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March 2001

News about Science, Technology and Engineering at Iowa State University

New battery materials explored
Iowa State University researchers are working on new materials for fuel cell and battery use. The research, directed by Steve Martin, ISU professor of materials science and engineering, will focus on developing a new class of fast ion conducting (FIC) glasses that have higher conductivities and greater chemical and thermal stability than today's liquid polymer and gel electrolytes. The $100,000 project is funded by NASA's Glenn Research Center, Cleveland.

Martin said the new materials could lead to "chemically robust glasses" with unusually high chemical, electrochemical and thermal stability -- all attributes that could result in more efficient batteries. For example, the glasses are expected to exhibit softening points (the temperature at which the material begins to become pliable) in excess of 500 F, which will dramatically expand the operating temperature range of batteries, fuel cells and sensors using such electrolytes. For more information contact Martin, (515) 294-0745, or Skip Derra, ISU News Service, (515) 294-4917.

Sensing cancer's path
Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory have developed biosensor technology that provides immediate information about DNA damage from cancer-producing compounds called carcinogens. Damage to DNA is a critical first step in the development of cancer.

A reliable way to assess cancer risk is to keep track of DNA adducts formed in human cells. DNA adducts are chemical compounds in which a carcinogen is attached to the DNA. These adducts may cause damage that can result in the birth and proliferation of a renegade cell, producing cancer. Ames Lab researchers developed a new method for detecting certain DNA adducts that can be found in urine. The new biosensor chip is simpler and potentially more practical than previous methods.

The biosensor technology is based on a novel gold chip that can be used to detect fluorescent DNA adducts -- which emit light when excited by a laser. Bound to a chip's surface are special antibodies, proteins that serve as the body's natural defense system against infectious agents. Scientists can develop antibodies in the laboratory to be so selective that they will preferentially bind a specific DNA adduct.

With the new biosensor technology, scientists could test for the presence of a certain adduct in a sample of urine by dipping a chip containing the corresponding antibody into processed urine. The adducts of interest would bind to the antibody and fluoresce when scanned with a laser beam at low temperature -- about 4 K (-452 F). Data gathered from the laser scanning would then be used to produce a detailed fingerprint for adduct identification, providing vital information for cancer risk-assessment. For more information, contact Ryszard Jankowiak, (515) 294-4394, or Saren Johnston, Ames Lab Public Affairs, (515) 294-3474.

Discovering oil
For 30 years, plant scientists have searched for the compound plants use to create oil. The mystery may have been solved by three Iowa State University research groups. Their discovery could make it possible for plant breeders and genetic engineers to adjust the oil-producing capacity of corn, soybeans and other plants.

The commercial oils produced by plants are made from fatty acids synthesized in an organelle called the plastid. These fatty acids are made from acetyl-coenzyme A (acetyl-CoA), which also is the starting material for the biosynthesis of waxes, flavonoids, certain amino acids and other compounds. By the late 1980s, most scientists thought that acetyl-CoA was made by the enzyme acetyl-CoA synthetase (ACS).

The Iowa State plant scientists, however, found an unexpected source. Another enzyme -- pyruvate dehydrogenase (PDH) -- which was known to be involved, actually was responsible. They looked at how the ACS and PDH coding genes are expressed during the development of the seeds when oil was being produced in the seeds. They found the PDH gene is coordinately expressed as other fatty acid biosynthetic genes consistent with its role in making oil, but the expression of the ACS gene was not coordinated with the other fatty acid biosynthetic genes or oil accumulation. Iowa State has a patent pending for the genes and methods for altering acetyl-CoA generation.

The Iowa State research groups are led by Basil Nikolau, biochemistry professor and interim director of the Center for Designer Crops and botany professors David Oliver and Eve Syrkin Wurtele. For more information, contact Nikolau, (515) 294-9423; Wurtele, (515) 294-8989; or Teddi Barron, ISU News Service, (515) 294-4778.


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