Archive for June, 2012

Lobster Institute Featured in New Book on Lobsters

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

A new book, “The Lobster Book,” by Virginia Wright and published by Down East magazine, includes a chapter devoted to the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine and mentions several lobster byproducts developed there. The author interviewed Lobster Institute Director Robert Bayer, who described research into such industry elements as lobster behavior, disease, regulation and alternative bait that the institute has done since its founding in 1980, in addition to more recently developed byproducts now commercially available such as biodegradable lobster shell golf balls and lobster-flavored dog “bisque-its.” The New York Times reviewed the book recently.

Wood Researchers Win Awards

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Two University of Maine faculty members and a UMaine graduate student recently won awards for wood-related research at the 66th International Convention of the Forest Products Society.

William Davids, the John C. Bridge Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Stephen Shaler, a professor of wood science, were named winners of the L.J. Markwardt Wood Engineering Award, which is given for promoting knowledge of wood in the engineering field. Davids, Shaler and their co-authors R. Lagana and L. Muszynski were recognized for their paper, “Moment-Curvature Analysis of Coupled Bending and Mechano-sorptive Response of Red Spruce Beams,” which was published in Wood and Fiber Science in 2011.

Yucheng Peng, a Ph.D. student in the School of Forest Resources, won the Wood Award, which recognizes and honors the most outstanding graduate student research in the field of wood and wood products. His paper was “Spray-drying Cellulose Nanofibrils: The Effect of Spray-Drying Process Parameters on Particle Morphology and Particle Size.” Peng’s research focuses on developing nanotechnology.

Contact: Jessica Bloch, (207) 581-3777

Researcher Noted in Huffington Post

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

Ed Grew, a UMaine research professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, was mentioned in a Huffington Post blog about mineralogy and the field’s contributions to the understanding of life. Grew, who according to the blog post is the world’s expert on the minerals of the rare elements beryllium and boron, was asked about when beryllium minerals first appeared, what processes led to their diversification, and have any beryllium minerals become “extinct. Based on Grew’s research, the blog’s author concluded that the science of rocks and minerals is inextricably linked to biology.

Contact: Jessica Bloch, (207) 581-3777

Garbage Study Shows 60 Percent of Trash Could Be Diverted

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

Bottles

A recently updated 2011 study by the University of Maine School of Economics that sorted and assessed the contents of trash in a representative sample of 17 Maine communities concludes that as much as 60 percent of what’s thrown away could be diverted from the waste stream through composting and recycling.

Since municipalities pay for trash disposal, usually by the ton, researchers say big savings could result from reducing volume of trash, along with the cost of hauling it and paying tipping fees for disposal, in addition to improving the environment.

The 2011 study involved sorting more than 30 subcategories of trash at transfer stations around the state. The subcategories were divided into three component groups: unsalvageable waste, compostable and organic materials, and recyclables.

“It was approximately 40-40-20 with waste, compostable and recyclable, respectively,” says Travis Blackmer, an economics graduate student from Dedham, Maine.

The research, commissioned by the Maine State Planning Office as a way to educate communities about the value of reducing waste by quantifying what’s being thrown away that needn’t be, “definitely accomplished what we wanted,” he says.

Statewide, Maine has consistently missed a desired goal of reusing, reducing or composting 50 percent of its waste stream.  Some communities are more aggressive than others about reducing trash, but when presented with the potential cost savings, enthusiasm tends to grow, according to Blackmer and George Criner, director of the School of Economics who has researched trash in Maine for several decades. Most transfer stations have facilities for collecting glass, metal, paper and more, but much more even could be diverted.

“Wouldn’t we all agree that newspapers should be out of the garbage?” Criner says. “Yet many communities have noticeable amounts remaining in their curbside waste stream.”

Various types of recyclable or compostable paper made up about a quarter of all waste, according to the final report on the project, “2011 Maine Residential Waste Characterization Study.” Textiles, including clothing, are recyclable and comprised almost 5 percent of the waste stream that was analyzed, Blackmer adds.

The 2011 study has been augmented by data from several additional sources, which include the city of Brewer’s experience when it switched from traditional curbside trash collection to a single-sort recycling program in 2010 and then a “pay-as-you-throw” system.

