June 2013, Vol. 25, No.6


Membrane technology retains water at the soil level  

Water-saving membranes could help increase agricultural production during drought in arid regions and in areas with highly permeable sandy soils. Michigan State University (MSU; East Lansing) researchers have found that these membranes increase yields of corn and other vegetables, according to a university news release. 

Researchers tested a subsurface water-retention technology (SWRT) process and found it improves water-use efficiency by a factor of 20. Alvin Smucker, MSU professor of soil biophysics and MSU AgBioResearch scientist, developed the SWRT process, in which contoured engineered films are placed below a plant’s root zone to retain soil water. Spacing between the membranes enables internal drainage during excess rainfall and space for roots to grow, the news release says.  

The fields using the SWRT water-saving membranes produced 145% more cucumbers and 174% more corn than control fields. The testing was funded in part by the Michigan Initiative for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (Lansing).  

The patent-pending technology could help reduce supplemental irrigation, protect groundwater supplies, and increase efficient use and control of both fertilizers and pesticides, Smucker explains in the release. Smucker is working with MSU Technologies to develop the membrane commercially. 

Bacteria join the caffeine craze  

Caffeine isn’t only for humans; bacteria crave it, too. Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Iowa (Iowa City) took on the challenge of finding ways to remove caffeine and related chemical compounds from waterways.  

The researchers genetically altered Escherichia coli so that it is “addicted” to caffeine and removes it from water, according to an American Chemical Society (ACS; Washington, D.C.) news release. 

Pseudomonas putida CBB5, a bacterium that uses caffeine as its sole source of carbon and nitrogen, converts caffeine into xanthine and formaldehyde. The pathway where this conversion occurs is encoded within the alkylxanthine degradation gene cluster, according to an article describing the study. The researchers developed a genetic refactoring approach to transfer this caffeine-degrading cluster from P. putida to E. coli, the article says. 

“We were able to create an ‘addicted’ bacterium that can act as a biosensor to measure the caffeine content of sodas and energy drinks,” the article says. 

The article, “Decaffeination and Measurement of Caffeine Content by Addicted Escherichia coli with a Refactored N - Demethylation Operon from Pseudomonas putida CBB5,” was published in the Feb. 16 issue of ACS Synthetic Biology. 

Solar-powered ship commences scientific expedition  

The MS Tûranor PlanetSolar, a solar-powered catamaran, has set sail along the Gulf Stream to collect physical and biological measurements from water and air. The PlanetSolar (Lausanne, Switzerland) DeepWater scientific expedition, which lasts from May to August, will explore the exchanges between water and air and any links to climate, according to a PlanetSolar news release. 

The objective of the University of Geneva research team is to understand the interactions among physics, biology, and climate and to refine climate simulation, the news release says.  

The team, led by Martin Beniston, a climatologist and director of the Institute of Environmental Sciences at the university, will examine ocean eddies, whirlpools, and deep-water formation areas where current systems allow ocean basins to interconnect. They will use a Biobox instrument, which was developed by the researchers and installed on the catamaran, to conduct analysis of aerosols using laser technology. Because the ship is operated only by solar power, it does not emit pollution that could distort the data collected, the news release says. 

For the expedition, MS Tûranor PlanetSolar will travel more than 8000 km from Miami to Bergen, Norway, continuously collecting physical and biological measurements from the air and water. Along the way, it also will collect floating plastic waste and conduct educational events, the news release says.