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Protect the water

July 5, 2012

One of the big ideas in health­care today is pre­ven­ta­tive med­i­cine. Treat the causes instead of the symp­toms, pro­po­nents say, and you’ll keep people healthy and avoid expen­sive pro­ce­dures down the road. I whole­heart­edly agree with this approach. To me, con­tin­u­ously investing in newer, better treat­ment strate­gies should be accom­pa­nied by a par­allel efforts in min­i­mizing and elim­i­nating the poten­tial causative agents.

Take cancer, for example. While some sci­en­tists are devel­oping better drug delivery strate­gies — an effort I would never under­es­ti­mate — others are exploring the genetic pre­dis­po­si­tions that make some of us more sus­cep­tible and trying to find ways to inter­vene before the dis­ease appears.

But taking that approach sin­gles out the indi­vidual organism for study. What about devising a strategy that addresses the entire system?

The link between envi­ron­mental expo­sure and public health has long been rec­og­nized, but are we doing enough?

April Gu, a North­eastern Uni­ver­sity asso­ciate pro­fessor of civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering, is working on improving the water supply by removing disease-​​causing con­t­a­m­i­nants such as pathogens and toxic con­t­a­m­i­nants that may have var­ious health impacts such as cancer.

It is equally impor­tant to invest in the pre­ven­tion of poten­tial root causes of dis­ease — such as improving water and air quality — as the symp­toms they may induce.

Researchers in Gu’s Envi­ron­mental Biotech­nology Lab­o­ra­tory develop bio­log­ical plat­forms for testing water quality. Here’s how one of the plat­forms work: The biosen­sors use a bio­log­ical com­po­nent, such as DNA or pro­tein, to bio­chem­i­cally bind con­t­a­m­i­nants. Changes to the bio-​​component result in a flu­o­res­cence signal that can be read with a portable device devel­oped in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Tsing Hua Uni­ver­sity in Beijing.

Gu’s biosen­sors can detect con­t­a­m­i­nants on the micro– and nanogram levels, a capa­bility that should not be over­looked: Long-​​term expo­sure to even a very small amount of a given con­t­a­m­i­nant could be enough to cause damage.

An ele­ment of par­tic­ular interest to Gu’s lab is phos­pho­rous, one of the planet’s most ubiq­ui­tous ele­ments, which we strip from rocks and use in fer­til­izers for food production

Phos­pho­rous in waste-​​water effluent is required by the Envi­ron­mental Pro­tec­tion Agency to be kept at very low levels because of its known con­nec­tion to eutroph­i­ca­tion and pos­sible toxic algal blooms. But the stan­dard pro­ce­dure for removing phos­pho­rous often involves dumping other chem­i­cals into the water, none of which have been reg­u­lated. For her part, Gu has been working on devel­oping and opti­mizing a more sus­tain­able, chemical-​​free process that removes phos­pho­rous in a bio­log­ical system.

Gu’s recent research has also shown that low levels of nano­ma­te­rials can dis­rupt the ele­mental ratios of algae over the long-​​term. “This may not seem like much,” she says, “but a change at the bottom of the food chain like that may affect the entire ecosystem, which could have major impacts.”

At the cur­rent con­sump­tion rate, world­wide phos­pho­rous reserves are expected to dry up in 50 to 100 years. But Gu has a plan to help reverse this trend, launching a project to recover the phos­pho­rous obtained through biore­me­di­a­tion efforts, a process that will recover phos­pho­rous from waste­water treat­ment and products.

The choice is this: We could either treat the symp­toms of water con­t­a­m­i­nants’ impact on our water supply or try to stop it before it wreaks havoc. One of these ideas sounds more appealing and cost-​​effective to me.

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