PhD: Extended biostability of potable water through sustainable, non-chemical treatment


Leeuwarden, Netherlands 🇳🇱

Motivation â€“ In nature, potable water is an open ecosystem in which the microbial community interacts with and responds to the environment. This results in a more or less biostable community susceptible to minute changes of its governing parameters, be they chemical, physical or biological. Artificial water distribution and storage systems often attack this issue by killing the ecosystem (disinfection) which significantly reduces water quality. This approach is not sustainable in general and is inapplicable for advanced applications such as manned space missions or extra-terrestrial colonies. In an alternative, more sustainable and bionic approach, the aquatic microbiome is influenced by tailor-made magnetic fields in order to boost its viability and resilience. This research represents a field of emerging interest for the water industry since its application to existing water distribution systems is feasible and would allow the maintenance of high water quality from the source up to the point of use.

Topic background – Recently an effect of weak magnetic fields containing strong gradients on solvation dynamics of CaCO3 has been published [1]. Additionally, an impact of the same treatment on the aquatic microbiome has been found [2]. More precisely, this treatment seems to selectively promote a special group of bacteria with low nucleic acid content, whereas it inhibits the growth of bacteria with high nucleic acid content, a group to which most pathogens belong, which hints at a possible stabilization of the aquatic microbiome due to the treatment [3]. Finally, these two seemingly separate fields of investigation, aquatic bacteria and scaling in natural waters, have been found to be strongly interconnected [4]. These preliminary results are very promising, but the hypotheses on the mechanisms involved clearly require further investigations.

Research challenges â€“ The goal of the project is to understand both the direct and indirect influences of magnetic fields on microorganisms and how one can use those influences to regulate and improve microbiological water quality. The combination of physical (impedance, PCS, etc.) micro- and molecular biological methods (culturing, PCR, NGS, etc.) on in-situ microbiome should lead to a deeper understanding of the interaction between electromagnetic, physico-chemical environment and the aquatic microbiome.  On the other hand, specific effects on cellular mechanisms will be explored based on standard laboratory strains. Based on this knowledge the development of an in-line water treatment device using magnetic treatment for microbial management in drinking water environment will be attempted.

Objectives and methodology â€“ Research questions to be investigated:

  1. The effect of magnetic field on microorganisms (bacteria and fungi) at community level in terms of viability, resilience, resistance, and stability using NGS, flow cytometry (phenoflow, BONCAT), microscopy (SEM, CLMS)
  2. Selective effect of magnetic field on pathogenic species: Pure culture of pathogens will be investigated with different cell culturing and molecular methods. Pure culture approach will allow examination on the metabolic effect at a more specific level.
  3. The effect of magnetic field on drinking water chemistry mediated by microbiological changes, especially on the interaction between biofilm and different metal ions like calcium, iron, or manganese. Both chemical and biological methods (in-situ impedance spectroscopy and optical coherence tomography) will be applied.
  4. Feasibility of magnetic treatment on a water distribution network: A pilot study of magnetic water treatment will also be carried out to examine the effect of magnetic fields in real applications.

Students’ requirements â€“ The ideal candidate has an MSc degree in microbiology, molecular biology, biotechnology or biophysics and a solid knowledge of culturing and standard molecular biology methods. Knowledge about statistics, physics, electrophysiology and chemistry is an advantage.

KeywordsDrinking water, biostability, magnetic water treatment

Academic supervisors: Dr. Astrid H. Paulitsch-Fuchs (Medical University Graz), Prof. Dr. Gernot Zarfel (Medical University Graz)

Wetsus Supervisors: Dr. Elmar C. Fuchs (Theme coordinator Water physics), Dr. Inez Dinkla (Theme coordinator Genomics based water quality monitoring), Xiaoxia Liu, MSc.

University Promotor: Prof. Dr. Willibald Loiskandl (BOKU, Vienna)

Partnership: The research project is part of the Wetsus research theme Applied Water Physics. The following companies are part of the theme: Brabant Water (NL), WLN (NL), Bright Spark (NL), Waterschap De Dommel (NL), Seekers Centre (CA), IPF/Grander (AT), Schauberger Natur Technologie (AT), Integro (DE), Sanqua (CH), Aqua Consultancy (DE), Q-Blue solutions (DE), Coherent Water Systems (UK)

For more information contact Dr. Elmar C. Fuchs ([email protected]).

Only applications that are complete, in English, and submitted via the application webpage before the deadline, 9 May 2022 CEST, will be considered eligible.

Guidelines for applicants:


[1] M. Sammer, C. Kamp, A.H. Paulitsch-Fuchs, A.D. Wexler, C.J.N. Buisman, E.C. Fuchs, Strong Gradients in Weak Magnetic Fields Induce DOLLOP Formation in Tap Water, Water 8 (2016) 79

[2] A. H. Paulitsch-Fuchs, N. Stanulewicz, B. Pollner, N. Dyer, E.C. Fuchs, Strong gradients in weak magnetic fields affect the long-term biological activity of tap water, Water (Seattle) 12,(2021) 28-45

[3] X. Liu, B. Pollner, A.H. Paulitsch-Fuchs, E.C. Fuchs, N.P. Dyer, W. Loiskandl, C. Lass-Flörl, Investigation of the effect of sustainable magnetic treatment on the microbiological communities in drinking water, submitted (2022)

[4] X. Liu, G. Zarfel, R. van der Wijden, W. Loiskandl, B. Bitschnau, I.J.T. Dinkla, E.C. Fuchs, A.H. Paulitsch-Fuchs, Density-dependent microbial calcium carbonate precipitation by drinking water bacteria via amino acid metabolism and biosorption, Water Research 202 (2021) 117444