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Human cells’ protein factory has an alternate operating manual

July 10, 2014
Contacts: 

Abby Robinson, 301-405-5845
Lee Tune, 301-405-4679

College Park, MD -- Working with a gene that interacts with HIV, University of Maryland researchers have discovered that some human genes have an alternate set of operating instructions written into their protein-making machinery. The alternate instructions can quickly alter the proteins’ contents, functions and ability to survive.

This phenomenon, known as programmed ribosomal frameshifting, was discovered in viruses in 1985. But the UMD study, published online July 9, 2014 in the journal Nature, is the first to show that a human gene uses programmed ribosomal frameshifting to change how it assembles proteins, said senior author Jonathan Dinman, UMD professor of cell biology and molecular genetics.

In the immune system-related gene that Dinman and his colleagues studied, programmed ribosomal frameshifting triggers a process the body can use to eliminate some immune system molecules, thereby reining in potentially harmful side effects such as fever, inflammation and organ failure. The discovery could lead to better treatments for AIDS, allergies and rejection of transplanted organs, Dinman said.

“This has useful implications in situations where you want to shut down the immune response in one part of the body but not in another, or shut down one facet of the immune response,” Dinman said. “It could lead to very specific therapies without side effects.”

The ribosome, the protein factory in every living cell, gathers amino acids and assembles them into protein chains to make almost anything the cell needs. A strand of ribonucleic acid, or messenger RNA, is the template. Each amino acid is represented by a group of three molecules called nucleotides; each triad is called a codon. Specialized molecules called transfer RNAs “read” each codon and deliver the matching amino acids to the ribosome for assembly. Some codons act as stop signs, instructing the ribosome to release the finished protein chain.

Imagine the messenger RNA is a text made up of three-letter words (codons), spaces, and punctuation (stop codons), like this:

Can any fat cat fly?

To assemble proteins in the right order, the ribosome has to read all three parts of each codon, the spaces, and the stop codons. But sometimes the messenger RNA contains signals that reprogram the ribosome to jump forward or back by one or two places – that is, to shift the frame that it is reading. This alters the text. The transfer RNA now reads either new commands to fetch completely different proteins, or meaningless, nonsense RNA, like this:

Ana nyf atc atf ly?

Frameshift signals are common in some viruses, which use them to cram multiple sets of commands onto a single RNA strand. Dinman has long suspected that human cells also have frameshift signals, and that they are useful.

“These are really complex RNA structures. It takes a lot of computer memory to search for them in human cells,” said Dinman, who has been studying ribosomal frameshifting since the 1990s. “It wasn’t until the past decade that computers were fast and powerful enough to find these signals.”

Dinman and lead author Ashton Trey Belew, a UMD research associate, looked at CCR5, a gene on the surface of humans’ white blood cells. CCR5 is important to the immune system, but some forms of HIV use it to enter healthy cells.

The researchers found a molecular pattern that acts as a frameshift signal in CCR5. In tests on live human cells and rabbit cell extracts, they found the signal prompted the ribosome to frameshift 10 to 15 percent of the time. Using mass spectroscopy, they confirmed frameshifting was happening within CCR5 at the sequence predicted to be the frameshift signal. Then they searched another laboratory’s published database of human ribosomes and found confirming evidence of frameshifts in that spot, at about the same rate.

They also found that a small specialized piece of RNA, called microRNA-1224, attaches itself to CCR5’s messenger RNA at the frameshift site. The microRNA braces the messenger RNA, making it less flexible and causing the ribosome to stop there and slip by one or two spaces more often.

“The biggest question in this field has been, what regulates frameshifting? And that’s essentially what microRNA-1224 is doing,” Dinman said. “Then the question becomes, what are the consequences?”

In the case of CCR5, the frameshift changes the codons behind it into nonsense RNA. Since the ribosome can’t read them, other components of the cell step in and destroy the messenger RNA and its associated proteins.

This might seem like a bad thing. But symptoms like fever are caused by our bodies’ immune response, not the underlying illness. And the immune response occasionally gets out of control, causing serious, sometimes fatal side effects.

Dinman believes that by killing the messenger RNA and its array of immune system proteins, frameshifting acts like a dimmer switch, lowering the immune response to a safe level.

