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    Repurposed beer yeast may offer a cost-effective way to remove lead from water

    Every year, beer breweries generate and discard thousands of tons of surplus yeast. Researchers from MIT and Georgia Tech have now come up with a way to repurpose that yeast to absorb lead from contaminated water.Through a process called biosorption, yeast can quickly absorb even trace amounts of lead and other heavy metals from water. The researchers showed that they could package the yeast inside hydrogel capsules to create a filter that removes lead from water. Because the yeast cells are encapsulated, they can be easily removed from the water once it’s ready to drink.“We have the hydrogel surrounding the free yeast that exists in the center, and this is porous enough to let water come in, interact with yeast as if they were freely moving in water, and then come out clean,” says Patricia Stathatou, a former postdoc at the MIT Center for Bits and Atoms, who is now a research scientist at Georgia Tech and an incoming assistant professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. “The fact that the yeast themselves are bio-based, benign, and biodegradable is a significant advantage over traditional technologies.”The researchers envision that this process could be used to filter drinking water coming out of a faucet in homes, or scaled up to treat large quantities of water at treatment plants.MIT graduate student Devashish Gokhale and Stathatou are the lead authors of the study, which appears today in the journal RSC Sustainability. Patrick Doyle, the Robert T. Haslam Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, is the senior author of the paper, and Christos Athanasiou, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at Georgia Tech and a former visiting scholar at MIT, is also an author.Absorbing leadThe new study builds on work that Stathatou and Athanasiou began in 2021, when Athanasiou was a visiting scholar at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. That year, they calculated that waste yeast discarded from a single brewery in Boston would be enough to treat the city’s entire water supply.Through biosorption, a process that is not fully understood, yeast cells can bind to and absorb heavy metal ions, even at challenging initial concentrations below 1 part per million. The MIT team found that this process could effectively decontaminate water with low concentrations of lead. However, one key obstacle remained, which was how to remove yeast from the water after they absorb the lead.In a serendipitous coincidence, Stathatou and Athanasiou happened to present their research at the AIChE Annual Meeting in Boston in 2021, where Gokhale, a student in Doyle’s lab, was presenting his own research on using hydrogels to capture micropollutants in water. The two sets of researchers decided to join forces and explore whether the yeast-based strategy could be easier to scale up if the yeast were encapsulated in hydrogels developed by Gokhale and Doyle.“What we decided to do was make these hollow capsules — something like a multivitamin pill, but instead of filling them up with vitamins, we fill them up with yeast cells,” Gokhale says. “These capsules are porous, so the water can go into the capsules and the yeast are able to bind all of that lead, but the yeast themselves can’t escape into the water.”The capsules are made from a polymer called polyethylene glycol (PEG), which is widely used in medical applications. To form the capsules, the researchers suspend freeze-dried yeast in water, then mix them with the polymer subunits. When UV light is shone on the mixture, the polymers link together to form capsules with yeast trapped inside.Each capsule is about half a millimeter in diameter. Because the hydrogels are very thin and porous, water can easily pass through and encounter the yeast inside, while the yeast remain trapped.In this study, the researchers showed that the encapsulated yeast could remove trace lead from water just as rapidly as the unencapsulated yeast from Stathatou and Athanasiou’s original 2021 study.Scaling upLed by Athanasiou, the researchers tested the mechanical stability of the hydrogel capsules and found that the capsules and the yeast inside can withstand forces similar to those generated by water running from a faucet. They also calculated that the yeast-laden capsules should be able to withstand forces generated by flows in water treatment plants serving several hundred residences.“Lack of mechanical robustness is a common cause of failure of previous attempts to scale-up biosorption using immobilized cells; in our work we wanted to make sure that this aspect is thoroughly addressed from the very beginning to ensure scalability,” Athanasiou says.After assessing the mechanical robustness of the yeast-laden capsules, the researchers constructed a proof-of-concept packed-bed biofilter, capable of treating trace lead-contaminated water and meeting U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drinking water guidelines while operating continuously for 12 days.This process would likely consume less energy than existing physicochemical processes for removing trace inorganic compounds from water, such as precipitation and membrane filtration, the researchers say.This approach, rooted in circular economy principles, could minimize waste and environmental impact while also fostering economic opportunities within local communities. Although numerous lead contamination incidents have been reported in various locations in the United States, this approach could have an especially significant impact in low-income areas that have historically faced environmental pollution and limited access to clean water, and may not be able to afford other ways to remediate it, the researchers say.“We think that there’s an interesting environmental justice aspect to this, especially when you start with something as low-cost and sustainable as yeast, which is essentially available anywhere,” Gokhale says.The researchers are now exploring strategies for recycling and replacing the yeast once they’re used up, and trying to calculate how often that will need to occur. They also hope to investigate whether they could use feedstocks derived from biomass to make the hydrogels, instead of fossil-fuel-based polymers, and whether the yeast can be used to capture other types of contaminants.“Moving forward, this is a technology that can be evolved to target other trace contaminants of emerging concern, such as PFAS or even microplastics,” Stathatou says. “We really view this as an example with a lot of potential applications in the future.”The research was funded by the Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowship for Water Solutions, the MIT Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS), and the Renewable Bioproducts Institute at Georgia Tech. More

