A fourth-year PhD research student in computational and systems biology at MIT, Mariana G. Matus, is collecting sewage samples with the goal of understanding community behavior and health.
“It’s not something that people really like to talk about,” Matus said in a news release. “But human waste can actually tell us a lot about health.” According to Matus, sewage can be a gold mine of data, as a small sewage sample most likely comprises several biomarkers with information on chronic and infectious medical conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and influenza.
The topic was the result of her research interests in water treatment and scarcity. Matus grew up in San Luis Potosí in Mexico, a city affected by water scarcities where residents only have access to water two or three days per week. After college, Matus went to the Netherlands to study water treatment at Wageningen University, and then joined the MIT lab of Eric Alm.
Matus’ research project at MIT has two different aims: to collect samples of sewage from manholes in Boston and Cambridge, and collect samples of stool from individuals. The first aim concerns community health, whereas the second is focused on individuals’ health. All of the sewage samples collected refer to systems that serve at least 4,000 people, allowing Matus to have a picture of where and when infectious conditions develop and how they spread. The research project, named “Underworlds,” has been piloted in Cambridge and will now be expanded across 10 locations in Boston.
Currently, engineers collaborating with Matus are developing automated collectors to be placed at each of the 10 manholes. The system will eliminate the need for a person to sample sewage, and will also synchronize the collection process in all 10 locations, making it easier to compare samples. When selecting the most adequate sewage collection locations, Matus decided to captured different health settings – residential, commercial, and academic communities, and also across different socioeconomic boundaries. The project will be financially supported for the next three years through a $4 million grant from the Kuwait Center for the Advancement of Sciences.
Matus hopes to address health predictions at the individual level to better understand IBD, a gastrointestinal disorder that disrupts the everyday life of approximately 1 million Americans, the causes of which are poorly elucidated. With the analyses of stool samples and information on people’s eating habits, researchers seek to understand the disease and to be able to predict IBD associated flares. Matus mentioned that trying to convince people to donate samples of stool is one of the difficulties in her research.
With her work, Matus has become more aware of the key role of tone when working with the community, as the majority of the individuals want answers for IBD but are also sensitive to blame. With this in mind, she avoids phrasing such as, “You ate mushrooms two days ago, and that’s why a flare might occur.”; instead, she goes for sentences less accusatory, like “We found traces of mushroom in your sample, which your body is having a hard time metabolizing.”
Matus has also been actively working with the Cambridge Public Health Department and the Boston Public Health Commission.”I want to design systems to tackle problems that have real people on the other end of them,” concluded Matus.