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    Food for thought, thought for food

    According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, approximately 3.1 billion people worldwide were unable to afford a healthy diet in 2020. Meanwhile, in 2021 close to 2.3 billion people were moderately or severely food insecure. Given the strong link between malnutrition and income disparity, the numbers paint a grim picture representing one of the grand challenges of our time.

    “I’m probably an idealist,” says MIT Research Scientist Christopher Mejía Argueta, “but I really believe that if we change our diets and think about ways to help others, we can make a difference — that’s my motivation.”

    Mejía Argueta is the founder and director of the MIT Food and Retail Operations Lab (FaROL). He has more than a decade of experience in supply chain management, optimization, and effective data-driven decision-making on pressing issues like the evolution of end consumers for retail and e-tail supply chains, food waste, and equitable access to nutrition.  

    Supply chain network designs typically focus on minimizing costs without considering the implications (e.g., cost) of changes in consumer behavior. Mejía Argueta and his colleagues at the FaROL, however, are working to understand and design optimal supply chains to create high-performance operations based on consumer choice. “Understanding the significant factors of consumer choice and analyzing their evolution over time becomes critical to designing forward-looking retail operations with data-driven and customer-centric supply chains, inventory management, and distribution systems,” explains Mejía Argueta. 

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    One of his recent projects examined the challenges of small retailers worldwide. These mom-and-pop outlets, or nanostores, account for 50 percent of the global market share and are the primary source of consumer packaged goods for people in urban areas. Worldwide there are nearly 50 million nanostores, each serving between 100-200 households in a community. In India alone, there are 14 million nanostores known as kiranas. And while these retailers are more prevalent in emerging markets, they play an important role in developed markets, particularly in under-resourced communities, and are frequently located in “food deserts,” where they are the only source of essential goods for the community.  

    These small retailers thrive thanks, partly, to their ability to offer the right combination of affordability and convenience while fostering trust with local customers, who often lack access to a supermarket or a grocery store. They often exist in fragmented, densely populated areas where infrastructure and public transportation services are poor and consumers have limited purchasing power. But nanostore shopkeepers and owners are intimately familiar with their customers and their consumption patterns, which means they can connect those consumption patterns or information to the larger supply chain. According to Mejía Argueta, when it comes to the future of retail, nanostores will be the cornerstones of growth in emerging economies. 

    But it’s a complicated scenario. Mom-and-pop shops don’t have the capacity to offer a broad range of products to their customers, and often, they lack access to nutritious food options. Logistically speaking, it is expensive to supply them, and the cost-to-serve (i.e., the logistics cost) is between 10 to 30 percent more expensive than other retailers. According to Mejía Argueta, this has a significant ripple effect, impacting education, productivity, and, eventually, the economic performance of an entire nation.  

    “The high fragmentation of nanostores causes substantial distribution inefficiencies, especially in congested megacities,” he says. “At my lab, we study how to make nanostores more efficient and effective by considering various commercial and logistics strategies while considering inherent technical challenges. We need to serve these small retailers better to help them survive and thrive, to provide a greater impact for underserved communities and the entire economic ecosystem.”

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    Mejía Argueta and his team recently collaborated with Tufts University and the City of Somerville, Massachusetts, to conduct research on food access models in underserved communities. The Somerville Project explored various interventions to supply fresh produce in food desert neighborhoods.

    “A lack of nutrition does not simply mean a lack of food,” Mejía Argueta says. “It can also be caused by an overabundance of unhealthy foods in a given market, which is particularly troublesome for U.S. cities where people in underserved communities don’t have access to healthy food options. We believe that one way to combat the problem of food deserts is to supply these areas with healthy food options affordably and create awareness programs.”  

    The collaborative project saw Mejía Argueta and his colleagues assessing the impact of several intervention schemes designed to empower the end consumer. For example, they implemented a low-cost grocery delivery model similar to Instacart as well as a ride sharing system to transport people from their homes to grocery stores and back. They also collaborated with a nonprofit organization, Partnership for a Healthier America, and began working with retailers to deliver “veggie boxes” in underserved communities. Models like these provide low-income people access to food while providing dignity of choice, Mejía Argueta explains.  

    When it comes to supply chain management research, sustainability and societal impact often fall by the wayside, but Mejía Argueta’s bottom-up approach shirks tradition. “We’re trying to build a community, employing a socially driven perspective because if you work with the community, you gain their trust. If you want to make something sustainable in the long term, people need to trust in these solutions and engage with the ecosystem as a whole.”  

    And to achieve real-world impact, collaboration is key. Mejía Argueta says that government has an important role to play, developing policy to connect the models he and his colleagues develop in academia to societal challenges. Meanwhile, he believes startups and entrepreneurs can function as bridge-builders to link the flows of information, the flows of goods and cash, and even knowledge and security in an ecosystem that suffers from fragmentation and siloed thinking among stakeholders.

    Finally, Mejía Argueta reflects on the role of corporations and his belief that the MIT Industrial Liaison Program is essential to getting his research to the frontline of business challenges. “The Industrial Liaison Program does a fantastic job of connecting our research to real-world scenarios,” he says. “It creates opportunities for us to have meaningful interactions with corporates for real-world impact. I believe strongly in the MIT motto ‘mens et manus,’ and ILP helps drive our research into practice.” More

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    Microparticles could help prevent vitamin A deficiency

    Vitamin A deficiency is the world’s leading cause of childhood blindness, and in severe cases, it can be fatal. About one-third of the global population of preschool-aged children suffer from this vitamin deficiency, which is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

    MIT researchers have now developed a new way to fortify foods with vitamin A, which they hope could help to improve the health of millions of people around the world. In a new study, they showed that encapsulating vitamin A in a protective polymer prevents the nutrient from being broken down during cooking or storage.