This work was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (GM058859, GM068123, AI051967, GM080201 and HHSN261200800001E) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) (MCB-0084559). The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of the NIH or NSF.

Jonathan Dinman lab

URL FOR EUREKALERT: http://dinmanlab.umd.edu

“Ribosomal frameshifting in the CCR5 mRNA is regulated by miRNAs and the NMD pathway,” Ashton Trey Belew, Arturas Meskauskas, Sharmishtha Musalgaonkar, Vivek M. Advani, Sergey O. Sulima, Wojciech K. Kasprzak, Bruce A. Shapiro and Jonathan D. Dinman, was published online July 9, 2014 in Nature and can be downloaded at http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature13429

 

China’s Hidden Water Footprint

July 7, 2014
Contacts: 

Andrew Roberts, 301.405.2171
Graham Binder, 301-405-4076

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Highly developed but water-scarce regions in China, such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Tianjin, are contributing to water depletion in other water-scarce regions of the country through imports of food, textile, and other water intensive products, according to a new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. For example, purchasing cloth in Shanghai may not consume water directly, but the production of cloth requires cotton, which is water intensive to cultivate - indirectly contributing to the water scarcity in the less-developed cotton production regions. This dynamic also holds true for food and other products. Only 20% of Shanghai’s scarce water footprint, or the amount of scarce water consumed, is from local watersheds while 80% is from water resources of other water-scarce regions, such as Xinjiang, Hebei, and Inner Mongolia.

This disproportionate consumption of water by wealthier regions has environmental impacts and potential future impacts on water availability for the entire country.

The new study used the concept of “virtual water,” an economic concept used to track water flows through trade, to track how water is traded through agricultural products and other goods that require water to produce. But while previous virtual water studies had treated all water equally, the new study accounts for water scarcity to assess China’s hidden flows.

 “When goods and services are exchanged, so is virtual water,” explains University of Maryland and IIASA researcher Laixiang Sun, a study co-author. “For example, it takes about 1,600 cubic meters of actual water to produce one metric ton of wheat. When a country or region imports a ton of wheat instead of producing it domestically, it saves most of that.”

In China, water resources are distributed unevenly, with ample water in the wealthier southern region, and scarce water availability in most northern provinces. The study, titled Virtual Scarce Water in China, shows that trade between these water-scarce regions tends to draw more sharply on water resources in the less developed, poorer regions. For example, the highly developed provinces of Shanghai, Shandong, Beijing, and Tianjin import large amounts of virtual water at the expense of less-developed provinces such as Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Hebei.

“This study goes beyond many other water footprint studies that it takes into account virtual water flows from water-scarce regions. This allows us to identify cases where importing water-intensive goods from other water-scarce regions may just shift the pressure to other regions. On the other hand we don’t need to worry about a large water footprint if the water is imported from water abundant areas. Previous studies often failed to account for this important difference,” says co-author Klaus Hubacek, a researcher at the University of Maryland.

The study also examined the impact of international exports on water resources, showing that production of international exports in China’s top exporting regions also draws on water resources in water-scarce northern provinces.

Dr. Feng, first author of the study, adds, “With the fast growth of China’s economy, and increasing urbanization, this trend is likely to continue in the next few decades.”

Recognizing the problem of water scarcity, China has launched a multi-billion dollar water transfer project to divert water from the South to the North. But the authors suggest that replacing production of water intensive products from the North with goods imported from the South could be a more efficient and sustainable solution to the problem.

The researchers suggest that the study lays the groundwork for smarter water resource management. Says Sun, “This is the first study that incorporates water consumption and flows, water scarcity, and ecosystem impacts into an analysis that conveys the pressures on water resources. Using virtual water as a policy tool only makes sense if you take water scarcity into account.”

 

Next Step Forward for University Hotel Project

July 2, 2014
Contacts: 

Crystal Brown 301-405-4621

Board of Public Works Approves Sale of Land for Hotel

University of MarylandCOLLEGE PARK, Md. – The University of Maryland’s planned hotel and conference center took a major step forward today.  The three-member State of Maryland Board of Public Works (BPW) unanimously approved the sale of a three-acre parcel of University land along Route 1 for construction of the hotel.

