Texas A&M’s Chu studies water-improving, estrogen-eating bacteria
Increasingly sensitive methods of screening water for polluting substances allow environmental scientists to monitor traces of previously undetected contaminants in otherwise clean water: trace amounts of pharmaceutical and personal care products ranging from antibiotics to anesthetics and, especially, estrogens.
The presence of any of these drugs concerns public health officials, but Dr. Kung-Hui (Bella) Chu, an associate professor in the Environmental and Water Resources Engineering Division of the Zachry Department of Civil Engineering, is particularly interested in estrogen in water.
“We are talking about trace amounts of these materials,” Chu said. “We’re talking about concentrations of, usually, nanograms per liter. It’s very low.”
But even at these low concentrations, Chu said, the presence of estrogens in water is something to be concerned about.
So far, the most direct evidence of the impact of estrogens in water has been found in male fish swimming downstream from estrogen-containing water sources. Some have been found to have both male and female sexual characteristics, such as partially developed ova, or eggs, in their testes.
This sex-related damage to fish may not be significant in itself, but researchers suggest that it’s a warning of potential dangers to humans. Estrogens in drinking water could affect male fertility by interfering with sperm production. Links between environmental estrogenic compounds and several kinds of cancer, especially breast and testicular cancer, also have been suggested.
Estrogen and estrogen-like compounds find their way into water from many sources. Naturally occurring estrogen compounds come from livestock urine and feces, and from human excretions and contraceptives and hormone replacement medications. Other estrogen-like compounds can be found in everything from insecticides to plastics, and they all find their way into the water supply. About 80 percent of 139 U.S. rivers are contaminated with these trace compounds, according to Chu.
Existing water treatment processes remove as much as 94 percent of estrogen from untreated water, Chu said, but what remains is still potent enough to cause damage to fish, and, researchers fear, humans. Although harmful estrogens often remain in water after treatment, this performance is not surprising, Chu said, because conventional water treatment processes weren’t designed to deal with estrogens.
Chu said she has long been interested in biological approaches to water-quality problems. In wastewater treatment, this means using bacteria to clean up the wastewater. Her focus is on searching for wastewater bacteria that are capable of breaking down estrogens into harmless end products.
If she finds them, the estrogen degradation ability of these bacteria could be capitalized in engineered bioreactors to remove estrogens.
Chu and her colleagues have found 14 different species of bacteria that can break down estrogens, and they’ve published details of their findings in scientific journals. Their idea is to define the optimal growth conditions to promote the growth of estrogen-degrading bacteria in biological wastewater treatment processes as a means to break down estrogens quickly and completely and relatively inexpensively.