J-WAFS awards $1.3 million in second round of seed grant funding

Boston, United States of America
May 18, 2016

The Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) has announced its second round of seed grant funding to the MIT community. J‑WAFS, launched in 2014, is MIT’s Institute-wide initiative to promote, coordinate, and lead research related to water and food across all departments and schools. 

The recently launched MIT Campaign for a Better World identified the “Health of the Planet” as one of its priority areas. Building on this theme, the J-WAFS seed grant program emphasizes new and innovative research with the potential to have significant impact on the supply, safety, and environmental sustainability of the planet’s water and food systems. The seven new grants join nine J-WAFS-funded seed projects already underway that range in focus from food security in the global supply chain, to innovative methods for treating contaminated water. 

Funded J‑WAFS research spans a wide range of topics, all consistent with the MIT Campaign’s aims to address critical environmental and sustainability challenges through science, engineering, design, management, and policy. Funded J-WAFS seed projects include technology development around pathogens in food and water, policies to strengthen water markets, and the design and engineering of urban stormwater wetlands to reduce the impact of severe weather events and enable potential capture of water for urban uses.

Faculty interest in these critical world issues comes from a wide array of disciplines, reflected in this year’s batch of successful proposals. Engineering faculty from four departments were funded, including the departments of Biological Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Other funded principal investigators are from the Department of Chemistry and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), in the School of Science, as well as from the Sloan  School of Management. Many others vied for the available pool of funding this year. Renee Robins ’83, executive director of J‑WAFS, notes that “MIT faculty are motivated to apply a broad range of research tools and expertise to address the world’s water and food problems.  Following the pattern of last year’s call for proposals, we continue to see interest from a diverse cross-section of faculty, including many who are just starting to investigate these issues.”

Food safety and water quality, both represented by projects funded last year, continued to be areas of strong MIT faculty interest. Timothy Swager, the John D. MacArthur Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, will lead a new project developing technology to extract heavy metals from water. In particular, the contamination of water with the toxic metals mercury and lead is a major problem in both developed and developing nations. Mercury is a byproduct of mining and is emitted from coal fire plants, and continues to be used in China in the production of vinyl chloride. Lead is a concern for water quality, particularly because of its use in water pipes. The recent and highly publicized water problems in Flint, Michigan, underscore the fact that lead contamination remains a threat to human health even in developed countries.  The proposal seeks to create economically viable and scalable electroactive polymer compositions that have high affinities for soft heavy metal ions such as mercury and lead in their reduced state. The team led by Swager will conduct studies to characterize heavy metal binding by electroactive polymers, with the aim of developing heavy-metal removal systems that do not require access to electrical power.

Another funded project will focus on the detection of foodborne pathogens. Bacterial contamination and infection is a significant problem for public health and a significant economic and biosafety issue for the agriculture and food sectors. However, current methods for detecting bacteria in medical, agricultural, food processing, industrial, and other contexts are slow, require specialized personnel or equipment to execute, and are often expensive. A multidisciplinary approach to developing real-time, on-site detection of foodborne pathogens is being led by professors Jongyoon Han and Timothy Lu, both with appointments in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science as well as the Department of Biological Engineering. By using pathogen-specific bacteriophages that are engineered to provide highly sensitive and specific detection of target bacteria, the researchers aim to develop the capability to rapidly distinguish between pathogens versus other microbial flora.

The relationship between the environment and the world’s diverse agriculture systems is another area of strong faculty interest. Agriculture is a major contributor to climate change and other environmental impacts, as well as being the largest user of water; at the same time, climate change, environmental degradation, and water shortages are major threats to crop productivity and our ability to produce sufficient and nutritious food. One project funded this year will examine the impact of air pollution on global crop yields. Ozone air pollution has been shown to extensively damage crops at a cost of billions to the agricultural sector, yet our understanding of the air pollution impacts on food production is incomplete. To date, no study has examined the global impact of particulate atmospheric pollution on crop yields. Colette Heald, the Mitsui Career Development Associate Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who also holds an appointment in EAPS, aims to provide the first comprehensive estimate of future food production risks associated with air pollution, by combining global modeling tools with both statistical and mechanistic descriptions of crop response to air pollution.

Says J-WAFS director John Lienhard, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water, “The MIT community is strongly committed finding sustainable solutions for humankind’s growing need for clean water and safe, abundant supplies of food. These grants continue our work in making a better world.”

The seven 2016 J-WAFS Seed Grant recipients and their projects are:  

"Active Materials for Heavy Metal Extraction from Water" PI: Timothy Swager, Department of Chemistry 

"Air Pollution Impacts on Global Crop Yields" PI: Colette Heald, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

"Bacterial Viruses as Pathogen Control Agents in Aquaculture Systems" PI: Martin Polz, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering 

"Estimating the Benefits to Strengthening Water Markets" PI: Christopher Knittel, Sloan School of Management

"Gravity Fingering during Water Infiltration in Soil: Impact on the Resilience of Crops and Vegetation in Water-stressed Ecosystems" PI: Ruben Juanes, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

"Real-time On-site Detection of Foodborne Pathogens by Engineered Bacteriophage Integrated with Microfluidic Sample Preparation Platforms" PIs: Jongyoon Han, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; and Timothy Lu, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

"Waste to Food: Yarrowia Lipolytica as Protein and Lipid Production Platform" PI: Gregory Stephanopoulos, Department of Chemical Engineering