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Cayuga CC students conduct hands-on research to learn about water contaminants and microbiology

DATE: 07-27-2011

The recent 90-degree weather has brought to the forefront the importance of water in our lives. Water hydrates, cools, washes, soothes, and supports people every day. When something contaminates drinking water, it can have devastating consequences.

For the past three years, Cayuga Community College microbiology students have been tracking the presence of two microscopic parasites—Cryptosporidium and Giardia—that can pose serious risk to human health when they find their way into water sources. These parasites, often found in the feces of animals including white-tailed deer, are often resistant to chlorine and must be filtered from water.

Students in BIOL 216 General Microbiology set out to find how prevalent these parasites are in the feces of the local population of white-tailed deer, while learning to use some key technologies including global position system (GPS) and fluorescent microscopes.

Each semester, students collect two samples of deer scat, marking the location of each sample using a handheld GPS unit. Then they head back to the lab, input the location data into a database, and prepare the sample for study under the microscope. They determine which samples test positive for the parasites and which are negative, and then map those results.

“Parasites are really hard to identify—even for professionals,” said Biology Professor Sue Gilmore, who teaches the course. “Few small hospitals would do this work in-house. They send it out to labs for review. We are fortunate that we have access to fluorescent microscopes that help identify the presence of these parasites.”

A recent class study of 58 samples collected from a range of fields and wooded areas of Cayuga and surrounding counties found the majority of the samples were contaminated with one or both of the parasites. Ten percent of the samples were contaminated with Giardia only, 21 percent had Cryptosporidium only, 24 percent had both parasites, and 45 percent had none.

During their research, many students discover an outbreak that occurred in 2005 at a Geneva, N.Y., water park that led to 1,738 people reporting symptoms and more than a dozen confirmed cryptosporidiosis infections.

“When the students read about the impact these microscopic organisms have on human health, it makes them recognize how important their work in the lab can be,” Gilmore said. “While the deer aren’t getting sick from the parasites, they act like a big factory, generating waste that is contaminated and has the potential to get into water supplies.”