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    Scientists develop an affordable sensor for lead contamination

    Engineers at MIT, Nanytang Technological University, and several companies have developed a compact and inexpensive technology for detecting and measuring lead concentrations in water, potentially enabling a significant advance in tackling this persistent global health issue.The World Health Organization estimates that 240 million people worldwide are exposed to drinking water that contains unsafe amounts of toxic lead, which can affect brain development in children, cause birth defects, and produce a variety of neurological, cardiac, and other damaging effects. In the United States alone, an estimated 10 million households still get drinking water delivered through lead pipes.“It’s an unaddressed public health crisis that leads to over 1 million deaths annually,” says Jia Xu Brian Sia, an MIT postdoc and the senior author of the paper describing the new technology.But testing for lead in water requires expensive, cumbersome equipment and typically requires days to get results. Or, it uses simple test strips that simply reveal a yes-or-no answer about the presence of lead but no information about its concentration. Current EPA regulations require drinking water to contain no more that 15 parts per billion of lead, a concentration so low it is difficult to detect.The new system, which could be ready for commercial deployment within two or three years, could detect lead concentrations as low as 1 part per billion, with high accuracy, using a simple chip-based detector housed in a handheld device. The technology gives nearly instant quantitative measurements and requires just a droplet of water.The findings are described in a paper appearing today in the journal Nature Communications, by Sia, MIT graduate student and lead author Luigi Ranno, Professor Juejun Hu, and 12 others at MIT and other institutions in academia and industry.The team set out to find a simple detection method based on the use of photonic chips, which use light to perform measurements. The challenging part was finding a way to attach to the photonic chip surface certain ring-shaped molecules known as crown ethers, which can capture specific ions such as lead. After years of effort, they were able to achieve that attachment via a chemical process known as Fischer esterification. “That is one of the essential breakthroughs we have made in this technology,” Sia says.In testing the new chip, the researchers showed that it can detect lead in water at concentrations as low as one part per billion. At much higher concentrations, which may be relevant for testing environmental contamination such as mine tailings, the accuracy is within 4 percent.The device works in water with varying levels of acidity, ranging from pH values of 6 to 8, “which covers most environmental samples,” Sia says. They have tested the device with seawater as well as tap water, and verified the accuracy of the measurements.In order to achieve such levels of accuracy, current testing requires a device called an inductive coupled plasma mass spectrometer. “These setups can be big and expensive,” Sia says. The sample processing can take days and requires experienced technical personnel.While the new chip system they developed is “the core part of the innovation,” Ranno says, further work will be needed to develop this into an integrated, handheld device for practical use. “For making an actual product, you would need to package it into a usable form factor,” he explains. This would involve having a small chip-based laser coupled to the photonic chip. “It’s a matter of mechanical design, some optical design, some chemistry, and figuring out the supply chain,” he says. While that takes time, he says, the underlying concepts are straightforward.The system can be adapted to detect other similar contaminants in water, including cadmium, copper, lithium, barium, cesium, and radium, Ranno says. The device could be used with simple cartridges that can be swapped out to detect different elements, each using slightly different crown ethers that can bind to a specific ion.“There’s this problem that people don’t measure their water enough, especially in the developing countries,” Ranno says. “And that’s because they need to collect the water, prepare the sample, and bring it to these huge instruments that are extremely expensive.” Instead, “having this handheld device, something compact that even untrained personnel can just bring to the source for on-site monitoring, at low costs,” could make regular, ongoing widespread testing feasible.Hu, who is the John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, says, “I’m hoping this will be quickly implemented, so we can benefit human society. This is a good example of a technology coming from a lab innovation where it may actually make a very tangible impact on society, which is of course very fulfilling.”“If this study can be extended to simultaneous detection of multiple metal elements, especially the presently concerning radioactive elements, its potential would be immense,” says Hou Wang, an associate professor of environmental science and engineering at Hunan University in China, who was not associated with this work.Wang adds, “This research has engineered a sensor capable of instantaneously detecting lead concentration in water. This can be utilized in real-time to monitor the lead pollution concentration in wastewater discharged from industries such as battery manufacturing and lead smelting, facilitating the establishment of industrial wastewater monitoring systems. I think the innovative aspects and developmental potential of this research are quite commendable.”Wang Qian, a principal research scientist at the Institute of Materials Research in Singapore, who also was not affiliated with this work, says, “The ability for the pervasive, portable, and quantitative detection of lead has proved to be challenging primarily due to cost concerns. This work demonstrates the potential to do so in a highly integrated form factor and is compatible with large-scale, low-cost manufacturing.”The team included researchers at MIT, at Nanyang Technological University and Temasek Laboratories in Singapore, at the University of Southampton in the U.K., and at companies Fingate Technologies, in Singapore, and Vulcan Photonics, headquartered in Malaysia. The work used facilities at MIT.nano, the Harvard University Center for Nanoscale Systems, NTU’s Center for Micro- and Nano-Electronics, and the Nanyang Nanofabrication Center. More

