New tech aims to make the ocean healthier for marine life
A defunct drydock basin arched by a rusting 19th century steel bridge seems an incongruous place to conduct state-of-the-art climate science. But this placid and protected sliver of water connecting Brooklyn’s Navy Yard to the East River was just right for Garrett Boudinot to float a small dock topped with water carbon-sensing gear. And while his system right now looks like a trio of plastic boxes wired up together, it aims to mediate the growing ocean acidification problem, caused by overabundance of dissolved carbon dioxide.
Boudinot, a biogeochemist and founder of a carbon-management startup called Vycarb, is honing his method for measuring CO2 levels in water, as well as (at least temporarily) correcting their negative effects. It’s a challenge that’s been occupying numerous climate scientists as the ocean heats up, and as states like New York recognize that reducing emissions won’t be enough to reach their climate goals; they’ll have to figure out how to remove carbon, too.
To date, though, methods for measuring CO2 in water at scale have been either intensely expensive, requiring fancy sensors that pump CO2 through membranes; or prohibitively complicated, involving a series of lab-based analyses. And that’s led to a bottleneck in efforts to remove carbon as well.
But recently, Boudinot cracked part of the code for measurement and mitigation, at least on a small scale. While the rest of the industry sorts out larger intricacies like getting ocean carbon markets up and running and driving carbon removal at billion-ton scale in centralized infrastructure, his decentralized method could have important, more immediate implications.
Specifically, for shellfish hatcheries, which grow seafood for human consumption and for coastal restoration projects. Some of these incubators for oysters and clams and scallops are already feeling the negative effects of excess carbon in water, and Vycarb’s tech could improve outcomes for the larval- and juvenile-stage mollusks they’re raising. “We’re learning from these folks about what their needs are, so that we’re developing our system as a solution that’s relevant,” Boudinot says.
Ocean acidification can wreak havoc on developing shellfish, inhibiting their shells from growing and leading to mass die-offs.
Ocean waters naturally absorb CO2 gas from the atmosphere. When CO2 accumulates faster than nature can dissipate it, it reacts with H2O molecules, forming carbonic acid, H2CO3, which makes the water column more acidic. On the West Coast, acidification occurs when deep, carbon dioxide-rich waters upwell onto the coast. This can wreak havoc on developing shellfish, inhibiting their shells from growing and leading to mass die-offs; this happened, disastrously, at Pacific Northwest oyster hatcheries in 2007.
This type of acidification will eventually come for the East Coast, too, says Ryan Wallace, assistant professor and graduate director of environmental studies and sciences at Long Island’s Adelphi University, who studies acidification. But at the moment, East Coast acidification has other sources: agricultural runoff, usually in the form of nitrogen, and human and animal waste entering coastal areas. These excess nutrient loads cause algae to grow, which isn’t a problem in and of itself, Wallace says; but when algae die, they’re consumed by bacteria, whose respiration in turn bumps up CO2 levels in water.
“Unfortunately, this is occurring at the bottom [of the water column], where shellfish organisms live and grow,” Wallace says. Acidification on the East Coast is minutely localized, occurring closest to where nutrients are being released, as well as seasonally; at least one local shellfish farm, on Fishers Island in the Long Island Sound, has contended with its effects.
The second Vycarb pilot, ready to be installed at the East Hampton shellfish hatchery.
Courtesy of Vycarb
Besides CO2, ocean water contains two other forms of dissolved carbon — carbonate (CO3-) and bicarbonate (HCO3) — at all times, at differing levels. At low pH (acidic), CO2 prevails; at medium pH, HCO3 is the dominant form; at higher pH, CO3 dominates. Boudinot’s invention is the first real-time measurement for all three, he says. From the dock at the Navy Yard, his pilot system uses carefully calibrated but low-cost sensors to gauge the water’s pH and its corresponding levels of CO2. When it detects elevated levels of the greenhouse gas, the system mitigates it on the spot. It does this by adding a bicarbonate powder that’s a byproduct of agricultural limestone mining in nearby Pennsylvania. Because the bicarbonate powder is alkaline, it increases the water pH and reduces the acidity. “We drive a chemical reaction to increase the pH to convert greenhouse gas- and acid-causing CO2 into bicarbonate, which is HCO3,” Boudinot says. “And HCO3 is what shellfish and fish and lots of marine life prefers over CO2.”
