Archive Sewage!

PHE Guest Investigator David Thaler and RU colleague Tom Sakmar publish open access in BMC Infectious Diseases 21, Article #601 (2021) Archiving time series sewage samples as biological records of built environments.”  The idea for the article arose during our 2020 twice-weekly PHE Zooms.  It is rooted in part in Paula Olsiewski’s completed Sloan Foundation program on the Microbiology of the Built Environment, to which David contributed.  It also links to the Leonardo Da Vinci DNA Project, to which both David and Tom belong, and which searches for biological relics from times past and also explores how better to preserve recent traces of DNA and RNA.


This commentary encourages the regular archiving of nucleic-acid-stabilized serial samples of wastewaters and/or sewage. Stabilized samples would facilitate retrospective reconstitution of built environments’ biological fluids. Biological time capsules would allow retrospective searches for nucleic acids from viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. Current resources for testing need not be diverted if samples are saved in case they become important in the future. Systematic storage would facilitate investigation into the origin and prevalence of viruses and other agents. Comparison of prevalence data from individual and clinical samplings with community wastewater would allow valuable comparison, contrast and correlation among different testing modalities. Current interest is focused on SARS-CoV-2, but archived samples could become valuable in many contexts including surveys for other infectious and chemical agents whose identity is not currently known. Archived time series of wastewater will take their place alongside other biological repositories and records including those from medical facilities, museums, eDNA, living cell and tissue collections. Together these will prove invaluable records of the evolving Anthropocene.