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Better sludge through metagenomics

to obtain a nearly complete genetic blueprint for a key player in this process, the bacterial species Accumulibacter phosphatis.

Activated sludge wastewater treatment processes are used throughout the world to purify trillions of gallons of sewage annually. Many treatment plants employ specialized bacteria to remove the nutrient phosphorus, in an effort to protect lakes and rivers from eutrophication, a deterioration of water quality characterized by excessive algae blooms. Accumulibacter play a vital role in wastewater management, accumulating massive amounts of phosphorus inside their cells.

"Engineers and microbiologists have been trying for 35 years to grow this microbe, with no success," said Trina McMahon, Assistant Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Wisconsin, Madison, and one of the study's authors. "Remarkably, through metagenomic techniques, we were able to isolate and acquire the genome sequence of Accumulibacter phosphatis without a pure culture of the organism, which, like most microbes, eludes laboratory culture. We expect that clues hidden in the genome will lead to domestication of this mysterious organism, enabling further studies of its habits and lifestyle.

"The genome sequence will also enable biologists and engineers to understand why and how these organisms accumulate phosphorus, and it will lead to major advances in optimizing and controlling the EBPR wastewater treatment process," McMahon said. "In particular, it makes possible further research into why some wastewater treatment plants occasionally fail. These failures often result in serious pollution of lakes, rivers, and estuaries."

When things go wrong, the environment can be inundated with untreated phosphorous, carbon, and nitrogen--the detritus of human activities--necessitating costly and environmentally taxing remedies and exposing the public to potential disease hazards. The scale is daunting--more
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Contact: David Gilbert
gilbert21@llnl.gov
925-296-5643
DOE/Joint Genome Institute
25-Sep-2006


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