Lyonnaise Des Eaux to Spend $9 Million for
DNA Chip to Test for Waterborne Pathogens

Affymetrix has landed a contract with two French companies to develop a customized DNA chip to test for disease-causing microorganisms in water supplies.

The deal is with Lyonnaise des Eaux, one of the world's biggest private water suppliers, and BioMerieux, a French biotechnology company that specializes in diagnosis and control of infectious diseases.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Affymetrix is a leader in DNA chip technology, a quick method of identifying genes. Once a gene of interest is identified, the company is able to build short stretches of the gene on a tiny glass chip.

The Affymetrix contract is to develop chips that can test for traces of a variety of water-borne bugs--and do it for as little as a tenth of the cost of current tests.

In recent years, there has been heightened concern about the safety of public water supplies, especially those that draw from lakes and rivers, which are often contaminated by viruses, bacteria and parasites. In Milwaukee in 1993, for example, more than 400,000 people were stricken with severe diarrhea because of a one-celled parasite, Cryptosporidium parvum, in the city's drinking water.

That outbreak confirmed fears that even the best available treatment methods may not always do the job and that improved testing will be required to avoid widespread illness. Current methods can take days to complete--the new chips are expected to take a fraction of the time--enabling suppliers to prevent potential epidemics.

Lyonnaise currently supplies water to about 77 million people around the world. Its American partner, United Water Resources in New Jersey, is the second-largest private water supplier in the U.S., serving 7.5 million customers under contract to local agencies, including the city of Atlanta. The potential market for a fast, cheap water-testing device is enormous.

The French companies say they are investing about $9 million in their effort to develop the new chip. The terms of their agreement with Affymetrix were not disclosed.