US environmental microbiologist awarded LKY Water Prize

Professor Rita Colwell's work has helped communities tackle waterborne diseases.
Professor Rita Colwell's work has helped communities tackle waterborne diseases.PHOTO: PUB

American environmental microbiologist Rita Colwell has been awarded this year's prestigious Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize for her pioneering work in waterborne diseases and water microbiology.

The award recognises outstanding contributions by individuals or organisations towards solving global water challenges by developing or applying innovative technologies, policies or programmes.

Professor Colwell was presented the award for her breakthrough research in water microbiology. In particular, her discovery of the viable but non-culturable phenomenon in bacteria has helped communities around the world tackle cholera and other waterborne diseases.

The phenomenon showed that bacteria can exist in a dormant state, in which they are alive even though they cannot be cultured.

Her discoveries were initially met with scepticism. At that time, non-culturable bacteria were thought to be dead and hence incapable of causing harm.

However, the phenomenon has now been shown to exist in over 50 species of bacteria, many of which are potentially harmful.

Prof Colwell's contributions have also led to the development of faster and more accurate techniques for detecting pathogens such as bacteria and viruses in water. They have also been translated into practical use for the wider community.

For example, she discovered that sari cloth could be used as an effective filter for drinking water. This affordable and practical solution has led to a significant 48 per cent reduction in the incidence of cholera in 65 villages in rural Bangladesh.

Her discoveries in water quality surveillance have been used in both developed and developing countries worldwide, including Singapore.

"It's very important, especially for us in Singapore, because we reuse water. Newater is made from sewage, and sewage is full of nasty stuff. So we want to know what it is, what's inside it, and we want to be sure," said PUB chief Ng Joo Hee.

The Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize is now in its 10th year. Past winners include hydrogeologist John Cherry for his contributions to advance groundwater science, and the Orange County Water District for its pioneering work in water reclamation.

Award winners receive a $300,000 cash prize, an award certificate and a gold medallion, sponsored by non-profit organisation Temasek Foundation Innovates.

Prof Colwell will be delivering the Singapore Water Lecture on July 9. She will receive the award at a ceremony that night.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2018, with the headline 'US environmental microbiologist awarded LKY Water Prize'. Print Edition | Subscribe