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Stony Brook University

Kids buddy up at kidOYO camp to learn more about the coding world at a special summer camp workshop hosted at Stony Brook University on Friday afternoon. Photo by Rachel Siford

By Rachel Siford

Stony Brook University is hosting a different type of camp this summer.

kidOYO teaches kids between ages 8 and 15 how to code their own websites and games, using Java, Scratch, Python and HTML.

“Code. Make. Learn.” is kidOYO’s motto — geared to teach kids to code and create on their own.

“The kids learn how to map controls, sense the movements and think about it in a logical way,” co-founder Devon Loffreto said.

Loffreto, a graduate of SBU, and his wife Melora Loffreto founded the camp in 2001 and came to Stony Brook University three years ago because of its position as one of the top computer science schools.

“This area has a huge interest in computer science,” Melora said. “The support of the university has been tremendous.”

Some kids stay just one week, and others participate for the full five weeks. This week, 33 students entered the program along with 10 Stony Brook University computer science student mentors to help them.

Chairman of the Computer Science Department for 17 years Arie Kaufman welcomed the crowd to the newly built computer science building. This group was the first to have a demonstration there.

“I want to move Long Island to the point where everyone from ages 4 to 104 knows how to program,” Kaufman said. “This is a happy occasion for the new computer science building.”

For the first time since the camp was started, participants will be able to continue their websites and work at home. Their profiles will keep track of what they do with badges they get for different accomplishments. There are also challenges and tutorials on the website to keep them engaged.

Students made mods for Minecraft, a popular video game, meaning they wrote code modifications for the educational version of the game Minecraft. One student even made the mod downloadable so anyone can add his mod to his or her own game.

“This generation is one of the most powerful ever because of the tools they are given,” Loffreto said.

Another student built a script in Python, a general-purpose programming language, to draw a turtle, which took 370 lines of code.

Students made videos, comic strips, games, 3D printed objects and video games. For many of them, this was their first time using code.

Ten nights of independent films you won’t see anywhere else

Katie Page stars in “This Isn’t Funny” to be screened on July 17 at 9:30 p.m. Photo by Peter Borosh

By Donna Newman

Would you love to travel the world but lack the funds? … the time? … the energy? Well, you’re in luck! The 20th Annual Stony Brook Film Festival — which begins this evening at 8 p.m. — will bring the world to you. Travel far and wide in the comfort of a cushioned seat in the Staller Center’s air-conditioned Main Stage Theater on the Stony Brook University campus. Festival Director Alan Inkles says, “Over ten days, [you] will be transported to Germany, the Netherlands, Israel, Mexico, Greece, Egypt, France, Canada, Iran, Belgium, England, Morocco and Algeria.”

Should you prefer homegrown fare, Inkles said, “We have more American films than ever this year. Dramas, comedies and documentaries will be shown on our huge screen, and many of the producers, directors, cast and crew members will attend the Q-&-As following the films.” In sum: There will be something for everyone.

You’ll travel through time during the 10-day festival as well. Be transported to the South in the aftermath of the Civil War (“The Keeping Room”). Find yourself in a Nazi-occupied Dutch village (“Secrets of War”). See how American propaganda films were created during World War II (“Projections of America”). Return to the 1960s in Quebec for a story with heart and music (“The Passion of Augustine”). Tune in to a television debate series in 1968 that created a whole new format for public discourse (“Best of Enemies”).

Revisit the turn of this century and yet another banking scandal (“The Clearstream Affair”). Spend time in the current decade examining women’s rights (“Nefertiti’s Daughters”). Or step out of time into some magical moments in the short films “Freeze,” “A Single Life,” “Wrapped” and “DOT.”

Inkles and his staff have screened more than 700 entries, looking for the best independent features, documentaries and short films available worldwide. The schedule includes 34 films; 19 are feature length and 15 are shorts. Among them are a world premiere and eight films that will have their first U.S. screenings.

