Dec 03, 2019

University of Toronto Researchers Use Fleas to Develop Water Quality Warning System

Researchers at the University of Toronto in Toronto, ON., are using tiny water fleas and a tandem mass spectrometer to study water pollution.

water flea

Researchers at the University of Toronto are developing an early warning system for water quality and pollution that combines tiny water fleas and a tandem mass spectrometer. 

The technique is being developed by professor Myrna Simpson and post-doctoral researcher Tae-Yong Jeong. The pair are using metabolomics to study the health of common water fleas, otherwise known as Daphnia. 

The tandem mass spectrometer is sensitive enough to detect changes at the molecular level, according to the University of Toronto.

Using the tandem mass spectrometer offers a look into biochemical processes taking place inside the tiny water fleas when exposed to different water conditions, according to the University of Toronto.

"Metabolomics is really dynamic, it allows you to detect biochemical changes in tissues and cells almost instantaneously," said Simpson. "The health of lakes, rivers and streams is under continuous threat from human-caused activities, and that can rapidly change the nutrient conditions, pH and water quality of ecosystems." 

Current reproductive tests on the fleas can take up to 21 days to complete, according to the University of Toronto. A metabolomics approach can be done within minutes to hours, however.

This is the first time metabolomics approaches to monitoring human and environmental health has been tested for use in the Biological Early Warning System for water pollution. The technique can detect picogram-levels (one trillionth of a gram) of metabolites in a sample, reported the University of Toronto

"If Daphnia aren't happy because they're affected by pollution, you will see it cascade throughout the food web," said Jeong. "They are ideal to use in studying water pollution because, as a keystone organism, they're representative of what's happening in their surrounding environment."

The research received funding from the Krembil Foundation and Ontario's Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.

"We need to define what is a small change in metabolism versus a really big change that we know is going to manifest itself in something much worse," Simpson said.

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