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United States — A Franklin & Marshall College science professor, with assistance from her students, is working to perfect a procedure that could one day identify pollutants that are difficult to detect.
Assistant Professor of Chemistry Christine Phillips-Piro said determining whether a stream, lake or field is contaminated with certain toxic chemicals may one day be as easy as shaking a test tube containing a water or soil sample.
Phillips-Piro recently received a Research Corporation Cottrell College Science Award for her project, "Sensing of Halogenated Pollutants by Dehalococcoides mccartyi," that she anticipates will take several years to complete.
The professor is working on several research projects, but detecting halogenated pollutants and exploring how unnatural amino acids perturb protein structures "are the two big projects going on right now," Phillips-Piro said.
In each project, Phillips-Piro has students engaged in F&M chemistry laboratories, using bacteria to make proteins, growing protein crystals, and analyzing data, all of which is contributing to the research.
At a desk in the lab at Hackman Physical Sciences Laboratories, Andrew Dippel is involved in the unnatural amino acids project. The senior chemistry major said part of the work he is conducting "has been building protein structures on our computer."
His work took him last fall to the Argonne National Laboratory, the research lab outside Chicago. Dippel will attend graduate school at University of California, Berkeley to study chemical biology. He said his lab experience has heightened his interest in teaching and research.
"It definitely informed my decision that I wanted to do research," he said.
Upperclassmen in the lab also have the opportunity to mentor fellow students.
Greg Olenginski, a junior working on the project to detect pollutants, said he enjoys helping first-year student Nicole Savidge learn about the process of making and purifying proteins.
"It helps me see the big picture in research," Olenginski said. "Sometimes, when I'm teaching Nicole, I'll realize, 'Oh! That's why Professor Phillips-Piro wants me to do this.'"
By teaching Savidge lab techniques, Olenginski improved as a researcher, Phillips-Piro said. "Students learn when they teach each other," she said.
After he started working in the lab, Olenginski decided to major in chemistry. "Doing research last summer helped me focus on what I wanted to do," he said.
Phillips-Piro's grant-funded research project involves studying proteins that signal to the bacterial cell the presence of carcinogenic- and pollutant-compounds. Once these proteins are understood, Phillips-Piro plans to develop a genetic-encoded sensor for these toxic molecules that will turn a cell bright green if the molecules are in the environment.
The research likely will take several years, but if successful, could allow scientists in the field to mix water or soil samples in a tube with non-harmful bacteria that contain the genetic sensor, and within minutes know whether the toxins are present, Phillips-Piro said.
The professor said the toxins on which her research focuses – perchloroethene (PCE) and trichloroethene (TCE) -- are used as industrial solvents. Once introduced into the environment they are difficult to remove, she said.
Both chemicals are frequently found in ground water. They are listed as carcinogens by the Centers for Disease Control, Phillips-Piro said. The bacteria, Dehalococcoides mccartyi, have been used at contaminated sites to make the toxins less toxic.
"PCE and TCE are food for this bacteria," Phillips-Piro said. "What we're trying to find out is how does this bacteria know which food is available?"
The bacterial proteins made in the lab would bind to the toxin molecules and signal other proteins to create a molecular machine that would break down the toxins.
Phillips-Piro will have five students working on the two research projects with her this summer. She has been impressed with the students' curiosity and dedication.
"It's been fantastic watching the students learn," she said.
Associate Professor of Chemistry Jennifer Morford, who chairs the Chemistry Department, said Phillips-Piro conducts "vibrant projects" that fully involve her students.
"Since Christine arrived at F&M in the fall of 2012, she has engaged multiple students in research projects," Morford said. "This is really indicative of our junior faculty embracing the high level of research."