2021 Pathfinder Innovation Project Awardees
Congratulations to this year's PIPs winners!
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 2021 awarded PIP projects.
Learn more about Pathfinder Innovation Projects.
But How Do We Know it Works? Increasing Capacity for Understanding Outcomes Associated with EPA's EJ Academy
Accurately understanding the outcomes of EPA programs and tools is a challenge because they are often related to highly complex socio-environmental issues that impact human and ecological health. One domain with a range of complex issues is the field of environmental justice (EJ). This project aims to better understand how participation in EPA’s EJ Academy supports individuals who want to contribute to environmental justice initiatives that address complex socio-environmental challenges and help developers across the Agency understand the impacts of their work and inform strategies.
Integration of Environmental Justice into NAMs for Inhaled Chemical Testing
Low-income, minority, and otherwise vulnerable populations experience disproportionately high environmental chemical and pollutant exposures. The development of in vitro approaches for inhaled chemical testing provides an opportunity to consider EJ-related communities in environmental chemical decision making. Thus, this project aims to integrate susceptibility and vulnerability into in vitro NAMs as a first step toward incorporating environmental justice into in vitro inhaled chemical testing. This work could help ORD consider susceptible/vulnerable populations in inhaled chemical testing while also supporting EJ efforts to reduce in vivo animal testing. This would transform our ability to promote public health and meet legislative mandates for protecting vulnerable populations.
The Respiratory Microbiome Belungs at the Forefront of Inhalational Toxicology
New studies have shown that the lung harbors all microbial populations, which all seem to respond dynamically to disease and changes in the environment. However, the respiratory microbiome has yet to be appreciated in the risk assessment of air pollutants. Thus, this study aims to characterize the complete microbial population of the respiratory system along with its resident immune population and identify the response of the lung microbiome to inhaled air pollutants. This work could allow researchers to perform microbial interventions that will help identify factors that could protect against damage from pollutant-induced lung inflammation.
Next Generation Risk Assessment of Neurotoxic Chemicals
Setting safety thresholds for the thousands of chemicals to which people are regularly exposed takes years. Thus, this project aims to advance the risk assessment of neurotoxic chemicals by measuring markers (proteins and gene expressions) in rats’ cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) using targeted Nanostring technology to determine risk levels associated with different doses. This project could provide actionable data on safeguarding human health from neurotoxic pollutants like heavy metals and pesticides more quickly and help set risk thresholds for data poor chemicals in months rather than years, allowing research efforts to focus on the most toxic environmental chemicals.
Repurposing a Commercial Off-the-Shelf Flight Simulator to Support Aerial Reconnaissance Training
This project aims to develop a virtual reality (VR)-based simulation for training personnel on conducting aerial reconnaissance with the purpose of identifying, locating, and characterizing hazardous debris and spills. The virtual reality-based simulation will consist of an interactive platform for educating personnel and will provide a cost-effective tool for conducting aerial reconnaissance. This work would also enhance the expertise and training for emergency management officials so they can better protect the public and the environment by detecting and identifying hazardous substances.
A Mobile Hot-Zone Decon System (MHD) for Airborne CB Agents
One of ORD’s goals is to develop implementable technologies and tools to decontaminate wide areas in the event of chemical and biological (CB) agent release into air and other indoor spaces. Such CB contaminated spaces (Hot-Zones) need to be cleaned before surface cleanup activity is undertaken to reduce exposure. This project aims to develop a fail-proof deactivation approach and a cleaning system for airborne chemical and biological (CB) agent release into the air and indoor spaces including viruses. This work could lead to a demonstration of an integrated technology and a tool that prepares ORD and EPA for consequence management in the event of an airborne release of agents like Anthrax, COVID-19, toxoids or biotoxins, and other chemical agents including toxic industrial chemicals.
Class B Biosolid Microbiology: A Call for Modernization with Advanced Sequencing Technology
Biosolids are sewage sludge residuals that have undergone treatment processes and can be used for land application. Since biosolids are a product of wastewater treatment, any pathogen (bacteria, viruses) present in wastewater may be concentrated and found in biosolids. This project will examine the microbial composition of class B biosolids using novel HiFi long-read, RNA-based metatranscriptome, which are currently being used to get better resolution on the microbial community. This approach will provide a more complete and accurate taxonomic resolution with respect to the microbial community including potential pathogens present in class B biosolids. Furthermore, metatranscriptomic sequencing will be used to profile the viral genetic diversity and reconstruct viral genomes.
Mapping Chlorophyll A and Cyanobacteria Bloom Probabilities in Coastal Systems
Cyanobacteria have recently been detected in coastal systems in the U.S., with cyanotoxins measured in shellfish in downstream estuaries at levels of concern for human health. This project aims to generate a spatial time series of chlorophyl concentrations and cyanobacteria bloom predictions for selected estuaries from 2016 to present. This work could allow EPA’s stakeholders to deal with harmful algal blooms in a proactive fashion and develop adaptive management strategies to limit the probability of bloom formation.
Simple yet Innovative Technology for Legionella Control Protects Public Health
Across the nation, outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease caused by Legionella pneumophila have increased significantly over the past two decades. Unlike other waterborne enteric pathogens, a Legionella infection can result from exposure to aerosols and aspiration. Given this, showers are a major exposure route among indoor residential water uses. By using their own pending patent, the project team will develop an innovative water disinfecting showerhead mounted with multiwavelength UV-LED chips and evaluate its efficacy for Legionella control. This proposed work could provide safer water to immunosuppressed individuals in hospitals and senior care facilities, who are at increased risk from Legionella infections while taking a shower. The project would also support the potential regulatory determination of EPA contaminant candidate list (CCL) microorganisms and provide more comprehensive programs for Legionella control in premise plumbing water systems.
One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish: Illuminating Mechanisms Underlying Chemically-Induced Alterations in Zebrafish Neural Circuits
In order to better recognize the effects of environmental agents on children, it is important for EPA to understand the mechanisms for adverse chemical effects in vivo following exposure. Optogenics allow for real-time, precise, light-based manipulation of specific neural pathways and can be used in a zebrafish model. This project will use optogenetics to manipulate the neural activity of developmental zebrafish to understand how altered neuroactivity can affect behavioral outputs following neurotoxic chemical exposure. This PIP aims to improve the regulation of neurotoxic chemicals and expand the zebrafish research program from solely behavioral observations to mechanistic manipulation of cellular processes using optogenetics. In doing so, this screening model will add to the StRAP effort to identify key events in developmental neurotoxicity adverse outcome pathways (AOP) and provide transformative data for AOP development.
Exploring Chemical Drivers of Effective Contaminant Remediation Technologies in Soils
Recently published research by EPA showcases the development of an in situ plumbojarosite (PLJ) mineral precipitation technique that can significantly decrease lead (Pb) bioavailability in contaminated soils. This project will facilitate the continued development of PLJ based remediation technologies that can identify key chemical markers that lead to effective contaminant inaccessibility in the gastrointestinal tract, potentially spawning new remediation technologies for metal(loid)s. These techniques will lead the EPA into a new area of remediation research that uses state-of-the-art spectroscopy to identify how contaminants move through the body, while continuing to develop PLJ technologies that have the potential to remediate both Pb and As.