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EPSCoR grants awarded for ecosystem research

Chemical engineer Thomas Epps of the University of Delaware uses a Small-Angle X-ray Scattering (SAXS) instrument to reveal the structure of block copolymer membranes, which may be used to capture proteins and protein fragments in the environment.
Environmental engineer C.P. Huang (right) and graduate student Minghua Li of the University of Delaware, display test tubes containing carbon nanotubes, or CNTs, in solution. The test tubes represent a range of exposure to an oxidizing agent, with the greatest exposure times resulting in more dispersal of the CNTs and thus a darker solution.
Kristi Kiick (right), a researcher in UD's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and graduate student Erinc Sahin are developing the building blocks for nanoscale tools and devices (on the order of a billionth of a meter) that can be used to understand a variety of biological and environmental phenomena.
Marine geologist Art Trembanis (left), postdoctoral fellow Damian Brady (center) and fisheries scientist Tim Targett of the University of Delaware prepare the automated underwater vehicle DOERRI for a mission to investigate the impact of fluctuating oxygen conditions on juvenile fish in Delaware’s Inland Bays.

3:07 p.m., Jan. 2, 2007--The Delaware Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), a statewide effort based at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute in Newark, has awarded more than $460,000 in seed grants to scientists at the University of Delaware and Delaware State University.

The funding will support 11 studies over the next year on topics ranging from a plant that can decontaminate soil of a toxic metal to a computer model for predicting the effects of fluctuating low-oxygen conditions on juvenile fish in Delaware's Inland Bays.

Established by the National Science Foundation and the State of Delaware in 2005, the Delaware EPSCoR program seeks to advance the state's research and development capabilities in biotechnology and the biosciences through partnerships involving the state's higher education institutions, including the University of Delaware, Delaware State University, Delaware Technical and Community College and Wesley College, as well as industry and government.

“The purpose of the Delaware EPSCoR seed grants is to catalyze new interdisciplinary partnerships in basic research areas that help us understand the scientific basis of key environmental problems in Delaware,” Stephen Borleske, manager of the Delaware EPSCoR program, said. “As these projects develop, we hope to expand these partnerships to include local industry and government agencies like DNREC and EPA to translate basic science into solutions to Delaware problems.”

Seed grants have been awarded for the following research projects:

  • Harsh Bais, assistant professor of plant and soil sciences at UD, and Donald Sparks, S. Hallock du Pont Chair of Plant and Soil Sciences, will examine how Alyssum murale, or yellowtuft, a plant commonly used in rock gardens, can “hyper-accumulate” nickel in its leaves, flowers and stems, thus providing a natural means of decontaminating the soil of the metal. The scientists want to determine what role the plant's roots play in the decontamination process. This research will advance the fundamental understanding of metal remediation by plants.
  • Pei Chiu, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at UD, and Doug Doren, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, will test the chemical reactivity of nano-sized particles of black carbon, such as soot. A variety of pollutants can attach and react on these microscopic bits of carbon, which are released during the burning of fossil fuels and of trees and other plant material during deforestation. Thus, black-carbon particles can play a pivotal role in the transport and fate of a number of land and aquatic pollutants.
  • Kathryn Coyne, assistant professor of marine and Earth studies at UD, and Gulnihal Ozbay, assistant research professor of agriculture and natural resources at Delaware State University, will determine if flow cytrometry, a research technique that uses light to measure single cells and their characteristics, can be used to evaluate the physiological responses of microscopic algae to changes in nutrient sources, specifically nitrogen. This study will aid future research on the role of nutrient overloads in harmful algal blooms.
  • Thomas Epps III, assistant professor of chemical engineering at UD, and Thomas Hanson, assistant professor of marine biology-biochemistry, will examine block copolymer network membranes as a means of creating novel nanomaterials for small molecule capture and enrichment. This research will advance the study of environmental proteomics and metabolomics, where sensing organism responses to environmental stresses requires new technologies to selectively capture and analyze metabolites and peptides at nanomolar concentrations.
  • C. P. Huang, Donald C. Phillips Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UD, Thomas Beebe Jr., professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Sparks will study the effects of ozone, ultraviolet light and ultrasound on carbon nanotubes. These tiny tubes are among the most common materials used in microelectronics. The scientists will investigate the tubes' ability to adsorb toxic contaminants, as well as any effects that the oxidation of the tubes may have on aquatic organisms including bacteria, algae, and zooplankton.
  • Kristi Kiick, professor of materials science and engineering at UD, and Beebe will use polypeptides, which are composed of the same building blocks as proteins, as a modular element in assembling environmentally sensitive nanostructures. These molecules will provide a basis for developing microscopically organized materials, with functional units assembled on length scales of the order of a billionth of a meter in size, that will promote further understanding of biological and environmental phenomena.
  • David Kirchman, Maxwell P. and Mildred H. Harrington Professor of Marine Studies at UD, Barbara Campbell, research assistant professor of marine biology-biochemistry, and Sparks will develop techniques for assessing the community structure and function of microbes on metal oxides. Their goal is to predict the microbial transformations of arsenic, which are hypothesized to occur in association with manganese oxide. Arsenic is a very poisonous metallic element used in pesticides, insecticides and herbicides, and arsenic contamination of Delaware soils and groundwater is a growing concern.
  • George Luther III, Maxwell P. and Mildred H. Harrington Professor of Marine Studies at UD, and Douglas Ridge, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, will develop new analytical approaches relating to aqueous clusters of metal sulfides and their stability and reactivity in waterways. The goal of their research is to help scientists and environmental managers make better predictions about metal pollution, the bioavailability of metals to organisms and metal transport in the environment. Certain metals are essential to the health of many organisms in trace amounts, but become toxic at higher levels.
  • Ismat Shah, professor of materials science and engineering at UD, Patricia DeLeon, professor of human genetics, Adam Marsh, associate professor of marine biology-biochemistry, and Xinqaio Jia, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, will assess the interaction between marine organisms and engineered nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and silver. Delaware is a leading producer of titanium oxide, a white pigment that is used in paints, food dye, paper, inks, plastics, cosmetics and other products.
  • Arthur Trembanis, assistant professor of geological sciences, Timothy Targett, professor of marine biology-biochemistry, and Dominic DiToro, Edward C. Davis Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, will use the Delaware Oceanographic and Environmental Research Remote Instrument (DOERRI), an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), to test an integrated water-quality and fish-behavior model. It will be used to compare direct AUV-based observations in the field to model predictions of the impact of diel-cycling hypoxia--low-oxygen conditions that fluctuate over a 24-hour period--on juvenile fish that depend on the Inland Bays as nursery habitat.
  • Eric Wommack, associate professor of plant and soil sciences, and of marine biology-biochemistry at UD, Craig Cary, professor of marine biology-biochemistry, and Sparks will explore the ecology of viruses within the extremely hostile hydrothermal environments of New Zealand. Viruses are numerically the most dominant life forms on Earth. Growing evidence indicates that viruses play a key role in shaping the productivity, composition and diversity of co-existing communities of microbes.

This is the second year that Delaware EPSCoR has awarded seed grants to researchers in the state. For more information about the current grants, as well as last year's awards, visit the “Research Profiles” on the program's outreach Web site at [www.epscor.dbi.udel.edu/outreach].

Article by Tracey Bryant
Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson

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