OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

college of science

“Molecular movie” technology may enable big gains in bioimaging, health research

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers today announced the creation of an imaging technology more powerful than anything that has existed before, and is fast enough to observe life processes as they actually happen at the molecular level.

Chemical and biological actions can now be measured as they are occurring or, in old-fashioned movie parlance, one frame at a time. This will allow creation of improved biosensors to study everything from nerve impulses to cancer metastasis as it occurs.

The measurements, created by the use of short pulse lasers and bioluminescent proteins, are made in femtoseconds, which is one-millionth of one-billionth of a second. A femtosecond, compared to one second, is about the same as one second compared to 32 million years.

That’s a pretty fast shutter speed, and it should change the way biological research and physical chemistry are being done, scientists say.

Findings on the new technology were published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by researchers from Oregon State University and the University of Alberta.

“With this technology we’re going to be able to slow down the observation of living processes and understand the exact sequences of biochemical reactions,” said Chong Fang, an assistant professor of chemistry in the OSU College of Science, and lead author on the research.

“We believe this is the first time ever that you can really see chemistry in action inside a biosensor,” he said. “This is a much more powerful tool to study, understand and tune biological processes.”

The system uses advanced pulse laser technology that is fairly new and builds upon the use of “green fluorescent proteins” that are popular in bioimaging and biomedicine. These remarkable proteins glow when light is shined upon them. Their discovery in 1962, and the applications that followed, were the basis for a Nobel Prize in 2008.

Existing biosensor systems, however, are created largely by random chance or trial and error. By comparison, the speed of the new approach will allow scientists to “see” what is happening at the molecular level and create whatever kind of sensor they want by rational design. This will improve the study of everything from cell metabolism to nerve impulses, how a flu virus infects a person, or how a malignant tumor spreads.

“For decades, to create the sensors we have now, people have been largely shooting in the dark,” Fang said. “This is a fundamental breakthrough in how to create biosensors for medical research from the bottom up. It’s like daylight has finally come.”

The technology, for instance, can follow the proton transfer associated with the movement of calcium ions – one of the most basic aspects of almost all living systems, and also one of the fastest. This movement of protons is integral to everything from respiration to cell metabolism and even plant photosynthesis.  Scientists will now be able to identify what is going on, one step at a time, and then use that knowledge to create customized biosensors for improved imaging of life processes.

“If you think of this in photographic terms,” Fang said, “we now have a camera fast enough to capture the molecular dance of life. We’re making molecular movies. And with this, we’re going to be able to create sensors that answer some important, new questions in biophysics, biochemistry, materials science and biomedical problems.”

The research was supported by OSU, the University of Alberta, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

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Chong Fang, 541-737-6704

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Molecular movies

Molecular movies

Findings point toward one of first therapies for Lou Gehrig’s disease

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers have determined that a copper compound known for decades may form the basis for a therapy for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

In a new study just published in the Journal of Neuroscience, scientists from Australia, the United States (Oregon), and the United Kingdom showed in laboratory animal tests that oral intake of this compound significantly extended the lifespan and improved the locomotor function of transgenic mice that are genetically engineered to develop this debilitating and terminal disease.

In humans, no therapy for ALS has ever been discovered that could extend lifespan more than a few additional months. Researchers in the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University say this approach has the potential to change that, and may have value against Parkinson’s disease as well.

“We believe that with further improvements, and following necessary human clinical trials for safety and efficacy, this could provide a valuable new therapy for ALS and perhaps Parkinson’s disease,” said Joseph Beckman, a distinguished professor of biochemistry and biophysics in the OSU College of Science.

“I’m very optimistic,” said Beckman, who received the 2012 Discovery Award from the OHSU Medical Research Foundation as the leading medical researcher in Oregon.

ALS was first identified as a progressive and fatal neurodegenerative disease in the late 1800s and gained international recognition in 1939 when it was diagnosed in American baseball legend Lou Gehrig. It’s known to be caused by motor neurons in the spinal cord deteriorating and dying, and has been traced to mutations in copper, zinc superoxide dismutase, or SOD1. Ordinarily, superoxide dismutase is an antioxidant whose proper function is essential to life.

When SOD1 is lacking its metal co-factors, it “unfolds” and becomes toxic, leading to the death of motor neurons. The metals copper and zinc are important in stabilizing this protein, and can help it remain folded more than 200 years.

