Occurrence and Control of Microbial Contaminants of Emerging Concern through the Urban Water Cycle: Molecular Profiling of Opportunistic Pathogens and Antibiotic Resistance

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Virginia Tech


In an era of pervasive water stress caused by population growth, urbanization, drought, and climate change, limiting the dissemination of microbial contaminants of emerging concern (MCECs) is of the utmost importance for the protection of public health. In this dissertation, two important subsets of MCECs, opportunistic pathogens (OP) and antibiotic resistant genes (ARG), are studied across several compartments of the urban water cycle, including surface water, stormwater, wastewater, recycled water, and potable water. Collectively, this dissertation advances knowledge about the occurrence of OPs and ARGs across these water systems and highlights trends that may be of value in developing management strategies for limiting their regrowth and transmission.

Field studies of two surface water catchments impacted by stormwater runoff demonstrated the prevalence of ARGs in urban stormwater compared to pristine, unimpacted sites, or to days when no precipitation was recorded. The role of wastewater reuse in transmitting OPs and ARGs was also investigated. Traditional tertiary wastewater treatment plants producing water for non-potable use were found to be largely ineffective at removing ARGs, but plants using advanced oxidation processes or ozonation paired with biofiltration to produce direct potable reuse water were highly effective at removing ARGs. Non-potable reclaimed water consistently had greater quantities of sul1, a sulfonamide ARG, and Legionella and Mycobacterium, two OPs of significant public health concern, present than corresponding potable systems. Limited regrowth of OPs and ARGs did occur in simulated premise (i.e., building) plumbing systems operated with direct potable reuse waters, but regrowth was comparable to that observed in systems fed with potable water derived from surface or groundwater. Advancements were also made in understanding the role of several hypothesized driving forces shaping the antibiotic resistome in natural and engineered water systems: selection by antimicrobials and other compounds, horizontal gene transfer, and microbial community composition. Finally, whole-genome and metagenomic characterization were applied together towards profiling L. pneumophila in clinical and water samples collected from Flint, Michigan, where an economically-motivated switch to an alternative water source created conditions favorable for growth of this organism and likely triggered one of the largest Legionnaires' Disease outbreaks in U.S. history.



opportunistic pathogens, antibiotic resistance, stormwater, drinking water, distribution system, wastewater reclamation, direct potable reuse