Healthy drinking water.

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

Abstract

UK Water Engineers played a critical role in establishing the modern paradigm of clean drinking water. From the first slow sand filtration plant in Paisley, Scotland in 1804 to the first water chlorination facility in Lincoln, England in 1905; UK Water Engineers have been at the forefront in the provision of clean drinking water for over two centuries. Yet over this extended period, the idea "clean" water has remained immune to change. Consider the fact that all major water treatment technologies developed to date focus on two objectives: remove contamination and kill microorganisms. The fulfilment of these two objectives - as challenging as it might be - is considered sufficient for the provision of safe drinking water. Iterative engineering applied to this centuries old idea has stifled innovation and ushered in decades of complacency that has relied on regulatory pressures to trigger technology development, without reflection on whether "safe" water itself is the appropriate ultimate goal.

This project proposes to transform the old paradigm of "safe" drinking water to one that aspires to produce and supply "healthy" drinking water. This will be accomplished by the development of technologies and water management strategies that utilise naturally occurring microbes to deliver (biologically active) healthy drinking water to the customer's tap. Specifically, this project will develop two distinct ways of beneficially utilising microbial communities in drinking water. First, this project will explore engineered assembly of a beneficial microflora consisting of a cocktail of naturally occurring microbes that can be used to kill pathogens with precision at the water treatment plant and act as a protective barrier in the water supply system, thus eliminating the need for chemical disinfection. Second, the latest breakthroughs in 'omic technologies and databases on human microbiome will be used to identify microorganisms in drinking water that can be of potential benefit to human health. This information will be utilised to develop engineering approaches to cultivate these microbes in the drinking water treatment plant and facilitate their effective delivery to the customer's tap.

Both of these approaches, embedded within the larger vision of engineering beneficial drinking water biology, have the potential to set a new direction for research and innovation in the drinking water industry and could also significantly transform public health. First, by eliminating the need for chemical based disinfection, this research will pave the way for comprehensively chemical free drinking water industry of the future. Second, the identification of drinking water microbes that are beneficial for human health will lead to radical change in our perceptions about the role of drinking water in public health and well-being. It will provide the water industry with a new framework and set of principles on which to build the water infrastructure of the future.

Planned Impact

From preventing biofilms in water pipes to eliminating biofouling layers on water treatment membranes, for over a hundred years a significant focus of the drinking water industry has been on controlling biology by means of eradicating it. The ambition of this project is to challenge the notion that microbial presence in drinking water is undesirable and to develop approaches that harness the beneficial aspects of the drinking water microbiome. As a result, this project will shape the future of the drinking water research over the foreseeable future by catalysing the development of a brand new research theme focused on beneficial biology.

Medium term impacts: The water industry has long recognised that chemical treatment is unsustainable and has been gearing up for a move away from it. However, chemical disinfection (e.g. chlorine) and/or newer energy intensive treatments (e.g. UV treatment) are considered as effective means of ensuring safe water. As a result, the development of alternatives ways of eliminating pathogenic microorganisms has been sorely lacking. I envision that research on selective pathogen deletion using beneficial microbes will play a key role in helping the drinking water industry consider biological alternatives to disinfection - thus providing a path towards comprehensively chemical free and low energy water treatment. Given the novelty of this approach, several related research themes are certain to emerge. For example, future research (beyond lifetime of this grant) will likely pursue (1) comprehensive pathogen deletion (beyond those tested in this project), (2) development of approaches to maintain the beneficial microbiota in the water supply systems as a protective barrier against pathogen contamination (e.g. 3D printing beneficial biofilms on water pipes), and (3) biostability of drinking water with the presence of beneficial microbes. These are just three examples of the types of research avenues that are likely to emerge within drinking water field over the medium term with direct benefits for the water industry.

Long term impacts: This project will the first of its kind to identify microorganisms in drinking water that are beneficial towards public health and start developing approaches to promote their growth at the water treatment plant and facilitate their effective delivery through the water supply system. I anticipate that in the long-term this research will have a significant impact on not only biology-centric technology development in the water industry but also on public health. Consider the fact that increased incidence of autoimmune disorders is attributed to the lack of exposure to microbiological agents. The NHS spends ~11% (>£1.5 billion) of its drug budget on autoimmune disorders every year; whereas US spends ~$100 billion each year on healthcare costs associated with autoimmune disorders. Facilitated exposure to beneficial microbes through drinking water has a significant potential to improve public health and thus reduce the healthcare burden of autoimmune disorders. This benefit may also translate to a vast array of health problems that are increasingly being linked to disruption of the healthy human associated microbial communities. The realisation of probiotic drinking water will have a significant impact on public health and the healthcare industry.
 
