Image: Wikimedia Commons CC by SA 3.0
Image: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

MIT researchers hope to gain a better understanding of public health and how diseases spread by studying the sludge that travels underground through the sewers.

Led by Eric Alm, the director of the Center for Microbiome Informatics and Therapeutics and associate professor of biological engineering, and Carlo Ratti, associate professor and director of MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, a team of researchers will collect samples from 10 sites in Cambridge, MA, to create a snapshot of the guts of the city. “Sewage is really an unexploited source of rich information about human activities,” Alm told the Boston Globe.

In what has been dubbed the Underworlds project, researchers will study the sewage for viruses such as influenza and polio; bacterial pathogens that cause diseases such as cholera and typhoid fever; and biochemical molecules, from legal drugs such as antibiotics to illegal substances like cocaine and methamphetamines. Such data could help to predict epidemics, or track other public health issues, like high blood pressure trends, within particular neighborhoods.

The Underworlds project is slated to begin in January 2015 and continue through 2017. A grant from the Kuwait-MIT Center for Natural Resources and the Environment is making the project possible. Following the Cambridge tests, a second project will launch in Kuwait City in 2017.

Read more about Underworlds, including how scientists determine the prime time for sewage collection, at the Boston Globe.

Related: MIT Start-up Tackles Nasty Infection With First Public Stool Bank

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