If researchers want to know more about the nature of the COVID-19 virus, they are starting to look at a seemingly odd place – human waste.

University of Utah civil and environmental engineering professor Ramesh Goel has received a $130,000 National Science Foundation RAPID Response grant to analyze samples from wastewater treatment plants for the COVID-19 coronavirus. The project is based on the idea that a person’s urine and feces contain traces of the virus.

The purpose of the project is two-fold: Goel will analyze the viral metagenomic data obtained after sequencing of the purified viral contents from wastewater samples to determine if different strains of the virus exist in different areas. He is looking at samples from seven to eight wastewater plants along the Wasatch Front in Utah as well as from several other major U.S. metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and Chicago. He will also study the concentrations of the virus in each sample to determine if a higher concentration means the area that wastewater plant services has a higher infection rate.

Learning if there are different strains of the virus is important because “when researchers develop vaccines, they can develop something that encompasses all of the different strains,” Goel said.

Goel said he hopes to have results of the study by the end of the summer and might perform additional analysis with the help of computer scientists from the U’s School of Computing.

Goel is one of three U College of Engineering faculty members who have received an NSF RAPID Response grant in the last month to tackle issues involving the COVID-19 pandemic. Electrical and computer engineering professor Massood Tabib-Azar has received a grant to develop a portable, reusable COVID-19 sensor that works with a cellphone, and biomedical engineering assistant professor Jessica Kramer is researching the role mucus plays in spreading the virus.