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Feature: Getting Wet

  • Author:
    Michael Steger
  • Published:
    Spring 2012

MSU is Immersed in the Growing Field of Water Research

In recent years MSU has dived into a number of research projects that involve one of the most precious commodities of our time—water.

Water is one of the simplest chemical molecules.Yet as simple as a water molecule is—two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom—the size and complexity of issues involving one of the greatest natural resources continues to grow.

While 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is water, only 2.5 percent is fresh water and of that, less than 1 percent is easily accessible. Water use has grown at more than twice the rate of the global population in the last century, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Th e UN predicts that by 2025 more than 1.8 billion people will live in areas where water is scarce.

Geopolitically, water is not the “new oil”—it is far more important. It sustains life. For centuries, water has been a source of conflict as scarcity and access to clean water have played key roles throughout world history. The challenges surrounding water issues remain pervasive in politics, economics, social forces, economic activity, environment and science.

A systems approach is necessary to incorporate the many disciplines and to account for the many natural and human forces in play. Related issues span health, energy, biology, the environment and society.

Researchers at MSU are uniquely positioned to tackle the water problems and a recent initiative is providing more resources and allowing MSU to make major strides in dealing with the world’s water issues.

“Water problems require a collaborative interdisciplinary approach so we can identify all the issues needed for solutions,” says R. Jan Stevenson, co-director of the MSU Center for Water Sciences. “The scientists at MSU naturally work together on problems that require interdisciplinary expertise and critical thinking.

“At MSU, our land-grant heritage provides the structure for our approach,” adds Stevenson.“We work together to develop solutions to problems not just for ourselves and our communities, but to transfer that knowledge to help others around the world.”

Water Quality

Improving water quality requires biologists who understand microorganisms in the water, engineers who build systems to purify the water, and social and political scientists to devise and implement policies and political strategies to preserve and maintain water resources.

As an ecologist, Stevenson studies how algae respond to environmental change, pinpointing the specific levels of pollutants that trigger algae blooms. In particular, Stevenson’s research examines the relationship between algae and phosphorus, a dissolved nutrient that is an important regulator of Algal growth in lakes and streams.

“As the levels of phosphorus increase, they have a direct effect on the species of algae that can live in habitats and how fast they grow,” says Stevenson. “With phosphorus, there is often a threshold concentration where there is a strong effect on the algae. In natural ecosystems there are many other variables you need to account for when predicting these changes.Our goal is to understand those variables so governments can establish limits on phosphorus, often at these threshold concentrations, and thereby prevent changes in algae you wish to avoid.”

Understanding the levels at which nutrient pollution from fertilizers spur algae growth is an example of fundamental science that’s critical to science-informed public policy and rational economic activity. This is where basic science meets public policy, says Stevenson.

Effects of human activities vary greatly on our different uses of lands and waters within a watershed, so an important consideration becomes the trade-offs among these uses, notes Stevenson, whose research is Funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Adding phosphorus-based fertilizer to a field will help grow more crops, but the trade-off is these same applied plant nutrients enter the water system and stimulate algal growth in streams and lakes, which can kill fish.

“As water researchers at MSU, we are quantifying the many relationships among human activities, pollutants and uses of our land and water,” says Stevenson. “Knowing and understanding trade-offs among these uses will allow us to manage different resources for different uses and thereby have high levels of benefits across a region. Once we fully understand the complexity of ecological systems and the humans in them, we can turn our attention from science to policy and management.”

Understanding Water Flow and Use

With his research team of undergraduate and graduate students, Stevenson also is involved in a project with Jiaguo Qi, director of the Center for Global Change and Earth Observations in the Dept. of Geography, and David Hyndman, a hydrogeologist and chair of the Dept. of Geological Sciences. This interdisciplinary team is examining how different levels of nutrients, climate and land use affect algae in coastal zones of the Great Lakes.

