The hidden life of water


Kathleen Ellison

From left to right: LeClair, Thomas

Spring has been making its gradual presence known in Lock Haven. The hint of warmer weather brings with it the promise of the outdoor activities that Lock Haven is so brimming with. With the dike and numerous waterways in the area, there are opportunities for fishing, swimming, rafting and more, but do we stop to think what might be in the water?

With events like the Flint water crisis or even the recent main break in Lock Haven, the question of “what is in our water” is on the forefront of society’s mind, and for seniors Taylor Thomas and Andrew LeClair it has been one of the biggest questions of their year.

Thomas, a cellular and organismal biology major and LeClair, a biology and chemistry major have been studying Lock Haven’s water since August of 2015. Their research examines indicator bacteria in sewage outfall and local recreational waters, specifically bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. The study has been examining samples from the Lock Haven Water and Waste Treatment Plant, the Bald Eagle Creek and Mill Hall Fishing Creek.

LeClair pointed out that there are very limited studies like this in the U.S. “Right now, everyone’s looking at hospitals and sewage effluent from hospitals, but no one’s really looking at the local receiving waters that could be potentially a cesspool for these kind of indicator bacteria.”


Taylor Thomas examines a petri dish

The research is specifically looking at Coliforms (bacteria similar to E. Coli) and Enterococcus bacteria. In high levels, these bacteria could cause swimmer-associated gastroenteritis, an illness that can cause stomach pain, and, at its worst, diarrhea and dehydration.

People who come in contact with water contaminated by these antibiotic resistant bacteria are also more at risk of developing resistance to antibiotics. They have been testing this resistance in the bacteria using the antibiotic vancomycin.

These bacteria have mutated to become resistant to antibiotics like vancomycin due in part to how humans take antibiotics. People will often misuse antibiotics by taking it for the wrong reasons, or they don’t take antibiotics long enough to kill off the bacteria completely, leaving bacteria that is more resistant to antibiotics.

So far the populations of these antibiotic resistant indicator bacteria have varied. Due to the environmental nature of the study, Thomas and LeClair have encountered some problems with weather affecting population sizes, which might account for this variation.

DSCF0062.JPG“Understanding just how limited information is available in the literature has pushed us out of our comfort zone to seek an array of different ideas,” said Le Clair. “Sometimes in these novel studies you don’t necessarily end up with a definitive conclusion albeit, more importantly, you gain another step towards your goal. Even though the future is still evolving for this study and I trust we are headed in the right direction.”

Thomas explained that there’s nothing to be panicked about. “I don’t think it’s a glaring concern, I don’t think it’s anything that’s like the next epidemic, but I mean it’s something to keep in the back of your mind.” Thomas pointed out that students should be more proactive and think more about their lifestyles in regards to their health.

Both Thomas and LeClair would like to thank Professor Joseph P. Calabrese, their independent research study advisor and the entire Biological Science Department for their contributions to their research, and their support.

LeClair stated how he hoped others would continue their research after they graduated. “Obviously due to the studies limited nature in the US, I think it’s exciting and motivating to be able to engage and be part of the pioneers of this novel research and technique.”

Photos by Kathleen Ellison


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