Using Automation to Monitor COVID-19 in Wastewater
By Johanna Lee , PhD , senior science writer , Promega Corporation
When Kasia Slipko started graduate school at the Vienna University of Technology Institute for Water Quality and Resource Management , she was interested in studying antibiotic resistant microbes in wastewater . But in 2020 , her research took an unexpected turn . Kasia soon found herself at the forefront of another exciting field : using wastewater to monitor viral disease outbreaks .
As COVID-19 swept the world in 2020 , researchers at the KWR Water Research Institute were the first to find the presence of SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA in wastewater . Their study
examined sewage samples collected from six cities in the Netherlands and found that SARS-CoV-2 RNA could be detected up to six days before the first cases were reported . As the prevalence of COVID-19 increased within these cities , the amount of RNA detected also increased in a strikingly similar pattern . They concluded that “ sewage surveillance could be a sensitive tool to monitor the circulation of the virus in the population .”
An Unexpected Opportunity
Slipko ’ s laboratory , like many others , immediately shifted their research focus to viral detection of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater . They reached out to the Netherlands group to learn how to adapt their protocol in their own laboratory .
“ Our goal was to establish a method to detect and quantify the SARS-CoV-2 virus in wastewater ,” she said . “ We want to be able to detect the changes in the signal to see if the virus is increasing or decreasing in the population . And , in the future , to know if it ’ s coming back .”
Within a few months , they established a protocol that worked , but it was extremely slow and tedious . It took three days for them to manually process and analyze each sample .
“ The manual extraction was really getting crazy , especially when you have 40 samples ,” Slipko said . “ It ’ s constantly opening the tubes , pipetting , closing the tubes , centrifuging and vortexing . It was frustrating .” In September 2020 , Promega representative Thomas Voelk contacted them with a potential solution to their problem — the Maxwell ® RSC Instrument
, an automated platform that could extract DNA and RNA from 16 samples at once . Slipko was skeptical at first .
“ I thought it was going to be pretty complicated ,” she remembers . “ It ’ s a fully automated process . None of us had any experience , so we weren ’ t sure how to do it . But after Thomas ’ introduction , we tried it on our own and succeeded the first time .” she says . By the end of the month , the Maxwell ® RSC Instrument was completely optimized for their samples and everyone in the laboratory was trained to use it .
Establishing the Maxwell ® RSC Instrument in the laboratory provided numerous benefits for Slipko and her team . First of all , it allowed them to process samples much faster . Now , they can process all their samples from beginning to end in just one day instead of three .
“ We are able to process four times more samples a week , which is amazing ,” Slipko says . The hands-off automated process also allowed them to save time on manual labor . “ I can run it , and prepare another run or do something else in the meantime . It ’ s really great , especially now
18 LAB MATTERS Spring 2021