More than 30 years of satellite images and water flow data will be used to characterize the algae in coastal zones. By studying the weather systems that carry nutrients to the coastal zones, they are able to predict the relationships between nutrient flow and algal growth. Qi and Stevenson’s students are advancing our ability to use satellite images to detect the amount and kind of algae in water.

At the same time, Hyndman and his team of hydrology students and post-doctoral researchers are gathering samples and measuring 80 percent of the flow in Lower Peninsula rivers and streams emptying into Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Along the way they are building an advanced model of water flow, including both surface and ground water, and how that water transports nutrients to streams, rivers and the coastal zones of the Great Lakes.

“By correlating weather and dynamics of nutrient transport to coastal zones with algae bloom, we are learning to predict effects of more frequent droughts and floods that might accompany climate changes,” says Stevenson.“Our interdisciplinary team is building a model that accounts for these variables. We will be able to transfer this tool to other areas of the world and help those people manage their waters to best achieve their desired outcomes.”

The Great Lakes region provides an ideal setting for water research since it is home to 20 percent of the Earth’s supply of surface fresh water. For researchers focused on the Great Lakes, water scarcity is often not a critical issue, but the access to abundant supplies of clean water has provided a tremendous advantage since it has historically provided an emphasis on agriculture and research connecting with the food system.

MSU AgBioResearch, formerly known as Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station, is part of the backbone of water research.

“The connections AgBioResearch has across campus provide a tremendous advantage to leverage the existing research infrastructure to make sure we take advantage of every opportunity to connect with research involving water,” says Steve Pueppke, director of Ag- BioResearch. “Over the past five decades, MSU has built a strong research infrastructure rooted in food safety and agriculture development, and these link directly to key issues involving water.”

Pueppke’s institutional knowledge and expertise has put him in the center of a balancing act between dual roles in AgBioResearch and the university’s main research office where he is associate vice president for Research & Graduate Studies. His knowledge of the research being done across campus led him to recently being named the leader of MSU’s research initiative in water. The initiative is an investment in 16 new faculty positions with each position being connected to multiple departments and linked to water research. Pueppke says MSU’s investment into water research is the largest investment for a public university.

“(To) have impact we cannot sprinkle across campus but instead must find those trans-disciplinary areas where we can build connections and avoid redundancies,” says Pueppke. The faculty positions are mainly in natural science, social science, engineering and agriculture and natural resources.MSU has already started hiring and will be filling more positions in 2012.

A Network of Campus Programs

MSU has 20 different centers or programs across campus that Support research on the many facets of water research. Several are macroscopic in their approach while others are more targeted.The research partnerships in these are often interconnected to form a robust network of collaboration across disciplines.

At one end of the scale are programs like Michigan Sea Grant— a cooperative program of the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, and part of the a national network administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. Sea Grant conducts research and outreach programs focused on conservation, use and understanding of Michigan’s coastal resources.

A more specific program is MSU’s Center for Water Sciences—an interdisciplinary program of scientific teams investigating environmental problems facing water ecosystems and related human health concerns.The center is led by Stevenson along with Joan Rose, the Homer Nowlin Endowed Chair for Water Research and an international expert on health-related water microbiology.

Rose’s research collaborations at MSU are a major asset in organizing multidisciplinary programs.Rose, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, also serves as director of the Center for Advancing Microbial Risk Assessment and leads the Water Quality, Environmental and Molecular Microbiology Laboratory. Her research involves new molecular methods to track pathogens in water as well as how treatment can produce safe drinking water and how wastewater can be safely reclaimed and reused.

Among the more specialized programs on campus is the Center for Microbial Ecology. Originally started in 1989 as one of the National Science Foundation’s first Science and Technology Centers, the MSU Center for Microbial Ecology continues to have global impact on understanding factors that influence the competitiveness, diversity and function of microorganisms in their natural and managed habitats. The center is led by James Tiedje, University Distinguished Professor and member of the National Academy of Science. The center is considered one of The leading microbial ecology programs in the world as hundreds of students and post-doctoral researchers have passed through the labs of the center. The list of alumni is a global “Who’s Who” of microbial ecologists, says Professor Walt Esselman, chair of the Dept.Of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics.

