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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2014 / 10 

Amy Pruden receives innovation award and grant for her work in water quality

October 1, 2014

Amy Pruden
Amy Pruden

Amy Pruden, professor of civil and environmental engineering and associate dean and director of interdisciplinary graduate education in the Graduate School at Virginia Tech, is the 2014 recipient of the Paul L. Busch Award which includes a $100,000 research grant.

A well-recognized researcher in her field, Pruden is instrumental in developing a new way of thinking about controlling aquatic pathogens and expanding the use of recycled water. She has an international reputation in applied microbial ecology, environmental remediation, and environmental reservoirs of antimicrobial resistance.

Her accomplishments in these areas led to the 2014 Busch Award from the Water Environment Research Foundation's Endowment for Innovation in Applied Water Quality Research. The foundation cited her outstanding efforts that have contributed significantly to water quality research and its practical application in the environment. The grant with the award is given to support work that will bring new benefits to the water quality community and the water-using public they serve.

"The global future of water security will be focused on reuse. The issue of antibiotic resistance will not just go away. Science is needed and solutions will be forthcoming because of Dr. Pruden's work," said Joan B. Rose, Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at Michigan State University and a member of the selection committee.

"Expanding the use of recycled water such as treated wastewater is key to achieving water sustainability," Pruden said. However, public health concerns about the reuse of water must be addressed first.

"Wastewater is of special concern because it receives domestic, hospital, and other waste that can contain antibiotics, antibiotic resistant bacteria, and antibiotic resistance genes that can persist or even multiply through treatment and recycling of water," Pruden said. "Antibiotic resistance is a critical and worsening global health threat."

"We have new tools -- the next generation DNA sequencing tools, which have just come online in the last five or so years," Pruden said. "They are providing unprecedented information about microbes in all sorts of environments, including 'clean' drinking water. These tools have really surprised us by showing us the numbers and diversity of microbes. There can be thousands of different species of bacteria in a household water supply."

Pruden said the funding from the award will be used "to help the water industry achieve an innovative and practical approach to achieving water sustainability while also addressing consumers' concerns about the real and growing problem of antibiotic resistance."

Pruden was already among a team of Virginia Tech researchers investigating the challenges presented by four often deadly pathogens that have been documented in household or hospital tap water. They proposed fighting or displacing these opportunistic pathogens with harmless microbes -- a probiotic approach for cleaning up plumbing.

Their findings were the subject of a journal article focusing on four opportunistic pathogens that are emerging as a public health concern. 

Legionella is the infamous cause of deadly Legionnaires Disease and milder Pontiac Fever. Mycobacterium avium complex causes a pulmonary disease that is the most expensive waterborne disease in terms of individual hospital visits. Pseudomonas aeruginosa is the leading cause of hospital-acquired infections. Pathogenic free-living amoebae are a group of microorganisms that enhance the growth of bacterial pathogens in water by hosting the pathogen, particularly Legionella and M. avium, protecting them and providing a place for them to multiply.

This research was published in the Aug. 20, 2013 online issue of the American Chemical Society journal, Environmental Science and Technology.

Virginia Tech's Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science is sponsoring this work.

In terms of her work with resistance genes, Pruden is among the first researchers who have identified antibiotic resistance developing through environmental sources. 

For example, when an antibiotic is consumed, researchers have learned that up to 90 percent of the substance passes through the body without metabolizing.  This means that the drug can leave the body almost intact through normal bodily functions. 

So, in the case of agricultural areas, excreted antibiotics can then enter the stream and river environments through a variety of ways, including discharges from animal feeding operations, fish hatcheries, and nonpoint sources such as the flow from fields where manure or biosolids have been applied. Water filtered through wastewater treatment plants may also contain used antibiotics.

Consequently, these discharges become "potential sources of antibiotic resistance genes," said Pruden, a 2007 Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering and a 2006 National Science Foundation CAREER Award recipient.

Pruden is also a current investigator on a $300,000, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation Environmental Sustainability Program to study the residential hot water infrastructure, looking at the overlapping and sometimes at-odds issues of public health, water savings, and energy savings.

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