Scientist co-winner of award

A Dunedin environmental scientist and two colleagues have won a top international science prize for developing a simple test which measures arsenic levels in drinking water.

Dr Mona Wells, Prof Hauke Harms, of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany, and Prof Dr Jan Roelof van der Meer, of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, have been awarded the 2010 Erwin Schrödinger Prize and a cash prize of 50,000 euros (about $NZ90,000).

Dr Wells, who emigrated to Dunedin from the United States about two years ago, divides her time between three jobs - senior environmental scientist with multi-disciplinary consultancy CPG, guest scientist with the German Centre for Environmental Research, and part-time researcher at the University of Otago.

She has travelled to Germany for the awards ceremony on September 16.

The Schrödinger Prize is awarded annually by the Helmholtz Association, a group of German research centres of excellence in applied science.

It recognises contributions to interdisciplinary science, in particular work which has the potential to benefit people.

Dr Wells and her colleagues have spent many years developing a portable and highly reliable arsenic-testing procedure.

Commercial production will begin next year.

The test uses genetically modified bacteria called bioreporters which glow when they come into contact with arsenic.

Test-tubes holding freeze-dried bioreporters are filled with a water sample and the resulting luminescence is a measure of the arsenic concentration.

With the help of mathematical methods developed by Dr Wells, the new method outperforms traditional chemical analysis.

The scientists believe the kit has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people worldwide, particularly in Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Bangladesh, where people suffer from chronic arsenic poisoning because their drinking water is contaminated from natural geological conditions or from mining activity.

Dr Wells has a long-standing interest in environmental contamination and worked in Alaska following the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.


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