“The damage from ALS is happening primarily in the spinal cord and that’s also one of the most difficult places in the body to absorb copper,” Beckman said. “Copper itself is necessary but can be toxic, so its levels are tightly controlled in the body. The therapy we’re working toward delivers copper selectively into the cells in the spinal cord that actually need it. Otherwise, the compound keeps copper inert.”

“This is a safe way to deliver a micronutrient like copper exactly where it is needed,” Beckman said.

By restoring a proper balance of copper into the brain and spinal cord, scientists believe they are stabilizing the superoxide dismutase in its mature form, while improving the function of mitochondria. This has already extended the lifespan of affected mice by 26 percent, and with continued research the scientists hope to achieve even more extension.

The compound that does this is called copper (ATSM), has been studied for use in some cancer treatments, and is relatively inexpensive to produce.

“In this case, the result was just the opposite of what one might have expected,” said Blaine Roberts, lead author on the study and a research fellow at the University of Melbourne, who received his doctorate at OSU working with Beckman.

“The treatment increased the amount of mutant SOD, and by accepted dogma this means the animals should get worse,” he said. “But in this case, they got a lot better. This is because we’re making a targeted delivery of copper just to the cells that need it.

“This study opens up a previously neglected avenue for new disease therapies, for ALS and other neurodegenerative disease,” Roberts said.

Other collaborators on this research include OSU, the University of Melbourne, University of Technology/Sydney, Deakin University, the Australian National University, and the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.

Funding has been provided by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the Linus Pauling Institute and other groups in Australia and Finland.

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Joseph Beckman, 541-737-8867

Sea star disease epidemic surges in Oregon, local extinctions expected

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Just in the past two weeks, the incidence of sea star wasting syndrome has exploded along the Oregon Coast and created an epidemic of historic magnitude, one that threatens to decimate the entire population of purple ochre sea stars.

Prior to this, Oregon had been the only part of the West Coast that had been largely spared this devastating disease.

The ochre sea star, which is the species most heavily affected by the disease in the intertidal zone, may be headed toward localized extinction in Oregon, according to researchers at Oregon State University who have been monitoring the outbreak. As a “keystone” predator, its loss could disrupt the entire marine intertidal ecosystem.

Researchers say this is the first time that die-offs of sea stars, more commonly known as starfish, have ever been identified at one time along such a wide expanse of the West Coast, and the sudden increase in Oregon has been extraordinary.

The best information is from the intertidal zone, which is easier to access for monitoring. In this area, less than 1 percent of the ochre sea stars in Oregon were affected in April, and only slightly more than that by mid-May.

Today, an estimated 30-50 percent of the Oregon populations of this sea star species in the intertidal zone have the disease. The highest losses are at Fogarty Creek, where about 60 percent are affected. Researchers project that the epidemic will intensify and, at some sites, nearly 100 percent of the ochre sea stars could die.

“This is an unprecedented event,” said Bruce Menge, the Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology in the Department of Integrative Biology of the OSU College of Science. “We’ve never seen anything of this magnitude before.

“We have no clue what’s causing this epidemic, how severe the damage might be or how long that damage might last,” he said. “It’s very serious. Some of the sea stars most heavily affected are keystone predators that influence the whole diversity of life in the intertidal zone.”

Colleagues from the Oregon Coast Aquarium are monitoring subtidal sites in Yaquina Bay, where wasting was first observed in April. Photos and video of that work are available at http://bit.ly/1kMlG9s

Altogether, mortality has been documented in 10 species of sea stars on the West Coast. No definitive cause has yet been identified, and it could include bacterial or viral pathogens. Researchers around the nation are working on the issue. More information, including an interactive map of all observations, and opportunities for interested citizens to participate in the observation effort are available online at http://bit.ly/1o5bWNi

Sea star wasting syndrome is a traumatic process in which, over the course of a week or less, the sea stars begin to lose legs, disintegrate, ultimately die and rot. They sometimes physically tear their bodies apart. Various epidemics of the syndrome have been observed in the past, but none of this extent or severity.

In a healthy ecosystem, sea stars are beautiful, but also tenacious and important parts of the marine ecosystem. In particular, they attack mussels and keep their populations under control. Absent enough sea stars, mussel populations can explode, covering up algae and other small invertebrates. Some affected sea stars also eat sea urchins. This could lead to increased numbers of sea urchins that can overgraze kelp and sea grass beds, reducing habitat for other fish that use such areas for food and refuge.

The very ecological concept of “keystone predators,” in fact, originated from work in 1969 at the University of Washington using this same purple ochre sea star as a model.

