Water Stress: Can We Avert a Looming Crisis?

Episode Summary

More than two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is water, and yet water that is safe enough for human consumption remains a finite resource. In this episode we speak to experts about the biggest threats to water—contamination, overuse, and plastic. We also learn how innovative new tools can ensure there is enough water to hydrate us, our plants, and our animals. Guests: Ameen Razavi, Microvi Biotech Dr. Joel Cuello, The University of Arizona Scott Tuten, Danimer Scientific

Episode Notes

More than two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is water, and yet water that is safe enough for human consumption remains a finite resource. In this episode we speak to experts about the biggest threats to water—contamination, overuse, and plastic. We also learn how innovative new tools can ensure there is enough water to hydrate us, our plants, and our animals.  


Episode Transcription

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath (00:08):

Today is March 22nd. World Water Day, celebrated every year since 1993. This United Nation's day of observance is dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of access to safe and clean water. It may surprise you as you think about how simple it is to fill a glass at your kitchen sink, that 2 billion people worldwide lack access to safe water. That's 25% of the planet. With Earth's seemingly abundant supply of water, this is a shocking statistic.

Speaker 2 (00:47):

So this isn't really a question of how much water there is, but of how much of it is accessible to us. 97% of Earth's liquid is salt water, too loaded with minerals for humans to drink or use in agriculture. Of the remaining 3% of potentially usable fresh water, more than two thirds is frozen in ice caps and glaciers. That leaves less than 1% available for sustaining all life on earth.

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath (01:15):

Unfortunately, human activities have further limited the supply. In this episode, we will speak to experts about the biggest threats to water. Contamination, overuse, and plastic. We will also learn how innovative new tools are addressing these threats and improving global access to clean water. I'm Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, and you're listening to I Am Bio.

              Consider how much water you use every day. You drink it. You use it to cook and clean your home. You use it to wash your body and your clothes. You need it to brush your teeth and flush the toilet. You swim in it and you water your plants. The list is endless.

Ameen Razavi (02:20):

The importance of water really comes down to the fact that water is a resource that drives our economy. It's the lifeblood of our communities, and it's the basis of our health. In that sense, water may be even considered more than a resource. It's kind of the essence of how we build communities and how we structure our society.

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath (02:41):

This is our first guest, Ameen Razavi.

Ameen Razavi (02:44):

My name Ms. Ameen Razavi. I'm the chief innovation officer at Microvi Biotech, which is an industrial biotechnology company based in the San Francisco Bay area.

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath (02:54):

Ameen's company looks at the problem of clean water, both from a technological perspective and an access perspective.

Ameen Razavi (03:01):

As a water technology development company, we feel it's extremely important to also have a social impact vision, because we need to address both the opportunities that exist in improving technology, but also how that technology is distributed in a way that will drive and economic growth in an equitable way. As a technology developer, it's problematic for us to develop technologies that will only work or will only be afforded by the people who already have sufficient access to clean water.

              The challenge with water is that managing the little water that we have in the regions that we need it the most is becoming more and more complicated.

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath (03:56):

Ameen described for us all of the factors that contribute to water pollution.

Ameen Razavi (04:01):

When we think about bacteria in water, and we also think about water contaminants, the story over the past several decades has been essentially like an onion that's unfolding where maybe 50 years ago, we had a list of 10 or so contaminants of concern. And now we're really into the hundreds. When those products get into the water supply, that has some significant negative health impacts. And this, it seems like every five years, we are continuing to understand that water quality is significantly more sensitive than we thought it used to be.

              So some of the diseases that people experience nowadays through water, one of them is besides just the normal digestive diseases. And we're understanding that water quality is increasingly linked to our development of specific cancers. And this is a link that is becoming more and more evident the more research that we do in studying how water quality impacts different communities. For example, one of the most recent contaminants of concern is a class of compounds called [inaudible 00:05:14] fluorinated compounds. And these are what some people call forever chemicals because the nature of the chemical is that it doesn't degrade very easily in water and it can accumulate. And at very low concentrations, it's been implicated in increasing the risk of specific cancers.

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath (05:32):

Ameen compares conventional water sanitation methods to his company's process.

Ameen Razavi (05:37):

The inspiration behind essentially the development of platform technology in the company is looking at how microorganisms function in nature. And over the past 100 years, the way that we've utilized microorganisms to clean water or waste water is essentially take them out of their environment and put them in large concrete basins or steel reactors. And they behave very differently than they do as they did when they were in the natural environment. And so Microvi began with the idea of how do we help bridge that gap? Can we create microenvironments where the microorganisms experience something more similar to the way that they have evolved over billions of years? And this is the micro niche engineering platform where we combine material science and microbiology in really a way the world has never seen before. Because microorganisms have evolved to respond to certain micro environmental stimuli, Microvi is the first company to focus exclusively on that interface.

              And how do we engineer that interface to enhance the way that microorganisms perform in our industrial processes? So, again, instead of using free floating microorganisms, which grow and die, we use polymer microorganism composites, which we call biocatalysts. And when we utilize that, we see that it not only provides a number of interesting phenomenon in the way that the microorganisms behave, but it also allows us to utilize more microorganisms in a smaller space. So it intensifies the process. It allows the process to function more simply, and it reduces the amount of secondary waste that's produced. And all of this translates into cost savings that allows our technology to be accessed by a wider range of the population. Well, this is really the magic of biology because when we use chemical or physical treatment technologies for nitrate treatment, our only option really is to concentrate that waste stream.

              The conventional technologies, for example, ion exchange over reverse osmosis. They produce a significant secondary waste stream, and they also lose a lot of water in the process, but biology over a billion years has evolved to degrade nitrate into nitrogen gas. And 80% of our atmosphere is already nitrogen gas. So the microorganisms used in Microvi's technology will receive the nitrate. They will degrade that nitrate into nitrogen gas, that's safely vented into the atmosphere. And so that secondary waste stream that would otherwise be produced by physical chemical technologies is completely avoided. Our conventional solutions, for example, for nitrate treatment, they will concentrate the nitrate into a secondary waste streams. And that secondary waste stream is hazardous and needs to be... Usually it's trucked out, or it needs to be disposed of. Communities that are far from large cities lack the ability to dispose of that waste. And so by not producing a secondary waste stream, it's both better for the environment. It reduces the impact, the environmental impact of having to trucks out secondary waste, but it also enables these communities to more easily accept and adopt these types of treatment systems,

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath (09:03):

Microvi's biology based solution for water filtration and purification is an affordable alternative that is helping to increase access to clean water in rural and underserved communities. But it's also serving another critical concern, climate change.

Ameen Razavi (09:21):

We anticipate that climate change is going to significantly impact the distribution of water. And that's why our work at Microvi is directly aimed at mitigating the impacts of climate change for the hundreds of millions people who already have issues with access to clean water, access to sufficient sanitation, and maybe even suffer from the impacts of environmental degradation today. All of those impacts are going to continue to be exacerbated over the course of the next century. And this is really what's at stake. When we think about climate change, we can think about it in terms of how the sea level may change, how weather patterns may change, but the medium through which climate change is going to most directly impact the lives of people around the world is through their water and their water quality, their water availability.

              And that's I think one of the contributions that biotechnology can provide, because when we think about biotechnology as a biology based solution, metabolic processes are fundamentally based in water. Wastewater treatment, which goes back thousands of years, it may be one of the oldest biotechnology industries. And so we really have to take a close look at understanding how biotechnology can help prepare our communities for the challenges of the next century.

Dr. Joel Cuello (10:55):

It's extremely important to conserve water because we need water. All living things and all living organisms, including humans need water to survive. And also because you might consider that the amount of water that we have on our planet in our biosphere is quite finite.

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath (11:12):

This is Joel Cuello.

Dr. Joel Cuello (11:13):

I'm Joel Cuello. I'm professor of biosystems engineering at the University of Arizona. I'm also the director of graduate studies for the applied biosciences program, which is an interdisciplinary graduate program at the University of Arizona and focusing on the area of the bio economy and new food systems. And I'm also vice share of the International Association For Vertical Farming.

              Only about 1.3% of the 3% fresh water on the planet really is accessible to us as surface water, meaning to say lake and rivers and swamps. So we have a very minuscule amount of fresh water that really is directly accessible to us for our use. And for instance, agriculture, which we all need to survive is responsible now for about 70% of all fresh water withdrawals worldwide. So is to give you an idea of the amount of water that is very limited for our use and yet a significant amount of that is used for our food production and the food supply chain.

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath (12:27):

We need food, but growing food is resource intensive. Specifically, water intensive. We need to find better ways to produce the food we need both today and in the future. Joel's research in vertical farming has shown that it can increase food output while decreasing water inputs.

Speaker 5 (12:49):

This is what vertical farming looks like. Arugula, kale, water crest, all growing indoors on shelves stacked seven levels high.

Dr. Joel Cuello (13:00):

So vertical farming is growing plants indoors, but it's not a greenhouse because in a greenhouse you've got transparent walls and roofs. In a vertical farm, typically the conventional vertical farm is a warehouse where sunlight cannot penetrate through the walls and the roof. And inside you have these shelves that are stacked one on top of another, hence the term vertical.

              And in the shelves, you are growing plants. And because you're growing plants vertically upwards, you really are able to multiply the productivity of the operation. So in other words, you're able to produce significantly more crops per square meter of land, as opposed to open field cultivation, because you go upwards. Then at the same time, it has no soil. It does not use soil oil. You're delivering the nutrients to the crops in these vertical shelves using liquid nutrient solution. There are two typical ways of delivering the nutrients.

              One is called hydroponic system where the liquid water with the dissolved nutrients flows through the channels where the plants are planted. The other ways aeroponics where the liquid nutrient solution is sprayed to the roots of the plants within the channel where the plants are planted. But hydroponics is the one that is most commonly used in the industry.

              With hydroponics, because you keep on recirculating the water you save on average about 80 to 90% of water compared with open field cultivation. With aeroponics, it's a more efficient system. So you save from 90 to 95% of water compared with open field cultivation. With a vertical farm, pretty much the whole environment is regulated and controlled. And so that lends the system to optimize operation. You have premium crops being produced 24/7, 365 days a year independent of where you are on earth, independent of the climate, the season, as well as the weather.

              Farmers around the world today are suffering because of the irregularity and the disruptions that are caused by our changing climate. That's just a fact. And so a lot of them are losing their produce because sometimes they get too much rainfall or they get too much heat or they don't get any rainfall at all. And so there's extended drought. And so it's very, very challenging for farmers around the world today because they've lost the regularity of the seasons that they were accustomed to.

              And again, that heightens the advantage of vertical farming because in vertical farming, you don't have to deal with the institutes of the changing climate or weather because the weather inside the warehouse pretty much is regulated and controlled and kept constant if you will.

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath (16:24):

When we come back from a quick break, we'll get into Joel's other area of expertise.

              For the first time in three years, the BIO International Convention will be back fully in person from June 13th through the 16th in San Diego, California. This year's theme is “Limitless”. Join us to explore limitless possibilities and seize today's unprecedented momentum to realize a biotech driven future where we can cure disease and create a healthier world through science, stay tuned for more announcements.

              Before the break, we were learning about professor Joel Cuello's work with vertical farming. Joel's other area of expertise is in bio reactors, and it's also helping to conserve water. In short, a bioreactor is a machine or tool that helps facilitate a biological reaction.

Dr. Joel Cuello (17:47):

I'd like to add that on the other area of research that I have, which is on my reactor design, it's actually designed as well to save significantly on resource inputs, particularly including water. Because for instance, one of the products that we have, or one of the cells that we're growing in bio reactors, as I mentioned, is algae cells and algae cells are used for the products that they produce, which are high values, such as omega-3 fatty acids. But today there's a lot of people interested now in certain algae cells as well for use as ingredients for plant-based meat. So there is this company, for instance, in Singapore, its name is Sophie's Bionutrients. They're using algae cells grown in bio reactors, and they're producing algae flour from that. And then the algae flour is extruded into specific meat products, including burger patties. So that's plant-based protein or plant-based meat, which saves significantly on water. And so by growing these cells in bio reactors, you save tremendous, tremendous amounts of water and other resources, including nutrients on land as well.

Speaker 6 (19:24):

Each year, roughly 11 million metric tons of plastic flow into the ocean. On our current course, that number could nearly triple to 29 million metric tons by 2040. Current government and industry commitments may only reduce annual plastic flow to the ocean by 7%.