    “Vitamin A is a very important micronutrient, but it’s an unstable molecule,” says Ana Jaklenec, a research scientist at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. “We wanted to see if our encapsulated vitamin A could fortify a food vehicle like bouillon cubes or flour, throughout storage and cooking, and whether the vitamin A could remain biologically active and be absorbed.”

    In a small clinical trial, the researchers showed that when people ate bread fortified with encapsulated vitamin A, the bioavailability of the nutrient was similar to when they consumed vitamin A on its own. The technology has been licensed to two companies that hope to develop it for use in food products.

    “This is a study that our team is really excited about because it shows that everything we did in test tubes and animals works safely and effectively in humans,” says Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and a member of the Koch Institute. “We hope this opens the door for someday helping millions, if not billions, of people in the developing world.”

    Jaklenec and Langer are the senior authors of the new study, which appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper’s lead author is former MIT postdoc Wen Tang, who is now an associate professor at South China University of Technology.

    Nutrient stability

    Vitamin A is critical not only for vision but also the functioning of the immune system and organs such as the heart and lungs. Efforts to add vitamin A to bread or other foods such as bouillon cubes, which are commonly consumed in West African countries, have been largely unsuccessful because the vitamin breaks down during storage or cooking.

    In a 2019 study, the MIT team showed that they could use a polymer called BMC to encapsulate nutrients, including iron, vitamin A, and several others. They showed that this protective coating improved the shelf life of the nutrients, and that people who consumed bread fortified with encapsulated iron were able to absorb the iron.

    BMC is classified by the FDA as “generally regarded as safe,” and is already used in coatings for drugs and dietary supplements. In the new study, the researchers focused on using this polymer to encapsulate vitamin A, a nutrient that is very sensitive to temperature and ultraviolet light.

    Using an industrial process known as a spinning disc process, the researchers mixed vitamin A with the polymer to form particles 100 to 200 microns in diameter. They also coated the particles with starch, which prevents them from sticking to each other.

    The researchers found that vitamin A encapsulated in the polymer particles were more resistant to degradation by intense light, high temperatures, or boiling water. Under those conditions, much more vitamin A remained active than when the vitamin A was free or when it was delivered in a form called VitA 250, which is currently the most stable form of vitamin A used for food fortification.

    The researchers also showed that the encapsulated particles could be easily incorporated into flour or bouillon cubes. To test how well they would survive long-term storage, the researchers exposed the cubes to harsh conditions, as recommended by the World Health Organization: 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and 75 percent humidity. Under those conditions, the encapsulated vitamin A was much more stable than other forms of vitamin A. 

    “The enhanced stability of vitamin A with our technology can ensure that the vitamin A-fortified food does provide the recommended daily uptake of vitamin A, even after long-term storage in a hot humidified environment, and cooking processes such as boiling or baking,” Tang says. “People who are suffering from vitamin A deficiency and want to get vitamin A through fortified food will benefit, without changing their daily routines, and without wondering how much vitamin A is still in the food.”

    Vitamin absorption

    When the researchers cooked their encapsulated particles and then fed them to animals, they found that 30 percent of the vitamin A was absorbed, the same as free uncooked vitamin A, compared to about 3 percent of free vitamin A that had been cooked.

    Working with Biofortis, a company that does dietary clinical testing, the researchers then evaluated how well vitamin A was absorbed in people who ate foods fortified with the particles. For this study, the researchers incorporated the particles into bread, then measured vitamin A levels in the blood over a 24-hour period after the bread was consumed. They found that when vitamin A was encapsulated in the BMC polymer, it was absorbed from the food at levels comparable to free vitamin A, indicating that it is readily released in bioactive form.

    Two companies have licensed the technology and are focusing on developing products fortified with vitamin A and other nutrients. A benefit corporation called Particles for Humanity, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is working with partners in Africa to incorporate this technology into existing fortification efforts. Another company called VitaKey, founded by Jaklenec, Langer, and others, is working on using this approach to add nutrients to a variety of foods and beverages.

    The research was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Other authors of the paper include Jia Zhuang, Aaron Anselmo, Xian Xu, Aranda Duan, Ruojie Zhang, James Sugarman, Yingying Zeng, Evan Rosenberg, Tyler Graf, Kevin McHugh, Stephany Tzeng, Adam Behrens, Lisa Freed, Lihong Jing, Surangi Jayawardena, Shelley Weinstock, Xiao Le, Christopher Sears, James Oxley, John Daristotle, and Joe Collins. More

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    A breakthrough on “loss and damage,” but also disappointment, at UN climate conference

    As the 2022 United Nations climate change conference, known as COP27, stretched into its final hours on Saturday, Nov. 19, it was uncertain what kind of agreement might emerge from two weeks of intensive international negotiations.

    In the end, COP27 produced mixed results: on the one hand, a historic agreement for wealthy countries to compensate low-income countries for “loss and damage,” but on the other, limited progress on new plans for reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet.

    “We need to drastically reduce emissions now — and this is an issue this COP did not address,” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in a statement at the conclusion of COP27. “A fund for loss and damage is essential — but it’s not an answer if the climate crisis washes a small island state off the map — or turns an entire African country to desert.”

    Throughout the two weeks of the conference, a delegation of MIT students, faculty, and staff was at the Sharm El-Sheikh International Convention Center to observe the negotiations, conduct and share research, participate in panel discussions, and forge new connections with researchers, policymakers, and advocates from around the world.

    Loss and damage

    A key issue coming in to COP27 (COP stands for “conference of the parties” to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, held for the 27th time) was loss and damage: a term used by the U.N. to refer to harms caused by climate change — either through acute catastrophes like extreme weather events or slower-moving impacts like sea level rise — to which communities and countries are unable to adapt. 

    Ultimately, a deal on loss and damage proved to be COP27’s most prominent accomplishment. Negotiators reached an eleventh-hour agreement to “establish new funding arrangements for assisting developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.” 

