From The DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory: “DOE Funds Pilot Study Focused on Biosecurity for Bioenergy Crops”

From The DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory

10.6.22

Karen McNulty Walsh
kmcnulty@bnl.gov
(631) 344-8350

Peter Genzer
genzer@bnl.gov
(631) 344-3174

Research into threats from pathogens and pests would speed short-term response and spark long-term mitigation strategies.

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Pilot study on an important disease in sorghum (above) will develop understanding of threats to bioenergy crops, potentially speeding the development of short-term responses and long-term mitigation strategies. (Credit: U.S. Department of Energy Genomic Science program)

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science has selected Brookhaven National Laboratory to lead a new research effort focused on potential threats to crops grown for bioenergy production. Understanding how such bioenergy crops could be harmed by known or new pests or pathogens could help speed the development of rapid responses to mitigate damage and longer-term strategies for preventing such harm. The pilot project could evolve into a broader basic science capability to help ensure the development of resilient and sustainable bioenergy crops as part of a transition to a net-zero carbon economy.

The idea is modeled on the way DOE’s National Virtual Biotechnology Laboratory (NVBL) pooled basic science capabilities to address the COVID-19 pandemic. With $5 Million in initial funding, allocated over the next two years, Brookhaven Lab and its partners will develop a coordinated approach for addressing biosecurity challenges. This pilot study will lead to a roadmap for building out a DOE-wide capability known as the National Virtual Biosecurity for Bioenergy Crops Center (NVBBCC).

“A robust biosecurity capability optimized to respond rapidly to biological threats to bioenergy crops requires an integrated and versatile platform,” said Martin Schoonen, Brookhaven Lab’s Associate Laboratory Director for Environment, Biology, Nuclear Science & Nonproliferation, who will serve as principal investigator for the pilot project. “With this initial funding, we’ll develop a bio-preparedness platform for sampling and detecting threats, predicting how they might propagate, and understanding how pests or pathogens interact with bioenergy crops at the molecular level—all of which are essential for developing short-term control measures and long-term solutions.”

The team will invest in new research tools—including experimental equipment and an integrating computing environment for data sharing, data analysis, and predictive modeling. Experiments on an important disease of energy sorghum, a leading target for bioengineering as an oil-producing crop, will serve as a model to help the team establish optimized protocols for studying plant-pathogen interactions.

In addition, a series of workshops will bring together experts from a range of perspectives and institutions to identify partnerships within and outside DOE, as well as any future investments needed, to establish the full capabilities of an end-to-end biosecurity platform.

“NVBBCC is envisioned to be a distributed, virtual center with multiple DOE-labs at its core to maximize the use of unique facilities and expertise across the DOE complex,” Schoonen said. “The center will support plant pathology research driven by the interests of the bioenergy crop community, as well as broader plant biology research that could impact crop health.”

Building the platform

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The pilot study experiments and workshops will be organized around four main themes: detection and sampling, biomolecular characterization, assessment, and mitigation.

In this initial phase, the research will focus on energy sorghum. This crop’s potential oil yield per acre far exceeds than that of soybeans, currently the world’s primary source of biodiesel.

“Sorghum is susceptible to a devastating fungal disease, caused by Colletotrichum sublineola, which can result in yield losses of up to 67 percent,” said John Shanklin, chair of Brookhaven Lab’s Biology Department and co-lead of the assessment theme. “Finding ways to thwart this pathogen is a high priority for the bioenergy crop community.”

The NVBBCC team will use a range of tools—including advanced remote-sensing technologies, COVID-19-like rapid test strips, and in-field sampling—to detect C. sublineola. Additional experiments will assess airborne propagation of fungal spores, drawing on Brookhaven Lab’s expertise in modeling the dispersal of aerosol particles.

The team will also use state-of-the-art biomolecular characterization tools—including cryo-electron microscopes in Brookhaven’s Laboratory for BioMolecular Structure (LBMS) and x-ray crystallography beamlines at the National Synchrotron Light Source-II (NSLS-II)—to explore details of how pathogen proteins and plant proteins interact. In addition, they’ll add a new tool—a cryogenic-focused ion beam—to produce samples for high-resolution three-dimensional cellular imaging and other advanced imaging modalities.

Together, these experiments will reveal mechanistic details that provide insight into how plants respond to infections, including how some strains of sorghum develop resistance to C. sublineola. The team will also draw on extensive information about the genetic makeup of sorghum and C. sublineola to identify factors that control expression of the various plant and pathogen proteins.

The program will be supported by an integrating computing infrastructure with access to sophisticated computational tools across the DOE complex and at partner institutions, enabling integrated data analysis and collaboration using community data standards and tools. The infrastructure will also provide capabilities to develop, train, and verify new analytical and predictive computer models, including novel artificial intelligence (AI) solutions.

