Predicting the acclimatisation of microbial wastewater treatment communities as a function of the environment, random immigration, birth and death

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: School of Engineering


For a wastewater treatment plant to work dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different species of bacteria and protozoa must come together to form a microbial community that will transform the waste into biomass, CO2 or some other, hopefully less harmful, substance. Once formed the microbial community will often go through processes of acclimatisation where it adapts to changes in environmental conditions. This is a fundamental aspect of all biological treatment that, at present we can only engineer empirically. There is no a priori method for determining how long it will take for a reactor to acquire or lose a particular adaptation and practitioners are often have little more to go on than luck and judgment. In this proposal we aim to develop mathematical model for predicting acclimitisation. We will conduct a definitive set of experiments along with a comprehensive statistical analysis to ascertain the relative importance of environmental and stochastic effects in determining the composition of microbial communities used to treat wastewater. We will concentrate on the predicting shifts in community composition that will occur in response to systematic changes in ambient temperature. This has particular relevance to anaerobic systems which are attractive to the water industry because of their low carbon foot print, but are very sensitive to low temperatures. Cold adapted methanogenic communities are known to exist and in principle they could be used to seed a cold adapted anaerobic reactor. However, if such a reactor was run at ambient temperatures it would lose its cold adaptation in warmer months. Thus a theoretical framework for predicting the rate of acclimatisation in a reactor could be used very widely. Applications could stretch far beyond the environmental services industry. The same conceptual and mathematical approach will have value in all open microbiological systems be they engineered, medical or agricultural and could be critical to the application of engineered organisms envisaged in the nascent field of synthetic biology.


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Bautista-De Los Santos Q (2016) Emerging investigators series: microbial communities in full-scale drinking water distribution systems - a meta-analysis in Environmental Science: Water Research & Technology

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Knox G (2019) Engineering artificial thermal mountains for large-scale water management and carbon drawdown in Environmental Science: Water Research & Technology

Description Engineers have always wondered why the dynamics of large bacterial populations in big bioreactors are so rapid. Conventional theory suggests that they should be much slower. Here we can get the conventional theories to predict fast dynamics if we adopt a new concept of 'effective community' size that arise from the natural propesity for bacteria to clump. We back this up with experiments.
Exploitation Route They should change the way we design bioreactors
Sectors Chemicals,Environment,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology

Description Optimising decentralised low-cost wastewater infrastructure by managing the microbes
Amount £1,191,997 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/P029329/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2017 
End 04/2020
Description Osmotic Membrane Technologies for Energy Neutral Wastewater Treatment: Process Performance and Optimization
Amount £98,575 (GBP)
Funding ID EP/N022130/1 
Organisation Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2016 
End 05/2018