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CSI: E. coli

A bearded man and a young woman stand next to each other, smiling and holding small stuffed animal models of E. coli, which are fuzzy, oval-shaped and have two big eyes and little tentacles.

The last creature I would ever think to fingerprint would be an E. coli microbe. First, it doesn’t have fingers. And second, it’s gross. But then again, I’m not biological sciences professor Chris Kitts, who has pioneered the Cal Poly Library of Pyroprints (CPLOP) and spends much of his time helping biological sciences students fingerprint the gross, fingerless little bacteria.

Why?

Well, as Kitts and biological sciences student Maria Zuleta Alvarado explained at our recent E. coli-themed Pyroprints! Science Cafe, creating a record of E. coli by “fingerprinting” its DNA allows scientists to better understand water pollution (among other things).

Kitts first got the idea for creating a pyroprint database (or CPLOP) while trying to understand high E. coli levels in the water in Morro Bay. Since then, he’s teamed up with the City of San Luis Obispo and enlisted Cal Poly students to expand the database and trace the source of E. coli in San Luis Creek.

The greatest challenge facing Kitts and his students is building up the database to make it useful, and that means being able to identify which type of animal an E. coli sample was collected from, which is not an easy task with wild animals.

At Pyroprints! Kitts used the crowd to generate ideas and help in CPLOP’s mission. People suggested everything from working with animal rescue organizations to enlisting the help of hunters to setting up cameras in the wild.

All in all, it was definitely a learning experience for me. I still know that E. coli don’t have fingers, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fingerprinted.

And not only is that fingerprinting fun, but it’s enormously useful in the care and maintenance of our environment. And that’s not gross at all.

Read more about CPLOP here.

Or visit CPLOP itself!

Check out more about Pyroprints and Cal Poly Science Cafe on our website.