Environmental Factor, January 2008, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Superfund Looks to Its Future
By Eddy Ball
After two days of sharing the excitement of their science and recounting the accomplishments of the Superfund Basic Research Program (SBRP)(https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/srp/index.cfm, on December 5 attendees at the twenty-year anniversary celebration (see Spotlight story) were confronted with the mass of unfinished business still to address and the challenges the program is sure to face in the future.
Titled "Colloquium: Visions for the Future," the session included four presentations and a panel discussion. The session was chaired by SBRP Acting Director Claudia Thompson and moderated by University of Arizona pharmacologist Jay Gandolfi, Ph.D., and Texas A & M University geneticist Richard Finnell, Ph.D.
Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health Professor Lynn Goldman, M.D., opened the colloquium with a grim assessment of the globalization of hazardous wastes in a presentation sparked by the question "What Are the Lessons for Public Health?" Beginning what she described as "one of the most challenging talks I've given in a while," Goldman enumerated a host of new challenges brought about by an increasing reliance on developing countries for processing the world's wastes.
Goldman challenged the United States to adopt a regulatory system similar to the European Union's, which requires the same kind of authorization for chemicals that is required for pesticides. She also called for dramatic expansion of the "standard suite of [hazardous chemical] candidates" that are studied and a stronger commitment to the public's right to know. "If it's in our bodies," she argued, "I think we need to understand it."
NIEHS grantee Randy Jirtle, Ph.D., a professor of radiation oncology at Duke University, offered an introduction to "Epigenetics: The New Genetics of Toxicology" to support his contention that the future of toxicology rests with an epigenetic approach utilizing high-throughput screening of human cell lines. Offering an overview of the differences in imprinting and epigenetic responses between species, Jirtle urged his audience to bear in mind that "a mouse is not a human."
Quoting Alexander Pope's "Essay on Man," Jirtle argued that in toxicology, as in philosophy, "'The proper study of mankind is man.'" However, Jirtle's human-centric approach to toxicology did not go unchallenged during the question-and-answer session, as a more traditional toxicologist in the audience echoed some of the issues that persist in relation to alternative testing and countered that "a cell is not an organism" either.
In a presentation titled "Systems Biology Approach to Optimizing Bioremediation," University of Massachusetts at Amherst microbiologist Derek Lovley, Ph.D., reported on his group's progress with in situ groundwater bioremediation using several species of the anaerobic bacteria Geobacter. Lovley's lab has demonstrated that Geobacter species can break down contaminants such as acetate and uranium VI in groundwater and that the organisms show promise for use in the anaerobic degradation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons - as well as in the conversion of waste matter to electricity.
Lovley's systems approach utilizes sequence genomics, gene expression studies, proteomics and in silico modeling to predict optimal methods for use at Department of Energy, Department of Interior and Department of Defense hazardous waste sites. Coupled with hydrological and geophysical models, the approach promises to advance bioremediation and maximize resources available for cleaning hazardous waste sites.
The final presentation, by Duke University Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Mark Wiesner, Ph.D., focused on "Research Needs in Evaluating Nanomaterial Risks: The Fullerene Example." As his experiments with the nano carbon C60 demonstrate, the more research that is performed with nanomaterials, the more questions arise about how these microscopic particles interact with the human organism.
There are so many factors that influence nanomaterial behavior, he argued, that "the idea of putting all things that are small in the same box doesn't make any sense." Established risk parameters, he also noted, do not seem to work for nanoparticles. Until the new physics of nanoparticles is better understood, scientists will not understand how much of a threat, if any, they actually pose to public health.