Flush water down the toilet, and its fate is usually out of sight, out of mind — at least for most of us. But for molecular microbiologist Dr. Kim Gilbride, wastewater is teeming with scientific potential — with impacts that flow back into the water quality from our taps.
Contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) are a perfect example. Cosmetic ingredients, pharmaceuticals and microplastics are found in the environment. The Gilbride Lab discovered how: the chemicals flow right through the processes at wastewater treatment plants.
The public demands regulation. Governments won’t act without demonstrated risk. Dr. Gilbride’s team continues working to supply such data.
The lab also examines the stuff of nightmares: antibiotic resistance — which happens when superbugs evade the drugs designed to kill them and simple infections become untreatable. Where does it start?
The Gilbride lab has shown that antibiotic resistance genes found in pathogenic organisms are also quite common in non-pathogenic organisms in the environment — possibly creating a reservoir for new resistance genes that can be passed from bacteria to bacteria.
“New findings in wastewater microbiology may eventually help predict upcoming healthcare issues within communities and inform new policy and protocols to safeguard the water we drink."
How does this gene transfer happen? Answers may lie in wastewater treatment plants where bacteria mix freely in unnaturally close proximities and have the opportunity to exchange genetic information.
During COVID-19, the lab also demonstrated how agile scientific research can be in critical times. Using tools and protocols built over decades, the lab joined a 13-university research collaboration to monitor COVID-19 prevalence in community wastewater in Ontario.
Analyzing feces in wastewater is now a proven, reliable and non-invasive way to measure infection rates in local communities. The lab is now working with Health Canada to test the prevalence of other illnesses, including influenza.