Eric Alm - Real-time epidemiology from urban wastewater

MIT and Kuwait researchers have been awarded $4 million to fund Underworlds, a study of real-time epidemiology using biomarkers in urban sewage.
Kuwait-MIT Center for Natural Resources and the Environment
November 2, 2015

A team of MIT researchers, together with researchers from Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research and Kuwait University, has been awarded a $4 million grant for a collaborative research project titled “The Underworlds Project: a Smart Sewage Infrastructure for Kuwait.”

The Underworlds project is being funded through the Kuwait-MIT Center for Natural Resources and the Environment (CNRE) by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences(KFAS) with a performance period of three years commencing this November.

Underworlds taps into biomarkers embedded in municipal wastewater and sewage networks to leverage spatiotemporal sampling in order to create a real-time public health profile of urban areas. The project then explores a plethora of ideas to identify, track, and monitor infectious diseases; to track antibiotic resistance genes and multi-drug-resistant bacteria; and to identify a multitude of other indicators of public health and biosecurity.

Underworlds combines novel concepts in smart city design and urban informatics with advances in biological engineering and bioinformatics. It has two main goals.

First, the project will develop and deploy a novel cyber-physical platform for environment sensing and sampling from sewage and wastewater networks. This will be coupled with a computational biological infrastructure for characterizing biological signatures including metagenomics and metabolomics. The platform will be equipped with data visualization, analytics, and processing tools. It will also allow for spatial and temporal modeling of water flow mixing and balance in wastewater networks to devise and tune optimal spatiotemporal sampling strategies to extract maximum information.

Researchers will also investigate several specialized aims using the developed infrastructure. In one aim, they will screen sewage for the prevalence and distribution of infectious pathogens. In another, they will track the emergence of antibiotic resistance genes in the urban microbiome. A third aim will focus on toxicology and monitoring of substances known as phthalates and the use of sewage as a real-time data source to gauge the efficacy of public health policy. An additional aim will be to develop bioprospecting strategies in sewage to establish phage therapy as an alternative to antibiotics in combating infectious agents.

A visionary research project stimulated by MIT's Alm Lab and Senseable City Lab, the Underworlds idea expanded to include researchers from Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR), Kuwait University (KU), and MIT researchers from the Department of Biological Engineering, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

Carlo Ratti, principal investigator of the project, professor of the practice in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and director of the Senseable City Lab, says: “Underworlds is a proof-of-concept that cities can make use of their wastewater system as a valuable data source. A broad array of human activity is reflected in a city’s wastewater, and as such, a host of applications emerge from sampling and analyzing sewage. For example, cities can begin to study the way non-communicable diseases develop, as biomarkers for obesity and diabetes can be measured at unprecedented scale and temporal resolution.”

“We can reveal the invisible in a city,” Ratti explains. “For every cell in the human body there are around 10 bacterial cells, constituting the human microbiome, which is recognized as a key determinant of an individual’s health and wellness. How can we measure something like the microbiome at the scale of an entire city?”

The co-PIs from MIT are Eric Alm, associate professor in the MIT Department of Biological Engineering and director of the Alm Lab; Elfatih Eltahir and Martin Polz, both professors at MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Jon Runstadler, assistant professor of biological engineering and comparative medicine at MIT; and Daniela Rus, director of CSAIL and professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

"The concept of this project is unique and ground breaking," says Murad Abu-Khalaf, executive director of CNRE. "It is a timely integration of multi-disciplinary efforts in urban informatics, big data analytics, bioinformatics, food science, biological engineering, and epidemiology. The MIT-KISR-KU team has the unique and synergistic expertise to achieve the aims of this research. The outcome of the research is expected to be transformative not only for scientists who are trying to understand these issues, but to disease control and public health decision makers. Successes at the scale of Kuwait City could demonstrate a proof-of-concept that could be replicated globally.

"In an increasingly urbanized world, innovations promised by this project could make a difference in achieving sustainable population health," Abu-Khalaf adds. "This is the third project to be initiated through CNRE’s Signature Research Program that, collaboratively with researchers in Kuwait, investigates technical challenges that have both regional and global impact."

CNRE was established at MIT in 2005 and fosters collaborative research and scientific exchange between MIT and research institutions in Kuwait. Its leadership team consists of associate director Jacopo Buongiorno, professor and associate head in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at MIT, and executive director Murad Abu-Khalaf. The center is funded by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences.