December 2000

News about Science, Technology and Engineering at Iowa State University

Separating microbes in the manner of molecules
Chemists have long been able to separate molecules with several tried and true techniques. While there is an impressive array of instruments and techniques that allow molecular separations down to the most minute level, there isn't anything comparable for the analysis of micro-organisms, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi. That may change now with the work of Dan Armstrong, the Caldwell chair of chemistry at Iowa State University. Armstrong is using several established chemical techniques to separate and quantify micro-organisms, or microbes. Armstrong's techniques could lead to new methods for the quick detection of diseases, assays to analyze consumer products and a method to provide real-time monitoring of fermentation processes.

"This is a cross between chemistry and biology," Armstrong says. "We are developing rapid, highly efficient instrumental methods of analyzing intact micro-organisms."

To do that, Armstrong and his colleagues use known separation methods, such as capillary electrophoresis and chromatography, and modify them to separate out microbes. A key is getting the microbes in the "right condition" before they are analyzed. "Microbes do all sorts of things molecules don't do," Armstrong says. "So you have to figure out ways to stop or suppress certain microbe behavior long enough to get the analysis done."

The researchers have used the techniques to diagnose urinary tract infections and separate out living and dead microbes. They will use the technique to provide continuous monitoring of fermentation processes, which are widely used in the drug, food processing and biotechnology industries. "Right now, we are just seeing all you can do with these techniques," Armstrong says. For more information, contact Armstrong, (515) 294-1392, or Skip Derra, News Service, (515) 294-4917.

Learning the detail of materials
An effort is underway at the Materials Preparation Center, part of the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory, to better understand the role processing has in a material's final specific properties. Scientists hope the effort will enable them to develop techniques for making advanced materials and for optimizing existing materials.

The Process Science Initiative offers competitive funding for research projects that either improve fundamental understanding of the processing techniques for existing materials or explore techniques for producing novel materials. PSI program manager Brian Gleeson said it's critical that scientists understand what happens to a material when it goes from a liquid state to a solid state because most metals and alloys are made of tiny crystals. The way in which the liquid crystallizes to form the microstructure of the solid determines the material's properties, such as its strength and formability. Subsequent secondary processing, such as rolling or extruding, also affects a material's properties.

"In much of the recent research, we've focused heavily on the properties of materials without really understanding how we arrived at, or can control, the microstructure," Gleeson said. For more information, contact Gleeson, (515) 294-5606, or Saren Johnston, Ames Lab Public Affairs, (515) 294-3474.

"Fast-talking" clusters
The National Science Foundation has awarded a grant to Iowa State University's Center for Physical and Computational Mathematics (CPCM) to advance cluster computing technology. The grant includes $190,000 from NSF and more than $100,000 in matching funds from the Institute for Physical Research and Technology, ISU, and the departments of chemistry and physics. The grant will be used to explore communication technology in cluster computers -- personal computer or workstation networks that operate at speeds comparable to today's commercial parallel computers, but for a fraction of the cost.

"A university department or a research group can't afford to buy a supercomputer, but they can afford to put a good cluster together," says Mark Gordon, a principal investigator for the NSF grant and an Iowa State distinguished professor of chemistry. "So the issue now is how do we help those people maximize cluster efficiency?"

CPCM researchers will take advantage of the expertise and facilities available at the Scalable Computing Lab of the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory to investigate interconnect solutions for cluster computers. Improving message-passing between computers in a cluster is the primary goal of the grant.

Gordon says solutions to grand-challenge problems, such as the design of new materials and catalysts, development of viable methods for environmental remediation, and the search for the origin of life, will require state-of-the-art computational hardware and applications software to take advantage of modern computers. "The high-performance computing environment of the future will undoubtedly include scalable cluster computing," he says.

"In the case of clusters, we want to figure out how to best manage the hardware and get computers talking to each other with a minimum amount of time used in communicating and a maximum amount of time in actually doing the calculations," Gordon says. For more information, contact Gordon, (515) 294-0452, or Saren Johnston, IPRT Public Affairs, (515) 294-3474.

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