Twenty years ago, Milwaukee was home to the largest waterborne disease outbreak in U.S. history, due to an invisible parasite known as Cryptosporidium. 

Microscopy and petri dishes were the methods used to detect microbes in the water at the time. 

However, they typically detect less than 1 percent of microbes in a sample and are more labor intensive. 

Microbe Detectives, a company founded by Trevor Ghylin, uses DNA-based microbial analysis to ensure drinking water safety — a technique he believes would prevent such a widespread outbreak from happening again. 

“One of the primary reasons for the outbreak was our reliance on 100-year-old technologies … DNA sequencing technologies have become cost-effective enough to help us solve these issues,” Ghylin said. 

Microscopy and petri dish tests are still used today. 

DNA testing can provide the “quantity and identity” of almost every microbe in a sample. Petri dish tests can only identify specific organisms, and sometimes fail to detect contamination. 

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This form of testing does not require growth in a Petri dish and is able to look at everything in the sample by sequencing as much DNA as possible. 

“Our goal is to ensure water safety and prevent another outbreak,” Ghylin added. Microbe Detectives has some competition. The Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene offers similar services, but he says their cost is about three times more than Ghylin’s while providing only 10 percent as much information. 

The original name for the company was the Environmental Genomics Group. However, he wanted something a little more catchy and welcoming. 

“Microbe Detectives is a fun, self-explanatory way to get our point across,” Ghylin said. 

Ghylin has a background in civil and environmental engineering. The idea for this project stemmed from his doctoral work with genetic and freshwater bacteria at the UW-Madison. 

He received a grant for $50,000 for the project thus far. Microbe Detectives operates out of the Global Water Center in Milwaukee, alongside about two-dozen other water technology companies. Among other accolades, the company won the “Rising Star” award at the Elevator Pitch Olympics in the 2013 Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium, and was a finalist in the Rice Business Plan Contest. 

It cracked into the top 25 companies for the 2014 Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan contest, which will conclude June 3-4 at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs’ Conference in Madison. 

— By Janalle Goosby, for . Goosby recently graduated from the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.