Two hours before kickoff on Saturday morning, UT students and faculty learned that the world's declining water quality is a bigger problem than perhaps expected, and will have serous implications if not dealt with.
At UT's weekly "Pregame Showcase," Steven Wilhelm, professor of microbiology, spoke to the audience with his lecture, "Protecting Our Water Resources: A Microbiologist's Perspective."
Wilhelm earned a B.S. in genetics and a Ph.D. in plant sciences from the University of Western Ontario in 1994 and has been working at UT since 1998.
Wilhelm and his research team have been dedicated to studying microbes and how they react to changes in their environment. Although they are tiny and seemingly inconsequential, he calls microbes "the interface between us and the planet."
There are hundreds of thousands of microbes in every milliliter of seawater and lake water. Most of these are harmless to human beings and even play an essential role in sustaining life.
"Without microbes, there would be no other life on the planet," Wilhelm said. "They are responsible for about 50 percent of photosynthesis. ... They clean up our water, they clean up our waste, and they are critical in our food production."
These microbes have been threatened in the last several centuries by climate change and by pollutants. Changes to environmental microbes have damaged much of our water supply's quality. Wilhelm and his research team focus on algal blooms, one of the major problems threatening microbes.
Algal blooms, caused mainly by microcystin, a blue-green algae, can be devastating to bodies of water, especially freshwater lakes. Wilhelm spoke specifically about instances in Wuxi, China. In 2007, Lake Taihu, where Wuxi gets its water supply, became so infected with an algae bloom that bottled water had to be brought in for the city's four million residents for over a month.
In America, the Great Lakes are experiencing a similar problem. In the last two years, 98 illnesses have been reported in Wisconsin from drinking algae-infected water.
Not only are we failing to protect the quality of our water, as Wilhelm said, we are also exceedingly wasteful with it. The United Kingdom uses 35 percent of its water to flush toilets, and Americans use about 400 liters of water per person, per day. Wilhelm emphasized that the world needs to become more conservative with its water use.
Malina Kinnaird, undecided freshman, believes scientists like Wilhelm are doing critical work.
"I think more researchers need to follow his example and get serious about solving the water quality crisis. It should be made a high priority."
The next and final "Pregame Showcase" will be Nov. 24, when history professor, Jay Rubenstein, will speak on "Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for the Apocalypse."