Advancing the Study of Hamilton’s Contaminated Waterways
As part of a year-long water quality study in Hamilton’s Chedoke Creek, student Masozi Palata is using DNA analysis to identify the source of fecal contamination in the watershed.
4 min. read
March 10, 2020

In the early winter of 2019, news of an unreported sewage leak in Cootes Paradise, an important wetland of the Chedoke Creek watershed, rocked the Hamilton community. “Sewergate,” as the contamination scandal quickly became known, brought the Chedoke Creek and its environmental issues to the forefront of public attention. But fecal contamination of the Chedoke Creek is no new issue and has been recorded upstream of Cootes Paradise for nearly a decade, long before the leak of Sewergate began.

In 2012, Dr. Darren Brouwer, associate professor of chemistry, began to sample and analyze water in the Chedoke Creek with students in his analytical chemistry course. Together locating two main sources of contamination in the Chedoke Creek, Brouwer and his students found that cross connections between sanitary and storm sewers in residences on Hamilton’s mountain were to blame. Since their discovery, and subsequent presentations to the City of Hamilton, remediation efforts have been underway to reverse these improper connections, a necessary but lengthy and expensive process. Later in 2016, Brouwer partnered with Dr. Edward Berkelaar, department chair of chemistry, environmental studies and geography, to receive the study’s second Zylstra grant to fund continued research into the fecal contamination found in the watershed along the Chedoke Radial Trail.

“This project has taught me to appreciate the complexity of the world God created…I never truly understood how beautiful and intricate the world is until I started working on this research project.”

Berkelaar brought an added element of expertise to this project through his experience in trace element analysis. Together Brouwer and Berkelaar, supported by Redeemer’s Centre for Christian Scholarship Zylstra grant, have continued to sample the water throughout the Chedoke watershed, building a body of data on E. coli and coliform bacteria detected in the Chedoke Creek. This original scholarship, which serves to protect the health and safety of Hamilton residents, has entered an exciting new phase of research.

Today, Masozi Palata, a fourth-year Redeemer student, labours in the molecular biology lab under the direction of Dr. Sarah Reid-Yu to analyze the contamination in the watershed. With advancements in Redeemer’s lab equipment, and the help of bacteriodales—a fecal bacteria, the problem can be better understood. Bacteriodales live in the gut of animals and bear a unique genetic code depending which species is their host. Using a technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), Palata is isolating the segment of DNA that signals which species the bacterium is from, then amplifying it to identify which species the contamination is coming from.

Palata continues this research all while finishing off her final year at Redeemer. A health sciences pre-med major, Palata is set to graduate in the spring of 2020 and has ambitions either to pursue a career in medicine or to continue on to graduate studies in molecular biology for a career in research. She has been working as a research student with Brouwer and Berkelaar since the summer of 2018, both sampling water in the field and analyzing it in the lab, learning valuable hands-on research skills that she will be able to take with her into further studies or employment. “This project has taught me to appreciate the complexity of the world God created. In class, I have had the opportunity to learn about the concepts and theories behind why lab methods work. But I never truly understood how beautiful and intricate the world is until I started working on this research project,” shared Palata. “DNA is amazing, and it is only one part of God’s creation. It is incredible that God created this molecule that encodes the entire makeup of an organism and that he allowed humans the privilege of being able to know him through studying it.”

Palata’s PCR work has resulted in discoveries both expected and unexpected. Expected and confirmed was the presence of human fecal contamination at two sample sites along the Chedoke Radial Trail consistent with the known residential sewer cross connections that the City is working to fix. Unexpected was the presence of canine fecal contamination at each site she sampled, all of which were above the point where the sewer system leak occurred. “This was a surprising finding,” explained Palata, “as it was previously thought that the main source of contamination in this region of the watershed was human sewage. This shows the value of using PCR to investigate which species are causing fecal contamination. Without performing this test, I would not have known that fecal contamination from dogs was an issue.”

The work of Brouwer, Berkelaar, Reid-Yu and students like Masozi Palata continues to make a positive impact in the Chedoke Creek and the city of Hamilton. While issues of sewage pollution in our watersheds can raise alarm, Redeemer’s research has led to remediation efforts to clean up the Chedoke’s waters, and we now know that part of the solution is in the hands of Hamilton residents. Cleaning up and disposing of pet waste while walking along the Chedoke Radial Trail may reduce or even eliminate the presence of canine fecal contamination throughout the watershed. This research is preliminary and there is much work still to be done in studying the watershed, but it has already uncovered important data and provided new opportunities for residents and the City to care for God’s creation.

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