This de-acidifying “buffering” is something shellfish operations already do to water, usually by adding soda ash (NaHCO3), which is also alkaline. Some hatcheries add soda ash constantly, just in case; some wait till acidification causes significant problems. Generally, for an overly busy shellfish farmer to detect acidification takes time and effort. “We’re out there daily, taking a look at the pH and figuring out how much we need to dose it,” explains John “Barley” Dunne, director of the East Hampton Shellfish Hatchery on Long Island. “If this is an automatic system…that would be much less labor intensive — one less thing to monitor when we have so many other things we need to monitor.”
Across the Sound at the hatchery he runs, Dunne annually produces 30 million hard clams, 6 million oysters, and “if we’re lucky, some years we get a million bay scallops,” he says. These mollusks are destined for restoration projects around the town of East Hampton, where they’ll create habitat, filter water, and protect the coastline from sea level rise and storm surge. So far, Dunne’s hatchery has largely escaped the ill effects of acidification, although his bay scallops are having a finicky year and he’s checking to see if acidification might be part of the problem. But “I think it's important to have these solutions ready-at-hand for when the time comes,” he says. That’s why he’s hosting a second, 70-liter Vycarb pilot starting this summer on a dock adjacent to his East Hampton operation; it will amp up to a 50,000 liter-system in a few months.
If it can buffer water over a large area, absolutely this will benefit natural spawns. -- John “Barley” Dunne.
Boudinot hopes this new pilot will act as a proof of concept for hatcheries up and down the East Coast. The area from Maine to Nova Scotia is experiencing the worst of Atlantic acidification, due in part to increased Arctic meltwater combining with Gulf of St. Lawrence freshwater; that decreases saturation of calcium carbonate, making the water more acidic. Boudinot says his system should work to adjust low pH regardless of the cause or locale. The East Hampton system will eventually test and buffer-as-necessary the water that Dunne pumps from the Sound into 100-gallon land-based tanks where larvae grow for two weeks before being transferred to an in-Sound nursery to plump up.
Dunne says this could have positive effects — not only on his hatchery but on wild shellfish populations, too, reducing at least one stressor their larvae experience (others include increasing water temperatures and decreased oxygen levels). “If it can buffer water over a large area, absolutely this will [benefit] natural spawns,” he says.
No one believes the Vycarb model — even if it proves capable of functioning at much greater scale — is the sole solution to acidification in the ocean. Wallace says new water treatment plants in New York City, which reduce nitrogen released into coastal waters, are an important part of the equation. And “certainly, some green infrastructure would help,” says Boudinot, like restoring coastal and tidal wetlands to help filter nutrient runoff.
In the meantime, Boudinot continues to collect data in advance of amping up his own operations. Still unknown is the effect of releasing huge amounts of alkalinity into the ocean. Boudinot says a pH of 9 or higher can be too harsh for marine life, plus it can also trigger a release of CO2 from the water back into the atmosphere. For a third pilot, on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor, Vycarb will install yet another system from which Boudinot’s team will frequently sample to analyze some of those and other impacts. “Let's really make sure that we know what the results are,” he says. “Let's have data to show, because in this carbon world, things behave very differently out in the real world versus on paper.”
From infections with no symptoms to why men are more likely to be hospitalized in the ICU and die of COVID-19, new research shows that your genes play a significant role
Early in the pandemic, genetic research focused on the virus because it was readily available. Plus, the virus contains only 30,000 bases in a dozen functional genes, so it's relatively easy and affordable to sequence. Additionally, the rapid mutation of the virus and its ability to escape antibody control fueled waves of different variants and provided a reason to follow viral genetics.
In comparison, there are many more genes of the human immune system and cellular functions that affect viral replication, with about 3.2 billion base pairs. Human studies require samples from large numbers of people, the analysis of each sample is vastly more complex, and sophisticated computer analysis often is required to make sense of the raw data. All of this takes time and large amounts of money, but important findings are beginning to emerge.
About half the people exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, never develop symptoms of this disease, or their symptoms are so mild they often go unnoticed. One piece of understanding the phenomena came when researchers showed that exposure to OC43, a common coronavirus that results in symptoms of a cold, generates immune system T cells that also help protect against SARS-CoV-2.
Jill Hollenbach, an immunologist at the University of California at San Francisco, sought to identify the gene behind that immune protection. Most COVID-19 genetic studies are done with the most seriously ill patients because they are hospitalized and thus available. “But 99 percent of people who get it will never see the inside of a hospital for COVID-19,” she says. “They are home, they are not interacting with the health care system.”