“Parts of California, Washington, and British Columbia had already been affected by this outbreak of the wasting syndrome,” said Kristen Milligan, program coordinator at OSU for the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, or PISCO, which is a collaboration of OSU, the University of California/Santa Cruz, UC/Santa Barbara and Stanford University.

“It wasn’t clear why those areas had been hit and Oregon had not,” Milligan said. “We were hoping that Oregon’s coast would be spared. Although it was hit late, we are obviously being hit hard by this potentially devastating syndrome.”

A group of OSU undergraduate students have assisted in recent monitoring of the OSU outbreak, studying conditions at 10 sites from south of Cape Blanco to north of Depoe Bay. Researchers say this is one of the best documented outbreaks of marine disease ever undertaken in North America.

Besides OSU and PISCO, other collaborators in this Oregon initiative include the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center, Oregon Coast Watch, Haystack Rock Awareness Program in Cannon Beach, and the Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network. Oregon Sea Grant provides funding for volunteer surveys in the intertidal zone, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation provides support to PISCO.

In some past cases, ecosystems have recovered from severe losses of sea stars, but in others damage has been long-lasting.

In the past, some of the outbreaks were associated with warm-water conditions during El Nino events, but currently the water temperatures in Oregon “are only at the high end of a normal range,” Menge said.

 

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Kristen Milligan, 541-737-8862

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Dying sea star

Dying sea star


Sea star monitoring

Oregon Coast Aquarium diver monitoring


Monitoring sea star epidemic

OSU students monitoring


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Amber discovery indicates Lyme disease is older than human race

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Lyme disease is a stealthy, often misdiagnosed disease that was only recognized about 40 years ago, but new discoveries of ticks fossilized in amber show that the bacteria which cause it may have been lurking around for 15 million years – long before any humans walked on Earth.

The findings were made by researchers from Oregon State University, who studied 15-20 million-year-old amber from the Dominican Republic that offer the oldest fossil evidence ever found of Borrelia, a type of spirochete-like bacteria that to this day causes Lyme disease. They were published in the journal Historical Biology.

In a related study, published in Cretaceous Research, OSU scientists announced the first fossil record of Rickettsial-like cells, a bacteria that can cause various types of spotted fever. Those fossils from Myanmar were found in ticks about 100 million years old.

As summer arrives and millions of people head for the outdoors, it’s worth considering that these tick-borne diseases may be far more common than has been historically appreciated, and they’ve been around for a long, long time.

“Ticks and the bacteria they carry are very opportunistic,” said George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus in the Department of Integrative Biology of the OSU College of Science, and one of the world’s leading experts on plant and animal life forms found preserved in amber. “They are very efficient at maintaining populations of microbes in their tissues, and can infect mammals, birds, reptiles and other animals.

“In the United States, Europe and Asia, ticks are a more important insect vector of disease than mosquitos,” Poinar said. “They can carry bacteria that cause a wide range of diseases, affect many different animal species, and often are not even understood or recognized by doctors.

“It’s likely that many ailments in human history for which doctors had no explanation have been caused by tick-borne disease.”

Lyme disease is a perfect example. It can cause problems with joints, the heart and central nervous system, but researchers didn’t even know it existed until 1975. If recognized early and treated with antibiotics, it can be cured. But it’s often mistaken for other health conditions. And surging deer populations in many areas are causing a rapid increase in Lyme disease – the confirmed and probable cases of Lyme disease in Nova Scotia nearly tripled in 2013 over the previous year.

The new research shows these problems with tick-borne disease have been around for millions of years.

Bacteria are an ancient group that date back about 3.6 billion years, almost as old as the planet itself. As soft-bodied organisms they are rarely preserved in the fossil record, but an exception is amber, which begins as a free-flowing tree sap that traps and preserves material in exquisite detail as it slowly turns into a semi-precious mineral.

A series of four ticks from Dominican amber were analyzed in this study, revealing a large population of spirochete-like cells that most closely resemble those of the present-day Borrelia species. In a separate report, Poinar found cells that resemble Rickettsia bacteria, the cause of Rocky Mountain spotted fever and related illnesses. This is the oldest fossil evidence of ticks associated with such bacteria.

In 30 years of studying diseases revealed in the fossil record, Poinar has documented the ancient presence of such diseases as malaria, leishmania, and others. Evidence suggests that dinosaurs could have been infected with Rickettsial pathogens.