This project will be the cornerstone of to the University’s vision to encourage redevelopment of the existing downtown College Park business district, in conjunction with strategic development along the Route 1 corridor. 

This approval comes shortly after the BPW's approval in March of the declaration of the three-acre parcel of University land as surplus.

The proposed hotel and conference center, a $115 million project planned for a parcel of land on the east side of campus opposite Turner Hall, includes approximately 276 guest rooms, 23,500 square feet of ballroom, conference and meeting space, both interior and exterior street level retail, and a café, restaurant, and bar.

Groundbreaking is expected in Spring 2015 with an anticipated opening by Fall 2017.

UMD Researchers Demonstrate Alarming Indonesian Forest Loss

July 1, 2014
Contacts: 

Laura Ours 301-405-5722
Graham Binder 301-405-4076

Deforestation Rate Surpasses Brazil's, Despite Moratorium

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - A new study published in Nature Climate Change demonstrates an alarming increase of rainforest loss in Indonesia during the past 12 years—this loss is greater and faster than the rate shown in Brazil in 2012 which gained global attention as a harbinger of environmental stability.

rainfall in Indonesian rainforestThis new study indicates that forest loss rates are accelerating despite a 2011 moratorium on deforestation issued by the Indonesian government that was designed to combat climate change as well as to protect wildlife—for example, the conservation of orangutan and tiger habitat. The study also reveals a new scientific fact that demonstrates importance of preserving degraded forest, as more than 90 percent of the natural forest loss occurred within the degraded type, which contains significant carbon content.

The study, Primary forest cover loss in Indonesia over 2000–2012, was written by UMD geographical sciences professors Matthew C. Hansen and Peter V. Potapov, UMD geographical sciences graduate research assistant Belinda Arunarwati Margono and research associate Svetlana Turubanova, as well as Fred Stolle of the World Resource Institute. The researchers used earth observation data to quantify spatial and temporal trends of forest change in Indonesia.

Indonesia's virgin forest loss totaled 23,000 square miles over the 12-year period. Unlike Brazil, which has managed to reduce forest losses in recent years, the pace of Indonesia's losses has increased from year to year. The new study reports that the forests were cleared in part to make room for palm oil plantations and other agricultural endeavors. The study reveals an increasing proportion of natural forest loss over wetlands from 2000 to 2012 with bigger patches compare to of lowlands.

"We need to improve forest governance, the control of the forest itself, particularly on the area where forested wetland present" said Margono, who in addition to her service at UMD is an official at the Ministry of Forestry of Indonesia in Jakarta. "Improved forest management across the tropics is needed, and starts with accurate and timely baseline data of forest resources and their change over time; and made it publicly available to improve the good forest governance."

Indonesia's deforestation crisis has attracted worldwide attention, especially from Norway, which has pledged $1 billion if Indonesia passes and enforces legislature that slows the rate of forest loss as part of a larger plan to slow global rates of climate change.

Also among the study's key findings:

  • Implications for carbon emissions due to primary forest cover loss are very substantial given the carbon make up of primary forest and large wetland clearings;
  • These high rates of primary forest cover loss has made Indonesia the third largest global emitter of carbon dioxide;
  • Indonesia's forests contain 10% of the world's plants, 12% of the world's mammals, 16% of the world's reptile-amphibians, and 17% of the world's bird species. Indonesia is a mega-diverse country. Therefore, the primary forest cover loss directly results in habitat loss and plant and animal extinctions;
  • The details on Indonesian forest change had been murky prior to this study; the public and the scientific community now have data to improve the transparency of forest change in Indonesia.

Calling rainforests, the "lungs of the planet," Professor Hansen said that the study's findings, while alarming, do indicate hope for critical environmental reform.

"The good news is, with this study and our continuing research, we are advancing forest monitoring methods that can feed directly into improving forest governance," Professor Hansen said. "The lessons we've learned from Brazil and now Indonesia are generating a global discussion and recommended actions that can be applied to all nations."

Professor Hansen and other UMD researchers and students have made international headlines with innovative research and technology that has drastically improved the ability to observe deforestation at both local and global levels. These researchers led an international team in creating the world's first local-to-global mapping tool of forest loss, in conjunction with NASA and Google.

