A novel integrated microfluidic system for detecting and isolating PPCP-degrading microorganisms

2015-2016 E²SHI Seed Grant

Research Team

Edward Bouwer 
Professor, Department of Environmental Health and Engineering, School of Engineering
Charles Young
Principal Professional Staff Microbiologist, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory
Assistant Research Professor, Department of Environmental Health and Engineering, School of Engineering
Hannah Gray
Doctoral Student, Department of Environmental Health and Engineering

Pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and other antimicrobial agents can help treat many different health problems. However, organic contaminants from pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) are difficult to break down and can emerge in drinking water supplies. PPCPs can include medicines like steroids, hormones, painkillers, and compounds in soaps, lotions, sunscreen, and other personal care products – all seemly harmless products but extremely toxic to human health and the environment at the organic level. The PPCP contaminants are poorly removed from conventional drinking water treatment, thus requiring additional technologies. 

A group of microorganisms, commonly called specialist microbes, can help break down PPCPs via biological degradation and help reduce the PPCPs’ presence in the environment. Microfluidic devices, or systems that involve processing and analyzing extremely tiny volumes of fluid, have the potential to quickly and easily identify the specialist microbes in both natural and engineered water systems. However, no standards have been established for using microfluidic devices for investigations in aquatic and environmental systems.

Doctors Bouwer and Young hope to establish basic methodology and criteria for using the microfluidic systems in environmental microbiological work. With the set protocols and methods on hand, the team hopes to eliminate the long and arduous process of isolating the specialist microbes to determine their biological degradation potential in eliminating the PPCP contaminants. Not only will this process lend insight into reducing harmful emerging contaminants like PPCPs, but it will save time and costs and can be applied to thousands of existing and future compounds.


Learn more about the project as presented at the 2016 Emerging Contaminants Summit Student Posters. Hannah Gray earned first place for her presentation.

What are PPCPs? 

What is microfluidics?

Hannah Gray presented a poster on the seed grant project at the 2016 Emerging
Contaminants Summit. Photo credit: bnpmedia/Geosyntec Consultants

Nearly all our present ecological problems arise from deep-seated social problems.
— Murray Bookchin