Humans have probably been getting diseases, including Lyme disease, from tick-borne bacteria as long as there have been humans, Poinar said. The oldest documented case is the Tyrolean iceman, a 5,300-year-old mummy found in a glacier in the Italian Alps.

“Before he was frozen in the glacier, the iceman was probably already in misery from Lyme disease,” Poinar said. “He had a lot of health problems and was really a mess.”

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Tick carrying spirochetes
Tick carrying spirochetes


Group of spirochetes

Spirochetes that carry lyme disease



 Fossil rickettsia cells

Rickettsia-like cells


Rickettsia Cretaceous tick (4)

Tick carrying rickettsia

Butterfly “eyespots” add detail to the story of evolution

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study of the colorful “eyespots” on the wings of some butterfly species is helping to address fundamental questions about evolution that are conceptually similar to the quandary Aristotle wrestled with about 330 B.C. – “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

After consideration, Aristotle decided that both the egg and the chicken had always existed, which was not the right answer. The new Oregon State University research is providing a little more detail.

The study, published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, actually attempts to explain the existence of what scientists call “serial homologues,” or patterns in nature that are repetitive, serve a function and are so important they are often retained through millions of years and across vast numbers of species.

Repeated vertebra that form a spinal column, rows of teeth, and groups of eyespots on butterfly wings are all examples of serial homologues. Researchers have tracked the similarities and changes of these serial features through much time and many species, but it’s remained a question about how they originally evolved.

Put another way, it’s easier to see how one breed of chicken evolved into a different breed, rather than where chickens – or their eggs - came from to begin with.

Butterfly wings are helping to answer that question. These eyespots, common to the butterfly family Nymphalidae, now serve many butterflies in dual roles of both predator avoidance and mate identification. One theory of their origin is that they evolved from simpler, single spots; another theory is that they evolved from a “band” of color which later separated into spots.

“What we basically conclude is that neither of the existing theories about butterfly eyespots is correct,” said Jeffrey Oliver, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Integrative Biology of the OSU College of Science. “The evidence suggests that a few eyespots evolved as a group at about the same time, but behaved somewhat as individual entities.”

Having appeared as a result of some genetic mutation, however, the eyespots then had the capability to move, acquire a function that had evolutionary value, and because of that value were retained by future generations of butterflies. And at all times, they retained the biological capacity for positional awareness – the eyespots formed in the same place until a new mutation came along.

“At first, it appears the eyespots helped this group of butterflies with one of the most basic aspects of survival value, which is avoiding predators,” Oliver said.

On the side of the wing that predators saw when the wings were closed, the eyespots could have served as camouflage from a distance, and up close almost a “bulls-eye” for a predator to see and attack. But this directed the attack toward the tips of less-important wings, and not the more vulnerable head or body of the insect.

But just as important, Oliver said, the study indicates how through continued mutation these eyespots moved to a completely different place – the other side of the wing. There, they performed a completely different function – helping the butterfly to attract and be identified by optimal mates.

“If you take this same concept and apply it to other important features like vertebra and a spinal column, it suggests that some small number of bones would form through mutation, and eventually move, join and be perpetuated as they acquired a function with survival value,” Oliver said.

“There would be a biological position in which they were supposed to form, and that would be retained,” he said. “And over time, the vertebra might expand in number, and acquire other functions that had nothing to do with their original function, but which still had value.”

The evolution of life has never been simple, as Aristotle and the other early philosophers found out. But one bone or butterfly eyespot at a time, the pieces continue to come together.

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Jeffrey Oliver, 541-737-5736

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Squinting bush brown

Squinting bush brown


Painted lady

Painted lady

New method discovered to protect against chemical weapons

 

The study this news story is based on is available in ScholarsArchive@OSU: http://bit.ly/1n0gqnR

 

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have discovered that some compounds called polyoxoniobates can degrade and decontaminate nerve agents such as the deadly sarin gas, and have other characteristics that may make them ideal for protective suits, masks or other clothing.

The use of polyoxoniobates for this purpose had never before been demonstrated, scientists said, and the discovery could have important implications for both military and civilian protection. A United Nations report last year concluded that sarin gas was used in the conflict in Syria.

The study findings were just published in the European Journal of Inorganic Chemistry.

Some other compounds exist that can decontaminate nerve gases, researchers said, but they are organic, unstable, degraded by sunlight and have other characteristics that make them undesirable for protective clothing – or they are inorganic, but cannot be used on fabrics or surfaces.

