is monitoring six Lake Michigan beaches.  While experience has already shown that the method works, Pikaart noted that the emphasis this summer is on getting the new system in place and assuring that the new process is a viable alternative.  Correspondingly, the college is running one round of samples during each of the summer months, June, July and August.

“It’s to confirm that you can do it as well through the DNA fingerprinting as you can through microbiology and cultures,” he said.

According to the DEQ, Michigan will become the first state to monitor beaches using the new method.  The DEQ is providing funding to county health departments and other agencies for equipment and other support for the testing process, which uses a method developed by faculty and students in the Center for Water Sciences of Michigan State University.  Hope is not among the grant recipients, having already had the necessary equipment and expertise in place because of its work through the Outdoor Discovery Center Macatawa Greenway project.