Erica Smith: Optimization of Microfluidic Paper Analytical Devices to Detect Low Concentrations of Tetracycline in Agricultural Settings

This summer, I participated in Chemistry Undergraduate Research here at the University of Central Arkansas with Dr. Nathan Meredith. My project’s goal was to investigate new detection methods for pharmaceuticals present in agricultural runoff. By using microfluidic paper-based analytical devices, we developed a test that quantifies trace amounts of the antibiotic tetracycline in water samples. Tetracycline is commonly used in concentrated animal feeding operations, where overuse of antibiotics contributes to the issue of antimicrobial resistance, a significant problem affecting the overall human population today. This research engages environmental health science, which describes how environmental factors affect human health. I plan to use the results of my lab research in my Honors Capstone Project this fall.

I am very passionate about my research because the issue of antimicrobial resistance is not something we should overlook. It is imperative that we take preventative measures toward this dilemma before the rise of antibiotic resistant strains become irreversible. I enjoy the topic of my project because it incorporates my disciplinary background in chemistry as well as the science of biology. After completing my degree, I plan to attend pharmacy school. This research experience will benefit me practically in that I will have experience working in a research lab, which will also strengthen my marketability to pharmacy programs. While conducting primary and secondary research for my capstone project, I have been able to branch out into other science departments besides my own, providing important professional networking and relationships. I have enjoyed meeting new faculty and members of my community who are also passionate about fighting antimicrobial resistance. I hope to incorporate these people’s perspectives in my written capstone project as well.

The main purpose for investigating these new detection methods for antibiotics is to create a more simple approach so that the method we produces can be done in the field by someone without a science background. Current testing for pharmaceuticals in water sources is time consuming, expensive, and requires experienced users to complete. Our study is valuable in that our new method is quick and efficient, inexpensive, and will not require great amounts of scientific training or equipment to be done. Overall, the importance of my project stems from its ability to benefit all people, including both science professionals and laypersons as well as the overall human population. Chemists, biologists, and farmers or regulators will be able to monitor the emergence of antibiotics in local water sources over both time and location.

In the laboratory, we used microfluidic paper analytical devices to detect the presence of the antibiotic tetracycline. The devices are made of filter paper and printed wax designs. We designed the wax devices on a program, CorelDraw, and printed them using a Xerox Colorqube Solid Ink Printer, which uses wax instead of ink or toner. The devices were then melted on a hot plate so that the wax design fully permeated through the paper. These designs work well with solution testing because the wax acts as a barrier to contain the solutions. Some devices were used for what we call flow tests, while others were used for spot tests. Flow tests involve devices in the shape of a line, while spot tests involve circles. Testing proved that the spot test worked best. After a test was done, we analyzed the fluorescence of the reaction. Using a blacklight to activate fluorescence, we took a picture of the device we planned to analyze using a digital camera. We then uploaded the photo to be analyzed by ImageJ, an image processing program that allowed us to extract quantitative data from the image. We used this data to develop a calibration curve through Microsoft Excel.

My research has helped me to learn more about my field of study. As I delved deeper into new techniques and analysis of the data collected during the project, I found myself developing new skills that will potentially benefit me in pharmacy school and my future career. Future work in this project can make a real world difference in our fight against the rise of antibiotic resistance strains of bacteria because a greater level of awareness and understanding of this problem will lead to a greater effort to prevent the transfer of antibiotic resistant bacteria to water sources and humans. I am thankful for this experience and that I was able to lay down the foundation for this project.