Success Story

EPA Technology Tracks Microbial Sources of Water Contamination in Communities

(Photo credit: EPA)

According to the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) National Water Quality Inventory Report to Congress, fecal bacteria are one of the leading causes of U.S. surface water impairment. The presence of fecal bacteria at elevated levels originating from human and other animal wastes in community water systems, at recreational beaches, and shellfish harvesting areas is correlated to negative public health outcomes ranging from the more common mild gastrointestinal illness to the rare and more severe illness or even death.

To protect human health, in 1972 Congress passed the Clean Water Act, mandating the EPA to provide the public with technologies to monitor for fecal pollution. The scientific community responded with the development of technologies ranging from chemical indicators to canine monitoring. EPA scientists recently sought an innovative approach through the study of fecal bacterial communities at a molecular level. The result was the development of novel genetic-based technologies that can measure human and cattle fecal pollution levels in surface water samples. The Microbial Source Tracking (MST) methods are technologies aimed at identifying and, in some instances, quantifying fecal animal sources of contamination in environmental waters.

The EPA's U.S. Patent No. US8574839 B2 describes genetic technologies that can estimate the concentration of human and cattle fecal pollution in environmental water samples.

Due to nationwide fecal pollution concerns and more than 290 peer-reviewed scientific citations, there is a growing demand by academic, state, and municipal government laboratories to implement EPA MST technologies. To accommodate interest from nonprofit entities, the EPA developed a new strategy whereby technology can be simultaneously transferred to commercial partners while making it available to noncommercial entities. This was accomplished through two new license formats in addition to the commercial license.

The academic sector can apply for a royalty-free "research" license for a specific project. Researchers are encouraged to publish results in peer-reviewed literature. To date, 13 licenses have been awarded to university research laboratories, leading to important scientific advancements in the MST field and a better understanding of EPA technology performance. Government laboratories can also receive a royalty-free license, but are restricted to using the technology within their jurisdiction. In addition, a "government" license prohibits the use of the technology on a fee-for-service basis.

Two private companies have applied for and been granted commercial licenses. One commercial license holder has added five employees in the past three years and doubled revenue for four years in a row. In 2016, the company plans to hire a minimum of eight additional employees and implement an international business plan.