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2020 Pathfinder Innovation Project Awardees

Pathfinder Innovation Projects (PIPS) challenge EPA scientists to answer the question, "Wouldn't it be amazing if we could ... ?" The internal competition provides staff time and seed funding in pursuit of high-risk, high-reward research ideas. Below is information on the 2020 awarded PIP projects.

Learn more about Pathfinder Innovation Projects.

Establishing PFAS half-lives for cross-species extrapolation

Current pharmacokinetic models for predicting internal dose metrics for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) rely on simplified assumptions of clearance that are difficult to extrapolate across species. This research seeks to integrate previously published pharmacokinetic data from multiple laboratory animal species, tissues, and sexes to quantify PFAS half-lives in animals and humans.

PFAS persistence home plumbing pipes and decontamination options

Home plumbing (copper, PVC, PEX) can be contaminated with PFAS from aqueous film forming foams (AFFF) through accidental backflow during a fire fighting event. This project will seek to produce data that OW, Regions, water utilities, and homeowners can use to determine if flushing is effective at removing PFAS from home plumbing following a backflow event. The results of this effort could increase EPA’s ability to provide technical support to water utilities and homeowners after an aqueous film forming foams back flow incident.

When we have to use PFAS in fire-fighting, how can we minimize its environmental impact?

This project addresses a near-term, but pressing, need to decrease the mobility of PFAS during firefighting operations. The project aims to identify a media to which PFAS sticks, which also would then allow physical removal of contaminated media at the site when fluorinated firefighting foam must be applied.

19F qNMR for PFAS Total Organic Fluorine Measurement

This project will evaluate the applicability of quantitative fluorine-19 nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy for the determination of total fluorine concentration of PFAS mixtures across a variety of sample matrices, with application to industrial emissions in both air and water. The project could identify emissions of the thousands of PFAS and PFAS-like compounds that current, targeted methods fail to identify and measure.

Rapid, inexpensive, field-deployable monitoring of PFAS in the environment

This project aims to develop a rapid, sensitive and inexpensive Fourier-transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy evaluation tool for detecting and measuring PFAS and carbon-fluorine compounds in environmental media including water, soil and plant surfaces. An innovative FTIR monitoring method for PFAS detection will increase the pace at which EPA can respond to and resolve emerging PFAS contamination challenges.    

Lead and Arsenic Remediation Technologies for Soil using Pre-synthesized Jarosite

This project proposes to create and improve upon new soil lead and arsenic remediation technologies that provide cost-effective solutions for protecting human health. Soil removal and replacement is extremely costly. This in-situ treatment is estimated to be 90% less expensive than removal and can provide a safe environment that protects children from adverse outcomes of lead and arsenic contaminated soil.

Effects of Wildland Fire-Generated PM2.5 on Cognitive Performance

This project will integrate cognitive performance data from mobile app game tasks and cognitive health outcomes into epidemiological models and evaluate the effect of short-term wildland fire PM exposure on cognitive and mental health. This research could change our understanding of transient air pollution exposure as a modifiable health risk factor for cognitive and mental health.

How Wildland Fire Aerosolizes Microbial Communities

Wildland fire is a major producer of aerosols from combustion of vegetation and soils. However, little is known about the abundance and composition of smoke’s biological content. This project seeks to produce a system to capture and analyze the totality of microbes present in wildland forest fires utilizing unmanned aircraft systems technology and molecular biological techniques. This work could provide data for modeling studies, as well as a foundation for health effects research involving exposure to microorganisms resultant from wildland fire aerosolization.

The Effects of Paternal Exposures on Children’s Health

Building off findings from a 2019 PIPs project, this effort aims to determine the effects of paternal wildland fire exposure on sperm and risk of cardiometabolic disease in offspring. If epigenetic markers in the sperm of men exposed to wildland fire smoke are identified and associated with adverse effects on their offspring, then mitigation/preventative strategies that safeguard male reproductive health and the health of their children can be developed.

Woodsmoke AOP Activation in the Human Airway: A Live View

This project seeks to develop the novel capability to explain and model molecular initiating events (MIE) in the human airway directly exposed to whole combustion emissions from wildland fires. The goal is to gain the ability to evaluate human airway responses to real-world emissions in vitro in real time, and to construct computational models that accurately predict in vivo responses in humans, without the use of experimental animals.

BrainGlo: Flipping the Light Switch on Brain Function

While some new approach methods (NAMs) exist for developmental neurotoxicity (DNT), key processes such as plasticity, that may be associated with learning and memory, are not included in DNT NAMs. Optogenetic approaches allow manipulation of specific neuronal pathways in real time using light. This project will implement optogenetic manipulation approaches to stimulate excitatory and inhibitory neurons following chemical exposure to test the hypothesis that certain chemicals alter network function by inhibiting the development of excitatory or inhibitory activity, showing that these approaches can be applied to investigate how chemicals alter neurodevelopment and allowing us to expand this approach to in vivo exposures.

