Two Major Water Contamination Mysteries Solved

Few of her peers were surprised when Professor Joan Rose received 2016's Stockholm Water Prize in Geneva last March, which celebrated her career sleuthing, identifying, and eliminating dangerous water-borne microbes (read the press release).

Torgny Holmgren, the Water Prize Committee's executive director, praised her during the ceremony, “Dr. Rose has led efforts to make the world a better place.”

But the award's handwritten citation fully captured her importance in the world health ecosystem of researchers, agencies, taxpayers and politicians: “The nexus of water-related microbiology and public health is rife with uncertainty. Few individuals can tackle the increasing challenges, do original research, influence practitioners, lobby effectively, and raise general awareness. Joan Rose is this extremely rare blend of talents.” (Watch a Water Day promo.)

As the world's foremost authority on the intestinal parasite Cryptosporidium, Rose leads the Water Quality, Environmental, and Molecular Microbiology Lab at Michigan State University, where she tracks down the sources of lethal outbreaks by using a wide array of sophisticated tools at her command.

She's been "bug" hunting for decades and first achieved renown in 1993 after she discovered the origin of a Michigan outbreak that had sickened 400,000 and killed 69 from drinking contaminated water.

A new source of contamination

Confirming last spring's adulation, Rose just announced that her forensic team of "water detectives" had linked diverse Michigan septic systems to nearby freshwater contamination.

It turns out that Michigan has a big problem, along with Florida, South Carolina, and resort areas near lakes all across the US, which all rely heavily on septic tanks to filter and breakdown human sewage. 

"For years we've been seeing the effects of fecal pollution," Rose recounted, "but we haven’t known where it is coming from." 

“All along, we've presumed that septic tanks were working,” she added. “But in sample after sample, bacteria were highest where there were higher numbers of septic systems in the watershed.”

Her study, which appeared in the August edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, handily flushes the old assumption that septic tanks prevent fecal bacteria from seeping into rivers and lakes. It also provides an algorithm that other researchers can use to evaluate new fecally weaponized contagions.

To collect enough meaningful data to verify the microbial linkage to Michigan's tainted water, Rose's researchers used source-tracking markers, a method she calls “CSI (Crime Scene Investigation),” to sample 64 river systems in for E. coli and the human fecal bacteria B-theta. It allowed her to track down diffuse "non-point" pollution more accurately than ever before.

Until now it was assumed that soil, as a natural treatment system, filtered human sewage, explained Rose. But "discharge-to-soil methods," i.e., simple holes dug in the ground under outhouses, don't come close to keeping E. coli and other pathogens from vulnerable water supplies.

Continuing to use these inadequate and outmoded methods will come at a price, said Rose. According to the press release, the EPA has identified the need to invest $298 billion over the next 20 years on wastewater and storm water infrastructure to meet the Clean Water Act public safety goals of swimmable and fishable waters.

She advised, “Better methods will improve decisions for locating and constructing on-site wastewater treatment systems. It’s financially imperative that we get it right.”

An international problem

Rose is also vigilant about invisible trouble that slips into the United States through the Great Lakes.

She and her team used metagenomics to discover pathogens hitching rides in ballast water onboard ships from around the world (read the press release).

That wasn't a simple task. The pathogens' multiple identities and vectors were as far-flung as the global shipping routes that converged in the Great Lakes. Whenever ships prepare for a voyage, they take on water before leaving port, scooping up local microbes. Current regulations require that these ships exchange this water 200 nautical miles from shore prior to docking. So the water is dumped, which unleashes swarms of newcomers into local waters.

Published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the study produced the most-detailed list of viruses in ballast water to date. It also gives environmental engineers, along with policy makers, information on how these floating Typhoid Marys spread viruses and disease. 

“Little attention has been paid to ballast water viruses until now,” Rose said. “But new methods allow us to look at the entire viral community.”

Coming full circle

During World Water Day in Geneva, Rose summed up what drives her, “I've always been motivated by how to prevent disease." Scarily, she also sees herself back-stopping the world's fragile infrastructure. "A key barrier, our water infrastructure, is crumbling or non-existing in many parts of the world. The global population unserved by sewage treatment is counted in the billions." 

Why don't academics get the same respect as first responders?

Image: Joan Rose, SIWI