Top 5 Benefits of Metagenomics in Wastewater

  • More efficient designs
  • Operate more efficiently to intensify infrastructure
  • Use less energy
  • Produce cleaner water
  • Reduce the burden on ratepayers for wastewater infrastructure.
John Tillotson, CEO of Microbe Detectives, recently got together with Leon Downing, Ph.D., Senior Technologist at CH2M to get his perspectives on using metagenomics in the wastewater industry.

Tell me about your background and responsibilities.

I’m Leon Downing, Senior Technologist with CH2M, and in that role I work with wastewater process optimization, design, troubleshooting, mainly with biological processes for water reclamation. Within the wastewater industry, the majority of the treatment that we do is driven by biological processes. Historically we had to infer what biology was there, based on microscopy or some special sampling and kind of guessing at who (what microbes) are actually in the system. With metagenomics we can quickly get an assessment of all the bacteria that are present, how we are selecting for them. This allows us to make more efficient designs, operate more efficiently to intensify our infrastructure, use less energy, produce cleaner water, and in the end, actually reduce the burden on ratepayers for wastewater infrastructure.

Why is DNA sequencing important to the wastewater industry?

I think it’s really in the understanding of new processes so we can come up with a new idea of how we might be able to treat water more efficiently and recover resources from it more effectively. It’s being able to understand the biology that’s present and getting a better sense of who’s really there. This helps us to better understand the process and not make it a “black box.” This gives us more confidence to apply technologies more rapidly and to to accelerate adoption. That’s a big part of it. The other part is the optimization component, where we have existing processes they aren’t working as well as we need them to, and figuring out how to make them work better.

What do you see as the biggest opportunity for DNA sequencing?

Biological Nutrient Removal [BNR]. What we’re looking at is finding ways to remove phosphorus and nitrogen from the wastewater biologically instead of chemically. That results in a lower net resource consumption. It also allows us to actually recover phosphorus and nitrogen. Instead of treating it, where we are removing it from the water but have another environmental impact (which is the disposal of solid waste), it actually allows us to concentrate those nutrients, pull them out, and get them back into the fertilizer cycle. Biological Nutrient Removal really drives a lot that is protecting the waterways. It’s recovering valuable resources and at the end of day it actually uses less energy to treat water than conventional processes.

What are the energy savings of BNR program?

10 to 15 % of the aeration energy, which is half the total plant energy. So it’s not getting rid of energy, but it’s every little bit that makes a big impact as we try to move towards less and less energy intensive processes.

What are the impacts of BNR on chemicals and solids?

By going to biological processes we don’t have to add a lot of expensive iron salts or aluminium salts into our water. We’re making it more of a natural process with the biology, not having to bring in chemicals and that also reduces the chemical sludge that we make. From a utility perspective, the main driver is an overall cost benefit, but from an environmental standpoint it also reduces our impact of treating and reclaiming water.

Why is DNA sequencing (metagenomics) needed with a BNR program?

It really comes down to understanding the biology that’s there. We’ve learned a lot over the past decades on how these processes work from an overall perspective, and how to operate them, but we’ve always been trying to just kind of infer what bacteria are present. As we try to be more innovative, using smaller tanks, using less energy, we’re selecting for a different ecology than we have in the past. Without being able to understand those changes and understand who’s there, it’s very difficult to find better ways to do things. With metagenomics, and with the ease of being able to get these samples, it helps us to really understand what is going on, for instance, when we’re shifting from an old population to a new population because the old population couldn’t make things work under our new conditions. At the end of the day, metagenomics gives the utility the confidence they need to invest tens of millions of dollars in a new technology, that in the end will save them money. They need that confidence to invest rate-payer’s money.

What is the public benefit of metagenomics?

The public benefit for metagenomics really comes down to the bottom line. That’s one part of it, right, just the fact that understanding the biology in a biological system helps you to operate it more efficiently and potentially design smaller tanks, so it cost less. The check you write out for your bill at the end of the month can be reduced. The environmental impacts are also a huge component of this. By understanding the biology that’s there, we can try to concentrate our nutrients and recover them. Instead of just fixing more and more nitrogen from the atmosphere and mining more and more phosphorus, we can actually fix those nutrients from a wastewater treatment process and return them back to the cycle. In addition to the environmental aspect of this, there is also a social benefit. When you think about clean waterways, I think a lot of people forget that the Cuyahoga River used to start on fire, right, or that Lake Erie was dead, and now even the Chicago River has people kayaking on it. So again, using metagenomics, to understand the biology and clean water to a higher level, benefits everyone and the use of our natural resources.

Can you provide an example metagenomics success story?

A really great success story of using metagenomics in wastewater treatment and resource recovery involves a facility outside of Dallas, Texas. They’ve been doing metagenomic sequencing for about three years now and over that period of time they’ve used that to understand their ecology and give them confidence in operating their facility in a different way. With that they’ve been able to change operational strategies that reduced annual costs by three-hundred and sixty-thousand dollars a year. By investing in metagenomics they’re saving over a quarter of a million dollars a year in operating costs. To have a service where you can easily collect a sample get it into a filter and just ship it off and in a couple of weeks later know every organism that’s in your system makes it very usable.

What do you hope we accomplish at the Microbiome Water Summit?

What I think is really interesting about the Microbiome Water Summit is that it’s bringing together a lot of people from different parts of the water sector. It’s not just wastewater. It’s not just purely microbiology. It’s not just animal health. It’s everyone. One of the challenges is just the amount of data that we generate with metagenomics. Just seeing how everyone uses that data, and how to make effective use of it, and then to communicate that to people, I think, will be a huge benefit of the Summit.

For those that are considering attending the Microbiome Water Summit, what do you think the key benefits will be for them to attend?

Some of the key benefits for those that attend the summit are really kind of on the same route. If you’re trying to decide whether to use metagenomics, or how to use metagenomics, or what to do with all of this data, the Summit will provide lots of examples. You will be able to talk to the people that have both developed the techniques but also developed ways of using the data. This can really give you a jump start, so you’re not just, you know, sending in a sample and getting a bunch of data back and not knowing exactly how to manage this information. I think that’s the biggest thing. If you’re thinking about using metagenomics for your application, getting a jump start on managing the information and making effective use of the information will be a huge part of the Summit.

“There are huge benefits to [using DNA analysis] the cost savings, energy savings, chemical savings… less headaches”

Overview of Wastewater Facility
–Cody Schoepke, Operations Leader

Key Applications of DNA analysis
Autumn Fisher, Superintendent

ROI/Benefits of DNA Analysis in Wastewater
–Jeremy Cramer, Former Superintendent

Advance Wastewater Treatment Performance

Wastewater treatment is a microbial process that can be fickle and difficult to troubleshoot. Troubleshooting is typically performed by analyzing microbes with a microscope. However, this method can only identify large microbes with unique shapes or staining features. Most microbes responsible for wastewater treatment are small without unique shapes. Identifying and solving treatment issues can be difficult or impossible with microscopy.

With Microbe Detectives DNA analysis services for wastewater systems, nearly all microorganisms are identified with a single analysis. They are then grouped based on their functionality in the wastewater treatment process, and organised based on the relative proportions of microorganisms present. An interpretation of the results that is application specific is communicated in a clear, accessible and detailed report. Consulting services are available to address more complex wastewater treatment needs.