Later this year, 350 Chicago-area households will receive hand-held, easy-to-use test kits to assess their home water quality. 

Developed by Northwestern University researchers, the tests use cell-free biosensors and a single-drop water sample to provide an easy-to-read positive or negative result for a variety of contaminants. 

The pilot study will follow a phased roll-out. The test for lead is already available and will be distributed later this year. A test for copper will be distributed during the second or third year of the study. And a test for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which is still in development at Northwestern, will be available in the fourth year.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded the study a $3 million grant through its “Using the Rules of Life to Address Societal Challenges” program.

The initiative expands upon work that began within the Making Water Insecurity Visible Global Working Group, which is housed within Northwestern’s Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. The working group comprises an interdisciplinary team of researchers in engineering, chemistry, anthropology and law. 

The working group and pilot study is co-led by husband-wife team Julius Lucks and Sera Young.

Julius Lucks, Sera Young.

“This grant is timely, as water quality and climate change continue to pose challenges, while the dangers of lead and PFAS are becoming more well-known,” said Lucks, an expert in synthetic biology.

“The end goal is to empower people with knowledge: The knowledge of whether or not lead is in their water,” said Young, a water insecurity expert. “These tests do this by offering the same certainty and simplicity found in at-home COVID-19 and pregnancy tests.”

Lucks is a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and co-director of the Center for Synthetic Biology (CSB). Young is an associate professor of anthropology and global health at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, member of the CSB and fellow of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR).

To distribute the test kits, the researchers have consulted and intend to partner with community-area groups (including Blacks in Green and Bridges // Puentes, among others) and the City of Chicago.

Using the at-home tests, residents will measure the levels of lead, copper and PFAS in their household water. Then, they will receive laboratory analysis results, along with water filters and resources for how to access further remediation, if needed. 

The lead and copper tests are based on ROSALIND, the hand-held platform developed in Lucks’ laboratory. Named after famed chemist Rosalind Franklin, the platform is equipped with eight small test tubes that each hold freeze-dried bio-sensors. Adding a drop of water to each tube sets off a network of reactions and interactions, ultimately causing the freeze-dried pellet to glow in the presence of a contaminant. By glowing green, the test provides an easy-to-read, visual result for the user. 

Currently in development at Northwestern, the PFAS test will combine ROSALIND technology with new breakthroughs from the lab of William Dichtel, the Robert L. Letsinger Professor of Chemistry at Weinberg and member of the Buffett Institute working group. An expert in contaminant detection and water purification, Dichtel and his team last year discovered a new process capable of destroying PFAS, toxic compounds that are notoriously impossible to break apart.

“Recent studies estimate that up to half of the drinking water in the United States is contaminated with PFAS, but the concentrations are so low that inexpensive detection is challenging,” Dichtel said. “The project will combine recent Northwestern breakthroughs in PFAS capture and destruction with ROSALIND to achieve the sensitivity needed to address this longstanding challenge.”

A Northwestern startup company, Stemloop, is commercializing the ROSALIND technology. Lucks has financial interests in and affiliations with Stemloop. Northwestern University has financial interests (equity, royalties) in Stemloop.

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  1. NU will gain financially by instilling fear and worry about the quality of water based on a one-time home test. Evanston and other municipal tap water is tested continuously and is safe by current standards and guidance. If people feel tap water isn’t safe, they can used bottled water that may or may not be tested once in a while and may sit in a warehouse for a while until it is appears on the shelf at a retail outlet.

  2. This breakthrough is great news. “Forever chemicals” in our water supply are a safety problem for everyone.

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