“The pay-as-you-throw garbage system, coupled with the single-stream recycling option, is like a one-two waste-management punch,” Criner says. “Households respond to incentives, so when you hit them in the wallet, they want to throw out less, and since the single stream system is convenient, household participation is high. When Brewer put in its pay-as-you-throw and single-sort recycling, their waste essentially dropped to half, which is pretty typical.”

A single-sort system accepts multiple categories of recyclable trash in one container, which is later separated at a sorting facility.

Criner also says that recycling waste requires more labor than landfilling or incineration, and it creates jobs. Further recycling keeps materials from incineration or landfilling, and both have long-term environmental impacts. The economics of recycling is complex, depending on many varying factors, Criner says, but communities can save money if it is done wisely.

A video about this project is available here.

Contact: George Criner, (207) 581-3151; George Manlove, (207) 581-3756

UMaine Research Studies the Effects of Arsenic on the Cell

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

water drop

Science has long known that arsenic is toxic to humans. Exposure to high doses over a brief period can lead rapidly to organ failure and death. At lower doses over a longer time, arsenic exposure is associated with cancer, diabetes, impaired neurological development, behavioral changes and more.

But the mechanism of arsenic’s toxicity is poorly understood. To complicate matters, it appears that some of the same qualities that make it so deadly may actually have a therapeutic effect in specific circumstances. And, importantly, since arsenic is all around us, most people have some exposure.

At the University of Maine’s Department of Molecular and Biomedical Sciences, professors Carol Kim and Julie Gosse are learning more about arsenic and the ways it functions in the body. By advancing scientific understanding of its mechanisms, they hope to promote science-based environmental regulations and medical interventions that can mitigate arsenic’s toxic effects.

Like its elemental cousins lead and mercury, arsenic (As) is found in naturally occurring deposits from which it leaches into water and soils. It also can be released more rapidly into the environment through natural processes, such as volcanic activity and erosion, and through human activity such as mining and agriculture.

Arsenic is found in manufactured products as well, including wood preservatives, paints, dyes, metals, soaps and medicines, and workers in these industries may be exposed. Arsenic-containing waste is present in many landfills and dumps. In some cultures, arsenic in high doses has been used as an effective therapy for acute asthma attacks, although its mechanism has been poorly understood and its therapeutic value is offset by its long-term risks.

In Maine, arsenic is present in many public and private water supplies, most often at levels below the 10 parts per billion (ppb) cap designated as “safe” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, following a 2001 rule change that took effect in 2006. Prior to this change, the EPA’s allowable standard was 50 ppb.

Public water supplies are closely monitored for arsenic and that information is available to the public through individual water utilities and the governmental agencies that oversee them. But private wells are unregulated and may contain much higher levels. Concerns remain that exposure to arsenic over time — even at very low levels, perhaps below the current 10 ppb limit — poses a significant and pernicious risk to human health.

Arsenic contamination from both naturally occurring deposits and human-produced pollution is a problem across the country, but particularly in Maine and New Hampshire, says Carol Kim, director of UMaine’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, who has been conducting research since 1998 on innate immunity and infectious diseases, using zebrafish as a model organism.

Kim’s most recent project studies the effects of low levels of arsenic — like those found in drinking water — on a healthy innate immune response and one compromised by the gene mutation that causes cystic fibrosis. Her study is funded by a $1.8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, part of an $11 million NIH grant to Dartmouth Medical School. The principal investigator is Jason Moore, a computational geneticist at Dartmouth Medical School.

The project draws on the strength of two major milestones in Kim’s lab: the development of a zebrafish model for studying cystic fibrosis, funded in 2005 with an NIH grant of more than $405,000; and a 2007 discovery showing that arsenic exposure at levels deemed safe in human drinking water suppressed the overall innate immune health of zebrafish, causing increased susceptibility to viral and bacterial infections.

“We’re trying to understand how arsenic exacerbates cystic fibrosis and the extent to which this effect is brought about by exposure to arsenic as an environmental toxicant,” Kim says.

Cystic fibrosis is the most common fatal genetic disease in the United States, according to NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute. An estimated 30,000 people in the U.S. have the disease, which is caused by mutations in the Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Regulator (CFTR). Approximately 10 million Americans carry the defective CFTR gene.

