Detecting SARS-CoV-2 In Wastewater: The New Frontier in Pandemic Surveillance

Tracking the spread of COVID-19 has been a tremendous challenge throughout the pandemic, but doing so is a key step toward containing the virus. Many communities have relied on patient testing and contact tracing, with limited success. In search of better methods, some countries have made inroads in a different form of disease surveillance: wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE). This approach involves testing wastewater for the presence of pathogens, primarily through DNA and RNA analysis, and has proved to be an accurate and highly effective way to keep tabs on the prevalence and progression of COVID-19 at the population level.

Switzerland is among those countries that have implemented WBE in their efforts to stay ahead of the pandemic. Since WBE first emerged in 2020 as a promising tool, several Swiss laboratories undertook wastewater testing, and protocols were established early.

“At the beginning, the methods to actually detect coronavirus in wastewater were rather laborious and complicated, and involved a lot of resources,” said Dr. Claudia Bagutti, microbiologist and molecular biologist in the State Laboratory of Basel-City, Switzerland.

Bagutti heads a small team performing applied biosafety research. In 2020, her lab was tasked with developing an assay for detecting COVID-19 in wastewater. However, the available methods were prohibitively complex and resource intensive.

In the meantime, researchers at Promega recognized that Promega products and methodologies could potentially be applied to WBE and set to work developing simpler and more efficient method for wastewater analysis. In the spring of 2021, Bagutti’s team decided to try adopting this method.

“Promega had a very nice method which was less laborious and much easier to handle, and that’s why we gave it a try,” said Bagutti.

In the ensuing study, Bagutti and her team analyzed effluent from the catchment area of one municipal wastewater plant in Switzerland. They examined the total wastewater output of around 270,000 people. Viral RNA was extracted using Promega’s Maxwell® RSC Environ Wastewater TNA Kit. The number of RNA copies present, representing the overall concentration of COVID-19 in each sample, was determined via quantitative reverse transcriptase (RT-qPCR) using the GoTaq® Enviro Wastewater SARS-CoV-2 Systems, also from Promega. The viral RNA was subsequently sequenced with next generation sequencing, and the results correlated quite well with the COVID-19 cases in the catchment area. Remarkably, this study detected the Omicron variant in a wastewater sample one day prior to the first reported case identified through patient testing.

“We observed a similar spread to most other western countries with respect to the time of the first discovery of these variants,” said Bagutti. “We were also able to demonstrate the presence [of Omicron] in the wastewater before it came up in a sample of a COVID-19 patient test, which of course shows the usefulness of wastewater monitoring for the prediction of new variants and infection dynamics.”

WBE is especially promising in that it provides population-level data independent of patient testing. Health departments can be alerted to the presence of COVID-19 earlier than would otherwise be possible with traditional testing and can take precautions to contain the spread. In creating a more user-friendly method for wastewater analysis, Promega has opened the door for more laboratories to conduct WBE, which could provide communities around the world with the information they need to preempt the progression of COVID-19.

“The Promega method is very straightforward to handle,” said Bagutti. “It only takes a small volume of wastewater, which makes it handy. It’s less time-consuming compared to the methods which were in the literature at the beginning of the pandemic, and it just works very well. We also did experience great support from Promega.”

At this point, much of the wastewater analysis performed in Switzerland is done with the Promega method, including in federal, state or private labs. The swift advance of WBE in Switzerland speaks to the colossal effort put forth both by Promega researchers in developing the necessary products and methodologies, as well by those labs that have made use of Promega’s products to monitor COVID-19 in wastewater.

“It’s really been a success story for us, from the beginning,” said Bagutti.


Learn more about Promega’s work with wastewater-based epidemiology.

Why Bring Automated Nucleic Acid Extraction into Your Lab?

Researcher adds sample try for an automated nucleic acid extraction robotics platform

Nucleic acid extraction is a time-consuming, resource-intensive process, but it doesn’t have to be. Automated systems are becoming more and more accessible and often can be operated with simple “plug and play” kits, freeing valuable resources

With these systems increasingly within reach, perhaps you’re thinking about introducing automated nucleic acid extraction into your lab. As you consider your options, here’s eight reasons why we think you should automate your nucleic extraction workflows.

