Research in the Environmental Engineering cluster focuses on the role of microbiomes at the water-food-environment nexus. We study a range of bioprocesses in engineered and natural systems, including the degradation of pollutants, removal of nutrients from used water by biofilm processes, and transformation of wastewater nutrients into microbial community-based single cell protein. Novel approaches and methodologies have led to fundamental insights in used water treatment and resource recovery as well as drug/probiotic delivery systems that are of practical relevance for a circular (bio)economy.
Prof Stefan WUERTZ
Deputy Centre Director (Education & Training) Research Director, Environmental Engineering cluster
The mechanisms underlying the networks of microbial communal action have long eluded scientists and consequently have not played a role in the development of engineering solutions. To date, engineering platforms are designed with margins of safety sufficiently large to allow for overall process stability. They are, however, limited in terms of the fundamental understanding of and the ability to fine-tune many microbial processes, two aspects that could greatly improve engineering applications.
SCELSE works in collaboration with industry and organisational bodies on several key environmental engineering systems, such as used water treatment plants that have been selected for improved understanding and harnessing of biochemical transformation processes and maintaining high microbial water quality in drinking water distribution systems when switching from continuous to intermittent water supply. Cross cluster research is employed to unravel the biofilm structure-function relationships and target adaptive behaviours of the microbial communities in the systems identified, to enable the development of novel means of controlling microbial activities.
Such information is combined with the quantification of substrate fluxes and the optimisation of microbial functions in controlled bioreactor settings for the development of a new engineering toolbox. For example, detailed knowledge of the specific metabolic rates can help to redefine design and control of engineered processes. An iterative cross cluster cycle of experiments of different scales, combined with systems biology-based analysis, enables the Environmental Engineering cluster to create novel and multi-scale, interactive engineering platforms for multiple processes.
Microbial communities or microbiomes provide crucial functions for global climate regulation, human health, biotechnology and bioremediation. We aim to link insights gained from microbial ecology to understand the forces affecting process stability at varying scales. Microbes typically exist as diverse, complex and dynamic communitiesand are involved in all biogeochemical cycles. Given the growing human population and its impact on natural and engineered ecosystems, management and conservation practices are faced with increasing frequencies and magnitudes of various disturbances that occur on different scales. SCELSE applies ecological theory to microbial communities at the water-food-environment nexus in replicated bioreactor studies to derive and test novel general hypotheses regarding the role of disturbances on system stability in natural and engineered ecosystems.
Microbial diversity is often related to community function and the ability to withstand environmental fluctuations that typically occur as disturbances. When disturbance occurs over a long period of time, it is categorized as press disturbance. While a disturbance may result in inhibition, injury, or death for some individuals in a community, it also creates opportunities for other individuals to grow or reproduce. Diversity is frequently implied to have a positive effect on the functional stability of ecological communities. However, its relationship with stochastic and deterministic assembly mechanisms remains largely unknown, particularly under fluctuating disturbances. The challenge is to derive general insights into the assembly, structure (e.g., diversity) and function (ecosystem services) of microbial communities and learn how to translate this knowledge into beneficial bioprocess performance and ecosystem management.