UMD Marks Official Transition to Big Ten Today with Campus Celebration

July 1, 2014
Contacts: 

Katie Lawson 301-405-4622, 240-459-2730 (cell)

Think B1GCOLLEGE PARK, Md. – The University of Maryland marks its historic move to the Big Ten Conference today with an on-campus celebration. UMD students, faculty, staff and community members will join together to commemorate the transition at an event with performances by The Mighty Sound of Maryland Marching Band and UMD Spirit Squad.

The event, taking place from 12 – 1:30 p.m. on Mitchell Field, will also feature:

  • Remarks from President Wallace Loh, Director of Athletics Kevin Anderson and Johnny Holliday, who serves as the voice of the Terrapins during athletic events;
  • TERPRIDE, a retro-fitted bus featuring interactive games, music and a chance to win prizes; and
  • A new B1G ice cream flavor.

“This is truly a 'B1G' moment for us athletically and academically,” says University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh. “We celebrate campus wide because the benefits of membership in the Big Ten span the whole institution.”

Today’s celebration commemorates more than just a change for athletics. As a member of the Big Ten Conference, UMD has also become a member of its academic arm – the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC). As a member of the CIC, UMD’s students, faculty and staff will have the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues across all Big Ten institutions.  Some examples of these cross-institutional collaborations include:

  • Research in the area of traumatic brain injury;
  • Student leaders visiting Capitol Hill to advocate for research grants and affordable textbooks;
  • Access to research materials multiplied from more than 4 million volumes in the UMD libraries to over 90 million volumes in the combined collections of the CIC libraries;
  • Joining forces to commission plays to inspire new works by and about women, an initiative only possible through combined financial resources;
  • Maryland doctoral students now have the opportunity to work alongside Smithsonian researchers through the Smithsonian CIC Fellowship Program;
  • Through technology, unique courses from other CIC universities will be available to Maryland students; and
  • For our faculty, the CIC offers an academic leadership program to help develop emerging education administrators.

The university's celebration of its new place in the Big Ten Conference will continue through the fall, including a campus-wide launch event on the first day of classes, Sept. 2, featuring B1G games and giveaways; and Homecoming weekend celebrations from Oct. 16-19.

Celebrate the Fourth of July at UMD

June 30, 2014
Contacts: 

City of College Park, 240-487-3570

FireworksCOLLEGE PARK, Md. – The University of Maryland and the City of College Park will host an Independence Day celebration on Friday, July 4, 2014. 

A free concert and fireworks are on tap for the night on the University of Maryland campus in Lot 1 adjacent to Campus Drive off Adelphi Road.

A performance by The Nightlife Band will begin at 7:00 p.m. Fireworks will then begin at dusk - about 9:00 p.m., for a 30 to 40 minute program. In case of rain cancellation, there will be only fireworks on Saturday, July 5.

Concessions open at 5:00 p.m. offering hamburgers, hot dogs, funnel cakes, ice cream, snow cones, soda and bottled water. Grass seating is limited, so bringing lawn chairs and blankets is recommended. Personal coolers are also allowed.

For more information, call 240-487-3570.

University of Maryland Scientists Identify New Microbes Linked to Severe Diarrhea

June 27, 2014
Contacts: 

Tom Ventsias, University of Maryland, College Park, 301-405-5933
Christopher J. Hardwick, University of Maryland School of Medicine, 410-706-5260

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – In a finding that may one day help control a major cause of death among children in developing countries, a team of researchers led by faculty from the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland School of Medicine has identified microorganisms that may trigger diarrheal disease and others that may protect against it. These microbes were not widely linked to the condition previously.

O. Colin Stine, a professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine"We were able to identify interactions between microbiota that were not previously observed, and we think that some of those interactions may actually help prevent the onset of severe diarrhea," says O. Colin Stine (pictured right), a professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

A much better understanding of these interactions is important, Stine adds, as they could lead to possible dietary interventions. Moderate to severe diarrhea (MSD) is a major cause of childhood mortality in developing countries and ranks as one of the top four causes of death among young children in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

Mihai Pop, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, College ParkStine and Mihai Pop (pictured left), an associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, College Park led the six-year project funded by $10.1 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The research results are available in a paper published today in the journal Genome Biology.

