MnDRIVE program catapults undergraduate researcher to national stage

Undergraduate researcher Tamirat Ali

By Deirdre Manion-Fischer

Tamirat Ali spent last summer growing fungi in Jonathan Schilling’s lab at the University of Minnesota. He was studying ways to mitigate climate change by measuring the ability of fungi to capture methane. The technique, called biofiltration, relies on fungi to capture pollutants and bacteria to degrade them. While other research has focused on optimizing bacterial degradation, Schilling and Ali suspected they could find a more efficient fungus to optimize methane capture.

Over the course of the summer, Ali injected methane into glass vials containing tiny blocks of wood inoculated with fungi. Twenty-four hours later, he measured the decrease in methane. One type of white-rot fungus (Ganoderma lucidum) used in traditional Chinese medicine worked better at capturing methane than the species widely used in bioremediation (Pleurotus ostreatus). His success earned him a competitive travel award to attend the Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference where he presented his results in Washington D.C. earlier this month.

Continue reading

Streamlining regulations to help innovative research flourish

By Pamela Webb, associate vice president for research

At universities across the nation, excessive regulatory demands are posing a large challenge for researchers. That concern, which has long been expressed by both faculty and staff at the University of Minnesota, is validated by a September 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that found “continuing expansion of the federal regulatory system and its ever-growing requirements are diminishing the effectiveness of the nation’s research investment by directing investigators’ time away from research.”

The national Faculty Workload Survey by the Federal Demonstration Partnership found that faculty spend about 42 percent of their time on administrative activities associated with research, including proposal preparation, award oversight and reporting, and a wide variety of compliance-related responsibilities. While I would be hard-pressed to suggest an ideal timeshare for faculty to spend on such activities — it would certainly depend on the type of research and its risk to the safety of participants and researchers — 42 percent is clearly too high. Researchers I speak with believe spending a third to half of their time on compliance is a real barrier to innovative research. Continue reading

Working toward Uniform Guidance

steps

By Pamela Webb, Suzanne Paulson and Nicole Pilman

The Uniform Guidance, which took effect Dec. 26, 2014, represents the most dramatic shift in federal research administration policy in 50 years. Released by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in December 2013, the new guidelines are an attempt to bring uniformity to the funding regulations provided by 27 federal agencies to their grant recipients. While achieving this level of consistency is no easy task, the goal is ultimately to streamline the requirements for federal awards and reduce administrative burden and financial fraud, waste and abuse.

These numbers should give some idea of the significance and immediate impact of the changes:

  • 81 university policies and procedures required review, resulting in dozens of minor changes and several more significant policy changes in the areas of grant closeouts, subawards, procurement and direct charging
  • 176 training courses, tutorials, forms and job aids are being reviewed and updated this year
  • More than 300 Notice of Grant Award (NOGA) terms were reviewed and updated

All of this may seem abstract to a general reader, but in the world of research funding, it translates to countless real-life impacts on all aspects of research, grant administration, education and training. Of course, the long term goal of the policy changes is to make the federal award process more streamlined and less burdensome. As with any major change, there is short term pain to achieve long term gain. Continue reading

DELTAS: Catalyzing action towards sustainability of deltaic systems

Delta marsh

By Efi Foufoula-Georgiou

Deltas are dynamic landforms at the land-ocean boundary, involving intricate mazes of river channels, estuarine waterways and vast, often flooded landscapes. They cover one percent of Earth, yet are home to over half a billion people. Deltas sustain biodiverse and rich ecosystems, such as mangroves, reedlands and marshes. They are also economic hotspots that support major fisheries, forest production and agriculture, as well as major urban centers, ports and harbors.

Yet, worldwide delta systems, including the people, economies, infrastructure and ecology they support, are under threat from a range of natural and human activities. Dammed rivers upstream deprive deltas of critical water and sediment for continued viability. Local oil and gas exploration contributes to the sinking of deltas, loss of wetlands and accelerated erosion. Furthermore, all of these existing threats are being compounded by the effects of climate change.

