Waste smothering our oceans is worth billions – here’s what we can do with all that sh$t
There’s hardly a person out there who hasn’t heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That type of pollution is impossible to miss. It stares you in the face from pictures and videos of sea turtles with drinking straws up their noses and acres of plastic swirling in the sea.
It demands you to solve the problem—and it works. The campaign to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the oceans has resulted in new policies, including bans on microplastics in personal care products, technology to clean up the plastic, and even new plastic-like materials that are better for the environment.
But there’s a different type of pollution smothering the ocean as you read this. Unfortunately, this one is almost invisible, but no less damaging. In fact, it’s even more serious than plastic and most people have no idea it even exists. It is literally under our noses, destroying our oceans, lakes, and rivers – and yet we are missing it completely while contributing to it daily. In fact, we exacerbate it multiple times a day—every time we use the bathroom.
It is the way we do our sewage.
Most of us don’t think much about what happens after we flush the toilet. Most of us probably assume that the substances we flush go “somewhere” and are dealt with safely. But we typically don’t think about it beyond that.
Most of us also probably don’t think about what’s in the ocean or lakes we swim in. Since others are swimming, jumping in is just fine. But our waterways are far from clean. In fact, at times they are incredibly filthy. In the US, we are dumping 1.2 trillion of gallons of untreated sewage into the environment every year. Just New York City alone discharges 27 billion gallons into the Hudson River basin annually.
How does this happen? Part of it is the unfortunate side effect of our sewage system design that dates back to over a century ago when cities were smaller and fewer people were living so close together.
Back then, engineers designed the so-called “combine sewer overflow systems,” or CSOs, in which the storm water pipes are connected to the sanitary sewer pipes. In normal conditions, the sewage effluent from homes flows to the treatment plants where it gets cleaned and released into the waterways. But when it rains, the pipe system becomes so overwhelmed with water that the treatment plant can’t process it fast enough. So the treatment plant has to release the excess water through its discharge pipes—directly, without treatment, into streams, rivers and the ocean.
The 1.2 trillion gallons of CSO releases isn’t even the full picture. There are also discharges from poorly maintained septic systems, cesspools and busted pipes of the aging wastewater infrastructure. The state of Hawaii alone has 88,000 cesspools that need replacing and are currently leaking 53 million gallons of raw sewage daily into their coastal waters. You may think twice about swimming on your Hawaii vacations.
Overall, the US is facing a $271 billion backlog in wastewater infrastructure projects to update these aging systems. Across the Western world, countries are facing similar challenges with their aging sewage systems, especially the UK and European Union.
That’s not to say that other parts of the planet are in better shape. Out of the 7+ billion people populating our earth, 4.2 billion don’t have access to safe sanitation. Included in this insane number are roughly 2 billion people who have no toilet at all. Whether washed by rains or dumped directly into the waterways, a lot of this sludge pollutes the environment, the drinking water, and ultimately the ocean.
Pipes pour water onto a rocky shore in Jakarta, Indonesia.
What complicates this from an ocean health perspective is that it’s not just poop and pee that gets dumped into nearby waterways. It is all the things we put in and on our bodies and flush down our drains. That vicious mix of chemicals includes caffeine, antibiotics, antidepressants, painkillers, hormones, microplastics, cocaine, cooking oils, paint thinners, and PFAS—the forever chemicals present in everything from breathable clothing to fire retardant fabrics of our living room couches. Recent reports have found all of the above substances in fish—and then some.
Why do we allow so much untreated sewage spill into the sea? Frankly speaking, for decades scientists and engineers thought that the ocean could handle it. The mantra back then was “dilution is the solution to pollution,” which might’ve worked when there were much fewer people living on earth—but not now. Today science is telling us that this old approach doesn’t hold. That marine habitats are much more sensitive than we had expected and can’t handle the amount of wastewater we are discharging into them.
The excess nitrogen and phosphorus that the sewage (and agricultural runoff) dumps into the water causes harmful algal blooms, more commonly known as red or brown tides. The water column is overtaken by tiny algae that sucks up all the oxygen from the water, creating dead zones like the big fish kills in the Gulf of Mexico. These algae also cause public health issues by releasing gases toxic to people and animals, including dementia, neurological damage, and respiratory illness. Marshes and mangroves end up with weakened root systems and start dying off. In a wastewater modeling study I published last year, we found that 31 percent of salt marshes globally were heavily polluted with human sewage. Coral reefs get riddled with disease and overgrown by seaweed.
We could convert sewage into high-value goods. It can be used to generate electricity, fertilizer, and drinking water. The technologies not only exist but are getting better and more efficient all the time.
Moreover, by way of our sewage, we managed to transmit a human pathogen—Serratia marcescens, which causes urinary, respiratory and other infections in people—to corals! Recent reports from the Florida Keys are showing white pox disease popping up in elk horn corals caused by S.marcescens, which somehow managed to jump species. Many recent studies have documented just how common this type of pollution is across the globe.
