| Bioengineers Battle Stowaways At Sea
by David Pescovitz
International Research Fellows (from left) Stephanie Yeung, Julien Decot, Nate Beyor, and Erik Douglas
Three UC Berkeley bioengineering students are developing an approach to sniff out stowaways on cargo ships. But they're not looking not human stowaways. What they're looking for are invasive marine species that hitch a ride in a ship's ballast water before it leaves home port and wreaks havoc on the non-native ecosystems when that ballast is eventually released. According to the International Maritime Organization, the introduction of invasive species is one of the four greatest threats to the world's oceans. The students, recently-named fellows in the University's Management of Technology (MOT) International Research Program, will head to China to conduct a feasibility study of their innovative idea for combating the problem.
Nate Beyor, Stephanie Yeung, and Erik Douglas, PhD students in the UCB/UCSF joint graduate group in bioengineering, work in the laboratory of Richard Mathies. Their theses work focuses on developing lab-on-a-chip technology, chemical analyzers that pack the power of large, expensive instruments into a thumbnail-sized device complete with microscale valves, pumps, and reaction chambers.
Last year, the three students were brainstorming ideas for research projects that would dovetail with the MOT fellowship program's goal of bringing technological solutions to problems in developing countries. Beyor happened to talk with a friend's father who is a marine engineer for shipping companies. The engineer explained to Beyor that when a ship docks at a port and empties its cargo, it takes in millions of gallons of seawater to rebalance the boat. Once it arrives at another port to pick up a new load, it dumps that ballast.
"By doing that, they're transporting all sorts of organisms that can cause health problems, destroy fisheries, and harm ecosystems" Beyor says.
Cross section of chips showing ballast tanks and ballast water cycle. (courtesy GloBallast)
Inspired by the conversation, Beyor, Douglas, and Yeung teamed up with Haas School of Business student Julien Decot to submit a proposal to the MOT program. In March, the students landed a $17,000 fellowship to conduct preliminary research and connect with key organizations, including the local Port of Oakland , the UK-based Global Ballast Water Management Programme (GloBallast), and, in China , port authority personnel, government officials, and private companies in the shipping industry. Two of the three largest ports in the world are located there.
While writing the proposal, the students quickly learned how serious the danger of invasive species has become. From bacteria and invertebrates to eggs and larvae, 7,000 marine species are carried around the world in ships' ballast tanks, according to GloBallast. While most species die during the journey or shortly after arrival, some do establish a population in their new home. These invasive species may then out-compete native species for food and multiply to the point that the ecosystem is permanently altered.
For example, the commercial fishing industry in the Black Sea collapsed in part because of a displaced species of North American jellyfish's insatiable appetite for native plankton. In the US , the European zebra mussel has infested 40% percent of internal waterways and the Great Lakes causing as much as $1 billion dollars in control measures between 1989 and 2000. In several other locales, microscopic "red-tide" algae introduced in dumped ballast water have been absorbed by oysters and shellfish. Eating the contaminated shellfish can cause paralysis or even death in humans.
Current regulations recommend dumping local ballast water at sea and reballasting with the ocean water. The problem is that the tanks may still harbor some organisms. More recently, other approaches to kill the organisms--from heating the water to chlorinating it--have been applied. However, testing the effectiveness of those treatments is a time-consuming and imprecise process requiring hand-sampling and chemical assays run by trained individuals.
"A lab-on-a-chip could automate the whole thing," Douglas says.
Bulk fabricated the same way integrated circuits are manufactured, a lab-on-a-chip enables biological samples to be mixed and tested much faster and with higher sensitivity than full-size laboratory equipment. Because they're small and inexpensive, a number of the devices could be inexpensively installed in throughout the ship's ballast tank.
"A system of these chips could be operating as the ship moves from port to port without requiring anyone on board to be trained to deal with chemical analysis," Douglas says. "As a ship approaches a shore, a detailed report would automatically be transmitted to port where personnel could determine if further treatment were needed before the boat docks."
Before they can develop the technology, Yeung says they must fully understand both the problem and its context. In August, they'll make a three week trip to China to suss out what it would take to bring such an innovative technology to the shipping industry.
"There are technological and scientific challenges to this, but also many economic factors and regulations in countries around the world that must be taken into consideration," Yeung adds.
China is an ideal place to begin the research, Beyor says, because it's home to some of the largest ports in the world and also a developing economy where funds for environmental concerns may be limited. While that could make it harder to implement the technology, " regulations and practices must be applied everywhere or it will not work."
The end goal of the fellowship, he adds, is to outline the steps that must occur for the industry to, literally, "buy in." Next year, the students will present their findings at the Bridging the Divide Conference, a collaboration between the Management of Technology Program and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). If all goes well, Beyor says, a post-graduation startup is always a possibility.
"Public awareness and a push for regulation are key if this idea is to succeed," he says. "Once those things are in place though, the industry can't wait ten years for the right device to be developed. The technology needs to be ready to fit right in."
Bridging The Divide 2005: "Lab-on-a-Chip Devices for Ballast Water Analysis in China: A Feasibility Study"
The Management of Technology Program
UCSF/UCB Joint Graduate Group in Bioengineering
Bridging The Divide
"United Nations and UC Berkeley inaugurate a program to bring technological solutions to the digital world" by David Pescovitz (Lab Notes, May 2004)
United Nations Industrial Development Organization
"Richard Mathies: From Crime Scene Clues To Life On Mars" by David Pescovitz (ScienceMatters@Berkeley, Volume 1, Issue 6)
Lab Notes is
published online by the Marketing and Communications Office of the UC Berkeley
College of Engineering. The Lab Notes mission is to illuminate groundbreaking
research underway today at the College of Engineering that will
dramatically change our lives tomorrow.
Media contact: Teresa
Moore, Lab Notes editor, Director of Marketing and Communications
Writer, Researcher: David
Web Manager: Michele
Subscribe or send comments to the Engineering Marketing and Communications Office: email@example.com.
© 2005 UC Regents.