Lab in a suitcase

Suitcase lab development and applications

Our suitcase lab for molecular microbiology enables comprehensive microbial water quality testing anywhere in the world. This project has been highlighted as a research outcome and impact case study by UKRI, and Newcastle University’s research blog. It was also featured in a recorded webinar on environmental DNA sequencing with Oxford Nanopore that features in Oxford Nanopore Technologies online resource centre.

Suitcase lab for water quality testing, incl. the analysis of environmental DNA (eDNA)

Our development of the suitcase lab started in collaboration with colleagues in South Asia and Africa. Read our Water Research paper on how the suitcase lab was first used on-site at a small sewage treatment works in the UK, and then in the Akaki catchment in Ethiopia, to screen water samples for bacterial hazards. Read also our Environment International paper on how data generated with the suitcase lab informed quantitative microbial risk assessment to elucidate waterborne disease transmission pathways in the subsurface of an informal settlement in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Sequencing with the MinION in Tanzania
On-site water quality analysis in Ethiopia with test strips
Pan-African molecular microbiology workshop at the Kality Wastewater Treatment Plant laboratory

We later applied these methods to compare bacterial hazards in the Akaki catchment in the dry and wet season.

River basin investigation

In Thailand we used the suitcase lab to investigate impacts of urban pollution on water quality in periurban aquacultures.

And in Nepal we used the suitcase laboratory for faecal pollution source tracking in the Bagmati River.

Our work with suitcase laboratory methods to track the sources of faecal bacteria in the river Ouseburn received a lot of media attention:

Chronicle, ITV News, Metro Radio, New Scientist

SourceTracker Analysis of sequencing data

Method papers

Before we could use the suitcase lab, we had to validate the methods using environmental DNA (eDNA) samples from various household water sources in Nepal.

Water sampling in Nepal

We have recently also validated a portable and versatile method for fecal pollution source tracking with onsite qPCR assays.

qPCR to quantify marker genes for faecal bacteria in the back of a van

And we reviewed progress with the portable MinION nanopore sequencing platform towards ubiquitous genetics in water research.

Sequencing with the MinION in the back of a van


In addition to research, we have delivered hands-on training of over 175 colleagues from 18 countries across the globe working in academia and the water authorities and water industry, in the use of suitcase lab methods for comprehensive water quality testing.

Training of students at IIT Gandhinagar
Training at the Mamirau√° Institute for Sustainable Development in Tefe Brazil
Training at the Addis Ababa Water and Sewerage Authority laboratory

Current work

We are currently collaborating with Professor Cesar Mota and his group at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil to further develop portable field kits and methods for comprehensive water quality analysis anywhere in the world. An International Collaboration Award by the Royal Society will help us advance the state of the art in water quality monitoring in remote locations like the Amazon.

Departing for the floating research base with the suitcase laboratory
Floating research base in the Mamirau√° Sustainable Development Reserve.

We have also obtained funding from the Reece Foundation to investigate the impact of sewage pollution on river water quality in Northeast England.


More photos illustrating our typical workflow for comprehensive water quality assessment with portable equipment items:

Probe for pH/conductivity/temperature measurement
Cuvette tests with portable spectrophotometer for onsite nutrient analysis
Water filtration with a portable filtration unit and pump.
Mini-PCR for 16S rRNA gene amplification
Microbial community characterization by 16S rRNA gene amplicon sequencing with the MinION. Loading the flow cell at Ardhi University to generate 8 million reads, each classifying a bacterium.
Portable qPCR (left, marker genes for total bacteria, E. coli, V. cholerae and human-host associated Bacteroides) and MinION nanopore sequencer (right) in the back of a van. Mini-PCR behind the MinION.
An early version of the suitcase laboratory without the Q qPCR machine
Onsite DNA extraction from sediment with a mini centrifuge in the back of a car
A portable ribolyser for sample homogenization/cell shearing
Sequencing with the MinION whilst driving back from the borehole array at Cockle Park farm to produce results in near-real time
Lab in a van for molecular microbiology deployed in the Ouseburn Valley
Happy faces at the end of the Pan-African Molecular Microbiology Workshop in Addis Ababa, with the equipment items repacked into the suitcase.
Our trainees became the trainers at the Pan African Molecular Microbiology Workshop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Happy faces as the trainers arrive with the flow cells for the Molecular Microbiology Workshop at the Mamirau√° Institute for Sustainable Development in Tefe, state of Amazonas, Brazil