“Audiences will get to see many works of true indie spirit, where the filmmakers wear a variety of hats,” commented Inkles. “On Opening Night we’ll have the U.S. premiere of ‘The Man from Oran,’ a drama from Algeria starring Lyes Salem, who also wrote and directed the film. It’s a story set largely in the years following Algeria’s independence from France, that explores the themes of friendship, idealism, politics and betrayal.” Inkles is pleased that Salem will be present on Opening Night.

Perennial festival attendees will recognize the star of the Closing Night feature, “The Passion of Augustine,” a film from French Canada about a small convent school that had become a musical treasure. Céline Bonnier also starred in the 2012 festival entry, “Mommy Is at the Hairdresser’s.” Léa Pool directed both films. Inkles is delighted that Bonnier will attend the screening.

An added feature to this year’s festival is a display of Vintage Film Posters in the Paul W. Zuccaire Gallery located on the first floor of the Staller Center. This exhibit of classic movie posters will be open each night of the festival from one hour prior to the first screening until the last screening of the night begins.

This year’s festival is being presented by its newest sponsor — Island Federal Credit Union — a financial institution that has been serving Long Islanders for 60 years. Island Federal has established a 10-year partnership with Stony Brook University that provides philanthropic funding for multiple university projects.

The SBFF runs for 10 nights. Most nights screenings begin at 7 p.m. Starting times for the second film varies. Check the schedule. (In some cases, Q-&-As may delay the start of the second feature.) The Opening Night film begins at 8 p.m. The Closing Night film begins at 8:30 p.m. And there’s a bonus feature on Sunday evening that begins at 6 p.m.

A Festival Pass to see all the films is $85. A $225 Gold Pass includes seating in the section reserved for filmmakers and their guests, as well as tickets to the opening and closing receptions. Individual tickets ($10, $8 seniors, $5 students) will be sold subject to availability. Tickets for the Opening Night and Closing Night receptions are $25 each, also subject to availability.

For more information, call the Staller Center Box Office at 631-632-ARTS or visit www.stonybrookfilmfestival.com.

Stony Brook University President Samuel Stanley, second from left, joins other honored guests to cut the ribbon unveiling the new Computer Science building. Photo by Rachel Siford

By Rachel Siford

There’s a new big building on the Stony Brook University campus.

Stony Brook’s new 70,000-square-foot Computer Science building had its grand opening ceremony on Wednesday, July 1, and North Shore leaders had a lot of hope for the future within those walls. The new facility cost $41 million and has 18 research labs along with classrooms and offices for professors.

Stony Brook’s computer science program is currently ranked eighth in the country for graduate programs. It was a ranking that several leaders said should improve with help from the new facility.

“The computer science department deserves a place to really showcase our facilities and to match the great people inside them,” said Samuel L. Stanley Jr., Stony Brook University president at the ceremony.

The new building is located next to Roth Pond and will start holding classes in the fall. Speakers, including Senator Kenneth P. LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Chairman of the Computer Science Department of 17 years Arie Kaufman, participated in the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“Today is a very happy day for computer science,” Kaufman said. “This might be the happiest day in the 46 years of the computer science department.”

Various demos were set up around the three-story building. The Immersive Head Monitoring Displays demo allowed attendees to put on virtual reality goggles to tour the building virtually.

The virtual colonoscopy — invented by Kaufman — was also showcased to show how it could identify with 100 percent accuracy if a patient has a tumor without going through the invasive procedure. It has been licensed, FDA approved and commercialized.

LaValle added that his goal was to get the program from eighth to first place, and the way to do that was to have state-of-the-art equipment for students to use.

“As the country and the world evolve into a high-tech economy and lifestyle, this state-of-the-art facility will ensure that Stony Brook University students and researchers have access to the newest technologies while reaffirming the university’s leadership role as a nationally ranked computer sciences center,” said LaValle.

The newest building has five centers: National Security Institute, Center for Mobile Computing, Center for Smart Energy, Center for Dynamic Data Analysis and Center for Visual Computing. Another demo shown at the opening was the Internet of Things, which predicted that by 2020 everyone would have at least five smart devices on them, like cell phones, watches and tablets.

The Department of Computer Science at Stony Brook is even starting to research how to protect people if someone’s smart device is stolen and how to limit how much information can be extracted from it.