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    A new way to quantify climate change impacts: “Outdoor days”

    For most people, reading about the difference between a global average temperature rise of 1.5 C versus 2 C doesn’t conjure up a clear image of how their daily lives will actually be affected. So, researchers at MIT have come up with a different way of measuring and describing what global climate change patterns, in specific regions around the world, will mean for people’s daily activities and their quality of life.

    The new measure, called “outdoor days,” describes the number of days per year that outdoor temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold for people to go about normal outdoor activities, whether work or leisure, in reasonable comfort. Describing the impact of rising temperatures in those terms reveals some significant global disparities, the researchers say.

    The findings are described in a research paper written by MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering Elfatih Eltahir and postdocs Yeon-Woo Choi and Muhammad Khalifa, and published in the Journal of Climate.

    Eltahir says he got the idea for this new system during his hourlong daily walks in the Boston area. “That’s how I interface with the temperature every day,” he says. He found that there have been more winter days recently when he could walk comfortably than in past years. Originally from Sudan, he says that when he returned there for visits, the opposite was the case: In winter, the weather tends to be relatively comfortable, but the number of these clement winter days has been declining. “There are fewer days that are really suitable for outdoor activity,” Eltahir says.

    Rather than predefine what constitutes an acceptable outdoor day, Eltahir and his co-authors created a website where users can set their own definition of the highest and lowest temperatures they consider comfortable for their outside activities, then click on a country within a world map, or a state within the U.S., and get a forecast of how the number of days meeting those criteria will change between now and the end of this century. The website is freely available for anyone to use.

    “This is actually a new feature that’s quite innovative,” he says. “We don’t tell people what an outdoor day should be; we let the user define an outdoor day. Hence, we invite them to participate in defining how future climate change will impact their quality of life, and hopefully, this will facilitate deeper understanding of how climate change will impact individuals directly.”

    After deciding that this was a way of looking at the issue of climate change that might be useful, Eltahir says, “we started looking at the data on this, and we made several discoveries that I think are pretty significant.”

    First of all, there will be winners and losers, and the losers tend to be concentrated in the global south. “In the North, in a place like Russia or Canada, you gain a significant number of outdoor days. And when you go south to places like Bangladesh or Sudan, it’s bad news. You get significantly fewer outdoor days. It is very striking.”

    To derive the data, the software developed by the team uses all of the available climate models, about 50 of them, and provides output showing all of those projections on a single graph to make clear the range of possibilities, as well as the average forecast.

    When we think of climate change, Eltahir says, we tend to look at maps that show that virtually everywhere, temperatures will rise. “But if you think in terms of outdoor days, you see that the world is not flat. The North is gaining; the South is losing.”

    While North-South disparity in exposure and vulnerability has been broadly recognized in the past, he says, this way of quantifying the effects on the hazard (change in weather patterns) helps to bring home how strong the uneven risks from climate change on quality of life will be. “When you look at places like Bangladesh, Colombia, Ivory Coast, Sudan, Indonesia — they are all losing outdoor days.”

