Effects of Microbial Community Stress Response and Emerging Contaminants on Wastewater Treatment Plants

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Virginia Tech

As the population in water stressed areas increases, it is critical that wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) continue to replenish depleted water supplies, and serve as an alternative water source. WWTPs depend on microorganisms in activated sludge to remove pollutants from wastewater and therefore an understanding of how these microorganisms are affected by various conditions and pollutants is needed. Also, as consumer products and industrial processes evolve, so do the pollutants they discharge to wastewater. In order to keep pace with these changes, understanding the effects of emerging contaminants to WWTP processes is essential. The research herein assesses microbial community dynamics of the response of nitrifying microorganisms in activated sludge to variation in ammonia concentration and evaluates the impact of engineered nanoparticles on activated sludge microbial communities and other emerging pollutants, such as antibiotic resistance genes and disinfection by-products.

In order to assess microbial community dynamics of the response of nitrifying microorganisms to removal of ammonia in the feed, nitrifying activated sludge reactors were operated at various relevant temperatures and the nitrifying microbial community was characterized using activity assays and bio-molecular techniques. We found that Nitrospira spp. were the dominant nitrifying microorganisms, exhibiting stable relative abundance across multiple trials and over a range of temperatures. These results indicate the possibility of comammox bacteria in the system and highlight the complexity of nitrifying microbial communities in activated sludge relative to past understanding.

Both microbial and chemical impacts of engineered nanoparticles on WWTP processes were also investigated. Metagenomic analysis of DNA extracted from activated sludge sequencing batch reactors dosed with gold nanoparticles with varied surface coating and morphology indicated that nanoparticle morphology impacted the microbial community and antibiotic resistance gene content more than surface coating. However, nanoparticle fate was controlled by surface coating more than morphology. Disinfection by-product formation in the presence of nanoparticles during WWTP disinfection was assessed using silver, titanium dioxide, ceria, and zero valent iron nanoparticles. Silver nanoparticles were found to enhance trihalomethane formation, which was attributed to the citrate coating of the nanoparticles. These studies both raise concern over the relationship between engineered nanoparticles and other emerging concerns in WWTPs, and take a step towards informing nanoparticle design in a manner that limits their associated environmental impact.

Wastewater Treatment, Activated Sludge, Nitrification, Nanoparticles, Antibiotic Resistance, Disinfection By-Products