Looking ahead, Stanley said the university would explore ways to establish a five-year capital plan to seek more ways to fund new buildings on campus.

An expert panel at Stony Brook University discusses environmental issues facing Long Island. Photo by Talia Amorosano

By Talia Amorosano

After a month of increased algal blooms, reduced water quality and two of the most severe fish kills the county has ever experienced, Long Island scientists and officials have decided it is past time — yet about time — to address the issue of harmful nitrogen pollution in our waterways.

Hosted by the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, a forum on water pollution in Suffolk County was held at Stony Brook University’s Charles B. Wang Center on June 23 to identify the core causes of nitrogen pollution and brainstorm functional, cost-effective technological solutions.

In his welcome address, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) emphasized the gravity of the problem.

“This problem wasn’t created overnight, and it won’t be solved overnight,” he said. “Big challenges like this won’t be solved in election cycles.”

But he has noticed signs of progress.

“To see this group all coming together, saying we’re going to work to solve this problem, gives me great hope and optimism that we have actually turned the corner and we are now on the road to addressing our water quality issues in a real way.”

At the forefront of the technical and technological sides of this progress are panelists Walter Dawydiak, director of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services; Amanda Ludlow, a scientist at Roux Associates Inc.; Theresa McGovern, a water resources engineer at VHB; and Harold Walker, a professor of Mechanical and Civil Engineering at Stony Brook University.

Dawydiak identified unsewered septic flow as the main source of the nitrogen problem.

“Nitrogen, which we expected to level off, is not leveling off,” he said.

He noted that 85 percent of unsewered septic flow originates in residential areas.

“The elephant in the room is us.”

He said a change in health department standards for residential wastewater treatment — for the first time in 40 years — could mitigate the problem by regulating the installation, operation, and maintenance of septic systems. He referred to this proposed set of regulations as an example of policy driving the technology to where it needs to be.

“We need better technology in this area,” Walker said. “If we’re going to solve this problem, we need to expand the tool box that we have available. … We need to think about systems operating effectively for as long as possible, with little or no maintenance. That’s the challenge.”

Ludlow agreed, and emphasized the importance of implementing systems that treat nitrogen and other pollutants, like pharmaceuticals and hormones, on the 360,000 homes running on old systems: “Focus on technologies that affect all the constituents in our wastewater.”

McGovern said that a holistic yet specific approach to wastewater management would make improvements possible.

“We need to be consistent and science-based with the targets, yet still allow some flexibility,” she said. She suggested setting a universal — instead of concentration-based — limit on the amount of nitrogen allowed to remain in wastewater, while allowing households that consistently perform under that limit increased wastewater flow.

Of course, new technologies and oversight costs money. During the second panel discussion on funding proposals, Suffolk County Planning Commission co-chair David Calone suggested using Hurricane Sandy recovery funds to improve storm-water drainage and prevent sewage from entering waterways.

Dorian Dale, director of sustainability and chief recovery officer for Suffolk County, noted that, though the $16 million of Sandy relief money would cover some of the cost for improvements, it could not provide the minimum $8 billion necessary to replace 360,000 septic systems.

He said changing the tax on drinking water from a base price to one that reflects household usage could help close the gap.

Calone brought up the possibility of reaching out for federal funding and increasing the cap on private activity bonds to spur work on water quality issues.

“Involving the private sector is where we’ve shown a lot of leadership on Long Island,” said Anna Throne-Holst, Southampton Town supervisor. “It has to be a public/private partnership.”

The panelists were optimistic about the county’s ability to undertake the project.

“The last sewer project, 40 years ago, was rife with cesspool corruption,” Dale said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to have time for the shenanigans of the past.”

Throne-Holst expressed her faith that the public will remain informed and engaged on this issue.

“The public education process is well underway,” she said. “People are well aware of what a crisis this is.”

Sacre bleu! Incoming Stony Brook researcher studies mind control in ladybugs

Nolwenn M. Dheilly photo from Dheilly

Mind control may not be unique to scriptwriters, hypnotists or even, as it turns out, humans. A parasitic wasp may have teamed up with a virus to turn an unsuspecting ladybug into a meal ticket and a sentry for its developing larva.

