Newton Lab shares in NSF award to study antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our drinking water

School of Freshwater Sciences assistant professor Ryan Newton has teamed with University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee colleague Yin Wang, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Marquette University associate professor Patrick McNamara on a project that may lead to safer drinking water.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded the team a three-year, $420,000 research grant to study the impact of corrosion on antibiotic-resistant bacteria in drinking water. These “superbugs” can be a serious public health threat.

As the researchers explained in a statement, “Drinking water distribution systems are a source of antibiotic resistance genes, the genetic material that makes bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Water distribution systems are particularly concerning as they are a direct conveyor of antibiotic resistance genes to vulnerable populations including children, the elderly, hospital patients, and people with weakened immune systems.”

The team will work with water utilities to learn how water and other materials, such as metal pipes, interact to spread or inhibit antibiotic resistance in bacteria that are present in the distribution system. Metals can promote superbugs under certain situations, such as pipe corrosion, which releases particles into the water.

Newton and colleagues hope to learn which pipe materials and other elements within a distribution system may limit the spread of antibiotic resistance. Ultimately, they want to develop guidance for water utilities around the country, to help them choose materials that best prevent the spread of antibiotic resistance in drinking water, and to safeguard public health.