Yet, there is some good news in that abysmal sewage flow. Just like with plastic pollution, realizing that there’s a problem is the first step, so awareness is key. That’s exactly why I co-founded Ocean Sewage Alliance last year—a nonprofit that aims to “re-potty train the world” by breaking taboos in talking about the poop and pee problem, as well as uniting experts from various key sectors to work together to end sewage pollution in coastal areas.
To end this pollution, we have to change the ways we handle our sewage. Even more exciting is that by solving the sewage problem we can create all sorts of economic benefits. In 2015, human poop was valued at $9.5 billion a year globally, which today would be $11.5 billion per year.
What would one do with that sh$t?
We could convert it into high-value goods. Sewage can be used to generate electricity, fertilizer, and drinking water. The technologies not only exist but are getting better and more efficient all the time. Some exciting examples include biodigesters and urine diversion (or peecycling) systems that can produce fertilizer and biogas, essentially natural gas. The United Nations estimates that the biogas produced from poop could provide electricity for 138 million homes. And the recovered and cleaned water can be used for irrigation, laundry and flushing toilets. It can even be refined to the point that it is safe for drinking water – just ask the folks in Orange County, CA who have been doing so for the last few decades.
How do we deal with all the human-made pollutants in our sewage? There is technology for that too. Called pyrolysis, it heats up sludge to high temperatures in the absence of oxygen, which causes most of the substances to degrade and fall apart.
There are solutions to the problems—as long as we acknowledge that the problems exist. The fact that you are reading this means that you are part of the solution already. The next time you flush your toilet, think about where this output may flow. Does your septic system work properly? Does your local treatment plant discharge raw sewage on rainy days? Can that plant implement newer technologies that can upcycle waste? These questions are part of re-potty training the world, one household at a time. And together, these households are the force that can turn back the toxic sewage tide. And keep our oceans blue.
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.
From infections with no symptoms to why men are more likely to be hospitalized in the ICU and die of COVID-19, new research shows that your genes play a significant role
Early in the pandemic, genetic research focused on the virus because it was readily available. Plus, the virus contains only 30,000 bases in a dozen functional genes, so it's relatively easy and affordable to sequence. Additionally, the rapid mutation of the virus and its ability to escape antibody control fueled waves of different variants and provided a reason to follow viral genetics.
In comparison, there are many more genes of the human immune system and cellular functions that affect viral replication, with about 3.2 billion base pairs. Human studies require samples from large numbers of people, the analysis of each sample is vastly more complex, and sophisticated computer analysis often is required to make sense of the raw data. All of this takes time and large amounts of money, but important findings are beginning to emerge.
About half the people exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, never develop symptoms of this disease, or their symptoms are so mild they often go unnoticed. One piece of understanding the phenomena came when researchers showed that exposure to OC43, a common coronavirus that results in symptoms of a cold, generates immune system T cells that also help protect against SARS-CoV-2.
Jill Hollenbach, an immunologist at the University of California at San Francisco, sought to identify the gene behind that immune protection. Most COVID-19 genetic studies are done with the most seriously ill patients because they are hospitalized and thus available. “But 99 percent of people who get it will never see the inside of a hospital for COVID-19,” she says. “They are home, they are not interacting with the health care system.”
Early in the pandemic, when most labs were shut down, she tapped into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program database. It contains detailed information on donor human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), key genes in the immune system that must match up between donor and recipient for successful transplants of marrow or organs. Each HLA can contain alleles, slight molecular differences in the DNA of the HLA, which can affect its function. Potential HLA combinations can number in the tens of thousands across the world, says Hollenbach, but each person has a smaller number of those possible variants.
She teamed up with the COVID-19 Citizen Science Study a smartphone-based study to track COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes, to ask persons in the bone marrow donor registry about COVID-19. The study enlisted more than 30,000 volunteers. Those volunteers already had their HLAs annotated by the registry, and 1,428 tested positive for the virus.
Analyzing five key HLAs, she found an allele in the gene HLA-B*15:01 that was significantly overrepresented in people who didn’t have any symptoms. The effect was even stronger if a person had inherited the allele from both parents; these persons were “more than eight times more likely to remain asymptomatic than persons who did not carry the genetic variant,” she says. Altogether this HLA was present in about 10 percent of the general European population but double that percentage in the asymptomatic group. Hollenbach and her colleagues were able confirm this in other different groups of patients.
What made the allele so potent against SARS-CoV-2? Part of the answer came from x-ray crystallography. A key element was the molecular shape of parts of the cold virus OC43 and SARS-CoV-2. They were virtually identical, and the allele could bind very tightly to them, present their molecular antigens to T cells, and generate an extremely potent T cell response to the viruses. And “for whatever reasons that generated a lot of memory T cells that are going to stick around for a long time,” says Hollenbach. “This T cell response is very early in infection and ramps up very quickly, even before the antibody response.”
