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Tech Beat - July 15, 2014

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Editor: Michael Baum
Date created: June 23, 2010
Date Modified: July 15, 2014 
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Researchers Find Organic Pollutants Not Factor in Turtle Tumor Disease

For nearly four decades, scientists have suspected that persistent organic pollutants (POPs) contributed to a green turtle's susceptibility to the virus that causes fibropapilomatosis (FP), a disease that forms large benign tumors that can inhibit the animal's sight, mobility and feeding ability. In a new study,* researchers from the Hollings Marine Laboratory (HML), a government-university partner facility in Charleston, S.C., and from university and federal collaborators in Hawaii demonstrated POPs are not, in fact, a co-factor linked to the increasing number of green sea turtles afflicted with FP.

turtle tumor
Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) do not make Hawaiian green sea turtles more susceptible to the large tumors associated with fibropapillomastosis seen in this specimen.
Credit: Keller/NIST
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POPs are a large group of man-made chemicals that, as their name indicates, persist in the environment. They also spread great distances through air and water, accumulate in human and animal tissues, increase in concentration up food chains, and may have carcinogenic and neurodevelopmental effects. POPs include banned substances such as DDT and toxaphenes, once used as pesticides; polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), once used as insulating fluids; and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PDBEs), still used as flame retardants. Two previous studies attempting to link POPs and FP were unable to rule out the impact of the pollutants on the disease.

"We wanted to do a thorough study looking at a large, statistically valid population of turtles and using methods that could detect even tiny levels of POPs in their tissues," says National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) research biologist Jennifer Keller, lead author on the paper appearing in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Keller and her colleagues collected turtle blood samples at four locations across Hawaii, each one having a different prevalence of FP—none, low, moderate and high—in the marine turtle population residing there. "We analyzed the plasma for 164 different organic compounds to see if POP concentrations increased with increasing prevalence of FP," Keller says. "We also looked at the levels of halogenated phenols, chemicals which can come from either man-made [POP] sources or naturally from the green turtle's main food source, marine algae."

The researchers discovered that increasing POP concentrations did not correspond with a like rise in the numbers of FP tumors observed. "Our findings show that POPs are not the trigger for FP, so we can eliminate these pollutants from future studies trying to explain why the disease is more common in certain areas or why its prevalence is changing with time," Keller says.

As for halogenated phenols, the team found that the sampled turtles did have detectable concentrations of the compounds. "While it's a novel discovery for sea turtles, we believe that these phenols are likely from the turtle's diet of algae rather than man-made POPs," Keller explains.

Collaborating with Keller were researchers from Hawaiian branches of two federal agencies, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, as well as from Hawaii Pacific University and the Hawaii Preparatory Academy.

The HML is a unique partnership of governmental and academic organizations including NIST, NOAA's National Ocean Service, the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina.

*J.M. Keller, G.H. Balazs, F. Nilsen, M. Rice, T.M. Work and B.A. Jensen. Investigating the potential role of persistent organic pollutants in Hawaiian green sea turtle fibropapillomatosis. Environmental Science and Technology. Accepted for publication June 25, 2014, DOI: 10.1021/es5014054

Media Contact: Michael E. Newman, michael.newman@nist.gov, 301-975-3025

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New NIST Web Tool Makes Working with Glycan Sugars a Lot Sweeter

When researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) need a special tool to do their work more effectively, they often prove that necessity is truly the mother of invention. Such was the case recently for M. Lorna De Leoz and Stephen Stein, NIST chemists working in the growing specialization of glycomics. Glycomics is the study of the abundant, often-branched sugar chains called glycans that are attached to proteins and lipids and influence cellular processes, including immunity, protein folding and, sometimes, changes associated with cancer.

IgG glycan
Immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibody molecule with glycan attached. Inset shows glycan structure.
Credit: RCSB Protein Data Bank
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Like their fellow scientists in the glycomics field, De Leoz and Stein rely heavily on mass spectral (MS) analyses that yield "chemical fingerprints" used to characterize the mass, composition and organization of individual glycan molecules. The human body produces thousands of different glycans and, unfortunately, MS analysis is slow and laborious, involving lots of number crunching by hand. Out of their frustration with this low-tech system for calculating high-tech MS data, the NIST duo came up with a tool that automates most of the process.

Their new Glyco MS Calculator automatically determines the mass of individual glycan components and breaks them down element-by-element. Designed in a spreadsheet format, the user inputs the number of residues (the individual units that make up a polymer; in this case, the monosaccharide sugars in the polysaccharide chain) in the glycan and the program calculates the masses and elemental composition within the molecule. It also provides mass and composition for glycans that are chemically modified. Finally, the calculator generates the mass of molecules formed as byproducts of mass spectrometry so that they can be considered when interpreting the MS data.

The NIST Glyco MS Calculator may be accessed and used free-of-charge at www.nist.gov/customcf/glyco-mass-calc. For more information, contact De Leoz at lorna.deleoz@nist.gov or Stein at stephen.stein@nist.gov.

Media Contact: Michael E. Newman, michael.newman@nist.gov, 301-975-3025

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NIST Announces Competition for Community Resilience Center of Excellence

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has announced a competition to create a Community Resilience Center of Excellence dedicated to collaborative, interdisciplinary research aimed at developing tools and standardized methods that will enhance the ability of localities to reduce the impact of disasters and to speed recovery in their aftermath.