These human dimensions and ecological implications of deteriorating or disappearing deltas cannot be overstated. There is an urgent need to rally the international community for a focused effort toward a holistic physical-socioeconomic understanding of deltas as vulnerable systems undergoing change. Such understanding is a basic requirement for their long-term management, protection and restoration. Continue reading

Seeking a culture of serendipity

Searching together

Many of the world’s greatest discoveries appear to be matters of luck. Columbus set out for the Orient, only to find a land and peoples previously unknown to Europeans. Percy Spencer developed the idea for the microwave oven after microwaves from a radar set melted a candy bar he was carrying. Physiologist Robert Richet developed the theory for the study of allergies after observing the effects of sea anemone poison on dogs. Newton developed the theory of gravity as he pondered childhood observations of fruit dropping from trees in his mother’s garden.

Science abounds with such stories. But were these events luck? Louis Pasteur said “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” In reality, Columbus had a plan, funding and organizational talent. Spencer was working in a corporation that nurtured new product ideas. Richet had prepared his mind through countless experiments. Newton was studying forces when he developed the theory of gravity.

Most discoveries are not simple tosses of dice. Curiosity and preparation readied the individuals to convert luck to invention. English Novelist Horace Walpole coined the term serendipity some 160 years ago to describe this type of luck which results from the combination of good fortune and wisdom. Mental preparation, funding, organizational environment, the right colleagues—these are all ingredients of serendipity. Serendipitous discoveries are the outcomes of intellectual curiosity and structured investigation. Continue reading

New compound shows promise in treating chronic pain

Chronic pain

A new compound in development at the University of Minnesota shows promise as a breakthrough drug for treating chronic pain.

The new compound, developed by Philip Portoghese, Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota’s College of Pharmacy, appears to be the first of its kind. A patent has been applied for, and the University’s Center for Translational Medicine has been conducting proof-of-concept studies. As a potential medication, the compound offers benefits lacked by current medications: It does not induce the body to develop tolerance or dependence, as opioid painkillers do. It is more potent than other opioid pain medications. It reduces and inhibits neuropathic pain, post-operative pain, burn pain, spinal injury pain and inflammation.

Close to 31 percent of adults in the U.S. have experienced chronic pain1 at an economic cost of about 600 billion dollars annually.2 Chronic inflammatory pain, such as that which occurs with cancer and diabetic neuropathy, is especially difficult to treat over the long haul. Continue reading

Informatics institute to serve U-wide research community

Informatics wordle

The Office of the Vice President for Research recently established the new system-wide University of Minnesota Informatics Institute, whose acronym, UMII, should sound familiar as it referred to the U’s former informatics initiative. Keeping the acronym signals some continuity, but replacing “initiative” with “institute” indicates a robust commitment.

The new institute has a broad vision of “envisioning and realizing the digital future through defining and developing the informatics infrastructure, advancing data analytics and exploring the impact of big data on the human experience.” UMII’s funding comes from MnDRIVE and University Administration to fulfill its mission of fostering “data-intensive research in agriculture, engineering, environment, health, humanities and social sciences and to identify education and infrastructure needs.” MnDRIVE funding also gives a specific mandate to partner “with industry to harness the power of big data for economic growth and development.”

Building this new institute will be a collaborative effort. I have spent my first few weeks as director of UMII visiting with university faculty, staff and administrators to listen to their needs and identify how this institute can help our university community advance its research and education mission. I continue to be impressed by the breadth of research at the U. Many of our researchers utilize high-throughput facilities to generate data for their research. Others rely on existing data sets and combine them in novel ways to answer new questions.