Early in the pandemic, when most labs were shut down, she tapped into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program database. It contains detailed information on donor human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), key genes in the immune system that must match up between donor and recipient for successful transplants of marrow or organs. Each HLA can contain alleles, slight molecular differences in the DNA of the HLA, which can affect its function. Potential HLA combinations can number in the tens of thousands across the world, says Hollenbach, but each person has a smaller number of those possible variants.
She teamed up with the COVID-19 Citizen Science Study a smartphone-based study to track COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes, to ask persons in the bone marrow donor registry about COVID-19. The study enlisted more than 30,000 volunteers. Those volunteers already had their HLAs annotated by the registry, and 1,428 tested positive for the virus.
Analyzing five key HLAs, she found an allele in the gene HLA-B*15:01 that was significantly overrepresented in people who didn’t have any symptoms. The effect was even stronger if a person had inherited the allele from both parents; these persons were “more than eight times more likely to remain asymptomatic than persons who did not carry the genetic variant,” she says. Altogether this HLA was present in about 10 percent of the general European population but double that percentage in the asymptomatic group. Hollenbach and her colleagues were able confirm this in other different groups of patients.
What made the allele so potent against SARS-CoV-2? Part of the answer came from x-ray crystallography. A key element was the molecular shape of parts of the cold virus OC43 and SARS-CoV-2. They were virtually identical, and the allele could bind very tightly to them, present their molecular antigens to T cells, and generate an extremely potent T cell response to the viruses. And “for whatever reasons that generated a lot of memory T cells that are going to stick around for a long time,” says Hollenbach. “This T cell response is very early in infection and ramps up very quickly, even before the antibody response.”
Understanding the genetics of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is important because it provides clues into the conditions of T cells and antigens that support a response without any symptoms, she says. “It gives us an opportunity to think about whether this might be a vaccine design strategy.”
A researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Virology in Hamburg Germany, Guelsah Gabriel, was drawn to a question at the other end of the COVID-19 spectrum: why men more likely to be hospitalized and die from the infection. It wasn't that men were any more likely to be exposed to the virus but more likely, how their immune system reacted to it
Several studies had noted that testosterone levels were significantly lower in men hospitalized with COVID-19. And, in general, the lower the testosterone, the worse the prognosis. A year after recovery, about 30 percent of men still had lower than normal levels of testosterone, a condition known as hypogonadism. Most of the men also had elevated levels of estradiol, a female hormone (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34402750/).
Every cell has a sex, expressing receptors for male and female hormones on their surface. Hormones docking with these receptors affect the cells' internal function and the signals they send to other cells. The number and role of these receptors varies from tissue to tissue.
Gabriel began her search by examining whole exome sequences, the protein-coding part of the genome, for key enzymes involved in the metabolism of sex hormones. The research team quickly zeroed in on CYP19A1, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. The gene that produces this enzyme has a number of different alleles, the molecular variants that affect the enzyme's rate of metabolizing the sex hormones. One genetic variant, CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), is typically found in 6.2 percent of all people, both men and women, but remarkably, they found it in 68.7 percent of men who were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Lungs are the tissue most affected in COVID-19 disease. Gabriel wondered if the virus might be affecting expression of their target gene in the lung so that it produces more of the enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. Studying cells in a petri dish, they saw no change in gene expression when they infected cells of lung tissue with influenza and the original SARS-CoV viruses that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002. But exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, increased gene expression up to 40-fold, Gabriel says.
Did the same thing happen in humans? Autopsy examination of patients in three different cites found that “CYP19A1 was abundantly expressed in the lungs of COVID-19 males but not those who died of other respiratory infections,” says Gabriel. This increased enzyme production led likely to higher levels of estradiol in the lungs of men, which “is highly inflammatory, damages the tissue, and can result in fibrosis or scarring that inhibits lung function and repair long after the virus itself has disappeared.” Somehow the virus had acquired the capacity to upregulate expression of CYP19A1.
Only two COVID-19 positive females showed increased expression of this gene. The menopause status of these women, or whether they were on hormone replacement therapy was not known. That could be important because female hormones have a protective effect for cardiovascular disease, which women often lose after going through menopause, especially if they don’t start hormone replacement therapy. That sex-specific protection might also extend to COVID-19 and merits further study.
The team was able to confirm their findings in golden hamsters, the animal model of choice for studying COVID-19. Testosterone levels in male animals dropped 5-fold three days after infection and began to recover as viral levels declined. CYP19A1 transcription increased up to 15-fold in the lungs of the male but not the females. The study authors wrote, “Virus replication in the male lungs was negatively associated with testosterone levels.”