By contrast, the polyoxoniobates are inorganic, do not degrade in normal environmental conditions, dissolve easily and it should be able to incorporate them onto surfaces, fabrics and other material.

“This is a fundamental new understanding of what these compounds can do,” said May Nyman, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry in the OSU College of Science. “As stable, inorganic compounds they have an important potential to decontaminate and protect against these deadly nerve gases.”

As a chemical group, polyoxoniobates have been known of since the mid-1900s, Nyman said, but a detailed investigation of their complex chemistry has revealed this new potential. Besides protection against nerve gas, she said, their chemistry might allow them to function as a catalyst that could absorb carbon dioxide and find use in carbon sequestration at fossil-fuel power plants – but little has been done yet to explore that potential.

A new method to protect against nerve agents could be significant. These organofluorophosphate compounds can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, and in military use are considered weapons of mass destruction. They can be lethal even at very small levels of exposure.

“In continued work we hope to incorporate the protective compounds onto surfaces or fabrics and explore their function,” Nyman said. “They could form the basis for an improved type of gas mask or other protection. We would also need to test the material’s ability to withstand very arid environments, extreme heat or other conditions.”

A goal will be materials that are durable, high performing and retain a high level of protection against nerve agents such as sarin and soman gas even in harsh environmental conditions, researchers said.

The OSU research demonstrated the ability of polyoxoniobates to neutralize both actual and simulated nerve agents. Testing against actual nerve agents was done at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center, a U.S. Army facility designed for that purpose.

OSU has collaborated on this research with Sandia National Laboratories and the U.S. Army. The work at Edgewood was supported by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a unit of the U.S. Department of Defense.

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May Nyman, 541-737-1116

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Nerve gas decontamination

Nerve gas decontamination

Research explains action of drug that may slow aging and related disease

 

The study this story is based on is available in ScholarsArchive@OSU: http://bit.ly/1sQeLkz

 

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A proven approach to slow the aging process is dietary restriction, but new research in the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University helps explain the action of a drug that appears to mimic that process – rapamycin.

Rapamycin, an antibiotic and immunosuppressant approved for use about 15 years ago, has drawn extensive interest for its apparent ability – at least in laboratory animal tests – to emulate the ability of dietary restriction in helping animals to live both longer and healthier.

However, this medication has some drawbacks, including an increase in insulin resistance that could set the stage for diabetes. The new findings, published in the Journals of Gerontology: Biological Sciences, help to explain why that happens, and what could be done to address it.

They suggest that a combination of rapamycin and another drug to offset that increase in insulin resistance might provide the benefits of this medication without the unwanted side effect.

“This could be an important advance if it helps us find a way to gain the apparent benefits of rapamycin without increasing insulin resistance,” said Viviana Perez, an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics in the OSU College of Science.

“It could provide a way not only to increase lifespan but to address some age-related diseases and improve general health,” Perez said. “We might find a way for people not only to live longer, but to live better and with a higher quality of life.”

Age-related diseases include many of the degenerative diseases that affect billions of people around the world and are among the leading causes of death: cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.

Laboratory mice that have received rapamycin have reduced the age-dependent decline in spontaneous activity, demonstrated more fitness, improved cognition and cardiovascular health, had less cancer and lived substantially longer than mice fed a normal diet.

Rapamycin, first discovered from the soils of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui in the South Pacific Ocean, is primarily used as an immunosuppressant to prevent rejection of organs and tissues. In recent years it was also observed that it can function as a metabolic “signaler” that inhibits a biological pathway found in almost all higher life forms – the ability to sense when food has been eaten, energy is available and it’s okay for cell proliferation, protein synthesis and growth to proceed.

Called mTOR in mammals, for the term “mammalian target of rapamycin,” this pathway has a critical evolutionary value – it helps an organism avoid too much cellular expansion and growth when energy supplies are insufficient. That helps explain why some form of the pathway has been conserved across such a multitude of species, from yeast to fish to humans.

“Dietary restriction is one of the few interventions that inhibits this mTOR pathway,” Perez said. “And a restricted diet in laboratory animals has been shown to increase their lifespan about 25-30 percent. Human groups who eat fewer calories, such as some Asian cultures, also live longer.”

Aside from a food intake in laboratory mice that’s about 40 percent fewer calories than normal, however, it’s been found that another way to activate this pathway is with rapamycin, which appears to have a significant impact even when used late in life. Some human clinical trials are already underway exploring this potential.