In my meetings with the university research community, I have learned about the latest technologies in genome sequencing and the challenges we face with the increase in velocity and volume of data that are generated by every new generation of machines. I have heard from our faculty about the study of communities of microbes at the genomics level, the integration of environmental data into procurement systems to reduce the carbon footprint, and controlled experiments on the web to improve the user experience. In my conversations, I have heard the need for informatics services to enable our researchers to harness the power of big data. I have also heard about the need to integrate informatics thinking into our curricula, ranging from equipping students with analytical skills to gaining a deeper appreciation of how big data is affecting our daily lives.

Improving the user experience is high on my to-do list. I have started to talk with the College of Design about how to incorporate design thinking into informatics. Design thinking is an area that I encountered in my previous position as vice chancellor on the Rochester campus where I was in charge of designing and building the academic side of that new campus. Design thinking is a powerful way to identify the unmet (and often unarticulated) needs of users and to prototype and test ideas before implementation.

In my next few weeks, I will continue to meet with faculty, staff and administrators on the Twin Cities campus and the other system campuses, in addition to visiting industry. I will also start announcing additional funding initiatives in the next few weeks. So, stay tuned for more news from UMII.

Learn more about the University of Minnesota Informatics Institute.

Submitted by Claudia Neuhauser, Ph.D., director, University of Minnesota Informatics Institute.

Originally published on Research @ the U of M.

New leave program puts faculty on entrepreneurial path

Desktop

The University of Minnesota’s new Entrepreneurial Leave Program, approved earlier this year, went into effect July 1 and is awaiting applicants.

The program is unlike any other offered by similar institutions around the country. The Board of Regents established the new policy to encourage university faculty to temporarily assist companies that are commercializing faculty-developed products or processes.

“We don’t know of another institution with a program like this,” says Russell Straate, Associate Director of the University of Minnesota Office for Technology Commercialization Venture Center. “We are setting the stage to help faculty members become more entrepreneurial. These inventors need to have a role in the early development of their research into products and services. The new leave program helps them move out of the university and into the company temporarily.”

Tenured and tenure-track faculty may apply for an entrepreneurial leave of twelve months, with an optional six-month extension. The leave typically will involve the development of university intellectual property, though leaves that relate to the public good may also be considered. The faculty member checks in monthly with the department head and Office for Technology Commercialization during the leave.

A unique feature is that the program allows faculty to keep their benefits while on leave. This helps overcome a barrier for faculty who otherwise could not be involved in translating research. “In the case of a startup company situation, most can pay a salary or commit equity, but they often they lack benefits. This leave program will make it easier for faculty to be involved in bringing their ideas to market,” says Straate.

Another benefit is that the faculty can aid the company without concerns over conflict of interest such as using a university lab for personal financial gain.

“It’s increasingly important for the university to aid in the successful translation and commercialization of faculty research. The leave program increases faculty knowledge and expertise, which benefits their students and future research. It also increases the university’s engagement with the general public and private industry,” explains Straate.

The leave program is so far untested. Straate says that a number of faculty have made inquiries, but that none have applied for a leave. “We expect two to three of these a year.”

The Entrepreneurial Leave Program is one of many programs aimed at helping faculty become more entrepreneurial. Entrepreneurism is growing at the U of M, which recently announced a record 14 startups launched in fiscal year 2013.

Straate’s office helps move technology developments with commercial potential out of the U labs and into the market, with goals of benefiting the public, making money for the university and for the inventor, and improving research and teaching. For example, recently the office helped U professor Jian-Ping Wang, Ph.D., College of Science and Engineering, work with a startup to commercialize a process that produces magnetic nanoparticles that attach to biomarkers in blood, saliva and urine to diagnose physical conditions. Straate’s office located a management team to help get the startup underway.

Post by Vincent Hyman, a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn.

Originally published on Business @ the U of M.

Ancient remedy a promising cure for Clostridium difficile

Bacteria

A team of researchers at the U of M have revived an ancient medical treatment to address a severe gastrointestinal illness and have developed ways to standardize the procedure.

