Genetically modifying algae is one method being explored by a University of Calgary researcher to help protect the world’s supply of drinking water.
Genes in bacteria resistant to certain drugs excreted into wastewater have been placed in algae, says Leland Jackson, a biology professor in the faculty of science. “In the presence of, let’s say, antibiotic X, that gene is turned on and, when it’s turned on, it produces an enzyme that can degrade X,” he says.
Faced with a world where drinking water is potentially threatened by everything from pharmaceutical drugs to climate change, Jackson is leading an effort by university, municipal and industrial researchers to help protect the planet’s water security. “It’s not ‘security’ in a terrorism context,” he says. “It’s the risk that we’re going to run out of clean water.
“People think they can turn the tap on and clean water will come out and it will never end, but, with declining water supplies, melting glaciers and changing precipitation patterns, that’s probably not going to be the case. There are things we can do now before we get pushed up against the wall.”
Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets
Jackson is the scientific director of Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA), a $38.6-million research facility involving UCalgary and the City of Calgary at the city’s Pine Creek Wastewater Treatment Centre. The only one of its kind in the world, ACWA includes 12 artificial streams that mimic natural ones. Besides studying the effects of wastewater effluent, scientists are researching the benefits of new ways to remove contaminants.
Experts from the faculty of science, Cumming School of Medicine, faculty of veterinary medicine and Schulich School of Engineering are teaming up with city engineers and industrial partners. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work in a facility like this,” says Spanish biologist and toxicologist Jose Rodriguez Gil.
An Eyes High postdoctoral fellow in Jackson’s lab, Rodriguez Gil says recent advances mean chemicals can be detected at concentrations equal to a thimbleful in 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools of wastewater. Substances range from nicotine to antibiotics, along with natural and synthetic estrogens from birth control pills.
Although male fish have been found with eggs in their testes in the Oldman River in southern Alberta, wastewater is a “really complex mixture,” says Rodriguez Gil, adding the simple presence of a compound isn’t proof there’s a problem. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
While the research is in its preliminary stages regarding drug destruction, it is already possible to filter out algae to create things such as biofuels, says Jackson, who is working with assistant professor Joenel Alcantara of the Cumming School.
Jackson initially sees the genetically modified algae being potentially used in applications such as feedlot lagoons that concentrate livestock waste sprayed on fields as fertilizer. “We have about 4,500 feedlots in southern Alberta, and a lot of the manure is not managed particularly well,” he says, adding a growth promoter called alpha-zearalanol that is only used in feedlots has also been found in the Oldman River.
Water security can’t be ignored, says Jackson. “If you think about where all these things are headed — more people taking pharmaceutical drugs as our population ages, and declining water supplies — that means we’re going to have more challenges in terms of the drugs in municipal wastewater effluent,” he says. U