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Scientists discover microbes with potential to cleanse Singapore's waterways

Staff writer |
A seven-year scientific study has revealed that microbial communities in urban waterways has the potential to play an important role in cleansing Singapore's waterways and also act as raw water quality indicators.

The study found that canals designed to channel rainwater host microbial communities that could remove and neutralise organic pollutants in raw water.

These organic pollutants are currently at trace levels in raw water – well below the United States-Environmental Protection Agency (US-EPA) drinking water standards – which is removed during water treatment processes.

Researchers from the NUS Environmental Research Institute (NERI) and the Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) have discovered that the untapped natural ability of microbial communities could be harnessed to treat raw water even before undergoing treatment.

This process is known as bioremediation, a treatment that uses naturally occurring organisms to break down organic pollutants.

The study, which was published in the scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology, was conducted around the Ulu Pandan catchment area in collaboration with the Singapore's national water agency, PUB.

The increased demand for water in urban centres, coupled with the elevated pressures placed on the environment by high-density living, has created a demand for efficient, environmentally sustainable solutions to manage urban watersheds. Harnessing the cleansing power of microbes provides a solution to the pressing need.

The breakthrough came about after the joint research team identified members of the entire microbial community and their functions from the aquatic ecosystem at the Ulu Pandan catchment area by extracting their DNA and RNA, the genetic blueprint of life.

Apart from the discovery that the microbes could remove and neutralise organic pollutants, the researchers also found out that the presence of aluminium, copper and potassium were critical to the community's ability to perform its ecological "cleansing" properties.

The discovery of these chemical elements' influence on the microbial community's functions paves the way for researchers to better understand their "cleansing" performance through further monitoring and study.

The project's lead scientist, Associate Professor Sanjay Swarup, Deputy Director of NERI and a Research Director at SCELSE said, “This study demonstrates the power of combining an in-depth analysis of microbial community ecology with physical and chemical characteristics.

“More importantly, with the support of government administrators, environmental sustainability could be achieved naturally through science, creating a better living environment for both man and nature.

The research framework laid out in this study could be easily adopted by other cities around the world in studying their own waterways, and is being adopted by the international World Harbour Project, to which SCELSE is a party of.

This joint study was conducted with key investigators from NERI and SCELSE, involving 17 researchers from institutions in Singapore, Sydney, Australia, Oklahoma, and Berkeley in the USA, and Beijing, China.

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