Could DNA technology used to trace ancestry help pinpoint sources of bacterial pollution?


DNA technology used to catch rapists and track people’s ancestry could help pin down sources of the fecal coliform washing into the Nooksack River and downstream to Portage Bay, where the Lummi Nation has hundreds of acres of shellfish beds that have been partially closed because of the bacterial pollution.

At least that’s the hope of the six Watershed Improvement Districts in Whatcom County paying $18,000 for a pilot project in which DNA sequencing is being used on a section of Scott Ditch. Farmers formed the districts in the northern part of the county to address water issues.

Finding the source is important to farmers, who feel they’re unfairly bearing the brunt of blame for bacterial contamination in Whatcom County waterways and as efforts continue, under the threat of lawsuits, to clean up Portage Bay.

“It just gives us more information. We don’t want to see dirty water any more than anyone else does,” said Fred Likkel, executive director of Whatcom Family Farmers.

Current tests of water quality reveal if fecal coliform, which can sicken people, is there and how much of it is in a sample. But it doesn’t reveal whether the waste is coming from people – from failing septic systems or sewer lines – or from pets, wildlife or poorly managed livestock.

The farmers in the Watershed Improvement Districts hope the pilot project lead to showing who or what is responsible.

“What is the source? Where is the source? The more information we get, the better off we are moving forward on this stuff, right?” Likkel said.

For the pilot, Exact Scientific Services in Ferndale is testing water in the section of Scott Ditch that’s between Mead Avenue and Nolte Road as well as side streams that feed into the ditch. The water is being pulled from 16 locations – once in September and again in October.

Scott Ditch was selected for the study because there are dairy farms, part-time and hobby farms, a small wildlife reserve, and residences in the area.

What Exact will do is extract all the DNA out of a water sample and then sequence it to reveal all that’s in the water, according to Kent Oostra, a microbiologist and owner of Exact.

It’s believed to be the first time the technology has been used for such purposes in the U.S., so there are uncertainties.

“No one’s done it so we have no idea how much data is going to be found,” said Oostra, who hoped to have a report on the pilot by the end of the year.

Exact wants to build a database that includes profiles of all the things found in the ditch – think of them as environmental fingerprints – for reference to compare the results against.

This small pilot could lead to that bigger database of the watershed, but that will require more money, possibly from the state.

The pilot has received qualified support.

“As long as the method is sound, we would be hopeful that it would improve the water quality,” said Timothy Ballew II, chairman of Lummi Nation.

The Washington State Department of Ecology echoed those views.

“We are not sure if the study will be able to determine sources to the degree expected, but are interested in the results,” said Ty Keltner, Ecology’s spokesman in Bellingham.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea