Plantwork Systems R&D – the Future of Microbiology

Plantwork Systems logo icon

Robert White

18th August 2023

As Microbiologist Matthew Irwin, sponsored by Plantwork Systems, wins first place in the Hans Schuppe imaging prize, we ask him about his PhD and technological advances in the water industry.

Matthew Irwin, PWS-Sponsored PhD Microbiologist at the University of Southampton with his winning image.

Microbiologist Matthew Irwin is being sponsored by Plantwork Systems (PWS), and currently undertaking an interdisciplinary PhD at the University of Southampton, focusing predominantly on Microbiology. This PhD is co-funded by PWS and the South Coast Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (SoCoBio DTP).

This Summer, Matthew’s Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) images won first place in the University Hans Schuppe imaging prize. The winning image of subjects originates from aggregate biofilms from Plantwork Systems NUTREM® and shows the abundance and morphological diversity of phage within the engineered systems.

Many congratulations to Matthew! Here we ask him a few questions about his PhD and where he sees technological advances in the water industry.

In layman’s terms (!) tell us about your PhD…

My PhD investigates the microbial and viral community within the PWS NUTREM® reactor. I’m investigating the impact of climate change induced environmental stressors (temperature/precipitation) on microbial community composition of the reactor. I’m subsequently examining the feasibility of using bacteriophage (Viruses specific to bacteria) to bio-engineer the community to mediate the presence of problematic bacterial species, providing climate security to the wastewater treatment process.

What made you decide to do this PhD and where do you think it might take you in the future?
I’ve always been interested in solving problems and, having lived a life in close proximity to the coast, my life’s always been closely intertwined with water, which I think is why I’ve been interested in research related to the hydrological cycle. I completed my undergraduate in environmental science, and I was advised to think of what problems might arise in the future. This stemmed into my interest in completing a PhD in relation to future water security. I think there’s lots of potential in the water sphere for future research, and particularly in the wastewater treatment field. I’m very interested to see how the industry evolves and what wastewater treatment systems will look like even in 10 years’ time.

At what point did you start working with PWS and how did you hear about us?
I first heard of PWS when I was completing my MRes at Southampton University. I was very inspired to hear that there was a company working on providing innovative and sustainable approaches to solving issues in the wastewater treatment sector, and was doing so with environmentally derived principles at the forefront. Then I heard that there was a potential PhD to help further understand these systems from a microbial front, and potentially enhance the treatment process through microbial processes.

What have you learnt whilst working with PWS?
My understanding of wastewater treatment systems and processes has been greatly expanded whilst working with PWS. I’ve come to understand the hidden complexity of these systems which provide the basis to ensuring our communities are always supplied with the water we need, and which we so often take advantage of without thinking twice about how it arrived to us.

What do you think are the main problems to be addressed in the water industry in the 2020s?
I believe there’s always potential for enhancing the nutrient removal efficiency of wastewater treatment systems. Though I have been very impressed by the removal stats that are able to be achieved by the NUTREM® system, there is limited research into the impact of climate change on reducing removal efficiency of wastewater treatment systems. In addition, I think there is great potential for enhancing resources that can be recovered from these systems. It is well documented that we are running out of the fertilisers that are necessary to provide future global food security. I think there is great potential in the wastewater sector to ‘close the loop’ and help pave the way for building a more circular economy that utilises finite resources more efficiently.

How do you think all this will be improved in the future and where do you see yourself taking part?
I think the use of bacteriophage provides the most promising approach for controlling problematic species that arise due to climate change induced environmental stressors. Bacteriophages provide a targeted approach that allows the specific removal of a selected targeted organism, which can’t be achieved by traditional physicochemical biocontrol approaches. Where my work comes into this is the identification, isolation, and characterisation of these target specific bacteriophage. My work then also utilises different scaled reactor systems to study these bacteriophage and model how their reintroduction impacts community dynamics. Work would then be required with bio-engineers to design a system that is able to concentrate high numbers of these bacteriophage.

Do you have a vision for the future of the water industry?
In the long term, I see there being real potential for the microbial community within wastewater treatment systems to become a defined consortium. Currently, the wider microbial community in biological nutrient removal (BNR) reactors is largely unknown. With the community being undefined and uncontrolled in this way, it is difficult to tailor the overall system for specific function as addition to wastewater treatment, due to desired organisms being out-competed by currently residing microorganisms.

Image of Robert White

PWS is delighted to support Matthew  in his continuing research, and we look forward to remaining at the forefront of technological advances in wastewater treatment.

If you would like further information about Matthew’s research and/or our unique process solutions, please get in touch.

Article by Robert White, Plantwork Systems Managing Director