    “Providing financial assistance to developing countries so they can better respond to climate-related loss and damage is not only a moral issue, but also a pragmatic one,” said Michael Mehling, deputy director of the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, who attended COP27 and participated in side events. “Future emissions growth will be squarely centered in the developing world, and offering support through different channels is key to building the trust needed for more robust global cooperation on mitigation.”

    Youssef Shaker, a graduate student in the MIT Technology and Policy Program and a research assistant with the MIT Energy Initiative, attended the second week of the conference, where he followed the negotiations over loss and damage closely. 

    “While the creation of a fund is certainly an achievement,” Shaker said, “significant questions remain to be answered, such as the size of the funding available as well as which countries receive access to it.” A loss-and-damage fund that is not adequately funded, Shaker noted, “would not be an impactful outcome.” 

    The agreement on loss and damage created a new committee, made up of 24 country representatives, to “operationalize” the new funding arrangements, including identifying funding sources. The committee is tasked with delivering a set of recommendations at COP28, which will take place next year in Dubai.

    Advising the U.N. on net zero

    Though the decisions reached at COP27 did not include major new commitments on reducing emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels, the transition to a clean global energy system was nevertheless a key topic of conversation throughout the conference.

    The Council of Engineers for the Energy Transition (CEET), an independent, international body of engineers and energy systems experts formed to provide advice to the U.N. on achieving net-zero emissions globally by 2050, convened for the first time at COP27. Jessika Trancik, a professor in the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and a member of CEET, spoke on a U.N.-sponsored panel on solutions for the transition to clean energy.

    Trancik noted that the energy transition will look different in different regions of the world. “As engineers, we need to understand those local contexts and design solutions around those local contexts — that’s absolutely essential to support a rapid and equitable energy transition.”

    At the same time, Trancik noted that there is now a set of “low-cost, ready-to-scale tools” available to every region — tools that resulted from a globally competitive process of innovation, stimulated by public policies in different countries, that dramatically drove down the costs of technologies like solar energy and lithium-ion batteries. The key, Trancik said, is for regional transition strategies to “tap into global processes of innovation.”

    Reinventing climate adaptation

    Elfatih Eltahir, the H. M. King Bhumibol Professor of Hydrology and Climate, traveled to COP27 to present plans for the Jameel Observatory Climate Resilience Early Warning System (CREWSnet), one of the five projects selected in April 2022 as a flagship in MIT’s Climate Grand Challenges initiative. CREWSnet focuses on climate adaptation, the term for adapting to climate impacts that are unavoidable.

    The aim of CREWSnet, Eltahir told the audience during a panel discussion, is “nothing short of reinventing the process of climate change adaptation,” so that it is proactive rather than reactive; community-led; data-driven and evidence-based; and so that it integrates different climate risks, from heat waves to sea level rise, rather than treating them individually.

    “However, it’s easy to talk about these changes,” said Eltahir. “The real challenge, which we are now just launching and engaging in, is to demonstrate that on the ground.” Eltahir said that early demonstrations will happen in a couple of key locations, including southwest Bangladesh, where multiple climate risks — rising sea levels, increasing soil salinity, and intensifying heat waves and cyclones — are combining to threaten the area’s agricultural production.

    Building on COP26

    Some members of MIT’s delegation attended COP27 to advance efforts that had been formally announced at last year’s U.N. climate conference, COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland.

    At an official U.N. side event co-organized by MIT on Nov. 11, Greg Sixt, the director of the Food and Climate Systems Transformation (FACT) Alliance led by the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab, provided an update on the alliance’s work since its launch at COP26.

    Food systems are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions — and are increasingly vulnerable to climate impacts. The FACT Alliance works to better connect researchers to farmers, food businesses, policymakers, and other food systems stakeholders to make food systems (which include food production, consumption, and waste) more sustainable and resilient. 

    Sixt told the audience that the FACT Alliance now counts over 20 research and stakeholder institutions around the world among its members, but also collaborates with other institutions in an “open network model” to advance work in key areas — such as a new research project exploring how climate scenarios could affect global food supply chains.

    Marcela Angel, research program director for the Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI), helped convene a meeting at COP27 of the Afro-InterAmerican Forum on Climate Change, which also launched at COP26. The forum works with Afro-descendant leaders across the Americas to address significant environmental issues, including climate risks and biodiversity loss. 

    At the event — convened with the Colombian government and the nonprofit Conservation International — ESI brought together leaders from six countries in the Americas and presented recent work that estimates that there are over 178 million individuals who identify as Afro-descendant living in the Americas, in lands of global environmental importance. 

    “There is a significant overlap between biodiversity hot spots, protected areas, and areas of high Afro-descendant presence,” said Angel. “But the role and climate contributions of these communities is understudied, and often made invisible.”    

    Limiting methane emissions

    Methane is a short-lived but potent greenhouse gas: When released into the atmosphere, it immediately traps about 120 times more heat than carbon dioxide does. More than 150 countries have now signed the Global Methane Pledge, launched at COP26, which aims to reduce methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030 compared to 2020 levels.

    Sergey Paltsev, the deputy director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and a senior research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative, gave the keynote address at a Nov. 17 event on methane, where he noted the importance of methane reductions from the oil and gas sector to meeting the 2030 goal.

    “The oil and gas sector is where methane emissions reductions could be achieved the fastest,” said Paltsev. “We also need to employ an integrated approach to address methane emissions in all sectors and all regions of the world because methane emissions reductions provide a near-term pathway to avoiding dangerous tipping points in the global climate system.”

    “Keep fighting relentlessly”

    Arina Khotimsky, a senior majoring in materials science and engineering and a co-president of the MIT Energy and Climate Club, attended the first week of COP27. She reflected on the experience in a social media post after returning home. 

