STILLWATER — What started as a challenge to reinvent the toilet has become a quest that could be life-changing for 1 billion people.
A team of researchers from Oklahoma State University is on a mission to exterminate a parasitic worm that affects much of the developing world's population.
Ascaris lumbricoides, also known as giant round worm, is the target. It's a worthy foe, whose eggs are known to survive more than a decade in soil, professor Gary Foutch said.
The whole kill-the-worm initiative started with Foutch's idea for a waterless toilet.
He and fellow chemical engineering professor AJ Johannes presented their waterless sanitation technology to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in August as part of the Reinvent the Toilet Fair.
Hosted at the foundation's offices in Seattle, the fair aimed to inspire collaboration to deliver a reinvented toilet for the 2.5 billion people worldwide who don't have access to safe and affordable sanitation.
In 2011, Foutch and Johannes were awarded a Phase I grant of $112,000 for their “Simple Treatment of Fecal Waste.” Foutch said it was one of 57 funded projects at the fair.
Only three projects advanced to Phase II, for which the OSU team was awarded $172,177 last year.
But now the focus is the worm, not the waterless toilet.
“They've taken the idea and are moving us in another direction,” Foutch said.
That's how science works, Johannes said.
“You start going from point A to point B, and end up somewhere else,” he said. “If you're a scientist you have to keep your eyes open. Most discoveries are accidents.”
Ascaris infected up to 50 percent of residents of the southeastern United States and Appalachia as late as 1982, but today the parasite is thought to infect less than 1 percent of the U.S. population.
It still is common, however, in developing countries with tropical or subtropical climates where there is a lack of hygiene and sanitation, said Mason Reichard of the OSU Center for Veterinary Health Sciences.
Reichard and Jennifer Thomas, a postdoctoral fellow, were brought into the project because they “had the expertise and experience we don't,” Johannes said.
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