January 13, 2008, Updated September 13, 2012

Go with the glow: Checklight is using luminescent bacteria to detect contamination in water supplies.Luminescent bacteria glow at night on the beaches in Costa Rica and the Mediterranean Sea. Now an Israeli start-up has developed a novel and economical solution that uses these unusual micro organisms to help keep drinking water clean and safe.

Checklight, based in Qiryat Tiv’on, has harnessed decades of scientific research to develop a special material that causes luminescent bacteria to be extra “sensitive” to water contamination.

When the bacteria are placed in drinking water that contains harmful chemicals, they glow a warning signal, which can be read by a machine measuring light intensity.

“Checklight is providing professionals who are responsible for water quality with an early warning system for testing contamination,” says Nirit Ulitzur, Checklight’s CEO.

Currently no such test for checking water contamination exists. Tests on drinking water quality, even in countries like America, are done infrequently, despite the fact that dangerous toxins like lead, arsenic and cadmium, are increasingly entering our drinking water reservoirs.

It can takes weeks, to years, before anyone is alerted to the problem. Tests for dozens of chemicals that could be in drinking water are currently done by hand in a laboratory, and require expensive equipment and processes. No real-time solution exists.

Checklight is hoping to fill that gap with its ToxScreen Test. According to the company, the technology, which combines glowing bacteria, a special substrate and a luminometer, is the first to provide a rapid, real-time test for drinking water quality. It costs dollars a test and can be carried out on-site.

Monitoring drinking water is a special concern today. In the Bay Area of California, for example, increased levels of cadmium, from the computer industry is a big problem, says Ulitzur.

“We can go out to the water source and test on the spot. You will know in 15 minutes – the time it takes for the bacteria and sensors to respond to any number of contaminants in the water. Our system detects them at low concentrations, and very quickly,” she explains.

This quick response time could give municipalities ample time to switch off the pipes before anyone drinks the water. It could also be used for monitoring factory effluents.

There are a number of different varieties of luminescent bacteria found in the sea. Their ability to glow is part of their defence mechanism, says Ulitzur, whose retired father, Prof. Shimon Ulitzur from the Technion Israel Institute of Technology, first conceived the idea decades ago.

Prof. Ulitzur is a marine microbiologist who has worked in the area of molecular marine biology for more than 40 years. “My father knows how and why to use the bacteria,” says his daughter Ulitzur. “We have made them more sensitive with our special substrate, this is the key.”

The bacteria come freeze-dried and when revived – like Sea Monkeys – they can stay fresh in the fridge, for about a week.

Checklight employs five people and is based in Haifa, Israel. The company, established in 2001, is currently providing water monitoring solutions in Oregon, Hong Kong, and at research institutes around the world.

Homeland Security as well as the US Congress has funded a program to examine promising rapid screening tests that could detect water terrorist acts. Checklight’s solution was verified by the Environmental Protection Agency, and was one of eight technologies selected.


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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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