Harnessing the Value of Plasmids in Wastewater

Plasmids present an under-utilized opportunity that could be valuable to society. Fundamentally, plasmids are small rings of intracellular DNA that encode the genes that facilitate their own transfer and function. Due to the variety and transferability of plasmid genes, they form the foundation for many molecular tools and methods that support and improve a variety of industries including agriculture, chemical production, paper, textiles, and healthcare, as well as anti-infectives, bioactive peptides, and antibiotics.

The researchers sought to address several key questions that will create a better understanding of how water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs) can develop and enter the market of plasmid mining and recovery. This study, Advances in Recovery Plasmids from Wastewater – A state of the Science (NTRY8R15a), outlines a 20-year framework of how WRRFs can identify triggers for when and how to investigate plasmid genetic recovery.wwtp

The researchers wanted to address the potential value plasmids may have when recovered. Recent studies have shown that the bacteria and plasmids in wastewater treatment systems remain largely uncharacterized and represent a potential source of novel gene products. WRRFs harbor high levels of bacteria that transmit plasmids throughout the wastewater treatment process. The value of plasmids is dependent upon their genetic information, making them valuable for either the plasmid itself or for the product that can be produced using its encoded information. Traditional valuing methods for recoverable resources do not apply to placing worth on plasmids. For instance, bulk plasmids with no useful encoded information and intellectual property protection have almost no value. Research suggests that wastewater harbors a wide variety of plasmids that contain genetic information that is of value to society. WRRFs that are able to take advantage of the genetic information in plasmids can create a market specific to the needs of other industries.

The study examined the potential value plasmids can contribute for utilities that may want to pursue this option. Of the five categories of plasmids explored in the research, plasmids with known functions and use restrictions have the most market potential. This largely stems from the fact that plasmid-based products are sold in small volumes and each plasmid has its own function and host. In addition, those from academic or non-profit institutions have limiting material transfer agreements that prevent users from obtaining revenue from use or commercialization of the technology. Plasmids that do not have use restrictions can be used by anyone once purchased, which reduces their worth as their availability grows.

To harness the potential value in plasmids, the researchers identified ways utilities could become involved with mining and recovery. Although WRRFs have varied wastewater characteristics, facilities that are similar are likely to provide unique, but functionally similar plasmids, creating large competition between facilities. Researchers suggest that WRRFs can create advantages over other facilities by creating small reactors that facilitate the growth of organisms that harbor plasmids with specific traits. This would increase potential revenue since WRRFs could select for genes that are in demand by biotechnology firms. In order to mitigate the costs, the research suggests that WRRFs partner with academia and/or industry. WRRFs would minimize the risk associated with plasmid recovery but also could develop intellectual property with a minor income stream if the product was commercialized. These types of partnerships have historically been used to develop programs where WRRFs provide samples and/or exclusive rights to sample for genetic material, academics provide the work for plasmid screening, and commercial entities focus on commercialization and licensing.

While plasmids present the opportunity to be a valuable resource to WRRFs, the researchers identified barriers to implementation. Currently there is a significant gap in research on the specific concentrations of plasmids in wastewater, as there is no direct method for bulk plasma quantification. Similarly, there is little information available about how plasmids degrade in various aerobic, anoxic, and anaerobic processes. Additionally, the cost of developing and protecting intellectual property is likely to outweigh the potential revenue from plasmid products. Expanding into the recovery of plasmids would require increased effort from the wastewater industry to understand how intellectual property works and how to defend it. It is likely that in the future WRRFs could more closely resemble bio-refineries serving multiple societal functions, but WRRFs in their current form are unlikely to engage in mergers and acquisitions with biotechnology firms.

Plasmid recovery does not represent a short-term revenue option for WRRFs. Although recovery of plasmids from WRRFs is currently limited, the wastewater industry has the potential to unlock a new set of plasmids and genes. The expansion of plasmid recovery will require an effort from the wastewater industry to understand more about intellectual property, and will also require WRRFs to form partnerships in order to receive a minimal revenue stream. As new methods emerge and become more robust, our understanding of plasmids and their persistence in WRRFs will improve.

This story was contributed by the Water Environmental & Reuse Foundation (WE&RF). WE&RF is a 501c3 charitable corporation seeking to identify, support, and disseminate research that enhances the quality and reliability of water for natural systems and communities with an integrated approach to resource recovery and reuse; while facilitating interaction among practitioners, educators, researchers, decision makers and the public.

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