“NVBBCC will build on the Johns Hopkins University-developed SciServer environment, which has been used successfully in large data-sharing and analysis projects in cosmology and soil ecology,” said Kerstin Kleese van Dam, head of Brookhaven Lab’s Computational Science Initiative. “NVBBCC’s computational infrastructure will allow members to easily coordinate research across different domains and sites, accelerating discovery and response times through integrated knowledge sharing.”

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Brookhaven Campus

One of ten national laboratories overseen and primarily funded by the The DOE Office of Science, The DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory conducts research in the physical, biomedical, and environmental sciences, as well as in energy technologies and national security. Brookhaven Lab also builds and operates major scientific facilities available to university, industry and government researchers. The Laboratory’s almost 3,000 scientists, engineers, and support staff are joined each year by more than 5,000 visiting researchers from around the world. Brookhaven is operated and managed for DOE’s Office of Science by Brookhaven Science Associates, a limited-liability company founded by Stony Brook University the largest academic user of Laboratory facilities, and Battelle, a nonprofit, applied science and technology organization.

Research at BNL specializes in nuclear and high energy physics, energy science and technology, environmental and bioscience, nanoscience and national security. The 5300 acre campus contains several large research facilities, including the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider [below] and National Synchrotron Light Source II [below]. Seven Nobel prizes have been awarded for work conducted at Brookhaven lab.

BNL is staffed by approximately 2,750 scientists, engineers, technicians, and support personnel, and hosts 4,000 guest investigators every year. The laboratory has its own police station, fire department, and ZIP code (11973). In total, the lab spans a 5,265-acre (21 km^2) area that is mostly coterminous with the hamlet of Upton, New York. BNL is served by a rail spur operated as-needed by the New York and Atlantic Railway. Co-located with the laboratory is the Upton, New York, forecast office of the National Weather Service.

Major programs

Although originally conceived as a nuclear research facility, Brookhaven Lab’s mission has greatly expanded. Its foci are now:

Nuclear and high-energy physics
Physics and chemistry of materials
Environmental and climate research
Nanomaterials
Energy research
Nonproliferation
Structural biology
Accelerator physics

Operation

Brookhaven National Lab was originally owned by the Atomic Energy Commission and is now owned by that agency’s successor, the United States Department of Energy (DOE). DOE subcontracts the research and operation to universities and research organizations. It is currently operated by Brookhaven Science Associates LLC, which is an equal partnership of Stony Brook University and Battelle Memorial Institute. From 1947 to 1998, it was operated by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), but AUI lost its contract in the wake of two incidents: a 1994 fire at the facility’s high-beam flux reactor that exposed several workers to radiation and reports in 1997 of a tritium leak into the groundwater of the Long Island Central Pine Barrens on which the facility sits.

Foundations

Following World War II, the US Atomic Energy Commission was created to support government-sponsored peacetime research on atomic energy. The effort to build a nuclear reactor in the American northeast was fostered largely by physicists Isidor Isaac Rabi and Norman Foster Ramsey Jr., who during the war witnessed many of their colleagues at Columbia University leave for new remote research sites following the departure of the Manhattan Project from its campus. Their effort to house this reactor near New York City was rivalled by a similar effort at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to have a facility near Boston, Massachusetts. Involvement was quickly solicited from representatives of northeastern universities to the south and west of New York City such that this city would be at their geographic center. In March 1946 a nonprofit corporation was established that consisted of representatives from nine major research universities — Columbia University, Cornell University, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Rochester, and Yale University.

Out of 17 considered sites in the Boston-Washington corridor, Camp Upton on Long Island was eventually chosen as the most suitable in consideration of space, transportation, and availability. The camp had been a training center from the US Army during both World War I and World War II. After the latter war, Camp Upton was deemed no longer necessary and became available for reuse. A plan was conceived to convert the military camp into a research facility.

On March 21, 1947, the Camp Upton site was officially transferred from the U.S. War Department to the new U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), predecessor to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Research and facilities

Reactor history

In 1947 construction began on the first nuclear reactor at Brookhaven, the Brookhaven Graphite Research Reactor. This reactor, which opened in 1950, was the first reactor to be constructed in the United States after World War II. The High Flux Beam Reactor operated from 1965 to 1999. In 1959 Brookhaven built the first US reactor specifically tailored to medical research, the Brookhaven Medical Research Reactor, which operated until 2000.

Accelerator history

In 1952 Brookhaven began using its first particle accelerator, the Cosmotron. At the time the Cosmotron was the world’s highest energy accelerator, being the first to impart more than 1 GeV of energy to a particle.

BNL Cosmotron 1952-1966.

The Cosmotron was retired in 1966, after it was superseded in 1960 by the new Alternating Gradient Synchrotron (AGS).

BNL Alternating Gradient Synchrotron (AGS).

