Biosolids as U.F.O.
UFOs – You could not possibly have missed The New York Times report just before Christmas (12/16/2017) of the Pentagon’s investigation of Unidentified Flying Objects. The article Glowing Auras and 'Black Money': The Pentagon's Mysterious U.F.O. Program described how credible military pilots, backed by recorded evidence. had sighted aircraft with capabilities inexplicable with today’s human technology. I was overjoyed. The story restored my hopefulness that the Universe’s forces don’t inevitably lead to only “intelligent” species primarily exhibiting the capacity of global self-annihilation.
UFOs enabled me to imagine that billions of networked human brains combined with billions of digital computing devices via artificial intelligence software may be on some veiled pathway to a grand, global self-correction, against the horrifying spectacle of climatic extremes, species destruction and microplastic debris. This “self-correction” would be the fulfillment of the humankind/IOT (Internet of Things) as a “supraorganism.”
I described the concept of supraorganisms around the Christmas dinner table. I explained that it is a human version of the single-celled amoeba that form under environmental stress into gigantic slime mold colonies, or the fire ants that linked together, as they did after the stress of Houston floodwaters, to form floating mats. Perhaps we humans, as individuals unable to perceive the global environmental threat, are nevertheless creating global solutions, hidden from our individual consciousness. My tech savvy son replied: “Sounds like Terminators.”
I am probably among the few humans on Earth who could not fully appreciate his cultural allusion. I had to go to Wikipedia Terminator (Franchise) to learn that Terminator is a five-movie series, spanning 35 years of movie making, with a sixth movie scheduled for 2019, in which humans confront the rogue Skynet's synthetic intelligent machine network. The Terminator (the first film) was “selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "Culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” and “Terminator 2 is the only film in the series to garner attention at the Academy Awards, with six nominations and four wins and is rated highly among critics. ” Now even I, with just a little experience with Siri and Alexa, can appreciate how surprisingly “human” a machine interaction can feel. Thirty-five years seem to have brought us far closer to the world of Terminator than heretofore imagineable.
I disagree fundamentally, however, with the premise of Terminator. While extreme conflict makes for exciting movies, the 4.5-billion-year trajectory of evolution on Earth is one of collaboration, particularly the collaboration exhibited in human communities over the past 200,000 years.
Human beings are among the dominant collaborators on Earth. Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, argues in “How Are Humans Unique?”, that “Human beings have evolved to coordinate complex activities, to gossip and to playact together. It is because they are adapted for such cultural activities — and not because of their cleverness as individuals — that human beings are able to do so many exceptionally complex and impressive things.” Historian David Christian, in his Great Courses lecture series, Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity, says “And of course we should not forget “collective learning.” The collective brain of modern humanity, magnified by billions of networked computers, is the most powerful problem-solving entity we know of. If there is a solution to the problems that face us and the biosphere, 6 billion networked humans are surely likely to find it.” Wow! What optimism!
At the heart of this collaboration is our capacity to share information. Futurist Jeff Sayre explains in The Emerging Global Brain and the Internet’s Future that “I suppose it could be argued that copying, remixing, sharing, and disseminating are at the core of the fabric of the universe.” Sayre sounds warnings about the direction of our technology, politics and environment. In his essay The Ecosphere and the Economy, he doubts whether humans have created successful collaborations: ”The ‘waste’ generated by a diseased economy might actually not find a CAS (Complex Adaptive Systems) at any level that wants or needs it as an input. From this sense, an unhealthy economy acts more like a cancer than a valued collection of tissue.” In Sayre’s framing, I see our biosolids community singularly trying to fulfill its evolutionary destiny by driving our “diseased economy” toward producing and accepting biosolids as a health-inducing, fertile input to the ecosphere. But biosolids cannot be a compelling input until we see biosolids as a CAS itself, or, using my new terminology, until we see biosolids as a supraorganism.
For all our attention to attributes of dewaterability, nutrient content, pollutant concentrations, and odors, what biosolids really presents us with is a microbial supraorganism. We need to study biosolids as a self-contained microbiota, applying the new tools of microbiota characterization to understand biosolids as a supraorganism, notably in the study of anaerobic digesters. The biogenic production of methane from organic waste is as fundamental an example of supraorganism as one can find. The “syntrophic” collaboration of archaea and bacteria in the digesters makes happen the conversion of volatile fatty acids to methane. The authors of Electron transfer in syntrophic communities of anaerobic bacteria and archaea explain that “anaerobic methane formation and anaerobic methane oxidation are important microbial processes in the global carbon cycle. Both processes are mediated by syntrophic communities of bacteria and archaea. In methane formation, bacteria degrade organic compounds to form products that are substrates for the methanogenic archaea.”
And, for all the enthusiasm our biosolids profession has for energy extraction, biogas utilization, biosolids stabilization, and micropollutant degradation, we have been slow to study the robust syntropic microbiota in our biosolids digesters. In Optimisation of the anaerobic digestion of agricultural resources, Alistair Ward argues that “perhaps the greatest shortfall in biogas production is the lack of reliable sensory equipment to monitor key parameters and suitable, parallelised control systems to ensure that the process continually operates at optimal performance. Modern techniques such as software sensors and powerful, flexible controllers are capable of solving these problems.” In his presentation to the Mid Atlantic Biosolids Association summer symposium (7/19/2017), PhD Candidate from Virginia Tech, Joshua Mah, presented on The Digester Microbiome and its Usefulness for Operations. Mah displayed graphical representations of digester microbiota, with tantalizing evidence that communities could be engineered to increase biogas, change odor characteristics and handle pulses of high-strength waste. At a biosolids specialty conference, Mah posed the question: Are Thermal Hydrolysis Digesters Robust Because of their Unique Microbial Communities? His answer is that he thinks so, but the “how” and “why” are still an open questions.
Sensors and controls for optimizing synthropic microbial communities are a worthy entrepreneurial adventure. One venture is out of the gate. Microbe Detectives is a company founded in 2013 by a Ph.D. student, Trevor Ghylin, at University of Wisconsin-Madison. The firm applies advanced DNA sequencing to wastewater, drinking water, industrial water, and recreational water, providing “comprehensive microbial evaluations for water quality and disease management.” I would guess Microbe Detective could analyze biosolids. My favorite “citizens science” venture, The American Gut Project (send me an email if you want my personal experience with this!), is developing an environmental option, The Earth Microbiome Project. Again, anaerobic digesters seem to be a plausible source of samples for characterization.
Rapid advances in sensors and analyzers working at the molecular and microbial scales in other domains of science can find their way into our environmental profession, but not without intentionality on our part. We individual biosolids experts need to work more as part of a human “supraorganism.” We all need to imagine our biosolids processes optimized and controlled in real time and automatically via the kind of DNA sequencing and spectrometry that is deployed in other disciplines. We need to study the inexplicable growth-promoting capabilities of biosolids as fervently as the Pentagon studied the inexplicable maneuvering capabilities of unidentified flying objects. But, in our case, we need to study biosolids as a different sort of UFO, say Uniquely Fertile Organics.