Joplin tornado destruction
St. John's Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Missouri. The hospital is in the background and the building that housed the emergency generator is in the foreground.
Credit: NIST
high resolution image

Key outputs of the planned center will be advances in measurement science and new modeling, simulation, data and informatics tools that are coupled with field studies of hazard events.

Natural disasters inflict a heavy toll on affected communities and, collectively, on the entire nation. In 2011, economic damages from natural disasters in the United States exceeded $55 billion, according to the National Academies' report Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative.

Progress toward more resilient communities is hindered by alack of useful metrics and a shortage of validated, science-based tools to evaluate resilience on the scale of communities. Achieving resilient performance at a community level takes time and planning. It also requires informed decision making that prioritizes investments and actions across several key dimensions, including social needs, infrastructure, buildings and critical services. To improve community resilience, the new NIST center of excellence will develop science-based tools addressing all of these dimensions, with particular emphasis on buildings and infrastructure systems, such as communications and electric power.

NIST anticipates funding the new center at about $4 million annually for five years, with the possibility of renewing the award for an additional five years. Funding is subject to the availability of funds through NIST's appropriations. The competition is open to accredited institutions of higher education and nonprofit organizations located in the United States and its territories. The proposing institution may work as part of a consortium that could include other academic institutions; nonprofit organizations; companies; or state, tribal or local governments.

Full details of the solicitation, including eligibility requirements, selection criteria, legal requirements and the mechanism for submitting proposals are found in an announcement of Federal Funding Opportunity (FFO) posted at Grants.gov under funding opportunity 2014-NIST-CR-COE-01. See www.grants.gov/web/grants/view-opportunity.html?oppId=259088.

Applications will be accepted only through the Grants.gov website. The deadline for applications is 11:59 p.m. Eastern time, Sept. 12, 2014.

NIST will hold a webinar on the Community Resilience Center of Excellence on Aug. 5, 2014. The webinar will offer general guidance on preparing proposals and provide an opportunity to answer questions from the public about the program. Participation in the webinar is not required to apply. There is no cost for the webinar, but participants must register in advance. Information on, and registration for, the webinar is available at www.nist.gov/coe/resilience.

This center of excellence is one of several NIST plans to establish to provide an interdisciplinary environment where researchers from NIST, academia and industry can collaborate on emerging areas of basic and applied research and innovations in measurement science.

Media Contact: Michael Baum, michael.baum@nist.gov, 301-975-2763

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Digital Crime-Fighters Face Technical Challenges with Cloud Computing

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has issued for public review and comment a draft report summarizing 65 challenges that cloud computing poses to forensics investigators who uncover, gather, examine and interpret digital evidence to help solve crimes.

The report, NIST Cloud Computing Forensic Science Challenges,* was prepared by the NIST Cloud Computing Forensic Science Working Group, an international body of cloud and digital forensic experts from industry, government and academia.

Through the report, the working group aims to initiate a dialogue on forensic science concerns in cloud computing ecosystems. "The long-term goal of this effort," explains NIST’s Martin Herman, co-chair of the working group, "is to build a deeper understanding of, and consensus on, the high-priority challenges so that the public and private sectors can collaborate on effective responses."

The ultimate in distributed computing, cloud computing** is revolutionizing how digital data is stored, processed and transmitted. It enables convenient, on-demand network access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources, including servers, storage and applications.

Benefits include cost savings, convenience and greater flexibility in how businesses and other consumers employ information technology.

The characteristics that make this new technology so attractive also create challenges for forensic investigators who must track down evidence in the ever-changing, elastic, on-demand, self-provisioning cloud computing environments. Even if they seize a tablet or laptop computer at a crime scene, digital crime fighters could come up empty handed if these devices are linked to pooled resources in the cloud.

Technical challenges—the focus of the draft report—abound, but almost all intersect with legal and organizational issues. The 65 challenges that the working group identified are divided among nine categories. These include architecture, data collection, analysis, standards, training and "anti-forensics" such as data hiding and malware.

These technical challenges "need to be understood in order to develop technology and standards-based mitigation approaches," the draft report says.

The NIST Cloud Computing Forensic Science Working Group is requesting comments from the public by July 21, 2014, on the draft of NIST Cloud Computing Forensic Science Challenges. The draft is available at http://csrc.nist.gov/publications/drafts/nistir-8006/draft_nistir_8006.pdf; the comment template can be downloaded from http://csrc.nist.gov/publications/PubsDrafts.html.

*NIST Cloud Computing Forensic Science Working Group. NIST Cloud Computing Forensic Science Challenges (Draft) (NIST Interagency Report 8006). June 2014. Available at http://csrc.nist.gov/publications/drafts/nistir-8006/draft_nistir_8006.pdf.
**P. Mell and T. Grance. The NIST Definition of Cloud Computing (NIST Special Publication 800-145). September 2011. Available at www.nist.gov/manuscript-publication-search.cfm?pub_id=909616.

Media Contact: Evelyn Brown, evelyn.brown@nist.gov, 301-975-5661

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