The researchers used a technique called high-throughput 16S rRNA genomic sequencing to examine both "good" and "bad" microbiota -- the tens of trillions of microbes that inhabit the human intestinal system -- in samples taken from 992 children in Bangladesh, The Gambia, Kenya and Mali under the age of 5 who were suffering from MSD.

The researchers identified statistically significant disease associations with several organisms already implicated in diarrheal disease, such as members of the Escherichia/Shigella genus and Campylobacter jejuni. They also found that organisms not widely believed to cause the disease, including Streptococcus and Granulicatella, correlated with the condition in their study. In addition, the study revealed that the Prevotella genus and Lactobacillus ruminis may play a protective role against diarrhea.

The project is an offshoot of a $20 million study commissioned by the Gates Foundation in 2006. The Global Enterics Multicenter Study (GEMS) was launched in response to unanswered questions surrounding the burden and etiology of childhood diarrhea in developing countries.

GEMS collected troves of useful data on MSD, yet there were still some uncertainties, says Pop, who also has an appointment in the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies.
 
For example, in almost 50 percent of the children examined with diarrhea, the condition could not be attributed to a specific causal pathogen. The GEMS research also found numerous children carrying Shigella, which is known to cause problems, yet the children showed no signs of MSD.

The Gates Foundation contacted the two University of Maryland scientists in 2007, looking for new analyses of the GEMS data via a combination of computational biology, epidemiology and public health.

"New technologies have opened up new windows of discovery, so they asked us to look at the samples," says Pop, who adds that he and Stine expect to conduct further genomic and epidemiological studies to assess the potential development of diet- or microbiological-based therapeutics.

The longstanding scientific collaboration between the two researchers is enhanced by the MPowering the State strategic partnership, launched in 2011 to support collaborative research and education between the state's top two public research institutions, the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

In addition to funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, this study was also supported partly by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and The Wellcome Trust.

UMD's Deepthought2 Debuts in Global Supercomputer Rankings

June 26, 2014
Contacts: 

Deepthought2COLLEGE PARK, Md. – A University of Maryland supercomputer for the first time has been ranked among the most powerful supercomputers in the world, according to the 43rd edition of the closely watched list released twice yearly by TOP500.org. Deepthought2, launched in May 2014 to support advanced research activities, ranks No. 14 among U.S. universities, making the high-performance computing system one of the nation's fastest in an academic setting.

In the recently released June 2014 TOP500 List, Maryland's Deepthought2 ranked No. 347 in the world, with performance listed as 298.2 peak teraflops. This means that Deepthought2 can complete between 250 trillion and 300 trillion operations per second. It has a petabyte (1 million gigabytes) of storage and is connected by an InfiniBand network, a very high-speed internal network. Put another way, Deepthought2 is the equivalent of 10,000 laptops working together, it has 2,000 times the storage of an average laptop, and its internal network is 50 times faster than broadband.

"Having one of the world's most powerful supercomputers demonstrates that the University of Maryland is intent on providing the local high-performance computing capabilities our faculty and student researchers need to increase dramatically the pace and scope of their scientific explorations and discoveries," said Ann G. Wylie, Professor and Interim Vice President for Information Technology. "This new research computing asset cements UMD's role as one of the country's premier academic centers for scholarship and research," Dr. Wylie said.

UMD researchers plan to use Deepthought2 in a variety of investigative fields ranging from health sciences to fire protection engineering to earth sciences.

"Supercomputing is a transformative technology for U.S. universities," said Fran LoPresti, Deputy CIO of Cyberinfrastructure and Research IT for the Division of Information Technology. "Now, Maryland's world-class supercomputer equips researchers with the computing resources and data storage necessary to make scientific and engineering advances in some of the most challenging compute-intensive and data-intensive fields," said LoPresti.

"We've established new interdisciplinary teams that will rely heavily on this superb computing platform to tackle some of the biggest challenges in astronomy, bioinformatics, and the environmental sciences," said Dr. Amitabh Varshney, Director of the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies and Professor of Computer Science.

