Bioluminescent Pollution Detection – A Moonshot Project

Edith Widder is using bioluminescent bacteria to detect pollution in our waterways.

Edith Widder says that the most insidious poisons are the ones we cannot see. Pollution in the waterways can be invisible and deadly. Her favorite place to work has always been deep below the ocean surface where light is a tool to be used for discovery.

Widder’s biography is impressive – she founded ORCA, the Ocean Research and Conservation Association and was a part of the team in 2012 that filmed the giant squid in its natural habitat.

Her idea was to find the 21st century version of a canary in a coal mine – finding the pollution before it can do damage to our largest cities. The solution was to use the bioluminescence that Edith so loves in the ocean to help detect poison on land. Tests are done on soil samples collected from waterways because the sediment isn’t mobile like water flow yet holds the pollution inside of itself.

The light from some bacteria is produced when the bacteria performs its version of the breathing process. The detection idea is that if there’s a toxin in the soil sample then the light output will be interrupted and produce a substantially smaller amount of light. When a sample is found where the light goes out completely the danger level is very high.

Edith is currently working to create a pollution map, finding the largest areas of pollution to most effectively use cleanup resources. ORCA is deploying the Kilroy water-quality monitor to check water speed, direction, temperature and depth. The idea is that in any body of water the health can be understood in terms of its physical, chemical and biological levels, and the locations of the pollution and polluters can be found.