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath (19:45):

Look around you. See how much plastic we use every day. We buy takeout and we eat it with plastic utensils. Our favorite gadgets are made of plastic. Our clothes contain nylon, polyesters, spandex, and even vegan leather, all plastic. Nearly everything we buy at the grocery store is wrapped in plastic. And we rarely realize it.. The types of plastics we most commonly use will take between 400 and 500 years to biodegrade. Even plastic marked as compostable will still require specific conditions to break down. Nearly every single piece of plastic that has ever been made still exist somewhere on the planet.

Scott Tuten (20:36):

Even in Southwest Georgia, as you guys can understand pretty rural area, but even that with that, we have some river streams and beautiful lakes, and you really cannot go a few yards without finding a bottle, a bag, a cap, just tremendous amount of trash.

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath (21:00):

Scott Tuten is the chief marketing and sustainability officer at Danimer Scientific.

Scott Tuten (21:05):

Someone asked an early on with [inaudible 00:21:08] if I wanted to come join the company. So when I looked up what the company was doing and what they were about, a light switch went off going, okay, this is what I'm supposed to do. Being outdoors and doing the things that I grew up enjoying from fishing and hunting and hiking, I knew this was my place.

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath (21:29):

Danimer is a biotech company that develops substitute plastic that quickly degrades completely in the natural environment, whether on land or in water. Their signature plastic product is called Nodax.

Scott Tuten (21:42):

Well, the feed stock that we use is canola oil. So we actually ferment bacteria. So what actually makes the PHA, is the microorganism, the bacteria, but they have to eat something. So we feed them grape seed oil or canola oil. And so that is the feed stock. Now we do not have to use canola oil, any vegetable type oil works fine, but we chose canola oil because it's abundant. It's a fair price material. It's not all used for food uses. A lot of canola oil use for industrial uses. So it's a better fit for what we're doing with our bacteria to make PHA..

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath (22:20):

And since Nodax is not made of harmful fossil fuels, it doesn't dissolve into microplastics that fish and birds swallow, and we end up drinking.

Scott Tuten (22:30):

So PHA in general, it is consumed by microbe and that's how it degrades. So there are microbes all over the world, including in marine waters. So if you have an article that accidentally gets flushed out of the river systems into the oceans, that's how most of the plastics gets into our oceans, to our river systems. Then the microbes in the ocean will eventually consume the PHA package of a food source. So that's really what it is when we ferment this bacteria, we extract the PHA from the bacteria, because it is their food source. So when you make an article with it and it goes into a ditch or your backyard or accidentally gets into the ocean, it goes away in a pretty quick time period. So it's not there in five and 10 and 20 years for that bird to eat or a turtle. So that's what the key is. So it's just not there anymore.

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath (23:25):

[inaudible 00:23:25] has entered into partnerships with Mars, PepsiCo, Nestle, and Walmart to provide new plastic packaging that is fit for consumer needs, but also much better for our planet.

Scott Tuten (23:37):

It's not rocket science. I think in general, people realize we have to do better. We cannot continue going down the path than what this earth and this world can withstand. Do we have 50 years or a thousand years, there's some point where we can't turn it back. When is that? Nobody knows. That's the question. Things are changing rapidly in the last year or two that yes, we can do better. Even the big guys, the Pepsi and the Nestle, they see it. And they're doing wonderful things that they are our solutions to this problem. And they're taking this step to do it. And the consumers are too, they're demanding it. And when you demand it, things change.

Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath (24:14):

That's right. When we demand it, things change. The biotech industry is lending a critical hand to ensure that all of us are responsible stewards of the little bit of water we have available to share. And with climate change predicted to stress our supply even further, we have no time to lose.

              Thank you to all of today's guests. Make sure to subscribe, rate, and or review this podcast. And follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin at iambiotech. And subscribe to Good Day Bio at bio.org/goodday. This episode was developed by executive producer, Teresa Brady. And producers, Connor McCoy, Cornelia Poku, and Marilyn Sawyer. Sound design and mixing by Jay Goodman. Theme music created by Luke Smith and Sam Brady.