Newsletter PS-Park 'n' Science, 11th edition, Dec 2013
English text version of the Park'n'Science newsletterTable of Contents
Papaya seeds for clean water
The secret of Red Snow
Park ‘n’ Life
Water - omnipresent but very special nevertheless
Ladders to success
Access to water has been a fundamental prerequisite for every human settlement. Depending on the region in which they lived, various cultures have developed their own unique water management systems. They always had to be inventive; for example they built shelters out of ice and gradually learned to deal with floods and droughts. This learning process is by no means at an end. In this issue of Park 'n' Science we look at special solutions pertaining to the subject of "water"; in its most basic form as drinking water and the driving force behind plant growth, as a solvent for cellular processes, or frozen in the form of snow.
Despite the fact that water covers 72 percent of the Earth's surface, it is by no means the case that the availability of clean drinking water can be taken for granted everywhere in the world. The solution proposed in this issue is impressive because it was initially geared completely towards low-cost and regionally available resources and has shown great potential in the course of further research.
Across much of Europe, melting snow and seasonal precipitation saturate the earth with moisture well into the spring, creating a gigantic reservoir of water. But the situation is completely different even in Germany's Brandenburg "sandpit", to say nothing of Africa. A lack of water during the early growth phase often results in lower annual harvests. One example of how plants can adapt to the lack of water comes from the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology.
Christmas and New Year - for many people in these latitudes a thick layer and endless unspoilt fields of snow, all gleaming in pristine white, are an essential part of it. How about a bit of colour for a change: red or green? A publicity stunt that will take some getting used to? Not at all. Nature is playing a major prank on our habits of thought. In this issue of Park 'n' Science you will discover what is behind this phenomenon.
I would like to wish you a pleasant combination of contemplation and festive joy for the coming holidays, and a healthy and successful New Year.
Papaya seeds for clean water
Funding for up-to-date technical solutions for the provision of clean drinking water is often lacking in developing countries. Researchers at the University of Potsdam have developed an economic, locally available material for use in water treatment in these regions.
Around 900 million people around the world have no access to clean drinking water. Every year more children die as a direct result of this, and the illnesses it leads to, than of malaria, measles and HIV/AIDS combined. And the fact that industrialised nations continue to export their electronic scrap to developing countries for processing with no constraints is set to further exacerbate the drinking water problem. In addition, minerals such as gold and columbite–tantalite (coltan), which are essential for technological products, are mined in Africa with damaging consequences for the environment. The effluents generated through mining and the activities of the electronics industry pollute both rivers and lakes with heavy metals such as nickel, cadmium and lead.
(Photo: Thomas Roese)
Andreas Taubert, Professor of Supra-Molecular Chemistry and Inorganic Hybrid Materials at the University of Potsdam, in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, led a team that tackled this issue. They manufactured a new, cost-effective, easy to produce, so-called composite material for purifying drinking water and were able to demonstrate that it is not only significantly cheaper, but also that it is easier to produce than, and is just as effective as, more expensive commercial water purification methods. However the project was initiated in Nigeria rather than in Potsdam.
As a Humboldt-Foundation scholarship holder, Dr. Emmanuel I. Unuabonah spent a total of one year in Potsdam to collaborate with chemists from the university on a material, which he had already developed in his own laboratory in Africa, but was unable to analyse there due to a lack of infrastructure. What he ultimately wanted to know was whether the material he had developed really is capable of removing heavy metals from water sources. Andreas Taubert quotes the following experience to describe the practical relevance and importance of the water purification issue: "When Emmanuel first arrived here he asked whether our tap water was drinkable. That is by no means taken for granted where he lives back in Nigeria."
The new material has a high affinity for nickel and cadmium, two heavy metals that are injurious to health, which are found in high concentrations in rivers polluted by industrial effluents. The technology makes use of seeds of a widely distributed tropical agricultural crop, which is cultivated in Australia, India, Central and South America as well as in Africa. The new absorptive material consists of a combination of papaya seeds, a waste product, and a clay mineral: both are available in large quantities and are extremely cost-effective. As Andreas Taubert explains, "following an appropriate thermal treatment process these components provide a material that is capable of reducing nickel and cadmium concentrations to levels below the thresholds set by the World Health Organisation (WHO)." The ease of manufacture, the practically infinite availability of the raw materials, and the fact that the material can be recycled, makes it attractive for use in simple, quick and local water purification processes.
