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Better sludge through metagenomics

WALNUT CREEK, CA--Few stop to consider the consequences of their daily ablutions, the washing of clothes, the watering of lawns, and the flush of a toilet. However, wastewater treatment--one of the cornerstones of modern civilization--is the largest microbially-mediated biotechnology process on the planet. When it works, it is a microbial symphony in tune with humanity. When it fails, the consequences can be dire. Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute (DOE JGI) and collaborators at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the Advanced Wastewater Management Centre, University of Queensland, Australia, have published the first metagenomic study of an activated sludge wastewater treatment process. The research appeared online in the September 24 edition of the journal Nature Biotechnology (http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/vaop/ncurrent/abs/nbt1247.html).

The metagenomic strategy entails generating DNA sequence information directly from samples of sewage sludge to provide a blueprint of the genes and hence the metabolic possibilities of the wastewater environment, with a view to understanding how the system works and predicting and averting failures or crashes.

"This is a first step in a much broader strategy employing a systems biology approach to the study of microbial communities with the goal of designing predictive models to understand how these communities function," said Hector Garcia Martin, lead author of the study and post-doctoral fellow in the DOE JGI's Microbial Ecology Program. "With this information now available, there are opportunities to bioengineer the process to make it more reliable."

Removing excess phosphorus from wastewater can be most economically accomplished by environmentally friendly biological means in a process known as enhanced biological phosphorus removal (EBPR). The researchers were able
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Contact: David Gilbert
gilbert21@llnl.gov
925-296-5643
DOE/Joint Genome Institute
25-Sep-2006


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