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Pathfinder Innovation Projects: Awardees for 2012
Click on any picture to learn more about the second year of Pathfinder Innovation Projects.
Wouldn't it be amazing if we could inform people of their air pollution exposures in real time?
We can if we generate a cyber infrastructure for personal air quality estimates.
People are exposed to air pollutants every day, and Lyle Burgoon, EPA supervisory biologist, set out to create a way to produce personal air quality estimates. When finished, the OPAQE app will collect publicly available geographic and physiology data and match that data to real-time air quality measurements found in EPA’s AirNow network. This crowdsourcing project has the potential to allow scientists to understand air pollution exposures in real-time and on a large scale.
Wouldn't it be amazing if we could rapidly screen volatile chemicals for toxic effects and use the patterns we find?
We can if we deploy fruit flies as model organisms.
No screening protocols currently evaluate volatile chemicals in a fast, efficient manner. Phillip Bushnell, EPA research toxicologist, wondered if the fruit fly could serve as a useful model. Flies are inexpensive insects that offer two distinct advantages compared with existing screening tests in isolated cell cultures. First, scientists know a lot about fly genetics. Second, flies can also be exposed to vapors and other airborne materials that researchers can’t test in cells or aquatic organisms. If the proof-of-concept works, the fruit fly could allow researchers to rapidly screen volatile chemicals for their toxicity in whole animals. Scientists could then combine that data with knowledge of fly genetics to one day predict toxicity for animals and humans.
Wouldn't it be amazing if we could make more reliable risk assessments for water-borne viruses?
We can if we detect the origin of molecular signals.
Jennifer Cashdollar, EPA microbiologist, tackled a paradox of water testing. Cell cultures can tell scientists if viruses might be infectious, but the method is slow and can’t be applied in the field. On the other hand, rapid molecular tests that could fit in portable devices don’t distinguish between potentially infectious whole virus particles and benign nucleic acid fragments. The project aimed to determine if standard virus filtration procedures used to isolate these organisms from water would detect viral fragments. If the tests don’t concentrate the nucleic acids, the molecular signal would almost certainly originate from the potentially infectious whole particles. This idea could significantly improve the way in which EPA designs risk assessments for microbial contamination and help researchers better protect public health.
Read an EPA blog.
Wouldn't it be amazing if we could eliminate active pharmaceutical ingredients from the environment?
We can if we change from pollution control to prescription reduction.
After people use medications, the collection of leftover drugs and conventional sewage treatment have served as the primary means for controlling the amount of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) in the environment. EPA research physical scientist Christian Daughton proposed “eco-directed sustainable prescribing.” This approach relies on pollution prevention and targets human excretion, a major source of APIs that enter the environment. Doctors could match medications based on how extensively a person’s body will metabolize a drug, leaving fewer APIs to excrete. Such pollution prevention tactics could spur the advancement of a sustainable healthcare system by treating the patient and the environment as an integrated whole.
Wouldn't it be amazing if we could discuss the entire impact of sustainable solutions with our stakeholders?
We can if we illuminate the pillars of sustainability.
Sustainability remains a concept that can take many forms, and its realization involves the pillars of society, environment and industry. William Lefew, EPA mathematician, worked to design a scenario-based visualization tool. Specifically, the project developed a prototype that processes complicated, research-based computational models complete with the three main pillars of sustainability assessments. Stakeholders can then interpret, discuss and debate the results of the assessment relative to their own value systems. In the future, such work could help EPA more fully evaluate sustainability questions with respect to a variety of value systems.
Wouldn't it be amazing if we could predict bacterial blooms in our freshwater lakes and streams?
We can if we pair new algorithms with satellite images.
Ross Lunetta, EPA research physical scientist, assessed and validated a new algorithm that analyzed satellite images of cyanobacteria bloom development and dissipation. Cyanobacteria can cause human illness, including respiratory irritation, and make potable water taste bad or smell. The research has the potential to serve as the groundwork for improved indicators than will result in more precise ecological and public human health advisories. Additionally, the project used open challenges and innovation prizes to build and begin testing an algorithm that could predict cyanobacteria blooms.
Read an EPA blog.
Wouldn't it be amazing if we could identify ecosystem health and potential stressors via a few species the water?
We can if we track genetic barcodes to measure changes in diversity.
Carolina Penalva-Arana, EPA molecular biologist, took advantage of the genetic fingerprints every species has and used those identifiers to assess ecosystem health. The project used a technique called “next-generation environmental barcoding.” With this method, scientists can process water samples to reveal which groups of species are present. Taken a step further, the technique might help identify environmental stressors based on the presence or absence of key species. Applying this type of sequencing at a large scale could translate to more robust evaluations of ecosystem health and sustainability.
Read an EPA interview.
Wouldn't it be amazing if we could transform our treatment technologies to produce freshwater?
We can if we grow algae that desalinate seawater.
One percent of the world’s water is accessible for human drinking. Clean freshwater remains a precious commodity, a problem that E. Sahle-Demessie, EPA chemical engineer, explored. The project tested a biological method for removing salt from seawater: algae. The algae absorb salt and store it as they grow. Researchers can then filter the water to capture, dehydrate and extract lipids from mature algae to produce biofuel. If successful, this research would serve as the starting point for a major shift in freshwater resources with an added bonus of exploring new sources of bio-energy.
Wouldn't it be amazing if we could incorporate genetic susceptibility into species risk assessments?
We can if we assemble a genetic map for the fathead minnow.
EPA environmental geneticist Eric Waits knew that scientists lacked a complete genomic picture of the fathead minnow, a popular model organism used for many types of chemical screenings. He sifted and sorted fathead minnow DNA fragments to find overlapping patches and then stitched together the larger chromosomes. Once researchers have a good map of the genome, they can begin to understand the intersection of environmental forces and gene-level changes. This will help connect individual responses, positive and negative, to broader, population-scale trends.
Wouldn't it be amazing if we could increase the efficiency and data quality of air pollutant testing?
We can if we build an exposure system that mimics human lungs.
A traditional method for testing toxic effects of aerosols and gases uses cells submerged in culture medium. But our lungs operate in a much more dynamic environment. Amy Wang, EPA biologist, used culture conditions that simulated the complexity of lungs, an environment where only a thin liquid layer separates cells from air. Moreover, the project involved inventing a system to simultaneously control aerosol mixtures in multiple-well plates. After validation, these improvements will let scientists screen more chemicals – from particles and aerosols to vapors and volatiles – in less time.
Read an EPA blog.