Chemistry of Airborne Particulate—Lung Interactions Revealed by Agustin Colussi and Colleagues
Agustin J. Colussi, senior research associate in environmental science and engineering, and colleagues have found that airborne particulates impair the lungs' naturaldefenses against ozone. Their research focused on what happens when air meets the thin layer of antioxidant-rich fluid that covers our lungs, protecting them from ozone, an air pollutant that pervades major cities. "We found new chemistry at the interfaces separating gases from liquids using a technique that continuously monitors the composition of these interfaces," Colussi says. Under normal physiological conditions, ascorbic acid instantly scavenges ozone, generating innocuous byproducts. However, the researchers discovered that when the fluid is acidic, a pathological condition found in asthmatics, ascorbic acid instead reacts with ozone to form potentially harmful compounds called ozonides.
New Center to Study the Global Environment
To address the complex issue of global climate change from a wide range of disciplines, Ronald and Maxine Linde have established an $18 million endowment for the Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science, uniting faculty from chemistry, engineering, geology, environmental science, and other fields. The initiative will help Caltech achieve its vision of having an integrated program in global environmental science, spanning the many disciplines that must make up such a program. Edward Stolper, Caltech's provost, explains that the Linde Center "will provide a central home and focus for researchers and students working on understanding natural variations in and the impact of human activity on the global environment. These are among the most important and most difficult problems facing our society." [Caltech Press Release]
Uncovering Genetic Underpinnings of Wood Digestion
Wood is made of three tightly intertwined compounds; taking it apart is a challenge, and termites are among the few known animals that can do it. Professor Jared Leadbetter led a team of researchers from other universities, private industry, and the Department of Energy (DOE) in uncovering the genetic underpinnings and the roles of bacteria in wood digestion by "higher termites." These insects abound in tropical and subtropical ecosystems. What the team found, says Leadbetter, is "a comprehensive set of blueprints for the bacteria that help dismantle wood." This has recently become a focus of interest for those interested in developing an effective, industrial method to convert wood into ethanol. [Caltech Press Release]