A big drawback to long-term use of rapamycin, however, is the increase in insulin resistance, observed in both humans and laboratory animals. The new research identified why that is happening. It found that both dietary restriction and rapamycin inhibited lipid synthesis, but only dietary restriction increased the oxidation of those lipids in order to produce energy.

Rapamycin, by contrast, allowed a buildup of fatty acids and eventually an increase in insulin resistance, which in humans can lead to diabetes. However, the drug metformin can address that concern, and is already given to some diabetic patients to increase lipid oxidation. In lab tests, the combined use of rapamycin and metformin prevented the unwanted side effect.

“If proven true, then combined use of metformin and rapamycin for treating aging and age-associated diseases in humans may be possible,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion.

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health. Collaborators included researchers from Oklahoma University Health Science Center, the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center, University of Michigan-Flint, and South Texas Veterans Health Care System.

“There’s still substantial work to do, and it may not be realistic to expect with humans what we have been able to accomplish with laboratory animals,” Perez said. “People don’t live in a cage and eat only the exact diet they are given. Nonetheless, the potential of this work is exciting.”

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Viviana Perez, 541-737-9551

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Action of rapamycin
Action of rapamycin

Study of marine life near Newport finds no red flags for toxicity

NEWPORT, Ore. – Oregon State University scientists have examined a variety of coastal marine species near Newport, Ore., for concentrations of heavy metals and organic pollutants and found only trace amounts with no bioaccumulation of significant concern.

Their report is being presented May 19 to the City of Newport, which commissioned the study. It is available online at: http://www.thecityofnewport.net/

Newport city officials were concerned that effluent from a Georgia-Pacific containerboard plant outfall pipe, located some 4,000 feet off Nye Beach, may be exposing some marine life to contaminants. A 2010 study by CH2M-Hill looked for heavy metals in the surrounding water and sediments and found little with which to be concerned. Their study did not investigate marine organisms, however.

“There was some concern that metals and organic pollutants may be bioaccumulating in nearby marine life,” said Sarah Henkel, a marine ecologist at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center and primary investigator on the study. “We tested for 137 different chemicals and only detected 38 of them – none at levels that remotely approach concern for humans.”

The City of Newport had asked the OSU researchers to look at a variety of species, including flatfish (speckled sand dab), crustaceans (Dungeness crab and Crangon shrimp), and mollusks (mussels and olive snails) because they could bioaccumulate metals and organic pollutants at different rates. The researchers collected a variety of samples in 2012 near the G-P outfall, as well as at sites north of Yaquina Head and south of Yaquina Bay. In fall of 2013, they also collected and analyzed rock scallops.

The organisms were analyzed for trace metals including copper and lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and congeners, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are used in flame-retardant materials, and other potentially carcinogenic compounds. They also were analyzed for organic-based compounds, which are commonly derived from pesticides.

Not a single organism was found with a bioaccumulation of metals or organic pollutants that approached levels of concern for humans established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the researchers reported.

“The system is pretty darn clean,” said Scott Heppell, a biologist with the OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and co-primary investigator on the study.  “I was certainly interested personally going into the study because my family goes crabbing in some of the places we sampled. If we had found anything, we would have had to come up with a new place. But we found nothing approaching the level of intervention for humans and that’s reassuring.”

The OSU researchers did find one area of potential future concern – trace levels of arsenic in mussels at sites both north and south of Yaquina Bay. The arsenic levels were still below the FDA level of concern for human consumption (86 parts per million), Heppell said, but in some cases exceeded the established level of concern for impacts to the mussels themselves, which is 3.6 ppm. Some of the samples analyzed by the researchers reached 5.0 ppm.

“It is still 15 times lower than the threshold for human concern, but there is potential for damage to the mussels themselves,” Heppell said. “It is also worth noting because the arsenic was in virtually all of the mussel samples we collected on beaches from Seal Rock to north of Yaquina Head. There is no way to draw a link to the G-P outfall.

“But because it was so common, it may be a good idea to study mussel populations up and down the entire coast to see what arsenic levels are at beyond our study area.”

Arsenic is often used in pressure-treated lumber and wood preservatives, the researchers noted.

Among other findings:

  • The researchers found three derivatives of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, a pesticide that has been banned for 40 years. Although it was detected at very small amounts, “the fact that it is still present in organisms four decades later shows why it was banned,” Henkel said.
  • No significant bioaccumulation could be attributed to the G-P outfall. In fact, fish, crabs and shrimp collected from subtidal sites away from the outfall often had higher concentrations of metals than those adjacent to the pipe, though still at levels safe for human consumption.
  • Two DDT derivatives (2,4’-DDE and 4,4’-DDD) were found in a single crab sample. Another, hexochloro-benzene, was detected in just two crab samples – at concentrations some 10,000 times less than the toxicity level listed as potentially affecting the crabs themselves.