Andreas Taubert is convinced that "similar materials should, in principle, be capable of clearing up contaminants of the type currently found in southern Brandenburg." For example one could envisage using waste products from the carpentry industry, such as saw mill waste or biological waste, which are readily available in Brandenburg, instead of papaya seeds. Indeed contacts have already been established with representatives of the food industry, medical practitioners, physicists and water purification companies, both at home and abroad.
The secret of Red Snow
The Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering IBMT has launched its eleventh expedition to Spitsbergen, Norway. The researchers were particularly interested in snow algae, the cold adapted extremophiles of the polar regions.
A team of five experts, including biologists, biophysicists and geochemists, set off on a four-week expedition to Spitsbergen on July 31, 2013. The objective was a full circumnavigation of Spitsbergen, the main island in the Svalbard archipelago on board the S/Y Arctica II, with the aim to obtain an as complete insight as possible into the distribution of snow algae fields along the island's coastal regions. This year state-of-the art air documentation technology was used. Already previously studied and also new snow algae fields were mapped by air with an octocopter flight system using visible and infra-red-cameras.
As during previous expeditions the researchers wanted to collect and isolate new algae strains. Another objective of this year's expedition was to gain a deeper understanding of the dispersal strategies of snow algae throughout the islands. It is still not clear which environmental conditions are necessary for the formation of green or red snow on the otherwise barren snow and glacial fields. Once they have established themselves at a particular location these algae persist to it throughout years. The results of previous expeditions show that nutrient influences from bird colonies or surrounding vegetation can be excluded as the main determining factors. One objective this time was to use a special helicopter-mounted camera system to investigate the topography and hydrology of the snow algae fields over a wide area.
"Red and Green Snow" at the Makarovbreen on the north coast of Spitsbergen. (Photo: Fraunhofer IBMT)
Spitsbergen offers ideal opportunities for investigating the influence of geology on ¬plant communities. The island is home to an extremely diverse set of geological regions within a closely circumscribed area. The landscape and mountains are characterised by a variety of rock types from different epochs, often folded to the vertical. Large fields of red-coloured snow algal cysts covering vast areas can be observed mainly on gneiss, shale (both reacting acidic), as well as sandstone and granite (neutral). Air currents from the regions western of Spitsbergen provide sufficient moisture, and the winds distribute the snow algae to the east across the archipelago. On the north-west coast of Nordaustlandet, in contrast, no snow algae could be found on the carbonate bearing rocks (chemically with basic reactions).
The results of the expedition provide important new knowledge to the puzzling phenomenon of Red Snow, which will contribute towards a better understanding of this unique group of organisms. Only with this deeper understanding of their biology, the scientific and also commercial potential of these extremophiles can be utilised more effectively, whether in the form of novel enzymes that are active at cold temperatures or in the form of various metabolites (secondary pigments, unsaturated fatty acids, ice-structuring proteins, or biopolymers). The climatic and chemo-environmental factors reveal important details about the fundamental demands, which are necessary for a successful laboratory and industrial mass culture of snow algae in photobioreactor facilities. Once again it has been shown that these single cell microalgae propagate excellently at low temperatures, but that they also can cope well with strong fluctuations in salt content and light intensity. This makes them particularly suitable as productions strains in large-scale microalgal production plants in Germany's emerging algal industry to bridge the temporal production gap during the annual cold seasons between late autumn and early spring with low temperatures and little light.
A range of different algae are cultivated on a large scale in photobioreactors at the Fraunhofer IBMT in Potsdam. The IBMT's annual ¬production capacity of 100 kg of algal fresh mass roughly corresponds to the natural algal biomass growing on the ¬snow field of the Makarovbreen in north-western Spitsbergen. The research strategy appplied at the IBMT, to cover all relevant scientific disciplines from field research across ecology and taxonomy to laboratory work with the aim of an industrial algal mass production for the food, pharmaceutical and cosmetics industry apparently has a ¬promising future. For more than 15 years the Group Extremophile Research & Biobank CCCryo at the Fraunhofer IBMT has been interested in the so-called cryophilic snow algae. With the "Culture Collection of Cryophilic Algae – CCCryo" (www.cccryo.fraunhofer.de), which was founded in 1999, this novel and unique bioresource of extremophilic algae has been made available to the research community at public and industrial institutions since 2010. To date it accommodates nearly 400 algal strains from around 125 species. The target is to develop different algae-based industrial products as a result of the deep study of the biology of these extremophilic microalgae within the framework of ongoing biotechnological research at Fraunhofer IBMT.
