The Power of Microorganisms to Treat Water

Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA

How can microorganisms help treat drinking water? That’s what Professors Lutgarde Raskin and Terese Olson are investigating through the use of cutting-edge molecular tools that characterize and optimize water quality process performance. By harnessing the power of microbes through technology, they hope to learn more about biological processes in engineered systems.

Water Theme

Funding Sources

Water Research Foundation

Urban Collaboratory

City of Ann Arbor

About the Project

Bacteria in drinking water are not necessarily harmful. Drinking water treatment plants actually use bacteria to help remove chemical contaminants from water. Human bodies need bacteria to stay healthy, and drinking water may provide some of these beneficial bacteria.

However, non-tuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) present in drinking water have the potential to cause disease in people with compromised immune systems. Scientists often refer to these bacteria as opportunistic pathogens. Evidence increasingly suggests that certain disinfectants used in drinking water treatment actually select for NTM. Rather than inactivating all bacteria, disinfectants can create an environment that kills certain bacteria but allows others, like NTM, to survive.

 

CEE Professor Lutgarde Raskin and Associate Professor Terese M. Olson are working with the Ann Arbor Water Treatment Plant to investigate ways to reduce this selection pressure in drinking water systems without impacting filtration performance. Their hypothesis is that reducing the amount of disinfectant used to clean filters will promote a more diverse bacterial community with fewer opportunistic pathogens.

 

The team hypothesizes that reducing disinfectant exposure of the microbial communities in BAC filters promotes more diverse biofilm communities with microbial populations that effectively outcompete pathogens, while achieving the same or better filtration performance. They will evaluate this hypothesis using a combination of full-scale and pilot-scale investigations at the Ann Arbor DWTP, with culture-independent, high-throughput microbiology. Specifically, we propose to test the impact of dechlorinating the backwash supply on filter microbial communities, focusing on whether this strategy reduces NTM levels.

 

Dr. Q. Melina Bautista, research scientist at the University of Michigan, is the day-to-day lead of this pilot-scale study. She is assisted by City of Ann Arbor personnel, PhD student Katherine Dowdell, master’s student Meghna Prasad and undergraduate student Michael Mata.

 

This research will result in strategies for utilities to reduce the levels of disinfectant-resistant, opportunistic pathogens in filters and thereby lower the likelihood of seeding the distribution networks with these microbes. While the work will focus on the Ann Arbor DWTP, it will be applicable to other utilities that practice biofiltration, especially those that pre-ozonate and use disinfectants in their backwash water.

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