The medical community studying COVID-19 has slowly come to recognize the importance of adipose tissue, or fat cells. They are known to express abundant levels of CYP19A1 and play a significant role as metabolic tissue in COVID-19. Gabriel adds, “One of the key findings of our study is that upon SARS-CoV-2 infection, the lung suddenly turns into a metabolic organ by highly expressing” CYP19A1.
She also found evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect the gonads of hamsters, thereby likely depressing circulating levels of sex hormones. The researchers did not have autopsy samples to confirm this in humans, but others have shown that the virus can replicate in those tissues.
A possible treatment
Back in the lab, substituting low and high doses of testosterone in SARS-COV-2 infected male hamsters had opposite effects depending on testosterone dosage used. Gabriel says that hormone levels can vary so much, depending on health status and age and even may change throughout the day, that “it probably is much better to inhibit the enzyme” produced by CYP19A1 than try to balance the hormones.
Results were better with letrozole, a drug approved to treat hypogonadism in males, which reduces estradiol levels. The drug also showed benefit in male hamsters in terms of less severe disease and faster recovery. She says more details need to be worked out in using letrozole to treat COVID-19, but they are talking with hospitals about clinical trials of the drug.
Gabriel has proposed a four hit explanation of how COVID-19 can be so deadly for men: the metabolic quartet. First is the genetic risk factor of CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), then comes SARS-CoV-2 infection that induces even greater expression of this gene and the deleterious increase of estradiol in the lung. Age-related hypogonadism and the heightened inflammation of obesity, known to affect CYP19A1 activity, are contributing factors in this deadly perfect storm of events.
Studying host genetics, says Gabriel, can reveal new mechanisms that yield promising avenues for further study. It’s also uniting different fields of science into a new, collaborative approach they’re calling “infection endocrinology,” she says.
Mammograms are necessary breast cancer checks for women as they reach the recommended screening age between 40 and 50 years. Yet, many find the procedure uncomfortable. “I have large breasts, and to be able to image the full breast, the radiographer had to manipulate my breast within the machine, which took time and was quite uncomfortable,” recalls Angela, who preferred not to disclose her last name.
Breast cancer is the most widespread cancer in the world, affecting 2.3 million women in 2020. Screening exams such as mammograms can help find breast cancer early, leading to timely diagnosis and treatment. If this type of cancer is detected before the disease has spread, the 5-year survival rate is 99 percent. But some women forgo mammograms due to concerns about radiation or painful compression of breasts. Other issues, such as low income and a lack of access to healthcare, can also serve as barriers, especially for underserved populations.
Researchers at the University of Canterbury and startup Tiro Medical in Christchurch, New Zealand are hoping their new device—which doesn’t involve any radiation or compression of the breasts—could increase the accuracy of breast cancer screening, broaden access and encourage more women to get checked. They’re digging into clues from the way buildings move in an earthquake to help detect more cases of this disease.
Earthquake engineering inspires new breast cancer screening tech
What’s underneath a surface affects how it vibrates. Earthquake engineers look at the vibrations of swaying buildings to identify the underlying soil and tissue properties. “As the vibration wave travels, it reflects the stiffness of the material between that wave and the surface,” says Geoff Chase, professor of engineering at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Chase is applying this same concept to breasts. Analyzing the surface motion of the breast as it vibrates could reveal the stiffness of the tissues underneath. Regions of high stiffness could point to cancer, given that cancerous breast tissue can be up to 20 times stiffer than normal tissue. “If in essence every woman’s breast is soft soil, then if you have some granite rocks in there, we’re going to see that on the surface,” explains Chase.
The earthquake-inspired device exceeds the 87 percent sensitivity of a 3D mammogram.
That notion underpins a new breast screening device, the brainchild of Chase. Women lie face down, with their breast being screened inside a circular hole and the nipple resting on a small disc called an actuator. The actuator moves up and down, between one and two millimeters, so there’s a small vibration, “almost like having your phone vibrate on your nipple,” says Jessica Fitzjohn, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Canterbury who collaborated on the device design with Chase.
Cameras surrounding the device take photos of the breast surface motion as it vibrates. The photos are fed into image processing algorithms that convert them into data points. Then, diagnostic algorithms analyze those data points to find any differences in the breast tissue. “We’re looking for that stiffness contrast which could indicate a tumor,” Fitzjohn says.
The device has been tested in a clinical trial of 14 women: one with healthy breasts and 13 with a tumor in one breast. The cohort was small but diverse, varying in age, breast volume and tumor size.
