Scotch’s expertise in big data is essential to the project, as the amount of data collected will be massive.

“I am creating and categorizing a custom database of all of the viruses found,” said Scotch, assistant director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering and an associate professor in the College of Health Solutions. “The database will allow people to search through it to compare and contrast information about any particular virus, including those that infect humans, plants or animals.”

“Our knowledge of viruses is good, but it is narrow,” Varsani said. “We only know a fraction about this vast world of viruses that exists around us. This is unfortunate since it is the most abundant biological entity on the planet.”

The atlas of viruses seeks to remedy this problem, providing researchers and public health experts access to much-needed information that will help forecast viral outbreaks and provide the opportunity to intervene before public health crises occur.

The researchers anticipate that in time, they will be able to increase their sampling capacity to offer coverage to all 50 states. Interested municipalities are encouraged to contact the team at

Flushing them out

“We get a 24-hour composite sample from participating wastewater treatment facilities,” Halden said. “This liquid sample contains the chemistry of the whole city for a full day, revealing the identity of pollutants present in the community, demonstrating as human metabolites the ongoing exposure of humans to these pollutants, and also allowing us to identify in participating municipalities the presence and quantity of biohazards — bacteria, viruses, just about anything.”

“We acquire a sample of wastewater that has accumulated over a 24-hour period from a wastewater treatment facility,” Halden said. “From this, we can test the wastewater for substances that have been metabolized by the community, including chemical pollutants and pathogens such as viruses, bacteria or other biohazards to which the community has been exposed.”

The teams will be paying special attention to influenza. They are interested in confirming that what they see with this virus in the wastewater is reflective of infectious trends recorded by public health agencies. To test this, Scotch will obtain comparable samples from healthy and infected patients in clinical settings.

“This clinical study is our benchmark. If we see that same trend in the wastewater, then it will be considered an accurate, predictive tool,” Varsani said. 

“Basically, we will be identifying a new way to monitor infectious disease burdens in populations in a way that could identify outbreaks sooner,” Scotch said. “This can lead to early intervention, which could also lead to reduced risk of widespread infection, potentially halting epidemics before they occur.” The wastewater samples may provide important information missed in traditional monitoring programs.

Filling the viral void

Although it is universally accepted that viruses have the ability to make us sick, Varsani believes that this study will change our preconceived biases about their other roles.

“By regulating host populations in ecosystems, viruses can be beneficial,” he said.

“This study will give us a better idea of what viruses are out there. We are gaining true insight into our own ecosystem,” Varsani said. “The techniques we establish here will lay the groundwork for future researchers. We will have a much better database of viruses than we have ever had. We probably can’t fill the 99% viral void, but if we can add just 2% more information, that is still a long way from where we were are right now, and that is progress.”

Researchers anticipate that the first data will become publicly available next year.

Written by Christine Lewis and Dianne Price