Development of genotoxicity signature and predictors of carcinogenicity from the ToxCastTM data

Discriminating between genotoxic and non-genotoxic carcinogens is crucial for human health risk assessment, but it remains challenging due to the limitations of traditional genotoxicity assays. Building on the results of a 2019 PIP, this project aims to advance the General Signature of Genotoxicity (GSG) developed by Scott Auerbach (Co-PI) for use in chemical risk assessment, and to explore the use of ToxCastTM data integrated with transriptomic data for prediction of carcinogenicity. This research could lead to GSG signatures for different classes of genotoxic agents including their performance and applicability in chemical assessment.

Detecting rain deposition of viable and potentially harmful airborne bacteria

Studies suggest that rain may play an integral role in the transportation and deposition of potentially harmful airborne bacteria. However, virtually nothing is known about the identification and viability of various bacterial taxa, including pathogens, within falling rain. This project outlines a simple microscopic and molecular approach to identify active bacteria in freshly collected rain by using metabolic tracers. Such a study represents an important step in assessing the risk of airborne microbial pollution in human inhabited communities.

Mining archival DNA to monitor and diagnose environmental impacts

State resource agencies and others regularly collect and archive tissue samples that can be mined for DNA, opening up a wealth of untapped historical information that can be used to determine whether environmental changes have affected resource populations. Demonstrating the value of DNA in archival tissue material for diagnosing the causes and effects of environmental changes on resource populations could both improve overall understanding of environmental stressor-response relationships and lead to the development of a diagnostic tool possibly useful to restoration and enforcement actions.

Non-destructive measurement of extracellular microRNA to define chemical mode-of-action

MicroRNAs are short noncoding RNAs involved in post-transcriptional regulation of gene expression and are dose-dependently responsive in chemical screening studies. This project seeks to use microRNA-sequencing to measure alterations in response to reference chemical exposures with previously established mode-of-actions. These measurements have the potential to transform current high-throughput transcriptomic-based approaches that are limited in scope, destructive, and costly to perform.

“Fish on a Chip”: Linking network formation and behavior

This project proposes combining an in vivo zebrafish (Danio rerio) behavioral assay with an in vitro microelectrode array (MEA) approach, thereby allowing the linking of neuronal function to behavior. This will allow the project team to assess changes in brain activity and neural network development following chemical exposure.

A method for determining the presence of harmful cyanobacteria in bathing beach waters

Skin rash and respiratory distress are two of the health effects frequently affecting swimmers after exposure to cyanobacteria in bathing beach waters. Unfortunately, there are currently no facile methods available that enable beach managers to inform the public when harmful cyanobacteria occur in bathing beach waters. This project aims to develop a method that will provide clear evidence that cyanobacteria in bathing beach environments pose a potential harm to swimmers, and could lead to a simple test for measuring cyanobacterial endotoxins in recreational waters and thus provide a means for predicting risk to swimmers.

Blue-green algal blooms in freshwater tidal and coastal systems

This project will evaluate the effectiveness of remote sensing to detect algal blooms in coastal systems and determine the ability to predict blue-green algal blooms as a function of chlorophyll concentrations, temperature and flow. This research could allow EPA’s stakeholders to deal with algal blooms in a proactive fashion, and to use information to develop adaptive management strategies to limit the probability of bloom formations.

Sample Collection and Processing Method: Microplastics and Nanoplastics in Surface Waters

There are currently no studies on the presence of nanoplastics in aquatic environments mainly due to challenges in detecting and recovering such small, carbon-based particles in complex natural matrices. This project seeks to develop a low-cost sample collection and processing method for large volumes (50 -200 liters) of surface water capable of capturing microplastics particles down to the ~10 nm size without clogging.

A Targeted Method to Link the Resistome to Microbial Hosts in Biosolids

This study will investigate the practicality of microbiome-based targeted molecular methods as a screening tool for antimicrobial resistance and their associate hosts in biosolids samples. The characterization of microbial communities is essential for risk management. This research could lead to the ability to correctly associate any antimicrobial resistance gene with their bacterial population in biosolid samples. Such information can be incorporated into ecosystem models and enhance our ability to estimate the risk of dissemination of resistance genes from environmental reservoirs.

High-throughput detection of antibiotic resistome markers in engineered systems

While engineered systems are considered important vectors of antibiotic resistance bacteria (ARB), our knowledge of ARB occurrence and diversity within them is limited. This project aims to develop a novel/high-throughput approach to more robustly determine the presence and types of antibiotic resistance genes in wastewater and biosolid samples. The proposed work will circumvent the most significant limitations of the methods currently used for antibiotic resistance gene detection: the need for cultivation and biases based on limited sequence information.