Bacteria that glow in the dark have found useful work detecting toxic chemicals in waste water.
Carlsbad-based Microbics expects to break into the black this fiscal year with its Microtox testing units--the original model 2055 and the brand new model 500.
The machines, which are slightly larger than a videocassette recorder, accept small, compact test tubes called "cuvettes" filled with luminescent bacteria that are used to do the testing. The cuvettes are lowered into a dark chamber inside the machine, where the light emitted by the bacteria is measured.
First, the amount of light emitted by the bacteria alone in their solution is checked. Then the fluid to be tested is mixed with the bacteria. After a 5- to 15-minute wait, a reading is taken on this mix, and if the light level has dropped substantially, something toxic has probably stunned the microscopic marine creatures.
In the last 10 years, more than 400 of the 2055s have sold at a price of up to $14,000 each. The new $15,000 model 500, which goes into production later this month, is more versatile and easier to use, and has already attracted at least 20 orders.
Microbics President Don Isenberg, who prefers a casual, tieless style of management, is excited about his 5-year-old company's future. He expects Microbics to turn its first profit in the fiscal year to end this June. Sales will exceed $1 million, he said.
"We've just clipped the edge of the market," he said. His optimism is shared by industry trade publications including Pharmacopeial Forum, which say the use of luminescent bacteria to test fluids for toxicity is fast, economical and reliable in certain applications.
Among the places where the Microtox is being used are waste-water treatment plants in Carlsbad and Point Loma. The Microtox is used to monitor both influent, or incoming waste water, and effluent, or outgoing treated waste water.
The product is also being used by large petroleum companies that treat polluted water and by municipalities and governmental agencies, including the federal Environmental Protection Agency, as well as its counterparts in Sweden and France.
Apparently, Microbics has no direct competitors. Turner Designs in Sunnyvale, however, uses Microbics' freeze-dried bacteria in its $5,500 "Luminometer," which does similar tests.
"They have a lock on the reagent technology," said Jim McCormick of Turner, referring to the method of storing and reactivating bacteria developed by Microbics.
Fleas and fish are among the other animals used to determine whether or not water or soil samples contain toxic materials. Microbics' advantage is that people seem to have an easier time accepting the possible demise of a bunch of tiny bacteria than a school of writhing trout. Also, experts say, both the fish and flea tests are more costly and time-consuming than the Microtox tests.
Besides these so-called "bioassays," or tests that use living organisms, there are various chemical tests for the presence of specific toxins. But these can cost several times the $30 to $60 the Microtox bioassays cost.
Actually, the 55-year-old Isenberg doesn't claim his products replace sophisticated methods of chemical testing. Indeed, the Microtox doesn't reveal \o7 what \f7 is in a sample, only that it's causing the bacteria's healthy glow to fade. This tells a waste-water plant, for example, that something bad is coming in or going out and that more in-depth testing may be necessary.
"It's very useful, and it does save money," said Walter Konopka, a senior chemist at the city of San Diego's Point Loma waste-water treatment plant.
But Bob Bastian, an environmental engineer with the EPA in Washington, cautioned that the Microtox units often render results that differ from alternative tests.
"Line it up next to tests that use fleas or flathead minnows, run chronic and acute tests, and you will come up with different numbers," he said, adding that it's debatable whether the Microtox system has universal application in waste-water treatment.
Even if only a fraction of waste-water treatment plants are interested, though, the market appears large. Bastian said there are 15,500 EPA-issued permits for these facilities in the United States. And, he noted, the 1987 Clean Water Act amendments call for closer monitoring for polluted water being discharged into lakes, rivers and oceans. As a result, bioassay testing will become fairly routine, he said.
"That bodes better for Microtox and other approaches," Bastian said.
One waste-water treatment expert was more optimistic than Bastian about the prospects for the Microtox. "Most operators don't care about specifics," said Brian Symons, an environmental engineer at Remediation Technology, a Ft. Collins, Colo.-based hazardous waste management consulting firm. "They just want to know if whatever's coming into the plant is going to disrupt their operation."