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Virginia Tech researchers explore natural way to displace harmful germs from household plumbing

biofilm then provides services to its resident microorganisms, such as adapting to the environment and resisting disruption and disinfection.

Biofilms of opportunistic pathogens have been found in cold and hot water and on shower heads, water taps, eye-wash stations, and water filters.

"For example, M. avium were 100 times more prevalent in biofilms in shower-heads than in bulk water, illustrating their preference for biofilms," said article co-author Joseph O. Falkinham III, a professor of biological sciences in the College of Science at Virginia Tech and one of the first to link M. avium found in a shower to pulmonary disease.

The research team looked at methods to control opportunistic pathogens with disinfectants, such as chlorine or chloramine, and found barriers. Some pathogens shrug off the disinfectants, which have the unwelcome potential to damage plumbing and cause scaling and corrosion in pipes, which can release metals into the water and actually provide a nutrient source for some pathogens.

"The expertise and maintenance required are serious barriers," said co-author Marc Edwards, a professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Pruden said plumbing is inherently laden with a rich microbiome that is impossible to eradicate, and attempts to disinfect the environment could have ill effects on harmless, potentially helpful, microbes.

"We believe this microbiome can be harnessed to control opportunistic pathogens," Pruden said.

For example, benign microbes could out-compete the pathogens for nutrients, space, and other needs, such as the aid of amoeba as hosts. Limiting the number of amoeba with an amoebal virus or bacterial virus is also a strategy, said Falkinham.

In addition, some microbes secrete substances that prevent pathogens from attaching to a surface, which prevents harmful biofilm formation. An alternative approach is chemical synthesis and screens of molecule-mimicking

Contact: John Pastor
Virginia Tech

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