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Periodic Report Summary 1 - MERMAID (Microbial Resource Management and Engineering in the Urban Water Cycle)

MERMAID is a European network formed to train promising young researchers to describe and control the microbial communities central to the treatment of residual water and the production and distribution of drinking water. The ambition is to strongly establish the emergent discipline of Microbial Resource Management & Engineering, which we define as managing and engineering open microbial communities to attain specific services for the benefit of society and the environment.

Motivation & Goals
Water is at the foundation of our lives, which tend to be more and more urbanized. As water resources are limited, water needs to be purified after use and redistributed in order to close the urban water cycle. Microbial communities have a central role to play to close the urban water cycle in a safe and sustainable way. In this context, microbes can either be valuable actors, for example by removing pollutants in an energy efficient manner, or be a nuisance, as it is the case if pathogenic bacteria establish themselves in water distribution systems.
Managing microbial resources in the urban water cycle is thus crucial, but presents major challenges as we lack some of the conceptual foundations and practical tools to understand and control the massively diverse microbial communities present in these open systems. These challenges can only be met by a trans-disciplinary research effort complemented by a training program designed to educate promising young researchers to solve current and upcoming problems in the urban water cycle using innovative technologies based on microbial communities.

MERMAID aims to:
• Prepare young researchers to solve tomorrow’s technical and environmental challenges in the water sector using Microbial Resource Management;
• Pose and answer central questions on the behavior, activity, and composition of open microbial communities, to solve specific and broader problems in science and industry;
• Support the development of novel, science-based, water engineering biotechnologies;
• Reach out to the general audience to share the science and the findings at the core of MERMAID;

Work performed and achievements
The first achievement of the Network was to assemble a team of talented young researchers. We recruited 13 PhD students and one postdoctoral researcher with diverse expertise and origins (11 nationalities represented) and were able to instill a true collaborative spirit in this group.
The network organized four training events (typically a week long) specifically tailored to equip the MERMAID fellows with scientific and technical skills (e.g., high throughput methods to describe microbial communities, modelling of biosystems) and complementary skills (conducting PhD studies, grantsmanship). These events were highly successful and also contributed to strengthening the collaboration across the project partners.

The individual projects conducted by the fellows and organized in five complementary workpackages (see Figure), have been initiated, refined, and started bearing fruits. Significant scientific milestones attained include: the design of assays to investigate invasion of foreign genes and organisms in microbial communities; the determination of the kinetics of micropollutant degradation in wastewater treatment plants, the collection and analysis of nucleic acids from diverse communities in the urban water cycle (including domestic plumbing).
The network puts high emphasis on disseminating its research results and, more largely, sharing its field of research with the public. All fellows participated in scientific conferences, in many cases, as oral presenter. ‘MERMAID’ articles have been published in the best journals in the field (one even being featured on the cover). More than half of the fellows engaged in outreach activities towards high school students, sharing the excitement of environmental biotechnology with nearly 150 students in three countries. Internet is also a key dissemination channel in Mermaid, with an official website (, a twitter account (@MermaidITN) and a blog (, all supported by the fellows.

Expected final results and impact
The first results strongly suggest that studying in detail and modeling microbial systems is a powerful avenue to improve the way our wastewater and drinking water are treated, produced, and managed. We expect that MERMAID research will help augment functionality and stability of the microbial communities in the urban water cycle.
Our goal to train early stage researcher that can further and implement Microbial Resource Management and Engineering, in a water engineering context and beyond, is well on track. We expect that our fellows will contribute very significantly to European research and the bioeconomy.


Prof. Barth F. Smets; DTU Environment
+45 45 25 22 30

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