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Environmental Factor, May 2012

GEMS goes transdisciplinary with spring meeting

By Eddy Ball

Nagu Keshava, Ph.D.

After organizing two meetings of her own in 2011, as then president-elect, Keshava was  in high spirits as she introduced her successor, welcomed members to the meeting, and looked forward to watching as Burgoon moderated the program. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Lyle Burgoon, Ph.D.

According to Burgoon, the agenda was designed to highlight emerging environmental issues — ones that are changing people’s everyday lives and challenging preconceived notions about such topics as dose and exposure. Like Keshava, Burgoon is a researcher at EPA. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

The Genetics and Environmental Mutagenesis Society (GEMS) (http://gems-nc.org/index.html)  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. (http://www.biocodenv.com/component/content/article/34-biography/48-burgoonbiography) 

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., (http://fds.duke.edu/db/aas/Biology/jackson)  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 (http://www.sph.umich.edu/iscr/faculty/profile.cfm?uniqname=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, (http://www.biofuelscenter.org/)  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., (http://www.ce.ncsu.edu/faculty/detlef-knappe/)  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.


Martin Philbert, Ph.D.

At the beginning of his talk, Philbert promised to make at least one person in the audience angry by denying that there is currently any such thing as nanotoxicology. He argued that ENMs, because of their size, various shapes, manufacturing variability, and other physical properties, challenge the current single-dimensional paradigms of dose, mode of action, and gross physiological endpoints. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Detlef Knappe, Ph.D.

Knappe pointed out several ways to improve water treatment, such as adding superfine powdered activated carbon filters to remove natural organic matter prior to disinfection, new disinfecting protocols, and infrastructure improvements. Of the additional expense, he said, “If we want higher quality water, we have to think about paying for it.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Cindy Innes

NIEHS biologist Cindy Innes, a GEMS veteran and former officer, was on hand for the interesting mix of talks. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Brian Chorley, Ph.D.

EPA researcher Brian Chorley, Ph.D., center, was one of the many EPA employees attending the meeting. Chorley completed his postdoc at NIEHS, before joining EPA, and he is currently a GEMS officer. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Robert Jackson, Ph.D.

After discussing some of the strengths and weakness of alternative forms of generating power, Jackson left the audience with a central question to consider about preparing for future energy needs. “Where does the energy come from if you don’t do something like hydraulic fracturing?” he asked. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Steven Burke

In his effort to describe the challenge of developing sufficient amounts of non-corn biofuels, to make up 25 percent of liquid energy needs by 2012, Burke neglected to mention possible adverse effects or benefits for public health, but those topics have not escaped some EPA researchers. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


David Lyons

To underscore the need for effective data management, Lyons shared examples of just how sloppy scientists have been about data storage. He told the story of one unfortunate researcher who inadvertently erased an entire project’s data by setting his device down next to the magnet in a loud speaker. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


Allen Dearry, Ph.D.

So was NIEHS Senior Advisor Allen Dearry, Ph.D., who hasn’t attended many previous meetings, but was intrigued by this one’s unusual agenda. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)


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.



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