Projects to track COVID-19 in wastewater are also training ground for scientists

From left, Yinyin Ye, Sydney Gallo, Joyce Wang, Vicky Huang, Danya Hanin and Ian Bradley.

Yinyin Ye (far left) and Ian Bradley (far right), both assistant professors in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, lead efforts to test wastewater for fragments of the virus that causes COVID-19. The project team has included environmental engineering undergraduate students, including, from Ye's left: Sydney Gallo, Joyce Wang, Vicky Huang and Danya Hanin. Bradley is also a core faculty member in the UB RENEW Institute. Photo: Douglas Levere


“Applying these learnings and skills has truly helped me deepen my understanding of what I have learned in courses and put into perspective how useful what we learn really is. ”
Sydney Gallo, senior environmental engineering student

Published September 29, 2022

Since 2020, UB researchers, including students, have been testing wastewater for RNA fragments of the virus that causes COVID-19 as part of a program to monitor outbreaks in Western New York. Participation in this work has been a learning experience for the students involved — and a chance to contribute to the region’s pandemic response.

UB environmental engineering faculty member Ian Bradley, who leads the wastewater lab alongside departmental colleague Yinyin Ye, says the project gives undergraduate and graduate scientists a chance to witness the real-world impact that engineering research has.

“I hope the lab has allowed students to see the very clear impact that environmental engineering can have on public health in addition to the environment,” says Bradley, assistant professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering and a core faculty member in the UB RENEW Institute. “The results they generate are available to the public and used to help local officials get a better picture of COVID in our community, and hopefully, will be used for other diseases in the future.”

Sydney Gallo, a senior majoring in environmental engineering, has been one of the students contributing to the research. She previously took a course with Bradley, and she joined his lab as a student researcher in the spring semester of her junior year.

“Applying these learnings and skills has truly helped me deepen my understanding of what I have learned in courses and put into perspective how useful what we learn really is,” Gallo says. “Participating in lab research has helped me grow as an engineer and gain such valuable experience for jobs I might pursue in the future, and helped me to realize I would like to pursue graduate studies.”

In the lab, she focuses on extracting RNA from the wastewater samples. Gallo is receiving polymerase chain reaction (PCR) training so that in the future, she can measure and determine how much RNA is in each sample.

To begin the process, wastewater is placed into well plates and combined with a reagent that helps isolate the RNA, and magnetic particle beads that bind to the cells so that an instrument called a KingFisher machine can easily extract the RNA.

Then, scientists dilute the RNA that was collected through the first procedure, a necessary step for PCR testing. After testing and data collection, the findings are shared with the Erie County Department of Health as a way of monitoring new cases from each geographical area where samples were collected.

Students are involved in every step of the lab work.

From left: Environmental engineering students Joyce Wang and Sydney Gallo prepare wastewater samples for analysis.

Environmental engineering students Joyce Wang (left) and Sydney Gallo prepare wastewater samples for analysis. Photo: Douglas Levere

Early warning system for outbreaks?

The wastewater project is a collaboration between Bradley’s and Ye’s labs and Erie County. The researchers also work with Syracuse University, the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, the New York State Department of Health and others to monitor Western New York and all counties across the state as part of a larger surveillance network.

“This research allows New York State to track how COVID-19 rates are changing in the area surrounding each specific sampling location,” Gallo says. “With at-home COVID-19 tests now easily available, many COVID-19 cases are unreported, as people will test themselves and stay home without reporting to a doctor or health officials.”

“Given the wide adoption of at-home testing kits, fewer patient samples will be collected from the clinical side,” says Ye, assistant professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering. “In contrast, wastewater collects viral signals that are shed from each infected individual. This will provide us an unbiased approach to understand what is happening in the community. If the clinical results are delayed, wastewater can be used as an early warning system.”

Lab members hope that similar science could be used in the future to track the spread of other diseases. Being able to detect how much of a virus is present in wastewater at any given period in time could lead to better control and preventative measures.

In addition to working with Erie County, Bradley and Ye recently partnered with Diana Aga, director of the UB RENEW Institute and Henry M. Woodburn Professor of Chemistry, to study another aspect of wastewater.

Aga’s lab has focused on detection of environmental contaminants in wastewater. One pilot project found that acetaminophen concentrations in wastewater spiked before other measures of COVID-19 during a local outbreak in 2021. Since acetaminophen is the active ingredient in some pain-reliever medications, researchers are interested in tracking this chemical to figure out if there is a link between levels of acetaminophen and COVID-19 waves.

Lahiruni Halwatura, a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemistry, is a part of Aga’s team. She was first author of the lab’s recent paper on acetaminophen, and her research focuses on developing methods that could help predict and prevent outbreaks through detection of pharmaceuticals in wastewater.

“With emerging, reemerging and newer variants of pathogens evolving each day, I think a pharmaceutical-based, wastewater epidemiology infectious disease outbreak prediction method would be highly advantageous,” she says.

The work is broken down into many smaller projects. For each, Halwatura creates a plan, collects and analyzes the necessary samples, develops and validates methods involving the instruments that will be used, and processes the data.

“Dr. Aga lets the student come up with the research plans,” Halwatura says. “That helps to improve our thinking, and she guides us on parts that need to be revised.”