The process, dubbed “fecal microbiota transplantation” transfers healthy bacteria from one person’s intestine to another person where the healthy bacteria have been depleted. It’s very effective for people suffering from Clostridium difficile, also called  C. diff, an opportunistic pathogen that takes over when antibiotics wipe out “essential and symbiotic” bacteria in the gut.

Although the infection itself is triggered by antibiotics, the standard treatment for C. diff has been to give even more antibiotics, which can trigger a vicious cycle of recurrent C. diff. Normally, C. diff can be held at bay by resident bacteria in the colon. When antibiotics kill off the normal bacteria, C. diff flourishes, releasing toxins that cause diarrhea, fever, nausea and abdominal pain. Subsequent courses of antibiotics suppress, but don’t kill C. diff, and it often reemerges. In severe cases, patients can waste away and die.

A mutant monster of our own making

Fecal microbial transplantation is effective in treating refractory C. diff infections. The donor feces contain healthy populations of bacteria that repopulate the gut, and hold C. diff in check. However, explains Alexander Khoruts, M.D., associate professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, the current process is unpleasant and unregulated. Essentially, a donor must provide feces which are implanted via colonoscopy, nasal tube or enema.

“In this form, the treatment has a long history. It goes back as far as 4th Century China, and was introduced into Western medicine by Dr. Eisemann and his team in 1958. Surgeons trained in 1960s remember Dr. Wangensteen using the procedure at the U of M. (Wangensteen was chairman of the U’s Surgery Department from 1930 to 1967.) Then we learned how to treat C. diff with antibiotics. However, the organism has since evolved, acquired more resistance to antibiotics and has become even more toxic.”

Khoruts and colleague-collaborator Michael Sadowsky, director of the U’s BioTechnolgy Institute, have recently invented a process that is more reliable and can be standardized, making the treatment more widely available to patients suffering from C. diff.

Their invention is just in time, because C. diff infections have surged over the past decade. The tenacious and deadly illness now affects about 340,000 people each year. In fact, explains Sadowsky, “On average, patients have had the infection for up to a year with six relapses. Estimates are that 14,000 to 30,000 people die each year from it. The percentage of recurrence of C. diff is twenty to thirty percent. With each course of antibiotics, the subsequent relapse goes up another twenty to thirty percent.”

Care is estimated at $2,500 to $7,000 per patient. In some cases, colectomy is necessary. The infection, traditionally confined to hospitals and nursing homes, is now spreading into the community.

Fortunately, the process Khoruts and Sadowsky have invented is a likely candidate for broad medical use. The team was the first to document that the transplanted bacteria actually survive in the new host (the patient), according to Khoruts. This helps build credence for the treatment. It is 92 percent efficacious and is vastly superior to the antibiotic suppression method. And the standardized, streamlined method will make the application more likely to be approved by the FDA.

Sadowsky adds, “In the old practice, feces were directly transplanted. Our innovation is in separating the bacteria from the donor feces, freezing it, and providing in essence a universal material for use in patients. Our donors have been tested for disease, and we use the same paradigm as blood donation, with some additional restrictions. For example, we don’t accept anyone using a prescription medication or who has been traveling abroad.”

Process recently licensed

CIPAC Limited, an Australia-based company with subsidiaries in California, is working with the U of M to advance the technology and bring a safe, effective treatment to market. It has licensed the technology and is working with the FDA and the university’s team to begin clinical trials.

The FDA’s recent announcement should accelerate interest in the process. Khoruts notes, “Our group has been the leader in standardization of this procedure in the U.S. We have been doing it in steps and our latest advance is moving material preparation out of the research laboratory to an FDA-registered facility at the university where the process is done in accordance with the FDA’s GMP (good manufacturing practices). We think that this is how the procedure will continue to develop. In the short term the FDA involvement very likely will result in decreased access to this procedure. However, once the process is streamlined, as we’re trying to do, it will become part of mainstream medicine and access will become greater than before.”

