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CAREER: A meta-omics approach to discover the determinants of micropollutant biotransformations performed by wastewater microbial communities


This project seeks to improve water quality through enhanced wastewater treatment to protect public health and improve the environment. Many types of pollutants are poorly removed by existing wastewater treatment technologies. As a result, pollutants accumulate in aquatic environments and may contaminate drinking water resources. The PI will study the mechanisms by which organic pollutants are transformed during wastewater treatment through detailed characterization of the complex organic matter in wastewater using advanced chemical analysis tools. This information will be coupled with next generation genetic characterization of the microbes responsible for pollutant removal to allow optimization of wastewater treatment plant performance to more efficiently remove pollutants and decrease cost. The education plan for this project will train a diverse group of students to broaden participation in environmental engineering and other STEM fields.<br/><br/>The occurrence of anthropogenic organic micropollutants in wastewater treatment plant effluents raises concerns about their human-health and ecological impacts. As wastewater reclamation and recycling become more widely adopted, efficient and cost-effective means for micropollutant removal are becoming essential. This research seeks to leverage the broad metabolic capabilities of wastewater microbial communities to achieve this goal. The research will utilize high-resolution mass spectrometry to broadly infer the metabolic functioning of microbial communities and next-generation sequencing to characterize the structure of microbial communities from population to functional levels with a goal of identifying taxa, ecological features, metabolic pathways, or operational parameters that lead to enhanced micropollutant biotransformation. This research is significant because it will provide wastewater utilities with an effective means for optimizing bioprocesses to meet emerging performance objectives. The PI will create opportunities for diverse groups of students across all education levels to engage with water quality research through a collaboration with the Cayuga Lake Floating Classroom for pre-college students, recruit undergraduate students to work on the research plan through the NSF-funded Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation program, and integrate research and education activities in the undergraduate environmental engineering curriculum at Cornell University. The education plan is significant because it will create opportunities for students to explore water quality problems outside the classroom and develop skills in self-directed learning in environmental engineering or other STEM fields.<br/><br/>This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Helbling, Damian
Cornell University
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