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UT’s He Part of Global Team Improving Wastewater Treatment

Water gushes at a wastewater treatment plant.

The microorganisms at this wastewater treatment plant in Tennessee were included in this global study.

It has long been understood that microorganisms play a key role in the treatment of wastewater, but what is less well known is how the process is affected by the diversity of such populations of bacteria and microbes.

CEE Associate Professor Qiang He is working with a team of experts from around the world to help solve that riddle by analyzing the global patterns of these microorganisms.

Using a systematic sampling system to evaluate 1,200 activated sludge (or aerated sewage) samples from 269 waste water treatment plants in 23 countries on 6 continents, the team seeks to better understand microorganism diversity and factors controlling it.

Their findings found that, despite the high diversity of approximately 1 billion bacterial phylotypes, the activated sludge had a small global core bacterial community that were most closely associated with freshwater populations.

With nearly 300 cubic kilometers of wastewater produced globally each year—an amount equal to roughly 15 percent of all the rivers flowing on earth— even a small improvement in treatment methods would have an enormous impact on humanity.

We use microbes to treat our wastewater,” said He. “But we actually don’t know a lot about the key microbes doing this job. This work helps answer this particular question and makes it possible to target the key populations and improve wastewater treatment.”

—Qiang He

The study, entitled “Global diversity and biogeography of bacterial communities in wastewater treatment plants,” has been published in the journal Nature Microbiology.