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August 2002

News about Science, Technology and Engineering at Iowa State University

Earth's attic
Could some of Earth's greatest mysteries not even be on this planet? That's the thinking of Guillermo Gonzalez, an Iowa State University assistant professor of physics and astronomy. Gonzalez and a team of researchers from the University of Washington have put forth a hypothesis that could lead to testing origin of life theories.

"There are very few places you can go on this planet that preserves the clues to the origin of life because of Earth's geologic activity," Gonzalez says. Rain, wind, tides, plate tectonics and other natural forces have largely eroded many clues Earth may have held. That got Gonzalez to thinking that some clues may exist elsewhere.

Gonzalez's research suggests that there is a strong chance asteroid impacts on the Earth around 3.8 billion years ago produced enough debris from the Earth to make its way to the moon. Some of the terrestrial rock may have been vaporized when it hit the moon, and other debris may have gone on past the moon and landed on Mars and other planets.

But Gonzalez thinks that the moon may be the final resting place for numerous samples of Earth. Since there is much less hydrological and geological erosion on the moon (no wind or water) than on Earth, those samples could still be there. Micrometeorites will break down anything on the moon's surface, but the materials Gonzalez is looking for should be below the surface and protected from this erosion.

Gonzalez even theorizes that since Mars and Venus experienced asteroid collisions during roughly the same time period, fragments from those planets may also be on the moon. He says the moon is strategically located within the inner solar system to be a "collector of debris."

"Meteorites are likely to contain uniquely preserved remains of these planets that are not available elsewhere in the solar system," Gonzalez says. "In particular, terrain meteorites on the moon may provide a substantive geological record for ancient Earth, corresponding to or predating the period of the earliest evidence of life."

Gonzalez and his colleagues have likened the moon to Earth's attic, a sort of deep-freeze repository for relics of the terrestrial dawn. That attic, according to Gonzalez, could contain as much as 20 tons of terrestrial materials in the top half-inch of a typical lunar area of about 40 square miles. These materials could contain geochemical and biological information such as isotopic signatures, organic carbon, biologically derived molecules and minerals, and maybe even microbial fossils. For more information, contact Gonzalez at (515) 294-5440, or David Gieseke, LAS Public Relations, (515) 294-7742.

Mobile database will help ensure patient information
For some physicians and nurses in the field, it is necessary to enter patient data into a database. But oftentimes they don't have access to a workstation with a network connection to the main database. Therefore, what is needed is a mobile medical database that ensures patient information is available to them when they need it.

An $80,000 grant from the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota, to Iowa State University could result in such a mobile medical database. Iowa State computer science professor Johnny Wong is developing a database program that should be able to run on a laptop computer. The goal, Wong says, is to develop a database that looks and feels like the main database. Then, when the user ties into the main database, the program will synchronize information on both the laptop and the main database, and consistency of data on the laptop will be checked with respect to the main database.

Wong says the laptop database could be a "light" version of a commercial database. Such a database would offer a direct interface with the main database and likely would take care of most synchronization issues. The disadvantage is that the products are expensive and interface only with a specific database brand on the server side. Other database products could offer a price advantage and with proper interfacing software could synchronize with virtually any database brand. However, such databases could introduce complexities when attempting to synchronize data since synchronization methods are not automatically supplied by these databases.

From the user's standpoint, the interface to the mobile medical database on the laptop computer should appear to be identical to that for the main database, so that the user need not adjust his/her behavior depending on the situation. For more information, contact Wong, (515) 294-2586, or Skip Derra, ISU News Service, (515) 294-4917.

Researchers explore safer, cheaper ways to clean agrichemical spills
Joel Coats, professor of entomology at Iowa State University, and a team of graduate students are developing safer, cheaper ways to find and clean-up agricultural chemical spills. The researchers are looking at the use of "biological endpoints" as environmental markers of chemical spills. Biological endpoints identify chemicals that could be potentially harmful to biological systems. They associate how specific chemicals relate to biological activity.

"We feel that we have found biological endpoints that are more relevant to living systems than the standard chemical tests of pesticide residues in soils," Coats said. Biological endpoints include, for example, methods of testing for toxicity levels in soils and testing earthworms for the accumulation of pollutants. Graduate student Jason Belden has developed several biological endpoints and is comparing their utility and relevance to traditional chemical residue analysis.

Coats said the biological tests are used to determine how much pesticide is available to plants and animals. This provides a measurement of potential contact to humans through direct contact with contaminated soil (walking, digging, or breathing dust from a contaminated site), or indirect exposure to pesticide residues through the food chain (consuming animals or plants that accumulated pesticides from a site).

"Our main goal is to find out if the biological endpoints give a different picture of the safety or hazard of contaminated soil from the traditional chemical analysis of the contaminated soil," Coats said. "If the evaluation is different, we hope to assess which is more valuable and cost-effective."

Coats said phytoremediation (using plants to biodegrade or soak up pollutants in soil), one of the endpoint techniques they have been working with, shows promise. "We believe our work on phytoremediation of contaminated soils will be valuable in cleaning up contaminated sites with an economical, slow-but-sure, in-place method that will be much more aesthetically and financially appealing to the owners and state agencies," Coats said.

The Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contaminants at the University of Iowa provided a $20,000 grant for the research. For more information, contact Coats, (515) 294-4776; Belden, (515) 294-8667; or Skip Derra, ISU News Service, (515) 294-4917.


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