The research of Dr. Amy Pruden, a core faculty member in both the Interfaces of Global Change IGEP and the Water Interfaces IGEP, was recently featured in VT News:
“A team of Virginia Tech researchers is investigating the challenges presented by four often deadly pathogens that have been documented in household or hospital tap water. They propose fighting these opportunistic pathogens with harmless microbes – a probiotic approach for cleaning up plumbing.
Writing in the American Chemical Society journal, Environmental Science and Technology, the researchers reviewed studies of opportunistic pathogens that have colonized water systems within buildings – between the delivery point and the tap. They define a probiotic approach as intentionally creating conditions that select for a desirable microbial community, or microbiome.
“We are putting forward a new way of thinking about waterborne pathogen control,” said Amy Pruden, a professor of civil and environmental engineering whose sustainable water research is supported by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science at Virginia Tech.
“We have new tools – the next generation DNA-sequencing tools, which have just come online in the last five years,” Pruden said. “They are providing unprecedented information about microbes in all sorts of environments, including “clean” drinking water. These tools have really surprised us by showing us the numbers and diversity of microbes. There can be thousands of different species of bacteria in a household water supply.”
The researchers focused on several opportunistic pathogens, including Legionella, the infamous cause of deadly Legionnaires’ disease and milder Pontiac fever; Mycobacterium avium complex, which causes pulmonary risks and is the most costly waterborne disease in terms of individual hospital visits; and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, the leading cause of hospital-acquired infections.
In addition, they looked at pathogenic free-living amoebae, which are host microorganisms that enhance the growth of bacterial pathogens in water, particularly Legionella and M. avium, by protecting them and providing a place for them to multiply.
Pruden, who still prefers to drink tap rather than bottled water, points out that these pathogens are “opportunistic” because they are most dangerous to people who are ill, such as those already in a hospital, and people with weaker immune systems, including the elderly.
“Pathogens from feces are dealt with by filtering or disinfecting. They are native to warm-blood animals and don’t survive long outside that environment. These next-generation pathogens live in biofilms in water systems,” Pruden said. “We need to develop a better understanding of conditions and types of bacteria in order to have a better opportunity to fight water-borne disease.”
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