    “COP will always have its haters. Is there greenwashing? Of course! Is everyone who should have a say in this process in the room? Not even close,” wrote Khotimsky. “So what does it take for COP to matter? It takes everyone who attended to not only put ‘climate’ on front-page news for two weeks, but to return home and keep fighting relentlessly against climate change. I know that I will.” More

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    MIT PhD students shed light on important water and food research

    One glance at the news lately will reveal countless headlines on the dire state of global water and food security. Pollution, supply chain disruptions, and the war in Ukraine are all threatening water and food systems, compounding climate change impacts from heat waves, drought, floods, and wildfires.

    Every year, MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) offers fellowships to outstanding MIT graduate students who are working on innovative ways to secure water and food supplies in light of these urgent worldwide threats. J-WAFS announced this year’s fellowship recipients last April. Aditya Ghodgaonkar and Devashish Gokhale were awarded Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowships for Water Solutions, which are made possible by a generous gift from Elina and Nikhil Meswani and family. James Zhang, Katharina Fransen, and Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang were awarded J-WAFS Fellowships for Water and Food Solutions. The J-WAFS Fellowship for Water and Food Solutions is funded in part by J-WAFS Research Affiliate companies: Xylem, Inc., a water technology company, and GoAigua, a company leading the digital transformation of the water industry.

    The five fellows were each awarded a stipend and full tuition for one semester. They also benefit from mentorship, networking connections, and opportunities to showcase their research.

    “This year’s cohort of J-WAFS fellows show an indefatigable drive to explore, create, and push back boundaries,” says John H. Lienhard, director of J-WAFS. “Their passion and determination to create positive change for humanity are evident in these unique video portraits, which describe their solutions-oriented research in water and food,” Lienhard adds.

    J-WAFS funder Community Jameel recently commissioned video portraitures of each student that highlight their work and their inspiration to solve challenges in water and food. More about each J-WAFS fellow and their research follows.

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    Katharina Fransen

    In Professor Bradley Olsen’s lab in the Department of Chemical Engineering, Katharina Fransen works to develop biologically-based, biodegradable plastics which can be used for food packing that won’t pollute the environment. Fransen, a third-year PhD student, is motivated by the challenge of protecting the most vulnerable global communities from waste generated by the materials that are essential to connecting them to the global food supply. “We can’t ensure that all of our plastic waste gets recycled or reused, and so we want to make sure that if it does escape into the environment it can degrade, and that’s kind of where a lot of my research really comes in,” says Fransen. Most of her work involves creating polymers, or “really long chains of chemicals,” kind of like the paper rings a lot of us looped into chains as kids, Fransen explains. The polymers are optimized for food packaging applications to keep food fresher for longer, preventing food waste. Fransen says she finds the work “really interesting from the scientific perspective as well as from the idea that [she’s] going to make the world a little better with these new materials.” She adds, “I think it is both really fulfilling and really exciting and engaging.”

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    Aditya Ghodgaonkar

    “When I went to Kenya this past spring break, I had an opportunity to meet a lot of farmers and talk to them about what kind of maintenance issues they face,” says Aditya Ghodgaonkar, PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Ghodgaonkar works with Associate Professor Amos Winter in the Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab, where he designs hydraulic components for drip irrigation systems to make them water-efficient, off-grid, inexpensive, and low-maintenance. On his trip to Kenya, Ghodgaonkar gained firsthand knowledge from farmers about a common problem they encounter: clogging of drip irrigation emitters. He learned that clogging can be an expensive technical challenge to diagnose, mitigate, and resolve. He decided to focus his attention on designing emitters that are resistant to clogging, testing with sand and passive hydrodynamic filtration back in the lab at MIT. “I got into this from an academic standpoint,” says Ghodgaonkar. “It is only once I started working on the emitters, spoke with industrial partners that make these emitters, spoke with farmers, that I really truly appreciated the impact of what we’re doing.”

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    Devashish Gokhale

    Devashish Gokhale is a PhD student advised by Professor Patrick Doyle in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Gokhale’s commitment to global water security stems from his childhood in Pune, India, where both flooding and drought can occur depending on the time of year. “I’ve had these experiences where there’s been too much water and also too little water” he recalls. At MIT, Gokhale is developing cost-effective, sustainable, and reusable materials for water treatment with a focus on the elimination of emerging contaminants and low-concentration pollutants like heavy metals. Specifically, he works on making and optimizing polymeric hydrogel microparticles that can absorb micropollutants. “I know how important it is to do something which is not just scientifically interesting, but something which is impactful in a real way,” says Gokhale. Before starting a research project he asks himself, “are people going to be able to afford this? Is it really going to reach the people who need it the most?” Adding these constraints in the beginning of the research process sometimes makes the problem more difficult to solve, but Gokhale notes that in the end, the solution is much more promising.

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    James Zhang

    “We don’t really think much about it, it’s transparent, odorless, we just turn on our sink in many parts of the world and it just flows through,” says James Zhang when talking about water. Yet he notes that “many other parts of the world face water scarcity and this will only get worse due to global climate change.” A PhD student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Zhang works in the Nano Engineering Laboratory with Professor Gang Chen. Zhang is working on a technology that uses light-induced evaporation to clean water. He is currently investigating the fundamental properties of how light at different wavelengths interacts with liquids at the surface, particularly with brackish water surfaces. With strong theoretical and experimental components, his research could lead to innovations in desalinating water at high energy efficiencies. Zhang hopes that the technology can one day “produce lots of clean water for communities around the world that currently don’t have access to fresh water,” and create a new appreciation for this common liquid that many of us might not think about on a day-to-day basis.