In normal cells, the CFTR protein serves as a channel, allowing cells to release chloride and water into the lungs. However, in people with cystic fibrosis, the protein is defective and the cells do not release the chloride, resulting in an improper salt balance and less water on the lung surfaces, producing abnormally thick mucus.

The gene mutations cause increased susceptibility to Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a common bacterium in water and soil. P. aeruginosa is the cause of chronic infection and irreparable lung tissue scarring in 80 percent of cystic fibrosis patients in their late teens, Kim says. Yet the bacterium is not a common lung pathogen in people with healthy immune systems.

“We’re trying to understand how arsenic exacerbates cystic fibrosis and the extent to which this effect is brought about by exposure to arsenic as an environmental toxicant.” Carol Kim

Kim’s research has shown that the zebrafish’s ability to resist bacterial and viral infection is compromised by exposure to arsenic. She hopes to identify genes and pathways involved in modulating innate immunity in response to arsenic exposure, as well as CFTR modulation. Her data will be shared with a Dartmouth-based biostatistician and a bioinformatics specialist to help identify sets of human genes and signaling pathways that contribute to the innate immune response, respond to arsenic and are influenced by CFTR.

With the NIH grant, Dartmouth Medical School will establish an NIH Center of Biomedical Research Excellence to advance biomedical research and foster collaboration among scientists from UMaine, Harvard, Jackson Laboratory, Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, Maine Medical Center, University of New Hampshire, University of Southern Maine and University of Vermont.

“There is real potential to find genes associated with CF and to identify potential drug targets that could reduce or eliminate many of the debilitating effects of the disease,” Kim says.

There have been a lot of recent studies about arsenic, says Julie Gosse, “but we need to fill in some of the gaps.” Gosse specializes in the study of biochemical, molecular and cellular toxicology with the long-term goal of protecting humans from environmental health risks. At UMaine, she and her students are examining arsenic’s molecular activity and its impact on the immune system.

Gosse is looking at mast cells, a type of immune cell found in most bodily tissues that plays a key role in triggering allergies, asthma and inflammation. Mast cells also protect the body from certain types of parasites. By treating rat mast cells with arsenic, Gosse has determined that exposure inhibits the mast cell process known as degranulation, in which the cells release histamine and other chemicals into blood and tissue.

The result of normal degranulation is localized swelling, warmth, redness, itching and pain. In humans, degranulation can cause allergic reactions, such as asthma and eczema. But degranulation also triggers a healthy immune response that helps fight off parasites and other human pathogens.

Since arsenic is a known endocrine disrupter, Gosse says, it may inhibit normal degranulation by blocking estrogen signaling involved in histamine release. Or, as recent data suggest, the process may be taking place at an early step in the signaling pathway, such as by inhibition of tyrosine phosphorylation, an important signaling process in mast cells.

“We don’t fully understand the molecular mechanism yet,” Gosse says. She and her students continue to work with rat mast cells and now with human mast cells. In the future, Gosse plans to extend her arsenic research into zebrafish.

It is much too early to apply her findings to human health models, but Gosse says her research may help shed some light on the success of traditional Chinese healers in treating acute asthma attacks with high doses of arsenic.

Although the inhibition of degranulation effectively calms swollen and inflamed respiratory tissues, the long-term results of this treatment often include serious chronic illnesses, such as cancer and neurological disorders. And in populations where persistent intestinal parasites cause serious diarrheal diseases and anemia in children, such as in Bangladesh, consistently elevated levels of arsenic in drinking water supplies may be suppressing healthy immune response and promoting generalized muscle wasting and related disorders.

Gosse came to UMaine in 2008 after completing her post-doctoral work at Dartmouth Medical School. Her work here, funded by the PhRMA Foundation, the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station, and UMaine start-up funds, builds on recent studies at Dartmouth that first identified arsenic as an endocrine disrupter.

“Someday, this could point to a drug target,” Gosse says of her research. She envisions a safe medical alternative that would mimic arsenic’s valuable suppressive effects for disorders such as asthma or autoimmune disorders, without undermining overall immune response — and without arsenic’s potentially lethal risks.