What would happen if a common tree had the potential to turn cloudy, contaminated water into clean, safe drinking water for million in need? Penn State researchers are hoping to find out using the seeds of the Moringa oleifera tree.

Lack of potable water is a huge problem in many developing countries. According to UNICEF, 783 million people worldwide are without improved drinking water, and the World Health Organization estimates that lack of proper drinking water causes 1.6 million deaths each year from diarrheal and parasitic diseases.

Part of the problem is that many of these countries must import expensive chemicals to clarify the water, limiting the amount they can afford to produce.

But there may be an alternative.

The Moringa oleifera tree grows abundantly throughout many tropical and subtropical regions of the world. It reaches fruition in only six months and is already being used in many areas as a food source. The seedpods, seeds, leaves, roots and flowers are all edible and nutritious.

In addition to these benefits, something in the tree’s seeds has the ability to kill bacteria and clarify water.

“That has been known for some time,” says Stephanie Butler Velegol, environmental engineering instructor at Penn State. Women in ancient Egypt reportedly rubbed Moringa seeds on their clay water pots, and dried powder from crushed seeds has been used as a handwash for many years.

In recent years, the water-clarifying ability of Moringa powder was found to be due to a positively-charged protein called the Moringa Oleifera Cationic Protein (MOCP). When you crush the seeds and add them to water, this protein will kill some of the microbial organisms and cause them to clump together and settle to the bottom of the container.

However, the dried seed powder alone is not ideal for water purification because the organic matter from the seed will remain in the water, providing a food source for any bacteria that have not been killed. As a result, water treated with this seed does not remain safe to drink after some time in storage.

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