Blue Sky Initiative

Principal Investigator: Lutgarde Raskin

Faculty Advisors: Ameet Pinto, Branko Kerkez, Krista Wigginton, Melissa Duhaime, Seth Guikema, and Steven Skerlos

Faculty Associates: Herek Clack, John LiPuma, Lindsay Caverly, Lisa Lattuca, Maria Lemos, Rebecca Hardin, and Terese Olson
Post-doctoral fellow: Bridget Hegarty, Christopher Anderson, Sarah Potgieter, Thomas Chen, Melina Bautista
PhD student: Anna Nelson, Benjamin Gincley, Ernesto Martinez, Kate Dowdell, Matthew Vedrin, Nicole Rockey, Solize Vosloo
Undergraduate student: Estefania Escobar, Meagan Tobias

By managing microbial biomes in the water systems in our cities, scientists can harness their beneficial roles and reduce human health risks.

Microbial biomes – also known as microbiomes – are complex collections of thousands of different kinds of bacteria, viruses and protozoa that work together to influence their environments. Microbiomes exist within our bodies, but also are important in natural waters like lakes and rivers, and in urban water systems including in water treatment plants, in water distribution systems and in our home plumbing. Scientists don’t know how these different microbiomes interact. As water infrastructure ages, the human population continues to grow, and extreme weather taxes urban systems, it’s increasingly important to understand and predict those interactions to harness their benefits and prevent harm.

The research will develop novel sensors that will gather microbiome data, including DNA sequences, in real time. These sensors will be strategically placed across water systems in cities and the data collected will be used to help guide water treatment and distribution decisions. Raskin envisions several outcomes of understanding the broader water microbiomes and using real-time data to manage them: The growth of beneficial microbes that control disease causing microbes could be promoted in water similar to the concept of probiotics in yogurt. Or hospitals or industries could divert their waste streams into separate treatment systems when they are releasing high levels of pharmaceuticals or antibiotic resistance genes rather than sending them to a city’s central treatment plant.

The project could address serious concerns linked to water infrastructure failures like the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease during the Flint water crisis and infectious diseases associated with sewage exposure following hurricanes in Texas and Puerto Rico. The urgency of the topic, and the potential for additional funding from outside sources, add to the relevancy of the project.

You can read more about this project on the Blue Sky Initiative website