8 Reasons to Automate Nucleic Acid Extraction in Your Lab:

1. Reach your project milestones and publish faster.

In the fast-paced, competitive environment of research and technology development, efficiency is key to reaching project milestones and publishing your work. Managing your resources effectively–especially time–can help you reach those goals.

Time spent on manual nucleic acid extractions is time lost on parallel work, which cuts down productivity. Automation is not only often faster than manual preparations, but it also frees your team to do more valuable hands-on work. 

As an example, the Maxwell® RSC cuts 40 minutes of hands-on-time per 16 samples. As the number of samples scales to 96 and beyond, liquid handlers like the Hamilton Star or Tecan Fluent can save many hours of hands-on-time per day.

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New Study Suggests Long Mononucleotide Repeat Markers Offer Advantages for Detecting Microsatellite Instability in Multiple Cancers

A new study, published in the Journal of Molecular Diagnostics (1), highlights the potential of using long mononucleotide repeat (LMR) markers for characterizing microsatellite instability (MSI) in several tumor types. The paper is a result of a collaborative effort between researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Promega to evaluate the performance of a panel of novel LMR markers for determining MSI status of colorectal, endometrial and prostate tumor samples.

Microsatellite instability (MSI) is the accumulation of insertion or deletion errors at microsatellites, which are short tandem repeats of DNA sequences found throughout the genome. MSI in cancerous cells is the result of a functional deficiency within one or more major DNA mismatch repair proteins (dMMR). PCR-based MSI testing is a commonly used method that can help understand a tumor’s genomic profile as it relates to MMR protein function.

Historically, MSI has been a biomarker associated with Lynch syndrome, the hereditary predisposition to colorectal and certain other cancers. In recent years, research interest in MSI has exploded, driven by the discovery that its presence in tumor tissue can be predictive of a positive response to anti-PD-1 immunotherapies (2,3).

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High-Molecular Weight DNA for Long-Read Sequencing

Imagine that you’re putting together a large, complex jigsaw puzzle, comprising thousands of exceptionally small pieces. You lay them all out and attempt to make sense of them. It would be far easier to assemble this puzzle were the pieces larger, containing more of the image advertised on the box. The same can be said when sequencing a genome.

high-molecular weight DNA  Depiction of a DNA helix

Traditional short-read or next-generation sequencing relies on DNA spliced into small fragments (≤300 base pairs) and then amplified. While useful for detecting small genetic variants like single-base changes to the DNA, this type of sequencing can fail to illuminate larger variations (typically over 50 base pairs) in the genome. Long-read sequencing, or third generation sequencing, allows more accurate genome assemblies, facilitating better detection of structural variants like copy number variations, duplications, translocations and inversions that are too large to identify with short-read sequencing. Long-read sequencing has the capability to fill in “dark regions” of a genome that are unfinished and can be used to assemble larger, more complex genomes using longer fragments of DNA, or high-molecular weight (HMW) DNA.

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Finding the Right Maxwell® RSC Kit for Your Nucleic Acid Extraction

This blog was written by guest writers Paraj Mandrekar (Technical Services Scientist 3) and Michelle Mandrekar, (Research Scientist 4).

Here are some designer’s notes comparing the Maxwell® RSC Blood DNA and the Maxwell® RSC simplyRNA kit chemistries for nucleic acid extraction.

The Maxwell RSC Blood DNA Kit and Maxwell RSC simplyRNA Blood Kit were both developed from the same non-silica-based purification chemistry and use the same underlying paramagnetic particle. This chemistry is characterized by an extreme binding capacity (the capacity of nucleic acid that can be bound on the particle), leading to both chemistries being capable of isolating large amounts of nucleic acid volumes and then eluting into relatively small volumes (50 µL). It is not unusual with either chemistry to have isolates that exceed 100 ng/µL. Although the chemistries have several similarities, there are some important distinctions between how the two chemistries were designed that influence which kit you choose for your nucleic acid extraction.

Image of blood with molecules of DNA and RNA superimposed Nucleic Acid Extraction
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The Latest Addition to the Lab: A Review of the Spectrum Compact CE System

When it comes to acquiring new equipment, choosing the right instrument for your lab can be daunting―you want to make a worthwhile investment that will go the distance, both in longevity and overall capacity. In a perfect world, the instruments available to you would have been thoroughly tested and reviewed, especially as they compare to one another, making your job that much easier.