    The same kind of disparity shows up in Europe, he says. The effects are already being felt, and are showing up in travel patterns: “There is a shift to people spending time in northern European states. They go to Sweden and places like that instead of the Mediterranean, which is showing a significant drop,” he says.

    Placing this kind of detailed and localized information at people’s fingertips, he says, “I think brings the issue of communication of climate change to a different level.” With this tool, instead of looking at global averages, “we are saying according to your own definition of what a pleasant day is, [this is] how climate change is going to impact you, your activities.”

    And, he adds, “hopefully that will help society make decisions about what to do with this global challenge.”

    The project received support from the MIT Climate Grand Challenges project “Jameel Observatory – Climate Resilience Early Warning System Network,” as well as from the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab. More

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    A new sensor detects harmful “forever chemicals” in drinking water

    MIT chemists have designed a sensor that detects tiny quantities of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — chemicals found in food packaging, nonstick cookware, and many other consumer products.

    These compounds, also known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down naturally, have been linked to a variety of harmful health effects, including cancer, reproductive problems, and disruption of the immune and endocrine systems.

    Using the new sensor technology, the researchers showed that they could detect PFAS levels as low as 200 parts per trillion in a water sample. The device they designed could offer a way for consumers to test their drinking water, and it could also be useful in industries that rely heavily on PFAS chemicals, including the manufacture of semiconductors and firefighting equipment.

    “There’s a real need for these sensing technologies. We’re stuck with these chemicals for a long time, so we need to be able to detect them and get rid of them,” says Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry at MIT and the senior author of the study, which appears this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Other authors of the paper are former MIT postdoc and lead author Sohyun Park and MIT graduate student Collette Gordon.

    Detecting PFAS

    Coatings containing PFAS chemicals are used in thousands of consumer products. In addition to nonstick coatings for cookware, they are also commonly used in water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics, grease-resistant pizza boxes, cosmetics, and firefighting foams.

    These fluorinated chemicals, which have been in widespread use since the 1950s, can be released into water, air, and soil, from factories, sewage treatment plants, and landfills. They have been found in drinking water sources in all 50 states.

    In 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency created an “advisory health limit” for two of the most hazardous PFAS chemicals, known as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctyl sulfonate (PFOS). These advisories call for a limit of 0.004 parts per trillion for PFOA and 0.02 parts per trillion for PFOS in drinking water.

    Currently, the only way that a consumer could determine if their drinking water contains PFAS is to send a water sample to a laboratory that performs mass spectrometry testing. However, this process takes several weeks and costs hundreds of dollars.

    To create a cheaper and faster way to test for PFAS, the MIT team designed a sensor based on lateral flow technology — the same approach used for rapid Covid-19 tests and pregnancy tests. Instead of a test strip coated with antibodies, the new sensor is embedded with a special polymer known as polyaniline, which can switch between semiconducting and conducting states when protons are added to the material.

    The researchers deposited these polymers onto a strip of nitrocellulose paper and coated them with a surfactant that can pull fluorocarbons such as PFAS out of a drop of water placed on the strip. When this happens, protons from the PFAS are drawn into the polyaniline and turn it into a conductor, reducing the electrical resistance of the material. This change in resistance, which can be measured precisely using electrodes and sent to an external device such as a smartphone, gives a quantitative measurement of how much PFAS is present.

    This approach works only with PFAS that are acidic, which includes two of the most harmful PFAS — PFOA and perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA).

    A user-friendly system

    The current version of the sensor can detect concentrations as low as 200 parts per trillion for PFBA, and 400 parts per trillion for PFOA. This is not quite low enough to meet the current EPA guidelines, but the sensor uses only a fraction of a milliliter of water. The researchers are now working on a larger-scale device that would be able to filter about a liter of water through a membrane made of polyaniline, and they believe this approach should increase the sensitivity by more than a hundredfold, with the goal of meeting the very low EPA advisory levels.

    “We do envision a user-friendly, household system,” Swager says. “You can imagine putting in a liter of water, letting it go through the membrane, and you have a device that measures the change in resistance of the membrane.”

    Such a device could offer a less expensive, rapid alternative to current PFAS detection methods. If PFAS are detected in drinking water, there are commercially available filters that can be used on household drinking water to reduce those levels. The new testing approach could also be useful for factories that manufacture products with PFAS chemicals, so they could test whether the water used in their manufacturing process is safe to release into the environment.