More than 7500 plant samples have already been collected in the course of the TROST project, in which Karin Köhl of the Max-Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology is researching ways of improving the drought tolerance of starch potatoes.
A white mist wafts across the field. With busy steps and full of concentration the researchers work their way forward, plant by plant. Hands in blue nylon gloves cut off a leaf and drop it into liquid nitrogen. The little plastic container with the snap frozen leaf is quickly screwed shut. Then it's onward to the next plant and the next. Two hours later the peculiar show is over. Karin Köhl is looking satisfied: the harvest has been good.
Together with her team, the scientist from the Max-Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology has taken 304 leaf samples from the potato plants today. What Karin Köhl of the Max-Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology wants to discover with the aid of these leaves and tubers is how one can adapt the Central European potato to changing climatic conditions and increase its drought tolerance.
Above all it is the dry months of spring in this part of the world that field crops are finding increasingly difficult to cope with. "Precipitation in Brandenburg during summer is only half of what it used to be," explains Köhl, "and our sandy soils hardly retain any water." The growers would really like to be able to supply farmers with new varieties, which would still produce a lot of starch-rich potatoes even after long periods of drought. However until now they haven't really known whether or not that would even be possible.
"In the course of our TROST project," says Köhl with reference to her preliminary successes, "we have demonstrated that the potato varieties grown in Central Europe still have the ability to tolerate drought." So the genes are still there; now they need to be combined in the right way. However traditional breeding techniques take a long time. It can take from ten to fifteen years to create new varieties with improved characteristics through cross breeding and selection. It is this process that TROST is designed to accelerate.
In order to do this Karin Köhl, in conjunction with three infrastructure groups from the MPI and three other research institutes, is searching for molecular markers, i.e., gene transcripts, proteins, sugars or other metabolic by-products, which are always present if the plant is drought tolerant. Until now molecular markers have mainly been used for medical diagnostic purposes, but markers are also interesting in relation to plant breeding.
TROST: First the leaf samples are harvested in the field (left); then the metabolites are measured in the laboratory (centre), and finally the data is evaluated (right). (Photo: MPI-MP)
But identifying marker molecules has been no easy task, as they were only required to indicate a tolerance to drought and not be influenced by other environmental factors. That is why it was out of the question to carry out the testing in Golm alone. Instead 34 different varieties of potato were planted in fields at eleven different locations throughout Germany, whereby two issues had to be tackled immediately. The first related to logistics, i.e., the transportation of liquid nitrogen, dry ice and harvest helpers to the various fields spread between Rostock and Munich. The second concerns the evaluation of the data, which could only be managed with a good IT infrastructure and documentation standards.
"Now," says Köhl with reference to the next steps, "we want to demonstrate that selection based on molecular markers is quicker and delivers better results than traditional selection methods. The nice thing about this job is the collaboration with the many different partners. In this endeavour one can achieve nothing alone, but a lot by working together.”
Long before man discovered the compass other creatures already made use of a magnetic navigation help. Migrating birds orientate themselves on the Earth's magnetic field, but so do certain single-celled organisms, the so-called magnetotactic bacteria.
When magnetotactic bacteria follow their inner compass they are not searching for the correct route between north and south, but rather they are looking for a way towards the bottom of lakes, rivers or oceans, because a few millimetres below the interface between water and sediment is where the micro-organisms find the ideal oxygen depleted conditions for their needs. They find their way by following the lines of the Earth's magnetic field, which, far away from the equator, do not run parallel to the Earth's surface, but rather point downwards. To do this, the bacteria orientate themselves to the magnetic field with the aid of magnetosomes, nanoparticles of magnetite enclosed within a membrane, which arrange themselves into chain-like structures along their cellular axes.