Wasps inject their larva into a ladybug where they turn the insect’s body fat into food for their young. When the larva extracts itself from the abdomen of the ladybug and spins a cocoon in which it pupates into an adult wasp, the ladybug remains in place on top of the cocoon, deterring predators by twitching.

These parasitized ladybugs often recover from the invasion, repairing the external and neurological damage.
Nolwenn M. Dheilly, who specializes in studying host-parasite interactions and is interested in the role of associated microorganisms, discovered the presence of the virus in this convoluted story of parasite and host.

Dheilly showed that the virus is transmitted to the ladybug during parasitism and the virus copies itself in the nervous system of the ladybug, whose immune system is suppressed during the invasion.

Dheilly, who will join Stony Brook University as an assistant professor in August from her native France, is part of a six-person multidepartment hire in genomics led by Bassem Allam, a professor at Stony Brook in the School of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (SoMAS) and Jackie Collier, an associate professor at SoMAS.

“The search committee and my colleagues at SoMAS were impressed by the quality of [Dheilly’s] work and the forward thinking of her ideas,” explained Allam. She “brings state-of-the-art research tools to answer questions pertaining to the evolution of symbiotic associations.”

Lessons in middle school and high school biology classes often include a discussion of symbiotic relationships, which come in three different types: parasitism, like the wasp and the ladybug, mutualism, where both organisms benefit, and commensalism, where one benefits and the other neither benefits nor is harmed. Dheilly said the classification of symbiosis does not account for the inherent complexity in nature, where there is much more of a continuum from mutualism to parasitism.

Dheilly’s work suggests that other organisms, like the virus for the parasitic wasp, may affect the output of the infection.

“Many other parasites may use other microorganisms, including viruses, as partners,” Dheilly said. Many protozoan parasites, including human pathogens such as Plasmodium, are associated with viruses, she said. When a parasite infects its host, it can become co-infected with the virus.

“It remains to be demonstrated if these viruses are used as biological weapons,” Dheilly said.

To be sure, in the case of the wasp, the ladybug and the virus, Dheilly cautioned that other studies are necessary before completing a relationship diagram that specifies the way the virus and wasp might work together during parasitism.

“Many complementary studies are now necessary to demonstrate who between the wasp and the virus” is responsible for the particular effect on the ladybug,” she said. “We believe that the virus alone would be eliminated by the [ladybug’s] immune system and wouldn’t be able to induce the paralysis. We have no idea if the parasitoid wasp would be able to infect the [ladybug] without its associated virus.”

When Dheilly arrives on Aug. 12, she and Allam plan to work together to study disease susceptibility in oysters. They would like to study the role of mucosal secretions in early host-symbiont interactions.

Dheilly attributes some of her interest in marine science to her upbringing in Brest, Brittany, in northwestern France, which, she said, is much like Long Island. When she was young, Dheilly competed in windsurfing competitions and, later, worked for several summers as a windsurfing instructor. In her windsurfing days, Dheilly was the only girl at most competitions. Her windsurfing experience “made sure I had the right personality to be involved in an environment surrounded by men and not feeling as if I didn’t fit in.”

Dheilly explained that understanding viruses and microorganisms extends beyond the world of invertebrates.

“The co-evolution of host and parasites with microorganisms is applicable to any biological system, including humans,” she said. Even though she will focus most of her work at Stony Brook on marine organisms, she said she “would be happy to collaborate with researchers in other fields to verify my hypotheses.”

Builds upon revitalization efforts and Connect LI

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, center, along with regional leaders, announced a new regional plan on Tuesday. Photo from the county executive’s office

As the percentage of youth on Long Island declines, regional leaders are determined to entice young people to move in and stay, but their plan comes with a price.

On Tuesday, County Executive Steve Bellone (D) and several regional leaders, including Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), announced they are seeking $350 million to fund the Long Island Innovation Zone, I-Zone, plan. I-Zone aims to connect Long Island’s transit-oriented downtown areas, like New Village in Patchogue, the Meadows at Yaphank and the planned Ronkonkoma Hub, to institutions like Stony Brook University, Brookhaven National Laboratory and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

The I-Zone plan emphasizes the use of a bus rapid transit, or BRT, system  that runs north to south and would connect Stony Brook University and Patchogue. There will also be a paralleling hiking and biking trail, and the system will serve as a connection between the Port Jefferson, Ronkonkoma and Montauk Long Island Rail Road lines.

