Probiotic pipe cleaner

Probiotics have been central to improving human health over many decades. But can they be used to make pipes cleaner?

Probiotics have been central to improving human health over many decades. But can they be used to make pipes cleaner?

“According to the World Health Organisation, waterborne bacterial infections account for about 80 per cent of all illnesses in developing countries. The bacteria tend to thrive in moist environments such as water systems. We tend to find them as biofilms that are hard to remove from pipes, leading to bacterial infection.”

Cici Zhou, a former Queensland Academy for Health Sciences student and now an undergraduate at Peking University in Beijing, was a finalist in the 2022 Australian Stockholm Junior Water Prize. Zhou’s paper was titled “Probiotic Water Treatment: The Effect of Probiotic Lactobacillus Strains on The Inhibition and Degradation of E. Coli Biofilms as a Novel Method for Waterborne Pathogenesis Control.”

When asked about her interest in using probiotics in her research, Zhou pointed out that society needs an alternative to antibiotics.

“Looking at probiotics came from considering what other than antibiotics I can use to fight these pathogenic bacteria,” she said. “Antibiotic resistance is a huge problem right now. I wanted to look at other approaches to the problem, and probiotics have become more popular recently.”

What is her research about?

Zhou’s project addressed the topic of bacterial biofilms in waterways, as they cause water contamination. Biofilms contribute to the pathogenesis and development of chronic illnesses. Her investigation aimed to explore whether probiotics are a viable solution in inhibiting and degrading biofilms on surfaces in waterways. She also investigated whether a single or multi-species strain would be more effective.

“I got into this area when I first learned about helicobacter pylori. It’s a ubiquitous bacteria, and one of my family members got sick from a helicobacter pylori infection. I started researching and discovered that about half the world’s population had been infected by it at some point,” she said.

In her reading and research, Zhou found that many scientists and researchers examining this field are still determining how bacteria spread between people.

“There are a lot of data points that link the bacteria to water contamination. I started investigating how bacteria cause water contamination in almost any country. This is where I learned about biofilms and the issues surrounding them,” said Zhou.

What are biofilms, and how do probiotics have an impact?

Biofilms are a collective of one or more types of microorganisms that can grow on many different surfaces. Biofilm formation begins when free-floating microorganisms and bacteria encounter an appropriate surface and begin to put down roots. The question now is; how do biofilms colonise water systems?

“One of the main things I want to do is work out how probiotics could target specific bacteria,” said Zhou. “To do that, I need to learn more about the different types of bacteria that colonise water systems. I then have to select probiotics that will target those bacteria effectively.”

Finding the right probiotic is key. Zhou explained that some probiotics could promote biofilms within waterways. It’s why she wants to analyse the samples first. It would be vital to understanding how the biofilms react to probiotics.

“One of the most important parts of my research will be to ensure that biofilms do not simply recolonise the inside of the pipes,” Zhou said. “They’ve already gone through the cycle of becoming a biofilm after being in their planktonic phase. That’s where the cells are freely floating in the moist environment. If we do not eradicate them properly and leave the bacteria alive, they can go and create another biofilm elsewhere in the system.”

This is why simply cutting the biofilms away would be counterproductive – many cells would still be alive. That allows them to create another biofilm in another location.

“That’s why I was mainly focusing on the antimicrobial properties of probiotics,” she said. “I’m hoping that probiotics kill the cells as well as the free-floating cells to prevent the creation of another biofilm.”

The future of her research

Zhou wants to focus on biotechnology as a future career path, particularly one incorporating artificial intelligence (AI). Its increasing use in society has inspired her to look at how she can integrate technology into biology and healthcare. She also knows that her research needs more work.

“I know that my research needs a lot more refining,” said Zhou. “There is also more work that needs to be done to develop my research for real-world applications. However, I am delighted with my foundational work.”

Her research with a solid theoretical foundation has pleased Zhou no end. She is also looking at highly technical opportunities to remove biofilms.

“I am really interested in finding a way to transport the probiotic directly to the biofilm within the water system. Otherwise, getting the probiotic to the bacterial colonies we are trying to target is challenging. If we cannot get the probiotic in the right place, it could flow anywhere within the network of pipes,” she said.

As part of her technological thinking, Zhou pointed out that water networks can be long and complex. This adds an additional level of concern for getting the probiotics to the correct location.

“I’d like to develop a modelling system that would help identify where the probiotics are most likely to be,” said Zhou. “If I can start there, it would be the first step of emulating the real world. Analysing the samples will support that research, as I could match up the locations of biofilms with relevant physical and chemical properties.”

To learn more about the Australian Stockholm Junior Water Prize, visit the Australian Water Association website.

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