    The research was funded by an MIT School of Science Fellowship to Gordon, a Bose Research Grant, and a Fulbright Fellowship to Park. More

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    Study: Global deforestation leads to more mercury pollution

    About 10 percent of human-made mercury emissions into the atmosphere each year are the result of global deforestation, according to a new MIT study.

    The world’s vegetation, from the Amazon rainforest to the savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa, acts as a sink that removes the toxic pollutant from the air. However, if the current rate of deforestation remains unchanged or accelerates, the researchers estimate that net mercury emissions will keep increasing.

    “We’ve been overlooking a significant source of mercury, especially in tropical regions,” says Ari Feinberg, a former postdoc in the Institute for Data, Systems, and Society (IDSS) and lead author of the study.

    The researchers’ model shows that the Amazon rainforest plays a particularly important role as a mercury sink, contributing about 30 percent of the global land sink. Curbing Amazon deforestation could thus have a substantial impact on reducing mercury pollution.

    The team also estimates that global reforestation efforts could increase annual mercury uptake by about 5 percent. While this is significant, the researchers emphasize that reforestation alone should not be a substitute for worldwide pollution control efforts.

    “Countries have put a lot of effort into reducing mercury emissions, especially northern industrialized countries, and for very good reason. But 10 percent of the global anthropogenic source is substantial, and there is a potential for that to be even greater in the future. [Addressing these deforestation-related emissions] needs to be part of the solution,” says senior author Noelle Selin, a professor in IDSS and MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

    Feinberg and Selin are joined on the paper by co-authors Martin Jiskra, a former Swiss National Science Foundation Ambizione Fellow at the University of Basel; Pasquale Borrelli, a professor at Roma Tre University in Italy; and Jagannath Biswakarma, a postdoc at the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. The paper appears today in Environmental Science and Technology.

    Modeling mercury

    Over the past few decades, scientists have generally focused on studying deforestation as a source of global carbon dioxide emissions. Mercury, a trace element, hasn’t received the same attention, partly because the terrestrial biosphere’s role in the global mercury cycle has only recently been better quantified.

    Plant leaves take up mercury from the atmosphere, in a similar way as they take up carbon dioxide. But unlike carbon dioxide, mercury doesn’t play an essential biological function for plants. Mercury largely stays within a leaf until it falls to the forest floor, where the mercury is absorbed by the soil.

    Mercury becomes a serious concern for humans if it ends up in water bodies, where it can become methylated by microorganisms. Methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin, can be taken up by fish and bioaccumulated through the food chain. This can lead to risky levels of methylmercury in the fish humans eat.

    “In soils, mercury is much more tightly bound than it would be if it were deposited in the ocean. The forests are doing a sort of ecosystem service, in that they are sequestering mercury for longer timescales,” says Feinberg, who is now a postdoc in the Blas Cabrera Institute of Physical Chemistry in Spain.

    In this way, forests reduce the amount of toxic methylmercury in oceans.

    Many studies of mercury focus on industrial sources, like burning fossil fuels, small-scale gold mining, and metal smelting. A global treaty, the 2013 Minamata Convention, calls on nations to reduce human-made emissions. However, it doesn’t directly consider impacts of deforestation.

    The researchers launched their study to fill in that missing piece.

    In past work, they had built a model to probe the role vegetation plays in mercury uptake. Using a series of land use change scenarios, they adjusted the model to quantify the role of deforestation.

    Evaluating emissions

    This chemical transport model tracks mercury from its emissions sources to where it is chemically transformed in the atmosphere and then ultimately to where it is deposited, mainly through rainfall or uptake into forest ecosystems.

    They divided the Earth into eight regions and performed simulations to calculate deforestation emissions factors for each, considering elements like type and density of vegetation, mercury content in soils, and historical land use.

    However, good data for some regions were hard to come by.

    They lacked measurements from tropical Africa or Southeast Asia — two areas that experience heavy deforestation. To get around this gap, they used simpler, offline models to simulate hundreds of scenarios, which helped them improve their estimations of potential uncertainties.

    They also developed a new formulation for mercury emissions from soil. This formulation captures the fact that deforestation reduces leaf area, which increases the amount of sunlight that hits the ground and accelerates the outgassing of mercury from soils.

    The model divides the world into grid squares, each of which is a few hundred square kilometers. By changing land surface and vegetation parameters in certain squares to represent deforestation and reforestation scenarios, the researchers can capture impacts on the mercury cycle.

    Overall, they found that about 200 tons of mercury are emitted to the atmosphere as the result of deforestation, or about 10 percent of total human-made emissions. But in tropical and sub-tropical countries, deforestation emissions represent a higher percentage of total emissions. For example, in Brazil deforestation emissions are 40 percent of total human-made emissions.

