August 5, 2014

Researchers Investigate Remarkable Approach To Desalination

Bobbie Mixon, National Science Foundation

Rice scientists reprogram protein pairs; attempt to modify bacterial decisions

Desalination has come a long way, baby.

On Aug. 3, some 330 years ago, a certain Captain Gifford of His Majesty's Ship Mermaid, was asked to conduct onboard his 24-gun Royal Naval vessel what may have been the first government-sponsored, scientific desalination experiment.

Diarist and later Secretary to the Admiralty Commission in England Samuel Pepys wrote to Gifford saying, "Whereas a Proposal has been made to Us of an Engine to be fixed in one of Our Ships for the making an Experiment of producing fresh water (at Sea) out of Salt."

We do not know whether Gifford actually conducted the experiment, but we do know desalination--the pulling of salt, minerals and other contaminants from soil and water--has become a worldwide concern. Population increases, the scarcity of fresh water in arid regions and a greater need for environmental cleanup has scientists scrambling to improve the process.

Researchers at Rice University in Houston, Texas, for example, are computationally investigating ways to rewire one of desalination's most useful tools: Bacteria.

Bacteria as an environmental cleaning agent is based on the microorganisms' ability to sense its environment, consume pollutants, break them down and excrete different, less-harmful substances than the original contaminant. But bacteria's response mechanisms can do many other things such as provide scientifically discrete information, diagnose levels of toxins in food and water, detect poisonous chemicals, report dangerous compounds in the human body and more.

That's why Jose Onuchic and Herbert Levine, co-directors of Rice's Center for Theoretical Biological Physics are working to treat bacteria like computers with the intention of reprograming them to perform specific activities.

The researchers have a plan to modify the proteins responsible for how bacteria respond to external stimuli, triggering the bacteria to predictably "decide" what actions to take when confronted with targeted environmental conditions.

Directed bacterial responses, the researchers believe, could revolutionize bacteria-based environmental cleanup, modern desalination and a host of medical and industrial applications.

The project, "Molecular Underpinnings of Bacterial Decision-Making" is one of a number of high-risk, potentially high-reward projects in the National Science Foundation's INSPIRE program. INSPIRE funds potentially transformative research that does not fit into a single scientific field, but crosses disciplinary boundaries.

"This research project by two highly respected scientists and their colleagues is an excellent example of basic research that can have tremendous societal benefits," says Kamal Shukla, program director in NSF's Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences.

The project is co-funded by NSF's Directorates for Biological Sciences and Mathematical and Physical Sciences.

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