GEMS goes transdisciplinary with spring meeting
By Eddy Ball
The Genetics and Environmental Mutagenesis Society (GEMS) continued its tradition of promoting leading-edge science, at its spring meeting April 24 at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Research Triangle Park, N.C. However, unlike previous meetings in the spring and fall each year, this latest meeting’s agenda cast a much wider net, featuring speakers with interests ranging from toxicology and environmental engineering to comprehensive biofuels development and data management.
The meeting opened with a welcome by GEMS President Nagu Keshava, Ph.D., who introduced the program’s organizer, GEMS President-Elect Lyle Burgoon, Ph.D.
An abundant new energy source that could endanger public health
The first speaker of the program not only addressed a headline-grabbing topic in environmental health, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, he has also been a part of the headlines. Duke University professor Robert Jackson, Ph.D., has taken a responsible course with his research on shale gas, hydraulic fracturing, and environmental health, angering people on both sides of the controversy with his refusal to abandon his scientific objectivity.
Early in his talk, Jackson focused on the central issue involved in fracking. “The gas doesn’t just come out,” Jackson said. “You have to coax it out.”
People are justifiably concerned, Jackson explained, about effects of leaking methane gas and the millions of gallons of chemically laden water used in fracking on groundwater, air quality, and earthquake tremors. But as with any form of energy, people need to balance risks and benefits.
Nano — where biology and toxicology meet physics
Veteran NIEHS grantee Martin Philbert, Ph.D., assumed his self-described role as a fly in the ointment, with a dazzling presentation on the potential benefits and health implications of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs).
According to Philbert, there are no truly informative studies, yet, of the toxicology of ENMs, and no comprehensive concept of how physical characteristics impact dose in regard to ENMs. “We are spraying wildly in the dark,” he told the audience.
Philbert conducts his research at the University of Michigan, where some of his colleagues are also exploring new applications for ENMs in medicine. He balanced his precautionary look at nanotoxicology with a demonstration of the benefits people can expect from therapeutic applications of the new materials, such as restoring sight to blind retinae by activating calcium and potassium channels, countering buildup of proteins involved in neurodegenerative disease, and treating chemical and radiation therapy-resistant cancers.
Creating a grassroots biofuels industry in North Carolina
Steven Burke, president and chief executive officer of the Biofuels Center of North Carolina, devoted his presentation to a description of what many would consider an impossible task — establishing a new sustainable energy production network and market, for locally produced biofuels, from organic matter other than corn, where none existed in 2007 — all in the space of ten years.
“The challenge [of this kind of revolutionary program] has, to date, not be solved in America,” he conceded. “And we don’t have a model for this,” he said of a program that promises to profoundly affect the political, cultural, environmental, climatic, and agricultural landscape of North Carolina.
Risk and benefit in water purification
North Carolina State University professor Detlef Knappe, Ph.D., concluded the scientific portion of the meeting with a talk on human health risks resulting from advances in one of the greatest public health achievements in modern history — the filtration and disinfection of municipal drinking water. He began with a description of the introduction of filtration and chlorination, which helped reduce mortality from waterborne diseases by between one-half, for the entire population, to three-quarters, for infants, before moving into the unanticipated side effects from disinfectant byproducts (DBPs) created during water treatment.
He said animal studies link some DBPs with liver and other cancers, and human epidemiological studies have found associations with bladder and colorectal cancers. “But there’s a bit of a disconnect here,” he said, and there’s a need for more research to establish health effects and to discover ways to improve treatment protocols to make water even safer.
Safeguarding scientific data
EPA information technology guru David Lyons is the first to admit that he’s not a scientist, but what he does for the agency is an important part of enabling science to have its maximum impact now, and in the years to come, through development of EPA’s new Laboratory Information Management System. As he explained during his talk at the GEMS meeting, his greatest challenges are not technological, but managerial. “It’s really all about how to organize your stuff,” Lyons said.
Lyons is leading EPA’s scientific data management initiative that is creating a unified safe storage protocol for the hundreds of terabytes of information in existence in various storage formats on network drives, enterprise portals, servers, and Internet sites. He and his group are also working to develop the right set of metadata to effectively search the millions of files already in storage, and discover ways to avoid an increase in the 25 terabytes of data now archived and considered orphaned because the owner is unknown.
Lyon faces important challenges. Data generation has traditionally been a shortsighted and haphazard process, with individuals and groups producing information in various formats and storing it as inexpensively and conveniently as possible. When someone copies data from a personal computer to a storage device, Lyons said, the creation date changes, forcing the archiver to search for the earliest date of modification. Under current procedures, when employees resign or retire, their accounts are deleted along with the owner identification, orphaning the data.
But things are beginning to change. The federal government has intensified the push for data management and data integration, and the National Science Foundation now requires a data management plan with all new grant proposals, which could set a precedent that will encourage more cooperation, on the agency level, with plans to preserve data in an accessible form for researchers in the future.