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Transforming The Future Of Wastewater Treatment
August 1, 2017

According to researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW-Madison), incorporating unique bacteria into the wastewater treatment process may change how we view and possibly refer to wastewater treatment plants in the future. In fact, they are filled with enough potential to prompt a proposed name change to “water resource recovery facility.” That’s because wastewater can be turned into valuable products with the help of scientists and unique bacteria, called anammox bacteria.

UW–Madison civil and environmental engineering professors Daniel Noguera, left, and Katherine McMahon study how anammox bacteria may improve conventional wastewater treatment methods. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Precourt/UW-Madison.

Although most people are unaware of what happens to the waste from their sinks, showers, washing machines and toilets, wastewater treatment plants are a hotbed of scientific advances for many engineers and microbiologists.

In research funded in part by the National Science Foundation and a training fellowship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, these anammox bacteria and the microbial community in which they live and function are the subject of a new study led by Daniel Noguera and Katherine McMahon, UW-Madison professors of civil and environmental engineering.

Anammox bacteria, which turn ammonium into nitrogen gas under anaerobic (oxygen-free) conditions, are part of a microbial community that breakdown organic matter. According to the researchers, these microbes offer treatment plant operators an added benefit because they have the potential to save a great deal of money.

“Being able to remove ammonium anaerobically is pretty important because about 50 percent of a sewage plant’s operating cost is pumping oxygen into the water,” Prof. Noguera noted. “We knew very little about the role of the bacteria that coexist in anammox granules. For the first time, our study identified detailed gene expression levels in these granules. This provides important clues on what the anammox bacteria and their partners might actually be doing, and how they interact,” he explained.

The UW–Madison team, which includes lead author Christopher Lawson, a graduate student in civil and environmental engineering, and Joshua Hamilton, a postdoctoral researcher in bacteriology, collaborated on the study with Ramesh Goel’s lab at the University of Utah. Results of their research were published recently in the journal Nature Communications.

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