PHHI Project Explores Diversity, Health Impacts of Microorganisms in Waterways of Central Asia

North Carolina State University scientist Dr. Slavko Komarnytsky has been selected as a 2013-2014 International Research & Exchanges (IREX) Board Fellow. Komarnytsky, assistant professor in pharmacogenomics and metabolic biology with the university’s Plants for Human Health Institute and the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences, received an IREX Short-Term Travel Grant (STG) to address microbial diversity and water safety in the watersheds of Central Asia.

Komarnytsky’s project – “Water Safety Across Borders in Central Asia” – aims to develop a better understanding of the many diverse microorganisms (such as bacteria, fungi or viruses) in watersheds near Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Watersheds, or drainage basins, are areas of land where surface water from rain or melting snow converges at a lower elevation with another body of water, like a river.

Komarnytsky wants to identify the impacts the microorganisms, or microbes, in and around the waterways may have on the health of water users. Water-related disease is the second leading cause of death in children under the age of five, killing about 760,000 children globally each year, according to the World Health Organization.

“Safe and adequate freshwater resources are central to the health of local economies and communities, and to the foreign policy and security of the United States,” said Komarnytsky.

Dr. Slavko Komarnytsky will explore the microbial diversity and safety of waterways like the Syr Darya river, which snakes nearly 1,400 miles through Central Asia, serving as a vital source of water to millions of people in the region.

While visiting Central Asia in 2014, Komarnytsky will lay the groundwork for a novel training program focused on engaging scientists from the region in global health research while increasing community awareness and education. Using this unique research model, Komarnytsky and local scientists will monitor local water sources, like the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers, and promote sustainable exploration of local aquatic biodiversity to identify impacts on human health across national borders.

Water is an increasingly strategic resource in the Central Asian region that cuts across national borders. Countries including Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan make intensive use of aquatic resources to generate hydroelectricity, irrigation and sewage systems, but the use of these limited resources is leading to conflicts of interest.

“In a region where scarcity of water, food and fuel is an immediate challenge, the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem services is critical to human health and welfare,” said Komarnytsky. “We need to better understand the relationships among these diverse areas, such as the links between water microbial diversity, human health and the ecosystem.”

Ultimately, Komarnytsky wants to enable the relevant institutions and scientists in the region to create sustainable regional water management mechanisms, taking into account the issues relating to water use and safety.

“With IREX’s support, we’re able to help prepare them for collaborations and data collection that will guide the region toward a strategic, unified approach to trans-border freshwater management.”

This project builds upon an international program Komarnytsky initiated in South Africa, which just extended this year to Malaysia. Now, with the IREX partnership in place, Komarnytsky can introduce the global health research model to Central Asia (Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) in 2014.

Komarnytsky is the only faculty member from N.C. State University to receive the IREX grant during this funding cycle.

IREX Background

IREX is an international nonprofit organization, established in 1968, providing thought leadership and innovative programs to promote positive lasting change globally. The IREX Short-Term Travel Grants Program is designed to allow U.S. scholars and professionals to conduct short, targeted open-source research on current regional issues of importance to the U.S. policy-making community.

IREX is funded through the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) at the U.S. Department of State. The 2013-2014 fellows will be traveling to 16 countries across Eastern Europe and Eurasia to perform policy relevant field research, covering topics such as  labor migration, national identity, health care and democratization.

View the full list of IREX Short-Term Travel Grant recipients here.

Writer: Justin Moore