Post by Vincent Hyman, a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn.

Originally published on Research @ the U of M.

MN-IP: Fast-tracking sponsored research at the U

Arthur Erdman

A pioneering program at the University of Minnesota promises to speed connections between businesses and researchers at the U.

“This is big,” explains Arthur Erdman, Ph.D., director of the Medical Devices Center at the U. “The Minnesota Innovation Partnerships program makes it much easier for companies to sponsor research at the U.”

Prior to Minnesota Innovation Partnerships (MN-IP), companies might spend months negotiating the terms for a sponsored research agreement. The most common sticking point for companies is who will own rights to the resulting intellectual property (IP). Now, MN-IP’s unique business model automatically removes this barrier.

Under MN-IP, a business that sponsors research pays an upfront fee of 10 percent of the sponsored research agreement (or fifteen thousand dollars, whichever is greater), in exchange for exclusive worldwide rights to intellectual property that arises from the research project.

A win-win for the business and research communities, MN-IP gives companies direct access to the brainpower and infrastructure of the U while making it easy for them to sponsor research on favorable, flexible terms. When the technology resulting from the research is ready, companies are holding the pre-set licensing terms in their hands.

The MN-IP program will likely increase the quantity of research projects funded by businesses at the U. It will also keep U of M researchers and graduate students at work on valuable innovations while broadening the base of business in Minnesota. About 44 projects have gotten underway since its availability in early 2012.

The first of its kind in the nation, MN-IP has been referred to as a “game changer” in the world of sponsored university research and was recognized the by U.S. Department of Commerce and the White House as a groundbreaking approach. Several institutions, including the University of Iowa and Iowa State University, now have similar programs and other universities are quickly following suit.

The program’s popularity is a reflection of just how much a new approach to sponsored research is needed. In the early phases of research, it is very difficult to project the ultimate commercial value of projects. This uncertainty can tie up lawyers and capital in negotiations for an extended period of time. This is enough to stop many projects from progressing past the first discussion.

Erdman, who has more than 30 patents to his name, says that “it only takes 15 minutes of conversation with a business about joint research before I start getting tough questions about intellectual property ownership and royalties. Now, when the IP issue comes up,” Erdman explains, “I have a good response and can move forward with the company exploring a partnership.”

The Medical Devices Center, which focuses on research, training and education, has initiated $300,000 in business-sponsored research that it would not have without the MN-IP program, according to Erdman.

Most MN-IP projects are confidential, but Erdman was free to describe a recent partnership with Boston Scientific, a leader in medical manufacturing. “The Medical Devices Center and Department of Computer Sciences are working together with Boston Scientific to develop a virtual prototyping system for designing medical devices. The process uses computational methods and simulation early in the development of a medical device to explore how it will work with human anatomy.”

Erdman says there now only three such systems in the world—two at the University of Minnesota and one at Boston Scientific. “With this system, you can do a massive amount of testing in a virtual space prior to animal and human trial. You can then go to bench tests with 3-D printing to verify that what you have in the virtual space is realistic.” The MN-IP process enabled research to move quickly to its second phase of development, and Erdman expects a new round of funding this summer.

Erdman is bullish on MN-IP. “It’s amazing how many varieties of expertise we have at the university. For companies that have research needs, it would be unlikely not to find help here. The university should be first in line for them.”

Resources:
Minnesota Innovation Partnerships
Medical Devices Center
Office of Business Relations

Post by Vincent Hyman, a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn. Photo by Andria Waclawski.

Originally published on Business @ the U of M.

Food science pilot plant: a place to test–and taste

processing

You may never have heard of a twin screw extruder, but here’s a hint: You can make your own Cheetos with one.

It’s a key piece of equipment in the food industry, and also one of many tools at the University of Minnesota’s Joseph J. Warthenson Food Processing Center on the St. Paul Campus (also known as the pilot plant).