“It is worth noting that the instrumentation today is so sensitive it can detect trace amounts of compounds at concentrations not possible just a few years ago,” Heppell said.

The OSU researchers praised the City of Newport for seeking data that potentially could have been damaging, yet was important to know.

“This is one of those reports that, thankfully, turns out to be rather boring,” Henkel said.

Other researchers on the project included Selina Heppell, a biologist with the OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife; and OSU faculty research assistants Kristin Politano and Vincent Politano.

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Sarah Henkel, 541-867-0316, sarah.henkel@oregonstate.edu; Scott Heppell, 541-737-1086, scott.heppell@oregonstate.edu

OSU names Lubchenco adviser for marine sciences

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Jane Lubchenco is back on the faculty of Oregon State University where she has a new role – adviser to the university on marine studies issues.

OSU has named Lubchenco Distinguished University Professor and Adviser in Marine Studies – a position that will help coordinate and expand Oregon State’s international prominence in marine-related studies, which are spread across several disciplines and account for nearly $100 million annually in research funding.

“After four years at the helm of the nation’s premier agency for the ocean and atmosphere, I’m delighted to be back at OSU, and even more pleased to see the new energy focused on marine science, education, policy and outreach,” Lubchenco said. “From my time at NOAA, I know both the high caliber of marine sciences at OSU and the strong potential for a more robust, visible and effective marine studies program that can provide much-needed global leadership by our faculty and students.

“I’m energized by OSU’s commitment to elevate ocean stewardship and to expand the range and quality of opportunities available to students,” she added.

Oregon State’s growth in the marine sciences in recent years has been significant and Lubchenco has played a key role with her seminal research in marine ecology. OSU boasts one of the strongest marine ecology and biology programs in the nation in the College of Science; a formidable oceanography program in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences; and one of the most highly regarded marine research and education facilities in the country in the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

The university’s strength in marine studies is broad and deep, according to Rick Spinrad, OSU’s vice president for research, who pointed out that Oregon State’s national leadership in wave energy research and tsunami studies are based in OSU’s College of Engineering. The College of Agricultural Sciences has one of the nation’s top fisheries programs as well as a leading oyster breeding research program. OSU-based Oregon Sea Grant is an acclaimed research, education and outreach program tied to Extension, and Lubchenco’s own faculty appointment is in Integrative Biology, which is in OSU’s College of Science.

Other OSU colleges, including Veterinary Medicine, Pharmacy, Education, Liberal Arts, and Public Health and Human Sciences, also have ties to marine research and education.

“A primary goal for Dr. Lubchenco in her new position will be to engage the entire university in OSU’s expanding marine studies mission, and advise university leadership on marine studies matters,” Spinrad said. “We are delighted to welcome Jane back and look forward to her strategic contributions in building OSU’s global marine studies program.”

Last year, OSU President Ray announced the launch of an initiative to create a marine studies campus at OSU, including developments at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport that would eventually host as many as 500 students. Planning is under way for how such a campus might be developed, according to Sabah Randhawa, OSU provost and executive vice president. “Jane Lubchenco’s insights into the national and international needs for marine science education will be invaluable as we go forward with our plans,” Randhawa said.

OSU also provides leadership on a number of other marine studies initiatives, including:

  • The Ocean Observatories Initiative, a $386 million project funded by the National Science Foundation to monitor changes in the world’s oceans – led by a handful of universities, including Oregon State University;
  • An initiative to design and oversee construction of as many as three new coastal research vessels to bolster the United States research fleet. OSU was chosen as lead institution for the NSF-funded project, which could total $290 million over 10 years;
  • The Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, a multi-institutional research consortium established 15 years ago and led by OSU, with funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation totaling more than $56 million.

 

Lubchenco said she looks forward to working with OSU faculty, staff and students across the university on marine studies issues.

“I’m immensely proud of what we were able to accomplish during the four years I was at NOAA,” she said. “I return to OSU with new insights, contacts and energy to help strengthen our ability to be positioned for the challenges that lie ahead.”

Under Lubchenco’s leadership, NOAA focused on restoring sustainability and economic viability to fisheries, restoring oceans and coasts to a healthy state, protecting marine mammals and endangered species, conducting and disseminating information on climate science, providing timely weather forecasts and warnings, and maintaining the nation’s weather and environmental satellites.

