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Tiny Microbes Have Huge Potential to Cleanse Freshwater Systems

A 7-yearlong study has revealed that communities of tiny microbes that inhabit urban waterways not only act as indicators of water quality, but also have the potential to cleanse city canals.

The Singaporean based study, which was recently published in Environmental Science & Technology1, found that urban canals that were designed to divert rainwater, contain microbial communities that are capable of removing and neutralizing organic contaminants currently present at trace levels in raw water.

Scientists from the NUS Environmental Research Institute (NERI) and the Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have found that the as-yet untapped ability of these microbial communities to remove contaminants could be harnessed for bioremediation -- a process of breaking down organic contaminants by organisms that occur naturally in the environment -- of raw untreated water before it undergoes treatment.

Microbes - Natural cleaning agents
The increasing demand for freshwater in urban areas, combined with escalating pressure on the natural environment as a result of high-density living, has led to an increasing demand for environmentally sound, sustainable, yet efficient solutions for managing urban watersheds. Harnessing nature, specifically the ability of microbes to cleanse polluted water, provides an environmentally sound and sustainable solution to this challenge.

Using DNA and RNA fingerprinting, the research team had their breakthrough after they had identified the entire spectrum of microbes living in the aquatic community of the Ulu Pandan catchment, together with their roles within the ecosystem.

Besides discovering that these microbes were able to remove and neutralize organic pollutants, the scientists also learned that they were only able to perform these ecological cleansing services when copper, aluminum, and potassium were present.

"This study demonstrates the power of combining an in-depth analysis of microbial community ecology with physical and chemical characteristics," said the study's lead scientist, Associate Professor Sanjay Swarup, Deputy Director of NERI and a Research Director at SCELSE. "More importantly, with the support of government administrators, environmental sustainability could be achieved naturally through science, creating a better living environment for both man and nature."

The researchers also compared microbial communities in industrial and residential waterways and discovered that the microbial communities in each performed different functions. This highlights how land-use influences the types of microbes found in urban waterways, as well as the functions they are able to perform.

According to lead author, Dr Gourvendu Saxena, a Research Fellow at NERI and SCELSE: "Knowing what the microbes are doing provides information on what they are responding to. These marker-based microbial functions provide a higher resolving power than chemical markers that are currently in use", he said. "This study has enabled us to identify the key drivers of microbial communities and their functions at a watershed-scale. The findings can be used to understand microbial activity responsible for removing and neutralizing organic pollutants, which is critical to developing ecologically friendly waterways in rapidly urbanizing environments.

The study also showed that the Ulu Pandan watershed was an efficient drainage system that is well-managed, with contaminants below recommended safety limits.

"For decades scientists have pursued research projects that seek to understand microbes' ability to chew-up stubborn pollutants," said Professor Staffan Kjelleberg, Centre Director for SCELSE at NTU. "This breakthrough proves that it may be possible to push the boundaries in securing the availability of clean water through natural means and hence, maintain a more sustainable environment for Singapore and other societies."

Expanding to Other Areas of the World
The research framework outlined in this study can easily be adopted by cities all over the world who wish to examine their waterways. It is currently being adopted by the international World Harbour Project, a coordinated network of water scientists and managers, who hope to make information regarding the best practices in understanding and managing urban waterways available to the world.

Looking ahead, the research team plans on gaining a better understanding of the optimal conditions needed for bioremediation of waterways by:

  • Identifying the most efficient microbial community structure
  • Getting a clearer understanding of how manipulating the key metals identified will affect the response of microbes
  • Examining the effect that plants have on microbial communities.

References & Further Reading
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