The unique workshop bustles with students, faculty and industry developers working out new ideas. Its skilled staff and specialized equipment facilitate tests of novel products and processes. Its licensed cheese production facility is used by artisanal cheese makers to develop small batches for retail and distribution. And it is the birthplace of several popular U of M-developed cheeses, including Nuworld Cheese, an all-white cheese with the flavor of blue cheese, and Minnesota Blue Cheese.

A self-supporting laboratory

The pilot plant is completely self-supporting, covering its costs through its programs, consultation, and services for the food industry as well as through public sales of its cheese and ice cream.

Tonya Schoenfuss, Ph.D., is faculty advisor to the lab and speaks with pride about its historic and current projects. “The pilot plant was originally built in 1959 for research in dairy product production, and soon became home to food and nutrition as well. We serve three interests: research, teaching and industry outreach.”

There’s a long list of equipment available at the plant. From those with appetizing names like butter churn and cheese vat to less-wholesome-sounding tools like the desludging centrifuge and twin screw extruder. This last, extraordinary machine is more fun than it sounds. You can put dry ingredients in one end, add moist ingredients, mix them, and push them out under pressure – even cooking them along the way if you wish. You can make cereals, pastas, and yes, something Cheeto-ish.

The variety of equipment, explains Schoenfuss, enables food researchers and developers to test out products for mass production, since similar equipment is used in large-scale food manufacturing. Schoenfuss has used the extruder to pioneer new ways to use dried milk in food manufacturing, resulting in a process that is both cost-effective and offers marketing benefits as well.

The university has also conducted joint projects with outside companies. For example, through joint research, it developed Crystalban, an ingredient used by some cheese makers to prevent calcium from crystalizing into crunchy lumps in cheese. An outside firm pays royalties to the university to make and sell the ingredient.

The lab serves large companies like General Mills and Cargill, as well as small shops. Businesses try out new ingredients and make small batches of products for testing. Some companies rent the facility to manufacture products. For example, Northern Lights blue cheese is made onsite at the lab. Others seek consultation and training. Eichtens Cheese Farm, well-known to travelers on U.S. Highway 8, honed its craft at the pilot plant.

Students in the university’s Food Science program learn food processing and food engineering at the lab and go on to serve in quality control, product development, food safety, sales, regulation and related food science disciplines.

Testing the goods

But for the general public, the best way to get to know the work of the pilot plant may be to sample its wares. Products made there are on sale every Wednesday from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. in the Dairy Salesroom (housed in the Andrew Boss Lab of Meat Science building on the St. Paul campus.) The items for sale almost always include two staples of Minnesota life—cheese and ice cream.

The store is now combining with the Meat Sciences store, with a grand opening on July 3. Customers will be able to purchase a variety of fresh beef, pork, lamb, and sausages along with their cheese and ice cream. “There’s often a line at the store when it opens,” says Schoenfuss. “What gets offered varies from week to week, but we sell quite a bit each Wednesday.

In the end, the pilot plant goes beyond its service to the food industry and development of future food engineers. It’s also a great place to pick up the basics for a fine summer barbecue.

Learn more:
Dept. of Food Science and Nutrition Joseph J. Warthensen Food Processing Center
Schoenfuss Lab
Dairy Salesroom
Andrew Boss Laboratory of Meat Science

Post by Vincent Hyman, a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn.

Photos by Andria Waclawski

Originally published on Business @ the U of M.

Heated sludge helps defeat superbugs

Water treatment facility

You’ve probably heard of “superbugs”—bacteria that are resistant to numerous antibiotics.

They’ve cost many lives and billions of dollars. And part of the solution could be as simple as treating our waste to a nice hot bath.

Timothy LaPara, Ph.D. of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Civil Engineering and a member of the BioTechnology Institute, has interests in wastewater microbiology and antibiotic resistance. He’s combined these to address a pandemic that threatens to return the world to a pre-penicillin era.

