Colorado State University Professor Receives Nsf Grant for Innovative Proteomics Wastewater Research

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $100,000 grant to a Colorado State University professor to conduct a first-of-its-kind research project using proteomics to study mixtures of bacteria as they break down contaminants in water. The exploratory research will determine whether proteomics can be used to monitor wastewater treatment and likely will yield valuable tools for improving the design, operation and maintenance of wastewater processes for environmental pollution control.

"The research has the potential to provide information about mixed cultures of bacteria in wastewater treatment and other applications that has never before been available," said Ken Reardon, a professor of chemical engineering at Colorado State and lead investigator of the project. "This new knowledge in wastewater treatment could eventually lead to better operation of treatment plants."  

Proteomics is a new focus in the field of biotechnology that, simply put, seeks to study all of the proteins produced by a cell under particular conditions and environments and to understand how cells function under those conditions. For example, comparing the proteins of cells exposed to high temperatures with those from normal temperatures reveals how cells cope with temperature shocks. The goal of proteomics is to look at all of the proteins in a cell or tissue simultaneously, whereas other approaches only consider one protein at a time. Because proteins are the product of information coded for in DNA, proteomics is closely allied to the study of the genome.

Since proteins are central to all forms of cellular activity, and protein synthesis is rapid, examination of the proteins expressed by a microorganism can directly reveal insights into its function. Reardon’s research will produce the first evaluation of a new approach to analyze wastewater environmental bioprocesses, with potential to reveal new information about the function of those bioprocesses to improve their operation.

"Although proteomics is recognized as an important area in biological sciences, there are very few engineering departments in which proteomics research is conducted," said Reardon. "Since proteomics is a powerful tool for biochemical and biological engineering research, more engineers will eventually start using it."    

In this project, Reardon and his students will work with a mixed culture of bacteria growing on a mixture of pollutants frequently found at contaminated sites. The bacteria will be exposed to the kinds of changes that can adversely affect wastewater treatment plant function, such as the sudden input of a toxic chemical. By taking samples of the bacteria before and after this change and then isolating, separating and comparing their proteins, Reardon’s group hopes to be able to find proteins that can serve as early indicators of problems for the functioning of the mixed culture and also learn how the microorganisms respond to these problems.  

Reardon and his research group have been studying the biological breakdown of pollutants for 15 years and have been using proteomics for the past five years on isolated cultures of bacteria. The new NSF-funded research project will allow them to transfer this expertise to the study of mixed cultures.  The research also will place Colorado State’s chemical engineering department among the leaders in engineering applications of proteomics.   

The technology that is expected to be developed through the research can potentially be used to assess engineered environmental processes such as wastewater treatment and bioremediation. If successful, it could result in more efficient wastewater treatment from municipal facilities as well as industrial treatment plants. This is important for decreasing the amount of potentially dangerous contaminants released to the environment following treatment processes and also for improving treatment processes for water reuse, which may become more important in the future.