Kyle Poplin

Roundup 1-10-15: Raising a glass to the Omniprocessor

Bill Gates can afford to be a top-shelf kind of guy, so we did a doubletake this week when the Internet overflowed with photos of him drinking sewer water.

Actually, he was drinking the output of Janicki Bioenergy’s Omniprocessor, which turns poop to potable water and electric power and which could be a game-changer in the developing world, where about 7.5 million people lack clean drinking water and 700,000 children die every year due to poor sanitation.

The Omniprocessor, in short, turns human waste into a commodity. It also generates enough energy to power itself, doesn’t produce a foul odor and meets U.S. emission standards, according to the Omniprocessor’s creators. No wonder Gates is funding its development. “Our goal is to make the processors cheap enough that entrepreneurs in low- and middle-income countries will want to invest in them and then start profitable waste-treatment businesses,” Gates said in his blog.

Janicki Bioenergy’s timing couldn’t be better; the device fits perfectly with newly proposed UN Sustainable Development Goals which seek to find a place for environmental protection among economic priorities, including ensuring “availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” (The company says it will ship its first model to to Dakar, Senegal, in mid-February.)

NextBillion is filled with some mind-blowing statistics, but here’s one that stands out: 2.5 billion people, which is more than one-third of the people on the planet, don’t have regular access to hygienic sanitation facilities.

Of course, making those facilities available is one thing; changing people’s behavior so they use those facilities is another.

That’s happening in a small village in northern India, where a recent tragedy is bringing new perspective to long-held beliefs that it’s unclean to defecate inside. Two teenage girls in Badaun who were reportedly on their way to relieve themselves in an open field were found hanging by their own scarves from a mango tree, triggering “national outrage over the dangers women face while defecating in open fields.”

The incident cast new light on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan to spend $30 billion by 2019 to build toilets throughout India, and brought a promise by Bindeshwar Pathak’s Sulabh International to build 300 toilets in Badaun itself.

Maybe someday soon, we’ll all be raising a glass to the Omniprocessor.

Not so fast, there, mutating bacteria

Speaking of exciting innovation, much was written this week about the discovery of a new class of antibiotics, teixobactin, with the ability to kill drug-resistant pathogens.

It’s the first new class of antibiotics in decades and is especially big news these days, when we’re hearing more and more about antibiotic resistance.

It’s a fascinating discovery and the way it was made is no less interesting – and important.

Scientific American’s Heidi Ledford puts it in perspective: “Many of the most successful antibiotics were found in the mid-twentieth century by scientists who trawled microbial communities for bacteria capable of killing their brethren. But the researchers missed the type that produces teixobactin, Eleftheria terrae, plus many other potential candidates – known collectively as microbial ‘dark matter’ – because of their reluctance to adapt to life on a petri dish.”

Northeastern University colleagues Kim Lewis and Slava Epstein, working with the National Institutes of Health and the German government, came up with a new technique to screen bacteria, called the iChip. This simple-looking device enables 50 percent of microbes in a soil sample to grow in a lab, up from the typical 1 percent. Lewis’ team has already screened 10,000 previously unculturable bacteria with the iChip.

As Ed Yong wrote for National Geographic, “Teixobactin is a fish; the iChip is the rod. Having the rod guarantees that we’ll get more fish – and we desperately need more.”

Mutating bacteria have been nudging ahead in recent years in their battle against antibiotics. The iChip might be just what’s needed to slow them down again.

Kyle Poplin is the editor of NextBillion Health Care.

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