November Newsletter Highlight

J-WAFS November 2018 Newsletter Highlight:

2016 J-WAFS Seed Projects Return
Impactful Results After End of Grant Cycle

57 MIT principal investigators from 19 MIT departments, labs, and centers; 58 funded doctoral, masters, and undergraduate students; 35 postdocs, and 15 additional research staff: these numbers show how J-WAFS grants have fueled the work of a skilled and diverse research community from across the Institute. The J-WAFS seed grant program, the largest of our funding mechanisms, is the most significant source of funding for MIT water and food research.

The J-WAFS seed grant program provides grants—$100K per year for two years, overhead free—to support innovative research that has the potential to have a significant impact on global and local water and food systems challenges. This month we will be distributing a request for proposals for our 2019 seed grants, while at the same time we are reviewing the outcomes from completed projects funded in 2016. These projects, highlighted below, represent the wide range of approaches that the MIT research community uses to solve a diverse set of challenges from food safety sensors to water filtration mechanisms and economic models to ethnography. With this batch of projects coming to a close, we’re looking forward to the next batch of proposals capturing the creative new efforts that continue to emerge from MIT labs.

Active materials for heavy metal extraction from water 

PI: Timothy Swager, John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry, Department of Chemistry

Over the last two years, a research team led by Professor Timothy Swager of the Department of Chemistry has been developing scalable designs for polymer-based membranes that can remove toxins such as lead and mercury from water at the molecular level. These membranes work by manipulating electrical charges to catch and release toxic metal ions. To date, the team has built and validated a prototype filter that can successfully remove both of these heavy metals, and has shown how it could be used at an industrial scale. The team has already secured financial support to build on its successful research results. A grant from the MIT Energy Initiative will support the application of the membrane production process toward the creation of high performance fuel cells. Additionally, Professor Swager is now leading a new effort—with J-WAFS-funded faculty members Jeffrey Grossman and T. Alan Hatton—that applies the filtration strategy developed as a result of this grant to the extraction of specific molecules from plants.

Bacterial viruses as pathogen control agents in aquaculture systems

PI: Martin Polz, Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

One of the many challenges that aquaculture farms face is population decline due to bacterial infection. Oysters and shellfish are particularly vulnerable to infection, and are often treated with large doses of antibiotics, which is not always effective at controlling disease. A J-WAFS seed grant supported Professor Martin Polz and a research team in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering to explore how engineered viruses might serve as an effective control to the bacteria responsible for disease and population loss. The team is working toward the creation of “virus cocktails” that suppress the growth of harmful bacteria. Over the two-year grant period, the team has characterized and mapped virus/bacteria interactions to identify combinations of viruses that can stay ahead of bacteria’s ability to evolve resistance. Because the use of antibiotics in aquaculture is so widespread, and is becoming less effective over time, viruses that are able to target specific harmful bacteria could serve as a sustainable alternative. In recognition of these early research successes, the Simons Foundation has provided substantial follow-on funding to support the next step: the development of prototype virus cocktails and field testing.

Real-time, On-site detection of foodborne pathogens by engineered bacteriophage integrated with microfluidic sample preparation platforms 

PIs: Jongyoon Han, Professor, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Department of Biological Engineering; Timothy Lu, Associate Professor, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Department of Biological Engineering

In food production and processing facilities, there is a large unmet need for technologies that can quickly and precisely detect foodborne pathogens. Early detection allows companies and facilities to more effectively control outbreaks of foodborne disease, which reduces cost as well as the adverse health impacts that occur when contaminated food reaches the marketplace. A J-WAFS seed grant supported the development of a platform that can quickly and effectively perform food safety testing. Using their expertise in microfluidics, they have built a high-throughput device that separates and concentrates cells in food samples (milk, meat, or vegetable juices). This is combined with a virus detection system that uses viruses engineered to specifically infect bacteria such as Salmonella and Listeria, and cause them to light up. By measuring the amount of light a sample gives off, one can determine the level of contamination. Based on the promising results of their first two years of work, Jongyoon Han’s research group is now exploring how the technology might be used for water safety testing as well.