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    Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang

    “Around the world there are about 2 billion people currently suffering from micronutrient deficiency because they do not have access to very healthy, very fresh food,” says chemical engineering PhD candidate Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang. This fact led Zhang to develop a micronutrient delivery platform that fortifies foods with essential vitamins and nutrients. With her advisors, Professor Robert Langer and Research Scientist Ana Jaklenec, Zhang brings biomedical engineering approaches to global health issues. Zhang says that “one of the most serious problems is vitamin A deficiency, because vitamin A is not very stable.” She goes on to explain that although vitamin A is present in different vegetables, when the vegetables are cooked, vitamin A can easily degrade. Zhang helped develop a group of biodegradable polymers that can stabilize micronutrients under cooking and storage conditions. With this technology, vitamin A, for example, could be encapsulated and effectively stabilized under boiling water. The platform has also shown efficient release in a simulation of the stomach environment. Zhang says it is the “little, tiny steps every day that are pushing us forward to the final impactful product.” More

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    Pesticide innovation takes top prize at Collegiate Inventors Competition

    On Oct. 12, MIT mechanical engineering alumnus Vishnu Jayaprakash SM ’19, PhD ’22 was named the first-place winner in the graduate category of the Collegiate Inventors Competition. The annual competition, which is organized by the National Inventors Hall of Fame, celebrates college and university student inventors. Jayaprakash won for his pesticide innovation AgZen-Cloak, which he developed while he was a student in the lab of Kripa Varanasi, a professor of mechanical engineering.

    Currently, only 2 percent of pesticide spray is retained by crops. Many crops are naturally water-repellent, causing pesticide-laden water to bounce off of them. Farmers are forced to over-spray significantly to ensure proper spray coverage on their crops. Not only does this waste expensive pesticides, but it also comes at an environmental cost.

    Runoff from pesticide treatment pollutes soil and nearby streams. Droplets can travel in the air, leading to illness and death in nearby populations. It is estimated that each year, pesticide pollution causes between 20,000 and 200,000 deaths, and up to 385 million acute illnesses like cancer, birth defects, and neurological conditions.   

    With his invention AgZen-Cloak, Jayaprakash has found a way to keep droplets of water containing pesticide from bouncing off crops by “cloaking” the droplets in a small amount of plant-derived oil. As a result, farmers could use just one-fifth the amount of spray, minimizing water waste and cost for farmers and eliminating airborne pollution and toxic runoff. It also improves pesticide retention, which can lead to higher crop yield.

    “By cloaking each droplet with a minute quantity of a plant-based oil, we promote water retention on even the most water-repellent plant surfaces,” says Jayaprakash. “AgZen-Cloak presents a universal, inexpensive, and environmentally sustainable way to prevent pesticide overuse and waste.”

    Farming is in Jayaprakash’s DNA. His family operates a 10-acre farm near Chennai, India, where they grow rice and mangoes. Upon joining the Varanasi Research Group as a graduate student, Jayaprakash was instantly drawn to Varanasi’s work on pesticides in agriculture.

    “Growing up, I would spray crops on my family farm wearing a backpack sprayer. So, I’ve always wanted to work on research that made farmer’s lives easier,” says Jayaprakash, who serves as CEO of the startup AgZen.

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    2022 World Food Day First Prize Winner – AgZen Cloak: Reducing Pesticide Pollution and Waste

    Helping droplets stick

    Varanasi and his lab at MIT work on what is known as interfacial phenomena — or the study of what happens when different phases come into contact and interact with one another. Understanding how a liquid interacts with a solid or how a liquid reacts to a certain gas has endless applications, which explains the diversity of the research Varanasi has conducted over the years. He and his team have developed solutions for everything from consumer product packaging to power plant emissions.

    In 2009, Varanasi gave a talk at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). There, he learned from the USDA just how big of a problem runoff from pesticide spray was for farmers around the world.
    A green cabbage leaf is treated with pesticide-laden water using conventional spraying. Image courtesy of AgZen.A green cabbage leaf is treated with pesticide-laden water using AgZen’s technology. By cloaking droplets in a tiny amount of plant-derived oil, the droplets stick to the leaf, minimizing over-spraying, waste, and pollution. Image courtesy of AgZen.He enlisted the help of then-graduate student Maher Damak SM ’15, PhD ’18 to apply their work in interfacial phenomena to pesticide sprays. Over the next several years, the Varanasi Research Group developed a technology that utilized electrically charged polymers to keep droplets from bouncing off hydrophobic surfaces. When droplets containing positively and negatively charged additives meet, their surface chemistry allows them to stick to a plant’s surface.

    Using polyelectrolytes, the researchers could reduce the amount of spray needed to cover a crop by tenfold in the lab. This motivated the Varanasi Research Group to pursue three years of field trials with various commercial growers around the world, where they were able to demonstrate significant savings for farmers.

    “We got fantastic feedback on our technology from farmers. We are really excited to change the paradigm for agriculture. Not only is it good for the environment, but we’ve heard from farmers that they love it. If we can put money back into farms, it helps society as a whole,” adds Varanasi.

    In response to the positive feedback, Varanasi and Jayaprakash co-founded startup AgZen in 2020. 

    When field testing their polyelectrolyte technology, Varanasi and Jayaprakash came up with the idea to explore the use of a fully plant-based material to help farmers achieve the same savings. 

    Cloaking droplets and engineering nozzles

    Jayaprakash found that by cloaking a small amount of plant-derived oil around a water droplet, droplets stick to plant surfaces that would typically repel water. After conducting many studies in the lab, he found that the oil only needs to make up 0.1 percent of a droplet’s total volume to stick to crops and provide total, uniform coverage.

    While his cloaking solution worked in the lab, Jayaprakash knew that to have a tangible impact in the real world he needed to find an easy, low-cost way for farmers to coat pesticide spray droplets in oil.

    Jayaprakash focused on spray nozzles. He developed a proprietary nozzle that coats each droplet with a small amount of oil as they are being formed. The nozzles can easily be added to any hose or farming equipment.