    In addition, people often light fires to prepare tropical forested areas for agricultural activities, which causes more emissions by releasing mercury stored by vegetation.

    “If deforestation was a country, it would be the second highest emitting country, after China, which emits around 500 tons of mercury a year,” Feinberg adds.

    And since the Minamata Convention is now addressing primary mercury emissions, scientists can expect deforestation to become a larger fraction of human-made emissions in the future.

    “Policies to protect forests or cut them down have unintended effects beyond their target. It is important to consider the fact that these are systems, and they involve human activities, and we need to understand them better in order to actually solve the problems that we know are out there,” Selin says.

    By providing this first estimate, the team hopes to inspire more research in this area.

    In the future, they want to incorporate more dynamic Earth system models into their analysis, which would enable them to interactively track mercury uptake and better model the timescale of vegetation regrowth.

    “This paper represents an important advance in our understanding of global mercury cycling by quantifying a pathway that has long been suggested but not yet quantified. Much of our research to date has focused on primary anthropogenic emissions — those directly resulting from human activity via coal combustion or mercury-gold amalgam burning in artisanal and small-scale gold mining,” says Jackie Gerson, an assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Michigan State University, who was not involved with this research. “This research shows that deforestation can also result in substantial mercury emissions and needs to be considered both in terms of global mercury models and land management policies. It therefore has the potential to advance our field scientifically as well as to promote policies that reduce mercury emissions via deforestation.

    This work was funded, in part, by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Swiss National Science Foundation, and Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. More

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    Improving US air quality, equitably

    Decarbonization of national economies will be key to achieving global net-zero emissions by 2050, a major stepping stone to the Paris Agreement’s long-term goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius (and ideally 1.5 C), and thereby averting the worst consequences of climate change. Toward that end, the United States has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50-52 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, backed by its implementation of the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. This strategy is consistent with a 50-percent reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) by the end of the decade.

    If U.S. federal carbon policy is successful, the nation’s overall air quality will also improve. Cutting CO2 emissions reduces atmospheric concentrations of air pollutants that lead to the formation of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which causes more than 200,000 premature deaths in the United States each year. But an average nationwide improvement in air quality will not be felt equally; air pollution exposure disproportionately harms people of color and lower-income populations.

    How effective are current federal decarbonization policies in reducing U.S. racial and economic disparities in PM2.5 exposure, and what changes will be needed to improve their performance? To answer that question, researchers at MIT and Stanford University recently evaluated a range of policies which, like current U.S. federal carbon policies, reduce economy-wide CO2 emissions by 40-60 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Their findings appear in an open-access article in the journal Nature Communications.

    First, they show that a carbon-pricing policy, while effective in reducing PM2.5 exposure for all racial/ethnic groups, does not significantly mitigate relative disparities in exposure. On average, the white population undergoes far less exposure than Black, Hispanic, and Asian populations. This policy does little to reduce exposure disparities because the CO2 emissions reductions that it achieves primarily occur in the coal-fired electricity sector. Other sectors, such as industry and heavy-duty diesel transportation, contribute far more PM2.5-related emissions.

    The researchers then examine thousands of different reduction options through an optimization approach to identify whether any possible combination of carbon dioxide reductions in the range of 40-60 percent can mitigate disparities. They find that that no policy scenario aligned with current U.S. carbon dioxide emissions targets is likely to significantly reduce current PM2.5 exposure disparities.

    “Policies that address only about 50 percent of CO2 emissions leave many polluting sources in place, and those that prioritize reductions for minorities tend to benefit the entire population,” says Noelle Selin, supervising author of the study and a professor at MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society and Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “This means that a large range of policies that reduce CO2 can improve air quality overall, but can’t address long-standing inequities in air pollution exposure.”

    So if climate policy alone cannot adequately achieve equitable air quality results, what viable options remain? The researchers suggest that more ambitious carbon policies could narrow racial and economic PM2.5 exposure disparities in the long term, but not within the next decade. To make a near-term difference, they recommend interventions designed to reduce PM2.5 emissions resulting from non-CO2 sources, ideally at the economic sector or community level.