The goal is to make Long Island more appealing to the younger demographic and avoid local economic downturns.

According to the Long Island Index, from 2000 to 2009, the percentage of people aged 25-34 decreased by 15 percent. The majority of these individuals are moving to major cities or places where transportation is readily accessible.

“We must challenge ourselves because if we don’t, we have an Island at risk,” Romaine said. Government officials acknowledged that without younger people living on Long Island the population will be unable to sustain the local economy. Fewer millennials means there are less people who will purchase property and contribute to the success of businesses in the area.

The proposal comes after Governor Andrew Cuomo’s (D) call for regional planning.

The plan also builds upon the Ronkonkoma Hub plan, with the installation of sewers and a new parking area. The I-Zone proposal claims to improve Long Island’s water quality, as funding will help connect sewers through Islip downtown areas to the Southwest Sewer District.

Additionally, the plan calls for the construction of a new airport terminal on the north side of Long Island MacArthur Airport in Islip and for the relocation of the Yaphank train station in closer proximity to Brookhaven National Laboratory.

“We have all that stuff [access to recreational activities, education center and downtown areas] here but we don’t have a connection. We don’t have any linked together,” said Justin Meyers, Suffolk’s assistant deputy county executive for communications.

Bellone and Romaine, as well as Stony Brook University President Samuel Stanley, Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter (R), Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), Long Island Regional Planning Council Chairman John Cameron, Patchogue Mayor Paul Pontieri, Vice President of Development and Community Relations at CSHL Charles Prizzi, Chief Planning Officer of the Long Island Rail Road Elisa Picca, Director of BNL Doon Gibbs, and founder of Suburban Millennial Institute Jeff Guillot, were involved with the I-Zone proposal.

If funding for the project is received, construction could begin in approximately two years, Meyers said, adding that constructing the BRT and the hiking and biking trial would take as few as five years.

Bellone said that without younger people moving in, the trend could lead to the Island’s economic stagnation.

“We are aging faster than any other region in our country,” he said. “The inevitable result of that will be an ever-growing population that naturally is pulling more social services infrastructure.”

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Focusing on clinical and population improvements for our communities

By Joseph Lamantia

Whether or not you’ve already heard of the Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment Program, one thing is for certain: it’s about to change health care in our state.

In April 2014, New York State Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced that New York had finalized terms with the federal government for a groundbreaking waiver enabling the state to reinvest $6.2 billion in federal savings generated by Medicaid Redesign Team reforms. Known as DSRIP, the program promotes community-level collaborations, with a focus on improving health care for patients covered by Medicaid and those who are uninsured.

The main goal of the program is to reduce avoidable emergency room visits and avoidable hospital admissions among Medicaid and uninsured populations by 25 percent over a five-year period. The plan is to accomplish this through enhanced collaboration among providers, improved electronic and direct communications, and ready access to primary care and behavioral health services.

For example, offering after-hours appointments can help patients who work full-time; translation services can assist those for whom English is a second language; and transportation to appointments can help patients who don’t have access to a vehicle or public transportation.

The DSRIP initiative for Suffolk County and its network of providers is called the Suffolk Care Collaborative.

The Office of Population Health at Stony Brook Medicine is administering the SCC and is responsible for coordinating more than 500 countywide organizations, including hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, long-term home health care providers, behavioral health professionals, community-based organizations, certified home health agencies, physician practices and many other integral health care delivery system partners.

Some of the 11 focus areas of the SCC are diabetes care, pediatric asthma home-based self-management, cardiovascular care, behavioral health access and substance abuse prevention programs. Central to all programs is a coordination-of-care effort using care mangers embedded in the community to support health care providers and patients to achieve individual health goals. Connecting with patients at the point of care, identifying needs and providing appropriate support in the community will help prevent unnecessary emergency room visits and hospitalizations, and support a healthier population.

