May 2011, Vol. 23, No.5

Research Notes

Protozoa swimming patterns predict water quality

Knowing that your water is clean and safe to drink is a high priority for many. While most Americans rest easy that their tap water is safe, this could be a concern in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist attack. But biologist Scott Gallager of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI; Woods Hole, Mass.) is working to make drinking water monitoring quick and affordable worldwide. In addition to drinking water, the technology could be used to monitor industrial wastewater discharge and potentially test water sources associated with hydraulic fracturing in the oil and gas industry.

Gallager’s Swimming Behavioral Spectrophotometer (SBS) employs one-celled protozoa to detect toxins in water sources, according to a WHOI news release. The system introduces protozoa into small chambers with water samples. Any alteration of the protozoa’s swimming mechanics is a sign that water conditions may have changed, and chemical or biological contaminants may be present.

A camera records the protozoa’s swimming patterns at 30 frames per second and triggers software that interprets the water’s risk. The software tracks the protozoa in two and three dimensions and evaluates about 50 features of their paths to determine erratic swimming patterns, the news release says.

The device then emits a green light to signal safe water, a yellow light to signal that further testing is necessary, or a red light to signal that the water should not be consumed because it is unsafe or even “deadly,” the news release says.

The main benefit of the system is its rapid response, which is estimated to provide real-time biological testing and cost only $1 or $2 per test, said Bob Curtis, chief executive officer of Petrel Biosensors Inc. (Woods Hole), a private company that has licensed the technology for further development and commercialization. The company is working to raise additional funds to further develop the SBS and commercially launch the system, the news release says.

Gallager is working to refine the technology and reduce the size of the system to fit on a computer chip, the release says. Further analyses of swimming patterns, the water’s acidity levels, and other variables can help determine the presence of specific kinds of toxins, such as pesticides or heavy metals. The system includes controls to prevent false positives and false negatives, the news release says.

SBS was selected as a 2010 Better World technology by the Association of University Technology Managers (Deerfield, Ill.).


March WER tackles enhanced biological phosphorus removal

Researchers at Washington State University (Pullman) have compiled a critical review of the advances in and challenges facing enhanced biological phosphorus removal (EBPR). The article — “Research and Challenges in the Microbiology of Enhanced Biological Phosphorus Removal — A Critical Review” — appears in the March issue of Water Environment Research (WER), the Water Environment Federation (Alexandria, Va.) research journal.

Through EBPR, organisms remove phosphate from the liquid phase and convert it to the sludge phase as intracellular polyphosphate. The process often is incorporated into existing wastewater treatment plants to decrease the amount of phosphorus in the plant’s effluent. But the organisms behind EBPR and the mechanisms by which they accumulate phosphorus “are complex and not well understood,” according to the article.

The review considers research from more than 300 journal articles and reports. “In contrast to previous reviews, we focus on unresolved topics relevant to explaining why and how EBPR occurs and discuss past approaches that likely have delayed a more complete understanding of the EBPR process,” the authors state in the article.

To enhance understanding and, ultimately, control of the EBPR process, the researchers recommend shifting to a more holistic, system-based approach for studying the technology; using a combination of techniques to characterize microbial composition; integrating ecological principles into system design to enhance stability; and re-examining current theoretical explanations of why and how EBPR occurs.

The full article can be downloaded for free at

Water Environment Research allows open access to one article per issue on a range of important technical issues such as nutrient removal, stormwater, and biosolids recycling. Find more at


Study evaluates Lead and Copper Rule

A research project under way brings together partners from various disciplines and organizations to evaluate the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Lead and Copper Rule published in 1991.

Under this EPA regulation, which is designed to protect consumers in the United States from elevated levels of lead and copper in drinking water, the responsibility for avoiding harmful exposures to lead in drinking water is shared between regulated water utilities and unregulated consumers.

The research project will examine potential weaknesses in requirements of the law, namely, sampling methods to measure lead levels, replacement of water lines that contain lead, and public education initiatives aimed at promoting safe water-use practices, according to a Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech; Blacksburg) news release.

The Lead and Copper Rule currently allows utilities to monitor lead in drinking water using protocols that may miss potential contaminants. Also, research has shown that the replacement of municipal lead pipes up to a home’s property line without replacing the home’s portion of the pipes can increase lead-in-water problems, the news release says.

The District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water) will collaborate with and support this research effort led by Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech professor of civil and environmental engineering. DC Water expects the study to advance understanding of lead in drinking water and promote collaboration with research and advocacy partners, said George S. Hawkins, DC Water general manager, in the news release.

The $450,000 study, awarded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (Princeton, N.J.) Public Health Law Research program, includes experts from such fields as engineering, law, science, anthropology, and public health. The research team will examine potential conditions in which long-term, high-lead levels in water tend to occur, the news release says.

Other organizations participating in the study include the Northeastern University (Boston) Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives (Washington, D.C.), representatives from EPA’s Office of Research and Development, Children’s National Medical Center (Washington, D.C.), The Childhood Lead Action Project (Providence, R.I.), Metropolitan Tenants Organization of Chicago, and Vanguard Community Development Corp. (Detroit).

Findings from the study are expected to help EPA develop stronger regulations and help policy-makers develop other laws and regulations dealing with various drinking water contaminants in the future, the news release says.


WERF to recognize accomplishments in moving research into practice

The Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF; Alexandria, Va.) has created the Award for Excellence in Innovation. This award will recognize organizations that have made improvements to wastewater and stormwater collection, storage or treatment operations, facilities, or processes by applying WERF research.

Example improvements might include improved effluent quality, improved biosolids management, significant reduction in facility operating costs or capital expenses, or any other measurable improvement that benefits customers or the environment.

Applicants may self-nominate or be nominated by a third party. Interested organizations must submit their application to WERF by June 3, 2011.

More information on the Award for Excellence in Innovation, including the application process, is online at


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