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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

UW-Milwaukee researcher heads to Australia to advance study of bacteria living in sewer infrastructure

Wastewater treatment plant.
Stock Adobe
Wastewater treatment plant.

Sandra McLellan's UWM School of Freshwater Sciences lab has built a stellar reputation investigating urban coastal areas, especially Milwaukee's Great Lakes beaches, to help come up with strategies to protect human and aquatic health.

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She’s now turning her attention to the microbiology of sewage.

“We thought it’s all going to be from people, human microbiome. Turns out, 85% of what’s there are just bacteria that have adapted to these pipes, and are growing in these pipes. There’s this huge biomass there,” McLellan says.

She says an abundance of bacteria means there’s a lot of metabolic potential to do good or bad.

"Bad in terms of corroding the pipes, or they could be down there chewing up the waste before it even gets to the wastewater treatment plant," McLellan says.

She, along with fellow researchers in other parts of the the world want to answer those unknowns.

McLellan says they’ve already learned the same bacteria are found in sewer systems around the globe, even in isolated areas.

"Think about the islands of Hawaii ... Australia is similar, it's also geographically very separate from other developed countries like in Europe and the U.S., but we see the exact same kind of bacteria. So, it's really cool on an evolutionary scale to ask how the same bacteria arose in such a short time scale of biology," McLellan says.

For the next six months McLellan will be working with fellow scientists in Australia thanks to a Fulbright Future Scholarship she was awarded.

“It’s a kind of double bonus to work with great scientists with similar interests and we can compare broad geographic regions and maybe answer some of these bigger questions of how they’ve [the bacteria] have evolved,” McLellan says.

She hopes within the next five years they can take their research from the lab out into the field.

"I hope we're to the point that we're doing actual experiments in pipes; changing conditions and asking: 'Can we change who's growing there and can we change the outcome of that biological infrastructure?'" McLellan says.

One outcome she hopes to achieve is to encourage the growth of bacteria that breaks down sewage before it reaches the treatment plant.

“Maybe we can have infrastructure that lasts longer, or maybe we can have infrastructure that does pretreatment, so our wastewater treatment plants don’t have to work as hard or don’t have to work so energy intensively,” McLellan says.


Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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