Redox, UMD, Microsoft, Trans-Tech to Develop Transformational Natural Gas Fuel Cells Through $5 Million in ARPA-E Funding

June 23, 2014
Contacts: 

Eric Schurr, (301) 405-3889 
Media Contact: Graham Binder, (301) 405-4076

COLLEGE PARK, Md. —Redox Power Systems LLC, the University of Maryland, Microsoft Corporation and Trans-Tech Inc. (a subsidiary of Skyworks Solutions Inc.) are teaming to develop transformational fuel cells through a $5 million cooperative agreement funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) Reliable Electricity Based on ELectrochemical Systems (REBELS) program, company and university officials jointly announce today.

The goal of the project is to further advance Redox’s high-performance fuel cells and drive them to market-readiness for a broader range of applications than the company’s 25 kW Cube product, including low-cost distributed power generation (and heating and cooling) for homes, and for Microsoft—which is providing additional support for the project—energy-efficient datacenters. The technological advances resulting from this project will open the door for additional applications such as transportation.

“This project will finally make fuel cells an affordable technology,” said Professor Eric Wachsman, University of Maryland Energy Research Center (UMERC) in the A. James Clark School of Engineering, who is also a Redox co-founder. “All of the elements we are going to work on—lower temperature, higher power density, faster startup time and load following—these will make fuel cells easier to sell by bringing their cost down even further. It accelerates everything.”

Fuel cells—or devices that convert the chemical energy of a fuel source into electrical energy—are optimal for distributed power generation systems, which generate power close to where it is used, according to ARPA-E. Distributed generation systems offer an alternative to the large, centralized power generation facilities or power plants that are currently commonplace.

Those systems, powered by natural gas (or a wide variety of alternative fuel sources, including liquid fuels such as gasoline and diesel) through Redox’s solid oxide fuel cells, could become a reality if this project is successful.

Led by Fulton, Md.-based Redox, the three-year ARPA-E agreement has UMD partnering with the company to improve its solid oxide fuel cells by the following minimum requirements:

•Reduce the operating temperatures of their record high-power-density fuel cells from an already industry-leading 650 degrees Celsius to the 300-500 °C range;

•Enable a start-up time of less than ten minutes; and

•Respond to electrical load changes, from 10-90 percent power in less than one minute.

Redox Fuel Cell Diagram

“This will be a major advancement in our fuel cell technology,” said Bryan Blackburn, Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of Redox. “It will not be incremental. We are working on every aspect of the cell—the anode, the cathode, the electrolyte. The materials will be different. Every single aspect will synergistically come together to form our highest performing, lowest-cost fuel cell.”

Trans-Tech Inc., based in Adamstown, Md., will work with Redox and UMD to ramp up the commercial production of new cell materials. They will also work with Redox to manufacture the improved fuel cells, establishing ways to reduce production costs. By bringing a large manufacturer like Trans-Tech into the development process early on and working with fuel cells using industrial processes, the required time-to-market for new generations of enhanced cells will decrease.

Redox will also redesign its fuel cell stacks to achieve ARPA-E performance targets and reduce costs even further, after which they go to Microsoft for integration and independent live testing in the company’s server racks.

“Our vision is to bring the power plant directly into the datacenter by integrating fuel cell stacks into every server cabinet, effectively eliminating energy loss that otherwise occurs in the energy supply chain and doubling the efficiency of traditional datacenters,” said Sean James, Senior Research Program Manager for Microsoft Global Foundation Services. “We expect to effectively double our efficiency, from fuel to load, while cutting out many points of failure. The resulting system could be significantly less expensive than traditional datacenter designs. Overall, we believe the advancements being made in fuel cells will someday change the game in terms of how energy is delivered and managed.”

Microsoft is also a powerful buyer.

“In this case the partner is also the potential customer,” explained Blackburn. “If Microsoft adopts these fuel cell systems at a large scale, they could provide just the right initial market and critical mass to drive the cost of our fuel cells down even further.”

The Redox-led project is one of 13 funded by the REBELS program, which ARPA-E announced on June 19, 2014, worth a total of $33 million.

“These 13 REBELS projects are an excellent example of how ARPA-E is developing innovative technology options to transform and modernize America’s evolving electric grid,” said ARPA-E Acting Director Dr. Cheryl Martin. “Distributed generation technologies like these could fundamentally change the way America generates and stores energy.”

