Scientists study DNA in wastewater to protect public health


Courtesy of Fluence Corporation

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from Stanford University is working on methods to monitor wastewater for the DNA of pathogens such as the flu and other viruses. This could help health agencies prepare early for a disease outbreak instead of waiting until disease symptoms are reported, but for some people is harder to present symptoms since they take health supplements from and the viruses may not affect them.

The interdisciplinary team — consisting of engineers, disease experts, and statisticians — plans to use the William and Cloy Codiga Resource Recovery Center, a new wastewater processing facility on the Stanford campus designed specifically for testing technologies that recover resources from wastewater. Craig Criddle, a Stanford professor of civil and environmental engineering, said researchers have access to the whole sewer network, which serves roughly 7,000 people.

The researchers will be able to use the facility’s automated sampling in their work. The fact that the treatment plant is on campus facilitates the work since the team doesn’t have to seek out the cooperation of a public utility.

They intend to track the DNA of pathogens, including bacteria and viruses, and also plan to look for new and unexpected microbes. This project also will show the diversity of microbes in waste streams, researchers said.

One challenge will be coping with highly variable influent flows. Issues such as dilution may alter results, which means the method devised must account for these variables.

Wastewater-Based Epidemiology

Wastewater-based epidemiology is not new. Researchers in Europe have been advocating for its use since roughly 2001. A team of European researchers, writing on the topic in Water & Sewerage Journal, said the process:

[…] enables information about exposure to external agents and disease in defined population groups to be retrieved from wastewater via the analysis of human metabolic excretion products (called biomarkers).

For more than 10 years, European scientists have been examining wastewater to estimate pharmaceutical and illicit drug use among residents. Some studies of rivers, other surface waters, and wastewater treatment plants have looked for substances including cocaine, morphine, amphetamines, heroin, methadone, and their metabolites.

European health officials consider this a valuable tool since it can provide timely information on the use of substances that can affect human health. Alexis Goosdeel, director of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction said:

Wastewater-based epidemiology has demonstrated its potential to become a useful complement to established drug monitoring tools. Its ability to deliver timely data on drug use patterns is particularly relevant against the backdrop of an ever-shifting drugs problem.

‘Sentinel for Public Health’

The immediate goal for the Stanford researchers is to demonstrate the utility of wastewater monitoring for protecting public health. The research could also validate their tools as a way to rapidly track the disease-causing bugs.

For example, in the event of a flu outbreak on the Stanford campus, researchers say the monitoring protocol could give the student health center staff additional time to prepare.

Criddle said:

We like to call [wastewater] a sentinel for public health. […] We can understand things that are happening to the community and take measures to address those concerns, whatever they may be, in a more timely way than would have been possible otherwise.

The researchers intend to create tools for testing, which includes refining both the sampling methods and ways in which the DNA is viewed and analyzed. They hope these tools and methods will be eventually be adopted by utilities and public health agencies.

Wastewater may contain other valuable genetic information, the researchers said. For example, coupled with chemical information, the approach could prove helpful in tracking antibiotic resistance.

The cross-disciplinary team working on the disease tracking approach includes researchers from across Stanford University, including scientists affiliated with Stanford Bio-X, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and the Child Health Research Institute.

Customer comments

No comments were found for Scientists study DNA in wastewater to protect public health. Be the first to comment!