Xiaozhen Mou | Division of Research & Sponsored Programs | Kent State University

Kent State Biologist Collaborates with Toledo Researcher to Pursue Better Water Treatment Methods

The toxic algae bloom crisis in Toledo in 2014 put the issue of water treatment front and center, and problems like those in Flint, Michigan, and Sebring, Ohio only add more weight to the discussion.

Kent State’s Research Advisory Council last year identified five areas of research excellence, and among them was a focus on Environmental Science and Design, which is founded upon on Kent State’s existing strengths in areas like urban hydrology and ecology, and water chemistry & toxicology.

One faculty member who has been pursuing impactful research in this field is Biological Sciences Associate Professor Xiaozhen (Jen) Mou. She is co-principal investigator on a new three-year $329,688 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund a project, “Engineering Biofilm Dynamics for Cyanotoxins in Biological Water Treatment.” She will collaborate with Dr. Youngwoo Seo, Associate Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Toledo.

A microbial ecologist by discipline, Mou studies varying types of aquatic environments, namely oceans and the Great Lakes. This grant will expand her research to include water treatment plants.

“This project targets how we can use bacteria to improve efficiency in water treatment plants,” Mou said. “We can isolate the bacteria that are capable of degrading cyanotoxins.”

Mou said cyanobacteria are naturally occurring, but in places like the Maumee Bay of Lake Erie — the site of Toledo’s toxic 2014 algae bloom — the concentrations are too high leading to dangerous levels of cyanotoxins.

“Current water treatment processes are very expensive,” she said. “So if we can introduce helpful bacteria into the process which will eliminate cyanotoxins, water treatment could be more efficient and less expensive.”

Mou said her team has already isolated more than 40 different types of bacteria that are able to degrade cyanotoxins. The project involves creating a small-scale water treatment plant model, and comparing the degradation rates of the different bacteria strains and their response to water plant conditions.

So far, the research in this area has only allowed for laboratory simulations, so the team doesn’t yet know how each bacteria type will behave in the water plant conditions.

The most important aspect, Mou said, is whether or not the conditions will allow cyano-degrading bacteria to form a biofilm — a layer of microorganisms that colonizes on the filtration surface and doesn’t wash off, creating a kind of sieve that degrades toxins as water passes through.

Mou’s team is responsible for isolating and characterizing the bacteria’s degradation strains and testing toxic degradation under different conditions, including temperature, acidity, and inorganic nutrient content level.

They will then send the bacteria to Seo at Toledo, where his bio-engineering team will study the internal structure of the biofilm.

Mou said some of her bacteria isolation work is also partially funded through an existing grant from the Ohio Higher Education Fund.

For more information on Kent State Research, contact Dan Pompili, at 330-672-0731 or djpompili@kent.edu