A global problem

Worldwide, about 440,000 new cases of multidrug resistant tuberculosis occur each year, resulting in at least 150,000 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Resistance to streptococcus pneumonia is also on the rise. And the infamous MRSA—an antibiotic-resistant staph infection—has become a global problem.

“In the U.S.,” explains LaPara, “we spend twenty to forty billion dollars annually coping with antibiotic resistance. Fifteen to twenty thousand people die from MRSA resistant infections.”

The rapid growth of resistant bacteria appears to be an unintended consequence of the ways we use antibiotics. When antibiotics are used routinely, a few naturally resistant bacteria survive, and these go on to produce more resistant bacteria. In the U.S., about 80 percent of the total antibiotic use is on the farm, where animals routinely receive antibiotics to prevent disease and encourage growth. In healthcare, patients often receive antibiotics they don’t need or do not finish their antibiotic courses. We also widely use antibacterials such as triclosan in consumer soaps and other products.

The result is a burgeoning population of antibiotic-resistant germs. Because bacterial DNA readily transfers among bacteria, concentrations of them—as occurs in human sewage and animal waste collection sites–can result in dense communities of resistant bacteria.

Changing the patterns of use of antibiotics on farms, in health care and consumer products is part of the solution, but can be politically fraught.

Killing the bugs where they concentrate

LaPara’s proposed solution complements these existing approaches and kills the bugs where they concentrate: in human and animal waste.

When raw sewage is treated, it leaves behind a sewage sludge called biosolids. LaPara has found that raw sewage has 50,000 times more antibiotic resistant genes than what’s found in a typical river. But even after treatment, the remaining biosolids are thick with antibiotic resistant genes. These resistant bacteria potentially find their way into the human population through a variety of transmission means: they can be contained in fertilizer (one of the primary uses of biosolids), spread via the air, and included in the foods we consume.

Biosolid dewatering

But heating biosolids can kill the bad guys. Here’s where the engineering tricks and microbiology magic come in. Sewage plants use naturally occurring bacteria to digest waste and a byproduct of that process is methane gas. Some of these plants use the methane to heat the biosolids to body temperature, which is perfect for the growth of sewage-munching bacteria, but also ideal for growing resistant bacteria.

“If we raise the temperature to about 130 degrees Fahrenheit, different, heat-loving bacteria will digest the biosolids,” explains LaPara. The higher temperatures kill off the resistant bacteria, but still generate the methane needed to keep the plant heated up. It’s a win-win.

That was the theory. LaPara’s lab tests showed that heated biosolids have 1/100th the amount of resistant bacteria as compared to unheated biosolids. To find out if the process has real-life promise, LaPara tested the sludge from a treatment plant in Duluth that already heats its digesters to 130 degrees. Sure enough, its residual sludge had 1/10th to 1/100th the concentration of resistant bacteria in biosolids from plants that operate at lower temperatures.

Says LaPara, “If I could get people to use the best treatment, I would have them do it like Duluth. We spend about fifteen billion dollars a year in the U.S. on wastewater treatment. For an additional cost of less than 10 percent, we could switch to a higher temperature. This could help end the resistant bacteria problem very quickly.”

Making the most of a hot mess

But ridding ourselves of superbugs will take additional effort. “Everything we do with human waste, we could also do with animal waste,” says LaPara. He notes that more farms are beginning to generate methane from their animal waste for use as an energy source. The process could be used to kill off the antibiotic bacteria in animal waste as well, making the waste safer for use as fertilizer.

LaPara says there are a number of steps needed to get this process adopted widely. “Ten years ago, very few people were looking at this. Many of the research techniques we’re using were only developed in the last decade. This is not yet in the public health arena. But over the next ten years, I’d like to see our waste treatment community move toward more aggressive treatment of biosolids. We’ll reduce resistant bacteria and other pathogens as well.”

Post by Vincent Hyman, a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn.

Originally published on Research @ the U of M.