The AGS was used in research that resulted in 3 Nobel prizes, including the discovery of the muon neutrino, the charm quark, and CP violation.

In 1970 in BNL started the ISABELLE project to develop and build two proton intersecting storage rings.

The groundbreaking for the project was in October 1978. In 1981, with the tunnel for the accelerator already excavated, problems with the superconducting magnets needed for the ISABELLE accelerator brought the project to a halt, and the project was eventually cancelled in 1983.

The National Synchrotron Light Source operated from 1982 to 2014 and was involved with two Nobel Prize-winning discoveries. It has since been replaced by the National Synchrotron Light Source II. [below].

BNL National Synchrotron Light Source.

After ISABELLE’S cancellation, physicist at BNL proposed that the excavated tunnel and parts of the magnet assembly be used in another accelerator. In 1984 the first proposal for the accelerator now known as the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC)[below] was put forward. The construction got funded in 1991 and RHIC has been operational since 2000. One of the world’s only two operating heavy-ion colliders, RHIC is as of 2010 the second-highest-energy collider after the Large Hadron Collider (CH). RHIC is housed in a tunnel 2.4 miles (3.9 km) long and is visible from space.

On January 9, 2020, it was announced by Paul Dabbar, undersecretary of the US Department of Energy Office of Science, that the BNL eRHIC design has been selected over the conceptual design put forward by DOE’s Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility [Jlab] as the future Electron–ion collider (EIC) in the United States.

In addition to the site selection, it was announced that the BNL EIC had acquired CD-0 from the Department of Energy. BNL’s eRHIC design proposes upgrading the existing Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, which collides beams light to heavy ions including polarized protons, with a polarized electron facility, to be housed in the same tunnel.

Other discoveries

In 1958, Brookhaven scientists created one of the world’s first video games, Tennis for Two. In 1968 Brookhaven scientists patented Maglev, a transportation technology that utilizes magnetic levitation.

Major facilities

Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC), which was designed to research quark–gluon plasma and the sources of proton spin. Until 2009 it was the world’s most powerful heavy ion collider. It is the only collider of spin-polarized protons.

Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN), used for the study of nanoscale materials.

BNL National Synchrotron Light Source II, Brookhaven’s newest user facility, opened in 2015 to replace the National Synchrotron Light Source (NSLS), which had operated for 30 years. NSLS was involved in the work that won the 2003 and 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Alternating Gradient Synchrotron, a particle accelerator that was used in three of the lab’s Nobel prizes.
Accelerator Test Facility, generates, accelerates and monitors particle beams.
Tandem Van de Graaff, once the world’s largest electrostatic accelerator.

Computational Science resources, including access to a massively parallel Blue Gene series supercomputer that is among the fastest in the world for scientific research, run jointly by Brookhaven National Laboratory and Stony Brook University-SUNY.

Interdisciplinary Science Building, with unique laboratories for studying high-temperature superconductors and other materials important for addressing energy challenges.
NASA Space Radiation Laboratory, where scientists use beams of ions to simulate cosmic rays and assess the risks of space radiation to human space travelers and equipment.

Off-site contributions

It is a contributing partner to the ATLAS experiment, one of the four detectors located at the The European Organization for Nuclear Research [La Organización Europea para la Investigación Nuclear][Organization européenne pour la recherche nucléaire] [Europäische Organization für Kernforschung](CH)[CERN] Large Hadron Collider(LHC).

The European Organization for Nuclear Research [La Organización Europea para la Investigación Nuclear][Organization européenne pour la recherche nucléaire] [Europäische Organization für Kernforschung](CH)[CERN] map.

Iconic view of the European Organization for Nuclear Research [La Organización Europea para la Investigación Nuclear] [Organization européenne pour la recherche nucléaire] [Europäische Organization für Kernforschung](CH) [CERN] ATLAS detector.

It is currently operating at The European Organization for Nuclear Research [La Organización Europea para la Investigación Nuclear][Organization européenne pour la recherche nucléaire] [Europäische Organization für Kernforschung](CH) [CERN] near Geneva, Switzerland.

Brookhaven was also responsible for the design of the Spallation Neutron Source at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee.

DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory Spallation Neutron Source annotated.

Brookhaven plays a role in a range of neutrino research projects around the world, including the Daya Bay Neutrino Experiment (CN) nuclear power plant, approximately 52 kilometers northeast of Hong Kong and 45 kilometers east of Shenzhen, China.

Daya Bay Neutrino Experiment (CN) nuclear power plant, approximately 52 kilometers northeast of Hong Kong and 45 kilometers east of Shenzhen, China .


BNL Center for Functional Nanomaterials.

BNL National Synchrotron Light Source II.

BNL NSLS II.

BNL Relative Heavy Ion Collider Campus.

BNL/RHIC Phenix detector.