“Gathering data to examine the behavior, evolution and functions of the microorganisms in water is a fundamental first step to solving problems in water quality, treatment and infectious disease,” says Esselman. “Microbial ecologists are on the front lines and one key is to maintain a network of researchers connecting the various disciplines involved so they are all doing research at the highest level and communicating with researchers outside their core area.”

Bioremediation and Purification

Improving water quality means not just changing human activities that affect the water supply, but treating and purifying contaminated water. One solution is to use microorganisms to remove pollutants in the soil, a process referred to as bioremediation, an idea that is new only in its pplication.Microorganisms are at the core of the processes used to purify waste at most treatment facilities.

MSU scientists are looking for ways to remediate natural systems. Some materials, like toxic heavy metals from industrial applications, are in various contaminated sites and migrate into rivers and aquifers. Gemma Reguera, assistant professor of microbiology, studies a group of bacteria called Geobacter and has found that the hair-like protein appendages on the outside of the bacteria have electrical conductivity.These nanowires can perform nature’s version of useful “electroplating” with uranium that has polluted bodies of water. Reguera’s research has shown how the bacteria’s nanowires are able to convert contaminants like radioactive Uranium-6 to Uranium- 4, a form of the element which is insoluble and stable,Limiting migration and contamination of adjacent water systems.

Volodymyr Tarabara, associate professor of engineering, is involved in membrane separation processes and advanced materials for water treatment and reuse applications.

Tarabara recently received the Paul L. Busch Award from the Water Environmental Research Foundation and is developing multifunctional membranes for a range of water purification processes including the reduction or removal of halogens, nitrogen containing compounds and salt.“The main idea is to use functional nanoparticles and embed them into membrane materials in the form of hierarchical architectures,” says Tarabara. “We believe we can control membrane structure and additional functions through manipulations at different levels in the hierarchy.”

Infectious Organisms

In addition to containment and cleanup techniques, understanding how infectious organisms and their hosts spread in water is another aspect of water research at MSU.

“While we see new infectious diseases occurring, we also continue to see malaria as a growing problem as we’ve tried different approaches and it keeps coming back,” adds Esselman. “Before we can find an ultimate solution for malaria, we must fully understand the malaria parasite and the mosquitoes that spread the disease.”

MSU scientists like Edward “Ned” Walker, professor of microbiology, and Zhiyong Xi, assistant professor of entomology, are in biological warfare against diseases like West Nile virus, malaria and Eastern Equine Encephalitis, and are studying the water that breeds the mosquitos that spread these diseases.

As part of a $9.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to combat malaria in the African nation of Malawi, Walker and Xi are looking at a number of specific issues, including their watery larval habitats.The ecological knowledge gained from the malaria research in Malawi can also be transferred to West Nile virus research in Michigan, says Esselman. And like so many of the complexities surrounding water, studying mosquito habitats means dealing with water quality and standing water. This connects directly with water management, and again, is an intersection where science connects with the application of policy.

“Applying basic ecology and fundamental science is being done at all levels of research related to water,” says Stevenson. “The tough part is deciding upon the trade-offs that exist, as there are benefits, costs and risks to every decision.One key is to transfer the science and understanding to policy so decisions can be made variably to account for water use, location and any number of trade-offs.”

The formula for developing solutions is simple: a multidisciplinary network of researchers working to solve major problems.It is a land-grant formula inherent in MSU researchers and the reason Michigan State is a global leader in research and education.It is a formula so intrinsic to all Spartans that it seems almost as simple as a molecule with two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

Michael Steger, MA ’09, is director of integrated marketing and advancement relations for MSU’s College of Natural Science.Mike and his wife Sheila, ’93, are members of the MSU Presidents Club.