Suffolk County has approximately 150,000 uninsured residents and 240,000 Medicaid enrollees who can benefit from the program’s initiatives. And, because improvements made will affect the overall health care delivery system, they have the potential to benefit everyone — enhancing the patient experience and outcomes. When providers collaborate on patient care, information can be shared, test duplication can be avoided and preventive measures can be put in place to help all patients stay healthier.

Visit www.suffolkcare.org to learn more about the Suffolk Care Collaborative.

Joseph Lamantia is the chief of operations for population health at Stony Brook Medicine.

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Daniel Zamora hurls a pitch from the mound. Photo from SBU

Stony Brook baseball sophomore pitchers Ryley MacEachern and Daniel Zamora were each selected on the final day of the 2015 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.

Ryley MacEachern pitches in a game earlier this season. Photo from SBU
Ryley MacEachern pitches in a game earlier this season. Photo from SBU

MacEachern, a right-hander, was taken by the Miami Marlins in the 33rd round as the 986th player selected. Zamora, a lefty, was picked by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 40th round with the 1,207th overall selection.

MacEachern pitched in 13 games with nine starts for the Seawolves in 2015. He posted a 2-2 record with a 5.83 ERA in 41.2 innings of work.

Zamora, a first team America East Conference selection, appeared in 15 games with 13 starts. He was 7-3 with a 3.00 ERA in 81 innings. The sophomore also struck out 80 batters.

Both MacEachern and Zamora would have two years of eligibility left with Stony Brook if they do not sign with their respective MLB organizations.

Suffolk officials discuss environmental issues facing Long Island after thousands of dead fish washed ashore in Riverhead. Photo by Alex Petroski

The estimated nearly 100,000 dead bunker fish that have washed ashore in Riverhead may seem astounding, but it wasn’t all that surprising to the panel of experts brought before the Suffolk County Health Committee on Thursday.

In late May, the thousands of dead bunker fish, formally known as Atlantic menhaden fish, began appearing in the Peconic Estuary, an area situated between the North and South Forks of Long Island. According to a June 2 press release from the Peconic Estuary Program, the bunker fish died as a result of low dissolved oxygen in the water. This shortage of oxygen is called hypoxia.

Walter Dawydiak, director of the county’s environmental quality division, who serves on the panel, which was organized by the health committee chairman, Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport), testified that the number of dead fish was at or approaching 100,000.

“This one is bigger and worse than any,” Dawydiak said.

According to the PEP, which is part of the National Estuary Program and seeks to conserve the estuary, bunker are filter-feeding fish and an important food source for many predatory fish, including striped bass and blue fish.

Alison Branco, the program’s director, said the fish are likely being chased into shallow waters by predators, but are dying because of low dissolved oxygen levels in the waters. In addition, an algae bloom is contributing to the low levels and is fueled by excess nitrogen loading. Much of that nitrogen comes from septic systems, sewage treatment plants and fertilizer use.

“We’ve reach a point where this kind of hypoxia was run of the mill. We expect it every summer,” Branco, who also served as a panelist, said following the hearing.

While magnitude of the fish kill was astounding, the experts said they weren’t so surprised that it happened.

“I definitely thought it could happen at any time,” Christopher Gobler, a biologist at Stony Brook University, said in a one-on-one interview after the panel hearing. “There’s been an oxygen problem there all along.”

Gobler called it largest fish kill he’d seen in 20 years.

According to panel members, the worst of the fish kill occurred between May 27 and May 30.

Branco did suggest that this shocking environmental event could be turned into a positive if the right measures are taken sooner rather than later.

“It’s always shocking to see a fish kill,” she said. “As much as we don’t want to have things like that happen I think the silver lining is that it did capture the public’s attention.”

Prevention of a fish kill this large is possible, according to Branco. While preventing the harmful algal blooms is not possible, reducing the frequency and severity can be done if the amount of nitrogen in the coastal water supply is controlled.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, an environmental policy advocacy group, agreed that curtailing the amount of nitrogen in the water is the easiest and most impactful way for prevention of a fish kill of this magnitude.

