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Environmental Chemistry, Microbiology and Ecology

Tools and concepts from biology and chemistry are used to address a wide range of issues pertaining to environmental media. Environmental chemistry deals with pathways and rates of chemical transformations of organic compounds (both synthetic and biologically derived) and elements in the periodic table. Microbial ecology and engineering microbiology address microbial populations, changes in populations and ecosystems in space and time, the effects of microorganisms in naturally-occurring and engineered systems, and behavior and consequences of pathogenic organisms. While ecology seeks to explore populations and phenomena in the present, as influenced by human activities, and to develop an understanding of ecosystem change over time.

The Department of Environmental Health and Engineering seeks to understand foundational principles of these systems and apply this knowledge to elucidate linkages between environmental chemical and microbial exposures with human health outcomes. To mitigate environmental health and engineering challenges, research in these disciplines takes the interdisciplinary approach of interfacing with environmental and public health practitioners, researchers, scientists and environmental engineers.

Research Highlight

Unexpected Transformation of Dissolved Phenols to Toxic Dicarbonyls by Hydroxyl Radicals and UV Light

By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities that are increasingly reliant on drinking water sources affected by agricultural runoff and industrial and municipal wastewater discharges (1, 2). These drinking water sources often contain trace concentrations of phenolic compounds that are widely used in dyes, surfactants, pharmaceuticals, and pesticides, including bisphenol A, triclosan, and nonylphenol-ethoxylates (3, 4). As a result of concerns about adverse health effects from chronic exposure to phenolic compounds, the Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory agencies require the removal of certain phenolic compounds during water treatment. 

Coupled Effects of Chemotaxis and Growth on Traveling Bacterial Waves

Traveling bacterial waves are capable of improving contaminant remediation in the subsurface. It is fairly well understood how bacterial chemotaxis and growth separately affect the formation and propagation of such waves. However, their interaction is not well understood. We performed a modeling study to investigate the coupled effects of chemotaxis and growth on bacterial migration, and examine their effects on contaminant remediation.

Associated Faculty