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Future of wastewater treatment: Anammox bacteria

A wastewater treatment plant in Madison, Wisconsin. “Ten years from now, the typical treatment plant will probably look pretty different from today,” says researcher Daniel Noguera. Credit: Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District

People don't like to think about what happens to the waste they flush down their toilets. But for many engineers and microbiologists, these plants are a hotbed of scientific advances, prompting their trade organization to propose a name change to "water resource recovery facility."

That's because wastewater from our sinks, toilets, showers and washing machines can be turned into valuable products with the help of scientists and unique bacteria—some of which were discovered only by chance as recently as the 1990s.

These latecomers to the research scene, called anammox bacteria, are the subject of a new study led by Daniel Noguera and Katherine McMahon, professors of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Results of their research were published on May 31, 2017 in the journal Nature Communications.

The bacterium's name reflects its function: It turns ammonium into nitrogen gas under anaerobic (oxygen-free) conditions. Researchers and treatment plant operators alike are excited about these microbes because they have the potential to save a great deal of money.

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