Estimating the benefits to strengthening water markets

PI: Christopher Knittel, George P. Schultz Professor, Sloan School of Management

How can economic policy promote more efficient water use in urban and agricultural contexts to adapt to rising water scarcity? This is the question guiding a research effort led by J-WAFS PI Christopher Knittel of the Sloan School of Management. By compiling the first known complete data set capturing surface water allocations in California from 1980 to the present, they are painting a more accurate picture of water use in order to understand and quantify the economic and environmental benefits of water markets (i.e. selling, purchasing, and trading water resources). These simulations have allowed the team to better understand and quantify how farm revenues change based on a wide range of surface water allocations, including where the water (and revenue) might flow if these water allocations were to be traded among farmers and with California cities. Among the successful outcomes of the work are the relationships Chris and his doctoral student have built with state and independent agencies that are invested in future research results, such as the Department of Water Resources, the State Water Resources Control Board, and several brokerage and consulting firms that are involved in water pricing. In the next several months the research team will be working with MIT’s International Policy Lab to develop a policy brief aimed at these and other stakeholders.

Air pollution impacts on global crop yields

PI: Colette Heald, Associate Professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

How does air pollution affect crop production? While much research has been done on the effect of ozone on crop health and yield, little research exists on the effect of particulate matter. Professor Colette Heald of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering noticed this research gap, and used a 2016 J-WAFS seed grant to examine the effects airborne particulate matter on crop yield. Combining crop production and atmospheric chemical transport models, her team created the first comprehensive estimate of the food production impacts of air pollution (both ozone and particulate matter). The team modeled current as well as potential air pollution scenarios for the year 2050, and incorporated data on possible future resource restrictions such as lack of nitrogen and water stress with future air pollution effects. The models demonstrated that, while ozone damages plants’ leaves, particulate matter can diffuse solar radiation and thereby increase the sunlight available to plants, offsetting some projected ozone damage. However, the research results also revealed a great degree of variability, demonstrating the uncertainty of the overall impact of particulate matter on global crop yields.


Completed projects funded in 2015 that received no-cost extensions in 2017:

A bioassay-based approach to food safety in China

PI(s): Anthony Sinskey, Professor, Department of Biology; Stacy Springs, Director of the Center for Biomedical Innovation; Vishal Valdya, Associate Professor, Harvard Medical School

In countries with weak food safety regulations where antibiotics and other drugs can be over- or misused in farming contexts, how can food quality be most effectively tested and assured? This question drives a J-WAFS-funded research team from MIT’s Biology Department, the Center for Biomedical Innovation, and the Harvard Medical School. Since the start of their grant in 2015, the team has built on prior work by systematically evaluating the toxicity of previously unstudied poultry medicines. The researchers’ aim is to develop and validate a state-of-the-art in vitro toxicology assay that could be used in a proactive manner to evaluate the safety of chicken and other foods. To do this, they investigated an FDA food safety case involving a specific brand of dog jerky treats that was randomly poisoning dogs.

The resulting disease, Fanconi syndrome, is tied to chemical food contaminants in antibiotics, but the specific chemical compounds, or combination or amount of compounds, that cause illness and death are yet unknown. The test that the team has developed uses a cell bioassay—in this case using the kidney cells of dogs affected by Fanconi syndrome—to determine the precise array of chemicals present in the toxic dog treats they consumed. Ultimately, the team hopes to develop this into a testing methodology that can measure the presence as well as the specific toxicity levels of the particular food contaminants that are tied to use of antibiotics and other drugs by chicken and other meat producing farms.

Leverage Points: Opportunities for increasing food production in developing countries

PI(s): Dennis McLaughlin, Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering; Erica James, Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology and Urban Studies and Director, MIT Global Health and Medical Humanities Initiative, Department of Urban Studies and Planning 

In this 2015-funded seed grant project, civil and environmental engineering professor Dennis McLaughlin teamed up with Erica James, then an associate professor of anthropology and now an associate professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. This multidisciplinary team combined ethnography with quantitative modeling and optimization methods to explore ways that food production might be increased in specific regions in India and Haiti. They assessed the benefits and drawbacks to switching from subsistence farming to cash crops such as rice (in India) and cacao (in Haiti), and in the process transformed each other’s approach to research and problem definition in important ways. In the case of Erica James, considerations such as groundwater use data are now factored into her analyses along with interviews and the cultural factors she assesses as an ethnographer. In the case of Dennis McLaughlin and his doctoral student Anjuli Figueroa, their analysis of water use and agriculture data are now accompanied by a new sensitivity to how social elements like family organization and gender roles play in to farmers’ crop and production choices and farm productivity. The team has established important ties with institutions and policy makers involved with agricultural and natural resource development in both Haiti and India as a result of their work, and these connections are providing the foundation for follow-up efforts and further outreach.

This catalogue of completed projects shows how research support for early-stage ideas can result in projects that both lay important groundwork for future research and result in technologies that can be scaled up to effect meaningful, even measurable, change on the world at large. Additional details about these and other J-WAFS-funded projects are available at our website. We are proud of the contributions of our PIs and their students, postdocs, and research staff to major water and food problems.