Safe and sustainable water reuse for irrigation requires the implementation of reliable water reclamation processes to minimize environmental and health risks. This is of crucial importance when dealing with acute contaminants such as pathogenic viruses, where a single exposure can produce an outsized effect. More than 150 types of known pathogenic viruses with different levels of environmental persistence end up in municipal wastewater. Within the last two decades, new viruses have been identified in fecal specimens and sewage using highly-sensitive genome sequencing technologies. Metagenomic-based analysis of viral communities in untreated and treated municipal wastewater may lead to a better understanding of virus diversity, fate and distribution during municipal wastewater reclamation.
Environmental microbiologists have used sewage monitoring programs to for decades, most notably in public health efforts to globally eradicate the poliovirus. BARD-funded researchers Dr. Itay BarOr and Dr. Neta Zuckerman at Israel’s Ministry of Health Central Virology Laboratory, together with Dr. Walter Betancourt and Dr. Kelly Bright of the University of Arizona, Water and Energy Sustainable Technology (WEST) Center are working on a new approach for testing recycled water for reuse applications in agricultural irrigation. This three-year research project started in 2019 prior to the coronavirus pandemic.
These researchers are applying a metagenomic approach for characterization of the viral community composition (virome) associated with wastewater reclamation processes. This is a powerful approach for evaluating virus occurrence and diversity in untreated and treated wastewater. This virus identification approach will serve as a basis for the development of molecular assays for estimations of virus removal and therefore treatment effectiveness in multiple water reclamation facilities that produce municipal recycled water for reuse in Arizona and Israel.
During the study, metagenomics-based next generation sequencing will be applied in order to account for any virus types existing in the samples. Massive parallel sequencing carried out with the Illumina NextSeq Sequencing System will enable the research team to obtain up to 5 million reads per sample. Bioinformatic virome analysis conducted by Dr. Neta Zuckerman, Head of Bioinformatics and Metagenomics in the Central Virology Laboratory, is key to assemble and map viral databases using a robust infrastructure for next-generation sequencing analysis in a high-performance integrated virtual environment for identification of viruses.
As part of a coordinated effort by the University of Arizona COVID-19 Task Force Group to keep faculty, staff and students safe and healthy on campus in fall 2020, Dr. Betancourt and team members of the UArizona WEST Center tested wastewater from student dormitories to monitor for the novel coronavirus. These steps were crucial for averting outbreaks of COVID-19 on campus and received national attention in the U.S. Similarly, Dr. Itay Bar-Or from Sheba Medical Center in Israel has been working with scientists from the Israeli Health Ministry to promote “sewage surveillance”, which involves tracking the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) through sewage systems for community surveillance of COVID-19.
The U.S. and Israeli research teams had established an excellent professional relationship prior to the execution of this project which was initiated by effective communication between Professor Lester Shulman, former Head of the Laboratory of Environmental Virology (Sheba Medical Center, Israel) and Dr. Walter Betancourt. This relationship has grown and thrived as researchers continue working on this project: “Working as a team has allowed us to harmonize protocols and to develop a strong communication plan to accomplish our research goals”. The members of both laboratories meet regularly online 2-4 times a month to share and discuss results.