    “What we’ve done is figured out a smart way to cloak these droplets by using a very small quantity of oil on the outside of each drop. Because of that, we get this drastic improvement in performance that can really be a game-changer for farmers,” says Jayaprakash.

    In addition to improving pesticide retention in crops, the AgZen-Cloak solves a second problem. Since large droplets are prone to break apart and bounce off crops, historically, farmers have sprayed pesticide in tiny, mist-like droplets. These fine droplets are often carried by the wind, increasing pesticide pollution in nearby areas. 

    When AgZen-Cloak is used, the pesticide-laden droplets can be larger and still stick to crops. These larger droplets aren’t carried by the wind, decreasing the risk of pollution and minimizing the health impacts on local populations.  

    “We’re actually solving two problems with one solution. With the cloaking technology, we can spray much larger droplets that aren’t prone to wind drift and they can stick to the plant,” Jayaprakash adds.

    Bringing AgZen-Cloaks to farmers around the world

    This spring, Varanasi encouraged Jayaprakash to submit AgZen-Cloak to the Collegiate Inventors Competition. Out of hundreds of applications, Jayaprakash was one of 25 student inventors to be chosen as a finalist.

    On Oct. 12, Jayaprakash presented his technology to a panel of judges composed of National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office officials. Meeting with such an illustrious group of inventors and officials left an impression on Jayaprakash.

    “These are people who have invented things that have changed the world. So, to get their feedback on what we’re doing was incredibly valuable,” he says. Jayaprakash received a $10,000 prize for being named the first-place graduate winner.

    As full-time CEO of AgZen, Jayaprakash is shifting focus to field testing and commercialization. He and the AgZen team have already conducted field testing across the world at locations including a Prosecco vineyard outside of Venice, a ranch in California, and Ward’s Berry Farm in Sharon, Massachusetts. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s vegetable extension program, led by their program director Susan Scheufele, recently concluded a field test that validated AgZen’s on-field performance.

    Two days after his win at the Collegiate Inventors Competition, Jayaprakash was named the first prize winner of the MIT Abdul Latif Jamel Water and Food Systems Lab World Food Day student video competition. Hours later, he flew across the country to attend an agricultural tech conference in California, eager to meet with farmers and discuss plans for rolling out AgZen’s innovations to farms everywhere. More

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    MIT student club Engineers Without Borders works with local village in Tanzania

    Four students from the MIT club Engineers Without Borders (EWB) spent part of their summer in Tanzania to begin assessment work for a health and sanitation project that will benefit the entire village, and an irrigated garden for the Mkutani Primary School.

    The club has been working with the Boston Professional Chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-BPC) since 2019. The Boston chapter finds projects in underserved communities in the developing world and helped connect the MIT students with local government and school officials.

    Juniors Fiona Duong, female health and sanitation team lead, and Lai Wa Chu, irrigation team lead, spent two weeks over the summer in Mkutani conducting research for their projects. Chu was faced with finding more water supplies and a way to get water from the nearby river to the school to use in the gardens they were planting. Duong was charged with assessing the needs of the people who visit The Mkutani Dispensary, which serves as a local medical clinic. Juniors Hung Huynh, club president, and Vivian Cheng, student advisor, also made the trip to work on the projects.

    Health and sanitation project

    Duong looked into ways to help pregnant women with privacy issues as the facility they give birth in — The Mkutani Dispensary — is very small, with just two beds, and is in need of repairs and upgrades. Before leaving Cambridge, Duong led FaceTime meetings with government officials and facilities managers in the village. Once on the ground, she began collecting information and conducted focus groups with the local women and other constituents. She learned that one in three women were not giving birth in the dispensary due to privacy concerns and the lack of modern equipment needed for high-risk pregnancies.

    “The women said that the most pressing need there was water. The women were expected to bring their own water to their deliveries. The rain-catching system there was not enough to fulfill their needs and the river water wasn’t clean. When in labor, they relied on others to gather it and bring it to the dispensary by bike,” Duong says. “With broken windows, the dispensary did not allow for privacy or sanitary conditions.”

    Duong will also analyze the data she collected and share it with others before more MIT students head to Mkutani next summer.

    Farming, sustainability, and irrigation projectBefore heading to Mkutani, Chu conducted research regarding irrigation methods and water collection methods. She confirmed that the river water still contained E.coli and advised the teachers that it would need to be boiled or placed in the sun for a few hours before it could be used. Her technical background in fluid dynamics was helpful for the project.

    “We also found that there was a need for supplemental food for the school, as many children lived too far away to walk home for lunch. The headmaster reached out to us about building the garden, as the garden provides supplemental fruit and vegetables for many of the 600 students to eat. They needed water from the river that was quite far away from the school. We looked at ways to get the water to the garden,” Chu says.

    The group is considering conducting an ecological survey of the area to see if there is another source of water so they could drill another borehole. They will complete their analysis and then decide the best solution to implement.

    “Watching the whole team’s hard work pay off when the travel team got to Mkutani was so amazing,” says second-year student Maria Hernandez, club internal relations chair. “Now, we’re ready to get to work again so we can go back next year. I love being a part of Engineers Without Borders because it’s such a unique way to apply technical skills outside of the classroom and see the impact you make on the community. It’s a beautiful project that truly impacts so many people, and I can’t wait to go back to Mkutani next year.”

    Both Duong and Chu hope they’ll return to the school and the dispensary in summer 2023 to work on the implementation phase of their projects. “This project is one of the reasons I came to MIT. I wanted to work on a social impact project to help improve the world,” Chu says.

    “I hope to go back next summer and implement the project,” adds Duong. “If I do, we’ll go during the two most crucial weeks of the project — after the contractors have started the repair work on the dispensary, so we can see how things are going and then help with anything else related to the project.”

