Jeseth Delgado Vela: Optimizing Microbial Communities for Wastewater Treatment

7/28/23 Pratt School of Engineering

New faculty member Jeseth Delgado Vela works to understand the microbes that clean our wastewater and improve their performance

Jeseth Delgado Vela: Optimizing Microbial Communities for Wastewater Treatment

Jeseth Delgado Vela has joined the faculty of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, beginning August 1. With a broad interest in the microbial communities that naturally grow within water systems, Delgado Vela’s research centers on manipulating those communities to better treat wastewater and protect the environment.

While mechanical screening, chemical processing and settling occurs within modern wastewater treatment centers, the removal of contaminants is mostly accomplished through microbial metabolic processes. Although these systems have been in use for more than 100 years, there are always emerging stressors and contaminants that they must adapt to deal with.

Much like the microbiome that helps break down food within the human gut, a handful of species can be found metabolizing waste in most every processing plant. But aside from the presence of a core group of microbes, the communities are highly diverse. Considered all together, the field is rich in opportunities to make fundamental discoveries while also working incrementally toward more optimal solutions.

“You can almost think of my research as probiotics for wastewater treatment plants.”

Duke Civil and Environmental Engineering faculty member Jeseth Delgado Vela

“You can almost think of my research as probiotics for wastewater treatment plants,” Delgado Vela said. “Even with the very well-known entities living in systems around the globe, we’re still constantly making new discoveries about them and how they grow. It’s fascinating that we’ve been doing this for so long but still have so much left to learn about the basic processes, partially because we have new tools at our disposal to probe these systems.”

Delgado Vela earned her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and her master’s and doctoral degrees in environmental engineering from the University of Michigan. She then joined Howard University as an assistant professor, which is where she remained until becoming part of the faculty at Duke.

Studying wastewater treatment microbial systems typically involves taking samples from multiple sites and growing them within long-term bioreactor experiments under a wide variety of conditions. The results help inform computational models of how different species grow and react to changing environments as well as changing chemical stressors.

Delgado Vela is also beginning a deep dive into the molecules that microorganisms emit to communicate with one another. Known as quorum sensing, the process tells bacteria when their population hits certain thresholds, cueing them to make adjustments to their feeding and growth strategies.

“We’ve also discovered that these signals are present in viruses that infect the bacteria,” Delgado Vela said. “This is in the very early stages of development, but it lends to the idea that you might be able to use these signals to hack into the virus and bacteria relationships to coordinate their behaviors.”

Delgado Vela is moving to Duke, she said, in part because of the exciting research happening in this space through newly established research centers. For example, Claudia Gunsch, professor of civil and environmental engineering, recently launched the Precision Microbiome Engineering (PreMiEr) center. Funded by up to $52 million by the National Science Foundation, PreMiEr is looking to understand and engineer the microbiomes in our homes, workspaces and other built environments to improve human health.

Another potential collaborator, Andrew Jones, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, uses engineering and policy analysis to help solve global challenges related to water and health. This focus on creating solutions centered on fairness and equity, which runs throughout all of Duke Engineering, was also part of what attracted Delgado Vela to the school.

“One of things I’ve learned through my industry partnerships while at Howard is that the water workforce industry is largely aging white males,” Delgado Vela said. “This provides an opportunity to bring in a more diverse workforce, which could have a major impact. Engineers who have seen water injustices firsthand are more likely to see the ways that the industry is failing many communities and try to bring about change.”