In the case of benchtop capillary electrophoresis (CE) instruments, researchers Nastasja Burgardt and Melanie Weissenberger have done just that. Their article, titled “First experiences with the Spectrum Compact CE System”, appeared in the International Journal of Legal Medicine and offered a comprehensive review of the performance of the recently released Spectrum Compact CE System in a forensic genetics laboratory setting.

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ProDye Brings Sanger Sequencing to Multiple Platforms

Researchers looking for new chemistry for Sanger sequencing need look no further than the ProDye™ Terminator Sequencing System, developed by Promega for use in capillary electrophoresis instruments. Sanger sequencing, or dye-terminator sequencing, has been the gold standard of DNA analysis for over 40 years and is a method commonly used in labs around the world. Even as new technologies emerge, Sanger sequencing remains the most cost-effective method for sequencing shorter pieces of DNA.

Sanger sequencing depicted as results on a musical cleft
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LncRNA: The Long and Short of “Junk RNA”

The Central Dogma and Junk DNA

lncRNA, long noncoding RNA

On September 19, 1957, Francis Crick delivered a lecture during a symposium at University College London, titled “Protein Synthesis”. The lecture was published a year later (1); in it, Crick quotes his colleague James Watson as saying, “The most significant thing about the nucleic acids is that we don’t know what they can do.” In contrast, Crick argued that proteins play a central, indispensable role as enzymes within the cell that catalyze a variety of chemical reactions. He believed that the main role of genetic material was to control the synthesis of proteins, although the mechanism of that process was not known.

Crick’s hypothesis came to be known as the central dogma of molecular biology, and it was immortalized in his hand-written notes that described the flow of information from DNA to RNA to proteins. This achievement was all the more remarkable, considering that messenger RNAs were completely unknown at that time, and very little was known about how the cellular translational machinery functioned within the cytoplasm to synthesize proteins. Although the later discovery of retroviruses appeared to challenge Crick’s central dogma, he explained quite succinctly that his original statement had simply been misunderstood, and that information could flow in both directions between DNA and RNA (2).

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Endpoint PCR in 15 Minutes with New Master Mix and Thermal Cycler Combination

Since its invention in 1983, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) has become a fundamental technology in life science laboratories across the world. Much of the technological innovation is driven by quantitative PCR and digital PCR (1); however, endpoint PCR remains a workhorse technology for applications such as gene cloning, mutagenesis and detection of microbial pathogens. Variations on the basic endpoint PCR method—for example, the use of multiplexed, fluorescently labeled primers followed by capillary electrophoresis to analyze the amplified DNA fragments—are popular in forensic DNA analysis and cell line authentication.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an urgent need for PCR-based diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2. Most of these diagnostic tests use real-time, reverse-transcription quantitative PCR (RT-qPCR). However, RT-qPCR can be challenging for routine use in developing countries and in laboratories with limited access to real-time PCR thermal cyclers. A recent study described an endpoint PCR method for SARS-CoV-2 detection to address these limitations (2).

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RNA-Protein Interactions: A New Frontier for Drug Discovery

Almost 90% of the human genome is transcribed into RNA, but only 3% is ultimately translated into a protein. Some non-translated RNA is thought to be useless, while some play a significant yet often mysterious role in cancer and other diseases. Despite its abundance and biological significance, RNA is rarely the target of therapeutics.

“We say it’s undruggable, but I would say that ‘not-yet-drugged’ is a better way to put it,” says Amanda Garner, Associate Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Michigan. “We know that RNA biology is important, but we don’t yet know how to target it.”

Amanda’s lab develops systems to study RNA biology. She employs a variety of approaches to analyze the functions of different RNAs and study their interactions with proteins. Her lab recently published a paper describing a novel method for studying RNA-protein interactions (RPI) in live cells. Amanda says that with the right tools, RPI could become a critical target for drug discovery.

“It’s amazing that current drugs ever work, because they’re all based on really old approaches,” Amanda says. “This isn’t going to be like developing a small molecule kinase inhibitor. It’s a whole new world.”

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