    “Achieving improved PM2.5 exposure for populations that are disproportionately exposed across the United States will require thinking that goes beyond current CO2 policy strategies, most likely involving large-scale structural changes,” says Selin. “This could involve changes in local and regional transportation and housing planning, together with accelerated efforts towards decarbonization.” More

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    New clean air and water labs to bring together researchers, policymakers to find climate solutions

    MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) is launching the Clean Air and Water Labs, with support from Community Jameel, to generate evidence-based solutions aimed at increasing access to clean air and water.

    Led by J-PAL’s Africa, Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and South Asia regional offices, the labs will partner with government agencies to bring together researchers and policymakers in areas where impactful clean air and water solutions are most urgently needed.

    Together, the labs aim to improve clean air and water access by informing the scaling of evidence-based policies and decisions of city, state, and national governments that serve nearly 260 million people combined.

    The Clean Air and Water Labs expand the work of J-PAL’s King Climate Action Initiative, building on the foundational support of King Philanthropies, which significantly expanded J-PAL’s work at the nexus of climate change and poverty alleviation worldwide. 

    Air pollution, water scarcity and the need for evidence 

    Africa, MENA, and South Asia are on the front lines of global air and water crises. 

    “There is no time to waste investing in solutions that do not achieve their desired effects,” says Iqbal Dhaliwal, global executive director of J-PAL. “By co-generating rigorous real-world evidence with researchers, policymakers can have the information they need to dedicate resources to scaling up solutions that have been shown to be effective.”

    In India, about 75 percent of households did not have drinking water on premises in 2018. In MENA, nearly 90 percent of children live in areas facing high or extreme water stress. Across Africa, almost 400 million people lack access to safe drinking water. 

    Simultaneously, air pollution is one of the greatest threats to human health globally. In India, extraordinary levels of air pollution are shortening the average life expectancy by five years. In Africa, rising indoor and ambient air pollution contributed to 1.1 million premature deaths in 2019. 

    There is increasing urgency to find high-impact and cost-effective solutions to the worsening threats to human health and resources caused by climate change. However, data and evidence on potential solutions are limited.

    Fostering collaboration to generate policy-relevant evidence 

    The Clean Air and Water Labs will foster deep collaboration between government stakeholders, J-PAL regional offices, and researchers in the J-PAL network. 

    Through the labs, J-PAL will work with policymakers to:

    co-diagnose the most pressing air and water challenges and opportunities for policy innovation;
    expand policymakers’ access to and use of high-quality air and water data;
    co-design potential solutions informed by existing evidence;
    co-generate evidence on promising solutions through rigorous evaluation, leveraging existing and new data sources; and
    support scaling of air and water policies and programs that are found to be effective through evaluation. 
    A research and scaling fund for each lab will prioritize resources for co-generated pilot studies, randomized evaluations, and scaling projects. 

    The labs will also collaborate with C40 Cities, a global network of mayors of the world’s leading cities that are united in action to confront the climate crisis, to share policy-relevant evidence and identify opportunities for potential new connections and research opportunities within India and across Africa.

    This model aims to strengthen the use of evidence in decision-making to ensure solutions are highly effective and to guide research to answer policymakers’ most urgent questions. J-PAL Africa, MENA, and South Asia’s strong on-the-ground presence will further bridge research and policy work by anchoring activities within local contexts. 

    “Communities across the world continue to face challenges in accessing clean air and water, a threat to human safety that has only been exacerbated by the climate crisis, along with rising temperatures and other hazards,” says George Richards, director of Community Jameel. “Through our collaboration with J-PAL and C40 in creating climate policy labs embedded in city, state, and national governments in Africa and South Asia, we are committed to innovative and science-based approaches that can help hundreds of millions of people enjoy healthier lives.”

    J-PAL Africa, MENA, and South Asia will formally launch Clean Air and Water Labs with government partners over the coming months. J-PAL is housed in the MIT Department of Economics, within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. More

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    Tiny magnetic beads produce an optical signal that could be used to quickly detect pathogens

    Getting results from a blood test can take anywhere from one day to a week, depending on what a test is targeting. The same goes for tests of water pollution and food contamination. And in most cases, the wait time has to do with time-consuming steps in sample processing and analysis.

    Now, MIT engineers have identified a new optical signature in a widely used class of magnetic beads, which could be used to quickly detect contaminants in a variety of diagnostic tests. For example, the team showed the signature could be used to detect signs of the food contaminant Salmonella.

    The so-called Dynabeads are microscopic magnetic beads that can be coated with antibodies that bind to target molecules, such as a specific pathogen. Dynabeads are typically used in experiments in which they are mixed into solutions to capture molecules of interest. But from there, scientists have to take additional, time-consuming steps to confirm that the molecules are indeed present and bound to the beads.

