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New eDNA project expands drinking water research

20 November 2022

Cardiff University has joined forces with United Utilities for a new research project that will expand ongoing eDNA research to the North West of England.

The latest techniques in environmental DNA (eDNA) research are being used by Cardiff University and United Utilities to help maintain high-quality drinking water for the North West and understand the causes of taste and odour issues.

The School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and School of Biosciences have joined forces with the water company as part of a two-year project that will investigate the levels of two naturally occurring organic chemicals which can cause a musty or earthy odour and taste.

Geosmin and 2-Methylisoborneol (2-MIB) are produced by various cyanobacteria, and traditional methods used to detect them in water samples are labour-intensive. Cutting-edge eDNA techniques from Cardiff University can provide more thorough results much more quickly, enabling better visibility of the sources of the organic chemicals in the water cycle.

The eDNA method allows scientists to get a detailed view of the types of natural bacteria in the reservoir, and how this varies with the seasons. This means the exact species producing geosmin and 2-MIB can be pinpointed, giving water companies the information they need to address the causes of taste and odour issues in a quicker, more targeted way. This proactive approach reduces the potential impact on water quality for customers and could also help water companies save money.

Water samples will be taken from a reservoir every two weeks until December 2023. They will be tested by the Cardiff University and United Utilities laboratories, and the results analysed to provide recommendations for further studies or changes to processes.

The national eDNA project is led by a team from Cardiff University, who have been working across the water industry, including with Welsh Water, Bristol Water and Wessex Water, to establish a collaborative approach and help determine best practices for maintaining or improving water quality in reservoirs.

Dr Rupert Perkins, Reader in Marine and Freshwater Biosciences at Cardiff University, said: “At Cardiff University we have been working closely with the UK water industry for some time looking at ways to determine triggers for taste and odour events. This project is another exciting step in improving best practice for water quality in reservoirs and reducing water quality risks for the public.

“It's really important for us to work closely with industry colleagues so that our research produces results that lead to real-world solutions to their water security needs.”

The activity within United Utilities is being supported by a team of graduates in the water company’s annual CEO Challenge. They have been tasked with improving water quality by combating taste and odour issues in innovative ways, and as part of their work the eDNA project is being used on a United Utilities reservoir for the first time.