Water & Wastewater Asia May/Jun 2018

WATER & WASTEWATER ASIA May / June 2018 SIWW 2018 SPECIAL / 55 I n conjunction with World Water Day and the launch of the International Decade for Action: Water for Sustainable Development 2018 - 2028, Professor Rita R. Colwell was unveiled as the recipient of the prestigious Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize 2018. Professor Colwell’s accomplishments and commitment to the pursuit of science and its application have been exceptional. Over her immensely rich and multi-faceted career which continues till today, she has benefited the lives of millions worldwide through her pioneering insights into microbial water quality surveillance and her tireless efforts in building upon these insights to transform the surveillance and control of cholera and other waterborne diseases. Challenging conventions and revolutionising scientific approaches In the 1980s, when culture-based methods were widely accepted as the gold standard for determining if disease-causing bacteria were alive, Professor Colwell’s laboratory discovered that bacteria can exist in a state in which they are alive and can cause harm even though they cannot be cultured. This phenomenon, termed as “viable but non- culturable” (VBNC), highlighted that the use of traditional culture-based methods to determine the safety of water was not adequate. This breakthrough discovery was met with skepticism from prominent scientists at that time but has now been shown to exist in more than 50 species of bacteria, including many pathogens. Building upon her discovery of the VBNC phenomenon, Professor Colwell was an early and active proponent of the use of novel molecular methods for more accurate and comprehensive diagnostics of water pathogens. She is the key inventor of an approach that uses whole genome sequencing and specialised databases to identify different strains of bacteria and determine their virulence and resistance to antibiotics. In recent years, Professor Colwell has been focusing her efforts on translating the use of this rapid diagnostic technology (the GENIUS system by CosmosID, Inc.) to a wide range of applications that encompass drinking, recreational, agricultural and recycled waters. Another breakthrough discovery by Professor Colwell was her earlier work in the 1970s on Vibrio cholerae. Professor Colwell discovered that Vibrio cholerae, which was previously thought to be incapable of surviving more than a few hours outside the human host, occurs naturally in the aquatic environment associated with plankton. This discovery highlighted the critical link between the environment and the cholera disease. It led to her subsequent application of satellite imagery and modelling to predict cholera outbreaks, and the innovative use of affordable sari cloth filters to dramatically reduce drinking water contamination. In particular, the use of sari cloth filters successfully led to the rapid reduction of the incidence of cholera in Bangladesh by 48 per cent in 65 villages of rural Bangladesh, and has also been applied in other cholera- endemic areas such as India and South America. Themodel shedevelopedhasalsobeensuccessively refined, such that outbreaks can now be predicted with a few months’ lead time. This model can be further generalised to related waterborne diseases and applied in both developing and developed countries. Beyond the study of cholera, this explanation of the critical linkage between changes in environmental conditions and disease was significant in leading to further research in the 1990s that showed that climate change could considerably affect the prevalence and spread of human diseases. In this way, Professor Colwell has applied her scientific knowledge in the most practicable and effective manner to transform the surveillance and control of cholera and other waterborne diseases and bring about maximum impact on human health for the community. Q : Can you share with us about your thoughts on the win? PC: It is a great pleasure and honour to receive the Lee Kuan YewWater Prize because it is recognition for work done some years ago that has finally now achieved recognition. Also, I am very proud to be a recipient of this prize as it is considered one of the most important in the field of water research and application. Q : How has water microbiology changed since when you started pioneering it? PC: Water microbiology has changed significantly since my early work back in the 60s. At that time, microbiology was strictly culture focused; there were no molecular techniques available. The techniques developed in the late 70s and through the 80s and 90s to the present time are really dramatic changes because we now employ genomics, that is the use of DNA sequencing and identification using bioinformatics. Q : What are some of your proudest achievements across your career and how has it shaped you as a person? PC: Proudest achievements across my career include the discovery of Vibrio cholerae as an environmental bacterium, subsequent work employing satellite sensing to develop correlation between environmental and climate parameters and outbreaks of cholera epidemics,