Understanding the genetics of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is important because it provides clues into the conditions of T cells and antigens that support a response without any symptoms, she says. “It gives us an opportunity to think about whether this might be a vaccine design strategy.”
A researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Virology in Hamburg Germany, Guelsah Gabriel, was drawn to a question at the other end of the COVID-19 spectrum: why men more likely to be hospitalized and die from the infection. It wasn't that men were any more likely to be exposed to the virus but more likely, how their immune system reacted to it
Several studies had noted that testosterone levels were significantly lower in men hospitalized with COVID-19. And, in general, the lower the testosterone, the worse the prognosis. A year after recovery, about 30 percent of men still had lower than normal levels of testosterone, a condition known as hypogonadism. Most of the men also had elevated levels of estradiol, a female hormone (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34402750/).
Every cell has a sex, expressing receptors for male and female hormones on their surface. Hormones docking with these receptors affect the cells' internal function and the signals they send to other cells. The number and role of these receptors varies from tissue to tissue.
Gabriel began her search by examining whole exome sequences, the protein-coding part of the genome, for key enzymes involved in the metabolism of sex hormones. The research team quickly zeroed in on CYP19A1, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. The gene that produces this enzyme has a number of different alleles, the molecular variants that affect the enzyme's rate of metabolizing the sex hormones. One genetic variant, CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), is typically found in 6.2 percent of all people, both men and women, but remarkably, they found it in 68.7 percent of men who were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Lungs are the tissue most affected in COVID-19 disease. Gabriel wondered if the virus might be affecting expression of their target gene in the lung so that it produces more of the enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. Studying cells in a petri dish, they saw no change in gene expression when they infected cells of lung tissue with influenza and the original SARS-CoV viruses that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002. But exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, increased gene expression up to 40-fold, Gabriel says.
Did the same thing happen in humans? Autopsy examination of patients in three different cites found that “CYP19A1 was abundantly expressed in the lungs of COVID-19 males but not those who died of other respiratory infections,” says Gabriel. This increased enzyme production led likely to higher levels of estradiol in the lungs of men, which “is highly inflammatory, damages the tissue, and can result in fibrosis or scarring that inhibits lung function and repair long after the virus itself has disappeared.” Somehow the virus had acquired the capacity to upregulate expression of CYP19A1.
Only two COVID-19 positive females showed increased expression of this gene. The menopause status of these women, or whether they were on hormone replacement therapy was not known. That could be important because female hormones have a protective effect for cardiovascular disease, which women often lose after going through menopause, especially if they don’t start hormone replacement therapy. That sex-specific protection might also extend to COVID-19 and merits further study.
The team was able to confirm their findings in golden hamsters, the animal model of choice for studying COVID-19. Testosterone levels in male animals dropped 5-fold three days after infection and began to recover as viral levels declined. CYP19A1 transcription increased up to 15-fold in the lungs of the male but not the females. The study authors wrote, “Virus replication in the male lungs was negatively associated with testosterone levels.”
The medical community studying COVID-19 has slowly come to recognize the importance of adipose tissue, or fat cells. They are known to express abundant levels of CYP19A1 and play a significant role as metabolic tissue in COVID-19. Gabriel adds, “One of the key findings of our study is that upon SARS-CoV-2 infection, the lung suddenly turns into a metabolic organ by highly expressing” CYP19A1.
She also found evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect the gonads of hamsters, thereby likely depressing circulating levels of sex hormones. The researchers did not have autopsy samples to confirm this in humans, but others have shown that the virus can replicate in those tissues.
A possible treatment
Back in the lab, substituting low and high doses of testosterone in SARS-COV-2 infected male hamsters had opposite effects depending on testosterone dosage used. Gabriel says that hormone levels can vary so much, depending on health status and age and even may change throughout the day, that “it probably is much better to inhibit the enzyme” produced by CYP19A1 than try to balance the hormones.
Results were better with letrozole, a drug approved to treat hypogonadism in males, which reduces estradiol levels. The drug also showed benefit in male hamsters in terms of less severe disease and faster recovery. She says more details need to be worked out in using letrozole to treat COVID-19, but they are talking with hospitals about clinical trials of the drug.
Gabriel has proposed a four hit explanation of how COVID-19 can be so deadly for men: the metabolic quartet. First is the genetic risk factor of CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), then comes SARS-CoV-2 infection that induces even greater expression of this gene and the deleterious increase of estradiol in the lung. Age-related hypogonadism and the heightened inflammation of obesity, known to affect CYP19A1 activity, are contributing factors in this deadly perfect storm of events.
Studying host genetics, says Gabriel, can reveal new mechanisms that yield promising avenues for further study. It’s also uniting different fields of science into a new, collaborative approach they’re calling “infection endocrinology,” she says.