“The journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step,” Esposito said in response to a question about the daunting task of fixing the Island’s sewage treatment techniques and facilities on a limited budget.

Esposito described the roughly $5 million from New York State, which was allotted to Suffolk County to deal with cleaning the coastal water supply, as seed money. Esposito and Branco both said they believe the commitment of time and money required to solve the nitrogen problem in the water supply will be vast.

“We can do this,” she said. “We have to do it. We have no choice.”

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From left, Isaac Carrico with Cannon, 5, and Elizabeth Boon with Sheridan, 16 months, at a beach in North Carolina. Photo by Jim Hinckley

When bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, they enter a category that spurs scientists and doctors to search for alternative remedies.

Bacteria can live singly, in what’s called the planktonic state, in groups or colonies, in which case they form a biofilm, or in numerous possibilities in between. In the biofilm state, they become more resistant to antibiotics, which increases the urgency to find a way to break up the bacterial party.

Elizabeth Boon, an associate professor of chemistry at Stony Brook University, has worked with a gas that, in some species of bacteria, appears to affect biofilm formation. While the details vary from one species to another, scientists have found that low concentrations of nitric oxide most often cause bacteria to leave biofilms.

Boon has discovered nitric oxide-sensing proteins in several strains of bacteria, which might help shed light on how this gas acts as a trigger for bacteria.

Boon’s discoveries are “innovative because they provide a previously important missing link between how bacteria behave in the human body and how the human system fails to counteract bacterial infection and the inflammation it causes,” explained Nicole Sampson, professor and chair in the Department of Chemistry.

Sampson, who called Boon a “rising star in chemical biology,” said her colleague’s work is “providing a much needed molecular explanation for the communication that occurs between bacteria and animals.”

Biofilms have implications for human health, Boon said. While they can be positive, generally speaking, she suggested, they are negative.

“A lot of diseases are caused by biofilms,” while biofilms may play a role with others as well, Boon said. “Open wounds that won’t heal are thought to be the result of biofilm injections around the wound, while people with cystic fibrosis get infections around their lungs.”

Biofilms also may play a part in hospital-borne infections. In a biofilm, bacteria are up to 1,000 times more resistant to antibiotics, Boon said. The exact concentration at which the bacteria switches between a signal from the gas to a group defense varies from one species of bacteria to another.

Similar to hemoglobin, which binds to oxygen in red blood cells and carries it around the body, this protein attaches to nitric oxide. The sensor protein usually causes a change that alters the concentration of cyclic di-GMP, a common bacterial-signaling molecule.

“The iron-containing protein we discovered has a sensitivity to nitric oxide” in low concentration, she said. In terms of a possible treatment of conditions that might improve with a reduction in biofilms, Boon explained that simply blocking the receptor for nitric oxide would cause considerably more harm than good because “anything we could think of to bind would interfere with our own nitric oxide or oxygen-binding protein,” she said.

Still, after the gas binds to the bacteria, there are reactions later on that are exclusive to bacteria.

Boon has also discovered a second protein that binds to nitric oxide, which is called NosP, for nitric oxide-sending protein. This protein has a different architecture from the original HNOx protein and may help explain how those same bacteria without HNOx still respond to the same gas.

Boon recognizes the potential opportunity to use any information for biofilm infections.

Boon, who is working with scientists at Stony Brook, Columbia and at Justus-Leibig-Universität Giessen in Germany, is proposing to work with computational biologists to screen the library of virtual molecules against bacterial proteins.

Boon was nearing the end of her Ph.D. research when she started working with proteins. She did her postdoctoral research in a lab that was characterizing iron proteins. The lab was studying nitric oxide in mammals.

Boon’s lab is down the hall from her husband’s, Isaac Carrico, who is in the same department. The chemists met in graduate school at the California Institute of Technology. The couple lives in Stony Brook with their 5-year-old son, Cannon, and their 16-month-old daughter, Sheridan.

As for her work, Boon is eager to continue to find answers to so many unanswered questions.

“We’re constantly learning, which is subtly shifting the direction of our research,” she said. “That will continue for a long time [because] there’s a whole lot we don’t understand.”

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