Redox, initially co-founded by Wachsman and Blackburn after the former spent 25 years developing industry-leading solid oxide fuel cells, was a winner in the 2012 University of Maryland $75K Business Plan Competition, run by the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute (Mtech). Shortly after, the company entered Mtech’s VentureAccelerator Program, which helps select University of Maryland inventors get their research out of laboratories and into industry by creating successful companies.

Three months later, the company was reformed along with an outside investment and management team and moved to Fulton, Md.

Comet’s Brush With Mars Offers Opportunity, Not Danger

June 19, 2014
Contacts: 

Heather Dewar, 301-405-9267 
Graham Binder, 301-405-4076

Comet Siding Spring will brush astonishingly close to Mars later this year – close enough to raise concerns about the safety of a fleet of spacecraft orbiting the Red Planet. But after observing Siding Spring through a satellite-mounted telescope, University of Maryland comet experts found that it poses little danger to the Mars craft. The spacecraft will be able to get an unprecedented close look at the changes happening to this “fresh” comet as it nears the sun – as well as any changes its passing may trigger in the Martian atmosphere.

Fresh comets like Siding Spring, which have never before approached the sun, contain some of the most ancient material scientists can study. The UMD astronomers’ observations are part of a two-year-long research campaign to watch how the comet's activity changes during its travels.

"Comet Siding Spring is making its first passage through the inner solar system and is experiencing its first strong heating from the sun," said UMD assistant research scientist Dennis Bodewits, lead researcher on the UMD astronomy team that used NASA’s Swift satellite to estimate the comet’s size and activity. “Comets like this one, which formed long ago and remained for billions of years in the icy regions beyond Pluto, still contain the primeval building materials of our solar system in their original state.”

The solid part of a comet, called its nucleus, is a clump of frozen gases mixed with dust and is often described as a "dirty snowball.” As the comet moves toward the sun and becomes heated, different gases stream from the nucleus, carrying with them large quantities of dust that reflect sunlight and brighten the comet. By about two and a half times Earth's distance from the sun (2.5 astronomical units, or AU), the comet has warmed enough that water becomes the primary gas emitted by the nucleus.

Between May 27 and 29, Swift's Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope captured a sequence of images as Siding Spring cruised through the constellation Eridanus about 2.46 AU (229 million miles, or 368 million km) from the sun. The satellite cannot detect water molecules directly, but it can detect light emitted from the fragments of the water molecules formed when ultraviolet sunlight breaks them up. The UMD team measured that light and used it to estimate the comet’s size and activity. The team concludes that the icy nucleus of Siding Spring is at least 2,300 feet (700 meters) across, which makes it a small to average-size comet.

"We calculate that at the time of the observations the comet was producing about 2 billion billion billion water molecules, equivalent to about 13 gallons or 49 liters, each second," said Tony Farnham, a UMD senior research scientist in astronomy. At this rate, comet Siding Spring could fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in about 14 hours – a modest output.

The comet, formally known as C/2013 A1, makes its closest approach to Mars on Oct. 19, passing just 83,000 miles (132,000 km) away. For comparison, the closest recorded approach of a comet to Earth was within 1.4 million miles (2.3 million km) in July 1770. During its Mars flyby, comet Siding Spring will pass more than 16 times closer than that.

Around the time of the encounter, five research spacecraft are expected to be orbiting the Red Planet. The UMD team found the spacecraft will not be harmed by the comet’s dust, so they won’t have to depart from their regular orbits. Instead some of the spacecraft will be pressed into service as a comet observation fleet to take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity for studying a new comet at close range. These observations of the cometary gases’ interaction with Mars may help scientists learn more about the Martian atmosphere, which is thinner than Earth’s.

Bodewits and his colleagues use the Swift telescope to single out faraway new comets at distances where they are mostly emitting gases other than water vapor, and observe them as they course through the inner solar system. They are learning how comets’ activity changes as they make repeated orbits of the sun. The research will ultimately lead to a better understanding of the evolution of the solar system and the comets that formed in its cold, distant reaches some five billion years ago.

This composite image merges Swift UVOT images of comet Siding Spring taken between May 27 and 29, 2014. Sunlight reflected from the comet's dust, which produces most of the light in this image, appears yellow. Violet indicates ultraviolet light produced by hydroxyl (OH), a fragment of water. Credit: NASA/Swift/D. Bodewits

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