    Duong and Chu said students don’t have to be engineers to help with the EWB’s work — any MIT student interested in joining the club may do so. Both agree that fundraising is a priority, but there are numerous other roles students can help with.

    “MIT students shouldn’t be afraid to just dive right in. There’s a lot that needs to be done there, and even if you don’t have experience in a certain area, don’t let that be a barrier. It’s very rewarding work and it’s also great to get international work experience,” Duong says.

    Chu added, “The project may not seem flashy now, but the rewards are great. Students will get new technical skills and get to experience a new culture as well.” More

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    Scientists chart how exercise affects the body

    Exercise is well-known to help people lose weight and avoid gaining it. However, identifying the cellular mechanisms that underlie this process has proven difficult because so many cells and tissues are involved.

    In a new study in mice that expands researchers’ understanding of how exercise and diet affect the body, MIT and Harvard Medical School researchers have mapped out many of the cells, genes, and cellular pathways that are modified by exercise or high-fat diet. The findings could offer potential targets for drugs that could help to enhance or mimic the benefits of exercise, the researchers say.

    “It is extremely important to understand the molecular mechanisms that are drivers of the beneficial effects of exercise and the detrimental effects of a high-fat diet, so that we can understand how we can intervene, and develop drugs that mimic the impact of exercise across multiple tissues,” says Manolis Kellis, a professor of computer science in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and a member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

    The researchers studied mice with high-fat or normal diets, who were either sedentary or given the opportunity to exercise whenever they wanted. Using single-cell RNA sequencing, the researchers cataloged the responses of 53 types of cells found in skeletal muscle and two types of fatty tissue.

    “One of the general points that we found in our study, which is overwhelmingly clear, is how high-fat diets push all of these cells and systems in one way, and exercise seems to be pushing them nearly all in the opposite way,” Kellis says. “It says that exercise can really have a major effect throughout the body.”

    Kellis and Laurie Goodyear, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and senior investigator at the Joslin Diabetes Center, are the senior authors of the study, which appears today in the journal Cell Metabolism. Jiekun Yang, a research scientist in MIT CSAIL; Maria Vamvini, an instructor of medicine at the Joslin Diabetes Center; and Pasquale Nigro, an instructor of medicine at the Joslin Diabetes Center, are the lead authors of the paper.

    The risks of obesity

    Obesity is a growing health problem around the world. In the United States, more than 40 percent of the population is considered obese, and nearly 75 percent is overweight. Being overweight is a risk factor for many diseases, including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and even infectious diseases such as Covid-19.

    “Obesity, along with aging, is a global factor that contributes to every aspect of human health,” Kellis says.

    Several years ago, his lab performed a study on the FTO gene region, which has been strongly linked to obesity risk. In that 2015 study, the research team found that genes in this region control a pathway that prompts immature fat cells called progenitor adipocytes to either become fat-burning cells or fat-storing cells.

    That finding, which demonstrated a clear genetic component to obesity, motivated Kellis to begin looking at how exercise, a well-known behavioral intervention that can prevent obesity, might act on progenitor adipocytes at the cellular level.

    To explore that question, Kellis and his colleagues decided to perform single-cell RNA sequencing of three types of tissue — skeletal muscle, visceral white adipose tissue (found packed around internal organs, where it stores fat), and subcutaneous white adipose tissue (which is found under the skin and primarily burns fat).

    These tissues came from mice from four different experimental groups. For three weeks, two groups of mice were fed either a normal diet or a high-fat diet. For the next three weeks, each of those two groups were further divided into a sedentary group and an exercise group, which had continuous access to a treadmill.

    By analyzing tissues from those mice, the researchers were able to comprehensively catalog the genes that were activated or suppressed by exercise in 53 different cell types.

    The researchers found that in all three tissue types, mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) appeared to control many of the diet and exercise-induced effects that they observed. MSCs are stem cells that can differentiate into other cell types, including fat cells and fibroblasts. In adipose tissue, the researchers found that a high-fat diet modulated MSCs’ capacity to differentiate into fat-storing cells, while exercise reversed this effect.

    In addition to promoting fat storage, the researchers found that a high-fat diet also stimulated MSCs to secrete factors that remodel the extracellular matrix (ECM) — a network of proteins and other molecules that surround and support cells and tissues in the body. This ECM remodeling helps provide structure for enlarged fat-storing cells and also creates a more inflammatory environment.

    “As the adipocytes become overloaded with lipids, there’s an extreme amount of stress, and that causes low-grade inflammation, which is systemic and preserved for a long time,” Kellis says. “That is one of the factors that is contributing to many of the adverse effects of obesity.”

    Circadian effects

    The researchers also found that high-fat diets and exercise had opposing effects on cellular pathways that control circadian rhythms — the 24-hour cycles that govern many functions, from sleep to body temperature, hormone release, and digestion. The study revealed that exercise boosts the expression of genes that regulate these rhythms, while a high-fat diet suppresses them.

    “There have been a lot of studies showing that when you eat during the day is extremely important in how you absorb the calories,” Kellis says. “The circadian rhythm connection is a very important one, and shows how obesity and exercise are in fact directly impacting that circadian rhythm in peripheral organs, which could act systemically on distal clocks and regulate stem cell functions and immunity.”

    The researchers then compared their results to a database of human genes that have been linked with metabolic traits. They found that two of the circadian rhythm genes they identified in this study, known as DBP and CDKN1A, have genetic variants that have been associated with a higher risk of obesity in humans.

    “These results help us see the translational values of these targets, and how we could potentially target specific biological processes in specific cell types,” Yang says.

    The researchers are now analyzing samples of small intestine, liver, and brain tissue from the mice in this study, to explore the effects of exercise and high-fat diets on those tissues. They are also conducting work with human volunteers to sample blood and biopsies and study similarities and differences between human and mouse physiology. They hope that their findings will help guide drug developers in designing drugs that might mimic some of the beneficial effects of exercise.

