Science Briefs: Wastewater’s new antibiotics, biomarkers, computer chips from wood products

UNCC engineering professor Olya Keen, right, works with doctoral student Nicole Kennedy-Neth on a lab sample.
UNCC engineering professor Olya Keen, right, works with doctoral student Nicole Kennedy-Neth on a lab sample.

UNCC study: Treated wastewater may be creating new antibiotics

Research by UNC Charlotte engineering professor Olya Keen is showing that treatments to clean wastewater may actually be creating new antibiotics and further contributing to the development of antibiotic resistance in the environment.

She and her student are studying doxycycline, which falls into one of the more widely used classes of antibiotics. Their research is showing that chlorine used to treat wastewater is actually changing the makeup of the doxycycline and forming new antibiotics.

“Wastewater treatment is designed to break down biological substances but not antibiotics,” said Keen. “Surprisingly enough, though, we are finding in the lab that not only is chlorine not breaking down antibiotics, but it is actually creating even stronger antibiotics than the original doxycycline.

“Wastewater tests have found every type of antibiotic known,” Keen said. “The problems antibiotics cause when they are not broken down by treatment is they get into streams, where bacteria are becoming immune to them, and more dangerous, super bug, bacteria can be formed.”

Clemson process expands biomarker options

Great news for patients who get the willies when the nurse pulls out the needle to draw blood. A method developed at Clemson University could help make it possible to use urine instead of blood to test for more diseases. Proteins in urine, for example, could help detect early signs of coronary heart disease, or whether the body is rejecting a transplanted kidney.

The trouble with testing urine is that it’s awash in salt, said Ken Marcus a professor of analytical chemistry: It can be tricky to isolate the proteins that act as biomarkers – the clues that tell whether the patient is sick or has ingested a drug.

The magic ingredient in the group’s research looks like kite string, but is made of capillary-channeled polymer fibers. Marcus and his students packed the fibers into plastic tubes and then passed urine samples through the tubes by spinning them in a centrifuge for 30 seconds. Then the researchers ran de-ionized water through the tubes for a minute to wash off salt and other contaminants.

Proteins are hydrophobic: They remained stuck to the fibers. Researchers extracted the proteins by running a solvent through the tubes in the centrifuge, and were left with purified proteins that could be stored in a plastic vial and refrigerated until it’s time for testing. The team was able to extract 12 samples in about 5 minutes, limited only by centrifuge capacity.

The Clemson team’s work was recently published by the journal Proteomics-Clinical Applications.

Biodegradable computer chips made from wood

Portable electronics – typically made of non-renewable, non-biodegradable and potentially toxic materials – are discarded at an alarming rate.

In an effort to alleviate the environmental burden of electronic devices, a team of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers has collaborated with researchers in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory to develop a surprising solution: a semiconductor chip made almost entirely of wood.

“The majority of material in a chip is support. We only use less than a couple of micrometers for everything else,” electrical and computer engineering professor Zhenqiang Ma said. The new chips uses cellulose nanofibril – a flexible, biodegradable material made from wood. “The chips are so safe you can put them in the forest and fungus will degrade it. They become as safe as fertilizer.”

Ma described the new device in a paper published by the journal Nature Communications.