Lubchenco is one of the most highly cited ecologists in the world and is past-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Ecological Society of America, and the International Council for Science; she is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and was a National Science Board member for 10 years; she served on numerous international commissions; and she is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius award.”

Prior to her NOAA appointment, Lubchenco and her husband, Bruce Menge, shared the Wayne and Gladys Valley Chair in Marine Biology. Menge, who also has the title of Distinguished Professor of Integrative Biology, will continue as the Valley Chair, teaching marine biology and ecology, and leading interdisciplinary research teams focused on ocean acidification and coastal ocean dynamics.

Sastry Pantula, dean of OSU’s College of Science, said Lubchenco’s return to campus will benefit students interested in marine studies.

“Jane’s wealth of international experience and the College of Science’s strong foundation in marine science research and education will be key for OSU as a global leader in marine studies,” Pantula said.  “I am thrilled to see Jane in this role helping to build future leaders and policy makers in marine studies. It is a win-win for our students and for the university."

Media Contact: 
Source: 

Rick Spinrad, 541-737-0662; rick.spinrad@oregonstate.edu; Sabah Randhawa, 541-737-2111; Sabah.randhawa@oregonstate.edu; Jane Lubchenco, 541-737-5337; lubchenco@oregonstate.edu

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Trees go high-tech: process turns cellulose into energy storage devices

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Based on a fundamental chemical discovery by scientists at Oregon State University, it appears that trees may soon play a major role in making high-tech energy storage devices.

OSU chemists have found that cellulose – the most abundant organic polymer on Earth and a key component of trees – can be heated in a furnace in the presence of ammonia, and turned into the building blocks for supercapacitors.

These supercapacitors are extraordinary, high-power energy devices with a wide range of industrial applications, in everything from electronics to automobiles and aviation. But widespread use of them has been held back primarily by cost and the difficulty of producing high-quality carbon electrodes.

The new approach just discovered at Oregon State can produce nitrogen-doped, nanoporous carbon membranes – the electrodes of a supercapacitor – at low cost, quickly, in an environmentally benign process. The only byproduct is methane, which could be used immediately as a fuel or for other purposes.

“The ease, speed and potential of this process is really exciting,” said Xiulei (David) Ji, an assistant professor of chemistry in the OSU College of Science, and lead author on a study announcing the discovery in Nano Letters, a journal of the American Chemical Society. The research was funded by OSU.

“For the first time we’ve proven that you can react cellulose with ammonia and create these N-doped nanoporous carbon membranes,” Ji said. “It’s surprising that such a basic reaction was not reported before. Not only are there industrial applications, but this opens a whole new scientific area, studying reducing gas agents for carbon activation.

We’re going to take cheap wood and turn it into a valuable high-tech product,” he said.

These carbon membranes at the nano-scale are extraordinarily thin – a single gram of them can have a surface area of nearly 2,000 square meters. That’s part of what makes them useful in supercapacitors. And the new process used to do this is a single-step reaction that’s fast and inexpensive. It starts with something about as simple as a cellulose filter paper – conceptually similar to the disposable paper filter in a coffee maker.

The exposure to high heat and ammonia converts the cellulose to a nanoporous carbon material needed for supercapacitors, and should enable them to be produced, in mass, more cheaply than before.

A supercapacitor is a type of energy storage device, but it can be recharged much faster than a battery and has a great deal more power. They are mostly used in any type of device where rapid power storage and short, but powerful energy release is needed.

Supercapacitors can be used in computers and consumer electronics, such as the flash in a digital camera. They have applications in heavy industry, and are able to power anything from a crane to a forklift. A supercapacitor can capture energy that might otherwise be wasted, such as in braking operations. And their energy storage abilities may help “smooth out” the power flow from alternative energy systems, such as wind energy.

They can power a defibrillator, open the emergency slides on an aircraft and greatly improve the efficiency of hybrid electric automobiles.

Besides supercapacitors, nanoporous carbon materials also have applications in adsorbing gas pollutants, environmental filters, water treatment and other uses.

“There are many applications of supercapacitors around the world, but right now the field is constrained by cost,” Ji said. “If we use this very fast, simple process to make these devices much less expensive, there could be huge benefits.”

Media Contact: 
Source: 

David Xiulei Ji, 541-737-6798

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Carbon membranes

Conversion process



Trees for technology

Trees for paper