A genetic tool used by medical researchers also may be used in a novel approach to remove harmful microbes and viruses from drinking water.

In a series of proof-of-concept-type experiments, Duke University engineers demonstrated that short strands of genetic material could successfully target a matching portion of a gene in a common fungus found in water and make it stop working. If this new approach can be perfected, the researchers believe that it could serve as the basis for a device to help solve the problem of safe drinking water in places that lack water-treatment facilities.

The relatively new technology, known as RNA interference (RNAi), makes use of short snippets of genetic material that match – like a lock and key – a corresponding segment of a gene in the target. When these snippets enter a cell and attach to the corresponding segment, they can inhibit or block the action of the target gene. This approach is being used as a tool in biomedical research, but has not previously been applied to environmental issues.

“Pathogens, whether bacterial or viral, represent one of the major threats to drinking water,” says a Duke spokesperson. “Our data showed that we could silence the action of a specific gene in a fungus in water, leading us to believe that RNAi shows promise as a gene-silencing tool for controlling the proliferation of waterborne bacteria and viruses.”