Sewage Samples Could Be Used to Prevent the Next Viral Outbreak

Gregg Sloan via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Gregg Sloan via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0 / Gregg Sloan via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Indoor plumbing is a beautiful thing. With a single flush, it transports all your nasty business to a far-off place where you never have to think about it again. But according to a group of researchers at MIT, we shouldn’t be writing off our waste so quickly. 

Sewage contains information about a population’s microbiomes that could be potentially life-saving. One stool sample can provide a look at a person’s genetic tendencies, potential illnesses, and overall health. Descending into the sewers to gather this data is not a pretty job, but thankfully the scientists at MIT’S Senseable City Lab are willing to take the plunge. 

The Underworlds project began at the start of this year with researchers donning biohazard suits and climbing through manholes to collect samples by hand. They’ve since developed a network of robots to do the dirty work for them. The automated samplers are stationed throughout the city in residential neighborhoods, industrial areas, and the Harvard and MIT campuses. Almost as soon as the information is gathered, it's transmitted back to MIT, where the Underworlds labs get to work analyzing it for biochemical information. 

To give you an idea of how this data could be useful: Just one sample they studied contained more than 58,000 viruses. By gathering this type of information on a large scale, cities would be better equipped to predict outbreaks of disease and detect new viral strains. Data on everything from deadly pandemics to the common flu could be used to inform policies makers, health practitioners, and researchers in the future. 

The information could also be used to map city demographics. If they find that a certain neighborhood has higher amounts of antibiotics in their sewage, for instance, they might assume it's home to a larger population of children and elderly people. While this could be used as a new way to survey a population, being able to trace the samples back to specific individuals is much less likely. 

It’s still too early to say what the full impact of Underworlds will be. The team is now expanding their operation to Kuwait, where the platform can be used to detect potential enterovirus outbreaks. For a stunning visualization of the Cambridge sewage–sourced data they've compiled so far, head over to Underworlds' webpage.

[h/t: City Lab]