    “The message for everyone should be, eat a healthy diet and exercise if possible,” Kellis says. “For those for whom this is not possible, due to low access to healthy foods, or due to disabilities or other factors that prevent exercise, or simply lack of time to have a healthy diet or a healthy lifestyle, what this study says is that we now have a better handle on the pathways, the specific genes, and the specific molecular and cellular processes that we should be manipulating therapeutically.”

    The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Novo Nordisk Research Center in Seattle. More

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    These neurons have food on the brain

    A gooey slice of pizza. A pile of crispy French fries. Ice cream dripping down a cone on a hot summer day. When you look at any of these foods, a specialized part of your visual cortex lights up, according to a new study from MIT neuroscientists.

    This newly discovered population of food-responsive neurons is located in the ventral visual stream, alongside populations that respond specifically to faces, bodies, places, and words. The unexpected finding may reflect the special significance of food in human culture, the researchers say. 

    “Food is central to human social interactions and cultural practices. It’s not just sustenance,” says Nancy Kanwisher, the Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines. “Food is core to so many elements of our cultural identity, religious practice, and social interactions, and many other things that humans do.”

    The findings, based on an analysis of a large public database of human brain responses to a set of 10,000 images, raise many additional questions about how and why this neural population develops. In future studies, the researchers hope to explore how people’s responses to certain foods might differ depending on their likes and dislikes, or their familiarity with certain types of food.

    MIT postdoc Meenakshi Khosla is the lead author of the paper, along with MIT research scientist N. Apurva Ratan Murty. The study appears today in the journal Current Biology.

    Visual categories

    More than 20 years ago, while studying the ventral visual stream, the part of the brain that recognizes objects, Kanwisher discovered cortical regions that respond selectively to faces. Later, she and other scientists discovered other regions that respond selectively to places, bodies, or words. Most of those areas were discovered when researchers specifically set out to look for them. However, that hypothesis-driven approach can limit what you end up finding, Kanwisher says.

    “There could be other things that we might not think to look for,” she says. “And even when we find something, how do we know that that’s actually part of the basic dominant structure of that pathway, and not something we found just because we were looking for it?”

    To try to uncover the fundamental structure of the ventral visual stream, Kanwisher and Khosla decided to analyze a large, publicly available dataset of full-brain functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) responses from eight human subjects as they viewed thousands of images.

    “We wanted to see when we apply a data-driven, hypothesis-free strategy, what kinds of selectivities pop up, and whether those are consistent with what had been discovered before. A second goal was to see if we could discover novel selectivities that either haven’t been hypothesized before, or that have remained hidden due to the lower spatial resolution of fMRI data,” Khosla says.

    To do that, the researchers applied a mathematical method that allows them to discover neural populations that can’t be identified from traditional fMRI data. An fMRI image is made up of many voxels — three-dimensional units that represent a cube of brain tissue. Each voxel contains hundreds of thousands of neurons, and if some of those neurons belong to smaller populations that respond to one type of visual input, their responses may be drowned out by other populations within the same voxel.

    The new analytical method, which Kanwisher’s lab has previously used on fMRI data from the auditory cortex, can tease out responses of neural populations within each voxel of fMRI data.

    Using this approach, the researchers found four populations that corresponded to previously identified clusters that respond to faces, places, bodies, and words. “That tells us that this method works, and it tells us that the things that we found before are not just obscure properties of that pathway, but major, dominant properties,” Kanwisher says.

    Intriguingly, a fifth population also emerged, and this one appeared to be selective for images of food.

    “We were first quite puzzled by this because food is not a visually homogenous category,” Khosla says. “Things like apples and corn and pasta all look so unlike each other, yet we found a single population that responds similarly to all these diverse food items.”

    The food-specific population, which the researchers call the ventral food component (VFC), appears to be spread across two clusters of neurons, located on either side of the FFA. The fact that the food-specific populations are spread out between other category-specific populations may help explain why they have not been seen before, the researchers say.

    “We think that food selectivity had been harder to characterize before because the populations that are selective for food are intermingled with other nearby populations that have distinct responses to other stimulus attributes. The low spatial resolution of fMRI prevents us from seeing this selectivity because the responses of different neural population get mixed in a voxel,” Khosla says.

    “The technique which the researchers used to identify category-sensitive cells or areas is impressive, and it recovered known category-sensitive systems, making the food category findings most impressive,” says Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who was not involved in the study. “I can’t imagine a way for the brain to reliably identify the diversity of foods based on sensory features. That makes this all the more fascinating, and likely to clue us in about something really new.”

    Food vs non-food

    The researchers also used the data to train a computational model of the VFC, based on previous models Murty had developed for the brain’s face and place recognition areas. This allowed the researchers to run additional experiments and predict the responses of the VFC. In one experiment, they fed the model matched images of food and non-food items that looked very similar — for example, a banana and a yellow crescent moon.

    “Those matched stimuli have very similar visual properties, but the main attribute in which they differ is edible versus inedible,” Khosla says. “We could feed those arbitrary stimuli through the predictive model and see whether it would still respond more to food than non-food, without having to collect the fMRI data.”

    They could also use the computational model to analyze much larger datasets, consisting of millions of images. Those simulations helped to confirm that the VFC is highly selective for images of food.

    From their analysis of the human fMRI data, the researchers found that in some subjects, the VFC responded slightly more to processed foods such as pizza than unprocessed foods like apples. In the future they hope to explore how factors such as familiarity and like or dislike of a particular food might affect individuals’ responses to that food.

    They also hope to study when and how this region becomes specialized during early childhood, and what other parts of the brain it communicates with. Another question is whether this food-selective population will be seen in other animals such as monkeys, who do not attach the cultural significance to food that humans do.

    The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Eye Institute, and the National Science Foundation through the MIT Center for Brains, Minds, and Machines. More