Building for the future - clean water for rural Mexico

Dr Bill Snelling's water research in Mexico was funded by a AMI International Capacity Building Fund. This grant provides resources for training and education in microbiology in developing countries. Dr Bill Snelling tells us why this fund was important to him.

In the UK, we take having accessible and safe water for drinking, sanitation, cleaning and washing for granted. However, over 2 billion people around the world do not have access to safe drinking water – and billions of people live without access to even the most basic sanitation. Contaminated drinking water causes more than 1,000 diarrhoeal deaths every day. The rural Zona Altos de Chiapas region in Mexico – known in English as the Chiapas Highlands – has the lowest Human Development Index in Mexico. Many of the people who live there find themselves economically poor and geographically remote. Health problems are common, and made worse by lower perceptions of health risks, scarce economic resources, and a lack of any governmental or population led water management strategy. This region has little data on microbial water quality, which significantly impedes efforts aimed at improving drinking water supplies. Since 2017, Ulster University have been active Safewater project partners with Fundacion Cántaro Azul, a proactive non-governmental organisation based in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, in Mexico. For the past three years they have focused their efforts on developing the water infrastructure in the Chiapas region, and have become trusted by the local rural population due to their participatory approach, giving them unique water sampling access.

Hector Castelan collecting a water sample

Mr Hector Castelán (Cántaro Azul) collecting a well water sample from the Tzabalho community in Chiapas, Mexico

About the project
The main project aim was to support establishing a platform for DNA Sequencing with Cántaro Azul so that they can apply a metagenomics approach to know exactly what pathogens contaminate water in rural regions. Training also covered growing and counting MS-2 coliphage. I delivered the lab training at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur Institute (ECOSUR) and led training seminars at ECOSUR & Cántaro Azul with diverse audiences, which included water quality scientists, engineers, knowledge management & education staff, management, analytical chemists and microbiologists. I even got the chance to learn more about water quality field testing methods, for example I learnt that The Aquagenx Compartment Bag Test for coliform monitoring is a very simple yet extremely effective test for assessing water quality. I now have a greater appreciation for the actual challenges encountered in the field daily by Cántaro Azul - like driving for hours on rough roads up mountains to collect water samples! I learnt more about water treatment technology and how important end user-buy in is for lasting community health improvements. If water tastes or smells even slightly of chlorine, even if it is safe to drink, communities will probably not drink it! 

Bill Snelling seminar

Dr Bill Snelling delivering a DNA sequencing seminar at Cántaro Azul

I also delivered update seminars at our Safewater Workshop which was at the University of São Paulo (USP). Crucially these activities both developed new and strengthened existing research collaborations between Ulster University, Cántaro Azul, ECOSUR and our Safewater project partners at the University of Medellin, the Centre of Science & Technology of Antioquia, and University of São Paulo. We are now planning new exciting new studies looking at biofilm & water populations in more detail. My visit was kindly hosted by Mr Hector Castelán (Lead Water Quality Scientist) & Ms Ane Galdos (Director of Knowledge Management) from Cántaro Azul.

What happened in our DNA sequencing seminar
For DNA sequencing to be successful, the most important step is obtaining high quality DNA. Because of this we focused training on water sample membrane filtration, correctly extracting DNA from filters, and DNA quality assessment. Once we knew the DNA was of high quality, we then covered Rapid Barcoding Sequencing with the MinION, and data processing using What’s In My Pot (WIMP) in EPI2ME. We highlighted the importance of what quality control parameters indicate a good sequencing run, for example, what does the DNA quality score mean? The main challenges we overcame were administrative challenges, e.g. obtaining the required consumables on-time at a reasonable price – the key to which was persistence, organisation & frequent communication.

Cantaro Azul water treatment prototype

Dr Simon Mustafa Covone (Cántaro Azul) demonstrating a water treatment prototype to Dr Bill Snelling (Ulster University)

Growing & counting MS-2 to asses water quality
Cántaro Azul learnt how to grow, harvest and preserve the MS-2 coliphage from purchased freeze-dried stocks, and how to count MS-2 coliphage for water treatment assessment. They can now use these skills to assess the effectiveness of their innovatively designed water treatment devices, a crucial step forward in their water quality assessment process.

Looking ahead
The application of DNA-based population analysis to water sources in rural communities in Chiapas will provide the first extensive study of microbial populations, including pathogen contamination, of water in this region. This will provide essential knowledge of what the likely effects of low-quality water consumption might be. This information will also serve as an additional vital microbial baseline that will enable Cántaro Azul to focus and improve their water treatment and public health intervention strategies in communities which ultimately will enable Cántaro Azul to help even more in rural regions. MS-2 coliphage testing is essential for World Health Organisation (WHO) water treatment accreditation as part of the WHO Harmonized Testing Protocol (WHO, 2014), so learning to handle MS-2 coliphage Cántaro Azul will boost their water device treatment testing capacity and be able to design even more effective devices faster and more efficiently. Cántaro Azul are continuing to collect and examine water samples in rural Zona Altos de Chiapas and I will maintain regular contact with them as we continue to develop our metagenomics platform and work towards publication of our findings. I am extremely grateful to AMIfor providing me with this grant and would like to thank Hector & Ane from Cántaro Azul and ECOSUR for their support.

ECOSUR lab team

The ECOSUR Chemical Analysis Lab team 

Bill Snelling
Bill Snelling’s research interests are in the areas of human health & applied microbiology. He obtained his molecular microbiology PhD from Ulster University in 2003 and has 20 years of research & teaching experience in the public and private sectors.  He has been a member of SfAM since 2004. Currently a microbiologist in the Nutrition Innovation Centre for Food and Health (NICHE) at Ulster University, Bill works in a large trans-disciplinary team in the GCRF-UKRI SAFEWATER project, led by Ulster University, involving researchers from Brazil, Colombia & Mexico.

The Safewater project and Bill Snelling’s visit were supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) UK Research and Innovation (SAFEWATER; EPSRC Grant Reference EP/P032427/1). The AMI International Capacity Building Fund covered a significant amount of Fundacón Cántaro Azul’s laboratory costs for MinION Sequencing. This collaboration reflects fAMI’s long-term support of work assisting research in low & middle income areas.