    The MIT team found a faster way to confirm the presence of Dynabead-bound pathogens, using optics, specifically, Raman spectroscopy. This optical technique identifies specific molecules based on their “Raman signature,” or the unique way in which a molecule scatters light.

    The researchers found that Dynabeads have an unusually strong Raman signature that can be easily detected, much like a fluorescent tag. This signature, they found, can act as a “reporter.” If detected, the signal can serve as a quick confirmation, within less than one second, that a target pathogen is indeed present in a given sample. The team is currently working to develop a portable device for quickly detecting a range of bacterial pathogens, and their results will appear in an Emerging Investigators special issue of the Journal of Raman Spectroscopy.

    “This technique would be useful in a situation where a doctor is trying to narrow down the source of an infection in order to better inform antibiotic prescription, as well as for the detection of known pathogens in food and water,” says study co-author Marissa McDonald, a graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology. “Additionally, we hope this approach will eventually lead to expanded access to advanced diagnostics in resource-limited environments.”

    Study co-authors at MIT include Postdoctoral Associate Jongwan Lee; Visiting Scholar Nikiwe Mhlanga; Research Scientist Jeon Woong Kang; Tata Professor Rohit Karnik, who is also the associate director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab; and Assistant Professor Loza Tadesse of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

    Oil and water

    Looking for diseased cells and pathogens in fluid samples is an exercise in patience.

    “It’s kind of a needle-in-a-haystack problem,” Tadesse says.

    The numbers present are so small that they must be grown in controlled environments to sufficient numbers, and their cultures stained, then studied under a microscope. The entire process can take several days to a week to yield a confident positive or negative result.

    Both Karnik and Tadesse’s labs have independently been developing techniques to speed up various parts of the pathogen testing process and make the process portable, using Dynabeads.

    Dynabeads are commercially available microscopic beads made from a magnetic iron core and a polymer shell that can be coated with antibodies. The surface antibodies act as hooks to bind specific target molecules. When mixed with a fluid, such as a vial of blood or water, any molecules present will glom onto the Dynabeads. Using a magnet, scientists can gently coax the beads to the bottom of a vial and filter them out of a solution. Karnik’s lab is investigating ways to then further separate the beads into those that are bound to a target molecule, and those that are not. “Still, the challenge is, how do we know that we have what we’re looking for?” Tadesse says.

    The beads themselves are not visible by eye. That’s where Tadesse’s work comes in. Her lab uses Raman spectroscopy as a way to “fingerprint” pathogens. She has found that different cell types scatter light in unique ways that can be used as a signature to identify them.

    In the team’s new work, she and her colleagues found that Dynabeads also have a unique and strong Raman signature that can act as a surprisingly clear beacon.

    “We were initially seeking to identify the signatures of bacteria, but the signature of the Dynabeads was actually very strong,” Tadesse says. “We realized this signal could be a means of reporting to you whether you have that bacteria or not.”

    Testing beacon

    As a practical demonstration, the researchers mixed Dynabeads into vials of water contaminated with Salmonella. They then magnetically isolated these beads onto microscope slides and measured the way light scattered through the fluid when exposed to laser light. Within half a second, they quickly detected the Dynabeads’ Raman signature — a confirmation that bound Dynabeads, and by inference, Salmonella, were present in the fluid.

    “This is something that can be used to rapidly give a positive or negative answer: Is there a contaminant or not?” Tadesse says. “Because even a handful of pathogens can cause clinical symptoms.”

    The team’s new technique is significantly faster than conventional methods and uses elements that could be adapted into smaller, more portable forms — a goal that the researchers are currently working toward. The approach is also highly versatile.

    “Salmonella is the proof of concept,” Tadesse says. “You could purchase Dynabeads with E.coli antibodies, and the same thing would happen: It would bind to the bacteria, and we’d be able to detect the Dynabead signature because the signal is super strong.”

    The team is particularly keen to apply the test to conditions such as sepsis, where time is of the essence, and where pathogens that trigger the condition are not rapidly detected using conventional lab tests.

    “There are a lot cases, like in sepsis, where pathogenic cells cannot always be grown on a plate,” says Lee, a member of Karnik’s lab. “In that case, our technique could rapidly detect these pathogens.”

    This research was supported, in part, by the MIT Laser Biomedical Research Center, the National Cancer Institute, and the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab at MIT. More