Now two international teams, which included scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, have looked more closely at how these particles are formed. Magnetite is an iron oxide Fe3O4, which comprises two differently oxidised iron variants (Fe2+ and Fe3+). Magnetotactic bacteria build these crystals with a high level of precision: always with the same shape and size. "If we can understand the fundamental principles involved in the formation pathway, then it is likely that this will open up new approaches and methods for the technical manufacture of nanoparticles of magnetite in the future," says Damien Faivre, who is in charge of the Molecular Biomimetic and Magnets Biomineralisation Working Group at the Max Planck Institute in Potsdam. "If materials scientists were able to control the characteristics of synthetic magnetite particles just as well as the bacteria, then one could think of new uses for them, for example, in the contrast agents used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)."
A bacterium creates its own compass needle: within just ten minutes of coming into contact with an iron-rich nutrient solution, the magnetite particles are already clearly visible as dark grey structures in a transmission electron microscopy image of the single celled organism (left).
Using X-ray absorption spectroscopy at extremely low temperatures in addition to transmission electron microscopy (TEM) the scientists have now succeeded in characterising the biomineralisation process involved in the formation of magnetite within these bacteria. This shows that these single celled life forms first produce a completely disordered iron hydroxide. This substance is similar to iron accumulating protein complexes, which occur in animals, plants and bacteria. Finally the magnetite particles for the magnetosomes are synthesised via nanoparticles of iron oxyhydroxide.
"The synthetic creation of magnetite proceeds in a very similar manner, and mineralisation functions in a similar way in higher organisms," says Jens Baumgartner, one of the participating scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces. It is probable that pigeons also utilise the same mechanism to form magnetite, in order to store it in their beaks for use as a navigation aid.
But not only are the bacteria able to control the shape and size of the magnetite particles, they can also regulate their chemical composition. They create the precise chemical conditions in which the two iron ions, Fe2+ and Fe3+, , form in the precise ratio found in magnetite. "Until now, it was not known whether the bacteria start with iron-II or iron-III in order to synthesise magnetite," explains Damien Faivre. "Our study has now clarified this point." The answer also fits with what one might expect based on the ecological niche inhabited by the bacteria. Within the oxygen starved environment in which the microbes thrive, iron is generally available in the less strongly oxidised form, i.e. as iron-II.
"Translational Research Award in Cornea and Ocular Surface Science" for Dr. Joachim Storsberg
Dr. Joachim Storsberg of the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research received the "Translational Research Award in Cornea and Ocular Surface Science" in Nice, France.
Dr. Joachim Storsberg (Photo: Fraunhofer IAP)
The European Association for Vision and Eye Research (EVER) bestowed this award in recognition of the Fraunhofer researcher's developmental work in the field of artificial corneas. The ArtCornea®Implant, developed by Dr. Joachim Storsberg in close collaboration with the Aachen Centre for Technology Transfer ACTO e. V., could well save the sight of many patients in future, who have been dependent on donor corneas up until now. The prize was awarded for the first time ever this year. The focus is on the transfer of basic research into clinical applications. The ArtCornea® Implant has already undergone successful testing in the laboratory and in animal tests; it readily grafts to the natural cornea and is suitable as a simple transplant alternative for patients, who would be expected tolerate a donor cornea well, but who are unable to obtain one in the short term due to a lack of available donors. It is easy to implant and does not trigger any critical immune reactions.
Honorary Doctorate for Prof. Stefan Jähnichen
At this year's annual Faculty Day on November 06, 2013, the University of Potsdam's Faculty of Mathematics and Science bestowed the title of Honorary Doctor on computer scientist Prof. Dr.-Ing. Stefan Jähnichen.
Prof. Stefan Jähnichen (Photo: private)
Dr. Jähnichen received the honour in recognition of his scientific work in the fields of software and system development as well as for his outstanding contribution to the development of the field of computer science and its application in the economy and society. After graduating in the field of electronics and completing his doctorate at the Technical University of Berlin he worked in Karlsruhe for several years as the Head of the GMD Research Group (Mathematics and Data Processing Society) and Professor of Computer Science at the University of Karlsruhe. In 1991 he became the chair holder of Software Engineering at the Technical University of Berlin. In this context he was Chief Scientific Officer until 2012 and later head of the Fraunhofer Research Institute FIRST. In addition he was active in a number of functions including Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board at the Hasso-Plattner Institute and, from 2008 to 2011, as President of the German Computer Science Society. He is currently Chairman of the European Research Council's (ERC) Computer Science Evaluation Committee, the most prestigious basic research funding institution in Europe.
Prof. Peter Fratzl, a new member of acatech