Results from the trial yielded a sensitivity rate, or the likelihood of correctly detecting breast cancer, of 85 percent. Meanwhile, the device’s specificity rate, or the probability of diagnosing healthy breasts, was 77 percent. By combining and optimizing certain diagnostic algorithms, the device reached between 92 and 100 percent sensitivity and between 80 and 86 percent specificity, which is comparable to the latest 3D mammogram technology. Called tomosynthesis, these 3D mammograms take a number of sharper, clearer and more detailed 3D images compared to the single 2D image of a conventional mammogram, and have a specificity score of 92 percent. Although the earthquake-inspired device’s specificity is lower, it exceeds the 87 percent sensitivity of a 3D mammogram.
The team hopes that cameras with better resolution can help improve the numbers. And with a limited amount of data in the first trial, the researchers are looking into funding for another clinical trial to validate their results on a larger cohort size.
Additionally, during the trial, the device correctly identified one woman’s breast as healthy, while her prior mammogram gave a false positive. The device correctly identified it as being healthy tissue. It was also able to capture the tiniest tumor at 7 millimeters—around a third of an inch or half as long as an aspirin tablet.
Diagnostic findings from the device are immediate.
When using the earthquake-inspired device, women lie face down, with their breast being screened inside circular holes.
University of Canterbury.
But more testing is needed to “prove the device’s ability to pick up small breast cancers less than 10 to 15 millimeters in size, as we know that finding cancers when they are small is the best way of improving outcomes,” says Richard Annand, a radiologist at Pacific Radiology in New Zealand. He explains that mammography already detects most precancerous lesions, so if the device will only be able to find large masses or lumps it won’t be particularly useful. While not directly involved in administering the clinical trial for the device, Annand was a director at the time for Canterbury Breastcare, where the trial occurred.
Meanwhile, Monique Gary, a breast surgical oncologist and medical director of the Grand View Health Cancer program in Pennsylvania, U.S., is excited to see new technologies advancing breast cancer screening and early detection. But she notes that the device may be challenging for “patients who are unable to lay prone, such as pregnant women as well as those who are differently abled, and this machine might exclude them.” She adds that it would also be interesting to explore how breast implants would impact the device’s vibrational frequency.
Diagnostic findings from the device are immediate, with the results available “before you put your clothes back on,” Chase says. The absence of any radiation is another benefit, though Annand considers it a minor edge “as we know the radiation dose used in mammography is minimal, and the advantages of having a mammogram far outweigh the potential risk of radiation.”
The researchers also conducted a separate ergonomic trial with 40 women to assess the device’s comfort, safety and ease of use. Angela was part of that trial and described the experience as “easy, quick, painless and required no manual intervention from an operator.” And if a person is uncomfortable being topless or having their breasts touched by someone else, “this type of device would make them more comfortable and less exposed,” she says.
While mammograms remain “the ‘gold standard’ in breast imaging, particularly screening, physicians need an option that can be used in combination with mammography.
Fitzjohn acknowledges that “at the moment, it’s quite a crude prototype—it’s just a block that you lie on.” The team prioritized function over form initially, but they’re now planning a few design improvements, including more cushioning for the breasts and the surface where the women lie on.
While mammograms remains “the ‘gold standard’ in breast imaging, particularly screening, physicians need an option that is good at excluding breast cancer when used in combination with mammography, has good availability, is easy to use and is affordable. There is the possibility that the device could fill this role,” Annand says.
Indeed, the researchers envision their new breast screening device as complementary to mammograms—a prescreening tool that could make breast cancer checks widely available. As the device is portable and doesn’t require specialized knowledge to operate, it can be used in clinics, pop-up screening facilities and rural communities. “If it was easily accessible, particularly as part of a checkup with a [general practitioner] or done in a practice the patient is familiar with, it may encourage more women to access this service,” Angela says. For those who find regular mammograms uncomfortable or can’t afford them, the earthquake-inspired device may be an option—and an even better one.
Broadening access could prompt more women to go for screenings, particularly younger women at higher risk of getting breast cancer because of a family history of the disease or specific gene mutations. “If we can provide an option for them then we can catch those cancers earlier,” Fitzjohn syas. “By taking screening to people, we’re increasing patient-centric care.”
With the team aiming to lower the device’s cost to somewhere between five and eight times less than mammography equipment, it would also be valuable for low-to-middle-income nations that are challenged to afford the infrastructure for mammograms or may not have enough skilled radiologists.
For Fitzjohn, the ultimate goal is to “increase equity in breast screening and catch cancer early so we have better outcomes for women who are diagnosed with breast cancer.”