Description Through this award, we were able to discover the presence of a novel micro-organisms capable of complete aerobic nitrification, i.e. conversion of ammonia to nitrate. For nearly a 100 years, this process as assumed to be carried out by two distinct sets of organisms. This finding was made in parallel, but independently, with two other research groups in Europe and is likely to have a major impact on how we manage Nitrogen pollution in aquatic, terrestrial, and engineered environments.
Exploitation Route Our co-discovery of a single organism capable of full nitrification will have a significant impact on the understanding of nitrogen cycle and efforts to manage nitrogen pollution. We are only half-way through this grant and it will likely lead to some additional important insights in microbial communities in drinking water systems.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Chemicals,Environment

URL http://science.sciencemag.org/content/351/6271/342
 
Description The discovery of comammox bacteria supported by this grant has led to significant interest from the wastewater industry in terms of its impact on nitrogen removal from wastewater. Given the recent nature of this discovery, significant impact is yet to be realized in terms of policy and practice.
First Year Of Impact 2016
Sector Energy,Environment
Impact Types Societal

 
Description Water Environment & Reuse Foundation - Unsolicited Call
Amount $122,000 (USD)
Funding ID U4R16 
Organisation Water Environment Reuse Foundation 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United States
Start 05/2017 
End 04/2019
 
Title Cellphone microscope for counting cell numbers in water samples 
Description This a tool that is currently under development with early promising signs. This includes staining of the water sample with a fluorescent dye, a short incubation period to allow for the dye to penetrate and stain microbial cells in the sample. The sample is then imaged using a iPhone or similar Android device with an 3D printed attachment consisting of a magnifying bead and a fluorescent filter. The images are then processed by a simple RGB filter to provide approximate estimates of microbial abundance in a water sample. 
Type Of Material Biological samples 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact This tool is still under development. We hope to submit a research paper on this in late 2016 or early 2017. 
 
Title Pinto et al 2015 
Description Shotgun metagenomic data, metagenomic assembly, and 51 genomes extracted from metagenomic assembly 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2015 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact N/A 
URL http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/bioproject/?term=PRJNA301005
 
Description University of Chicago 
Organisation University of Chicago
Department Department of Medicine
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Application of bioinformatics tools to apply metagenomics technique to investigate drinking water microbiome
Collaborator Contribution Troubleshooting on bioinformatics techniques.
Impact No impact yet.
Start Year 2016
 
Description University of Illinois Urbana Champaign 
Organisation University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Department Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Application of microbiological and microbial ecology tools to investigate algal bioreactors.
Collaborator Contribution Performing bioreactor experiments with algal bioreactors to investigate the impact of starvation on lipid accumulation.
Impact Publications: Bradley, I., Pinto, A.J., and Guest, J.S. (2016) "Design and evaluation of Illumina MiSeq compatible primers for the 18S rRNA gene for improved characterization of mixed microalgal communities". Applied and Environmental Microbiology. DOI: 10.1128/AEM.01630-16 Conference presentations: Bradley, I.M., Pinto, A.J. and Guest, J.S. (2016) "Improved characterization of mixed phototrophic communities using 18S rRNA amplicon sequencing". Microbial Ecology and Water Engineering. Copenhagen, Denmark, 2016.
Start Year 2015
 
Description University of Leipzig 
Organisation Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres
Department Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research - UFZ
Country Germany 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Performed microbiological experiments assessing the impact of predatory bacteria on E.Coli in drinking water biofilters.
Collaborator Contribution Performing motility and surface attachment assays to determine the physical interaction between predatory bacteria and E.Coli
Impact No outputs yet
Start Year 2017
 
Description Invited talk (IWA Biofilms Conference) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Keynote talk on "Managing the Drinking Water Microbiome" which included an overview of the current state-of-science in drinking water microbiology and the future for drinking water quality research. This lead to extensive discussions with attendees and research ideas for future projects.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
 
Description Invited talk - Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management Conference. 2016. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was talk was attended by ~50-80 individuals spanning industry, policy makers, and researchers. Highlighting state-of-the-art molecular tool applications for water safety was well received by the audience and sparked important discussion on how to translate research into practise.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.ciwem.org/past-events/
 
Description Invited talk: Lund University. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Invited talk on "Engineering the Drinking Water Microbiome" at Lund University. The audience primarily consisted of researchers from academia. This provided greater visibility for EPSRC funded research, while also leading to the development of international collaborations.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
 
Description Online seminar as part of the MicroSeminar Series. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact Online talk as part of MicroSeminar series organized by microbiologists in the USA. This gave broad visibility to the application of state-of-the-art microbiological tools in drinking water engineering to a community that is likely less familiar microbial ecology applications in drinking water systems.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qc_kEpMV9fU&feature=youtu.be
 
Description Tufts University - Invited Seminar 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Gave an invited seminar at Tufts University in Boston, MA, USA on "Engineering the drinking water microbiome". The audience primarily consisted of researchers from diverse environmental engineering background. The primary impact was visibility for EPSRC funded research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://engineering.tufts.edu/cee/seminars/2016Fall.htm
 
Description Workshop co-organizer (IWA Biofilm Specialty Conference) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Co-organized a workshop titled "Microbi-Home" on microbiology of building plumbing, which was attended by researchers and industrialists. This was particularly productive workshop in terms of development of research ideas.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015