Program Overview


Program Summary

The overall theme of the Berkeley Superfund Research Program (SRP) has been adapted in response to the changing priorities of the NIEHS SRP National program and our understanding of the key issues facing federal, state and local regulatory agencies in dealing with hazardous waste sites. We have modified our program’s theme to focus on “Using state-of-the-art technology, including ‘omics’ and nanotechnology, to (1) develop biological markers and apply them in human population studies, especially those involving susceptible populations such as children and pregnant women; (2) to improve chemical detection; and (3) facilitate and lower the cost of waste site remediation.” Omics, the study of large sets of biological molecules, is an emerging tool to study genetic and epigenetic events related to specific exposures. Although the number of omic techniques is ever expanding, the most developed are genomics (studying of all the nucleotide sequences in the chromosomes of an organism using such methods as high-throughput DNA sequencing), transcriptomics (studying gene expression), epigenomics (studying epigenetic regulation of gene expression, such as DNA methylation) and proteomics (studying large sets of proteins,i.e. the proteome). Nanotechnology deals with structures 100 nanometers or smaller in at least one dimension, and involves developing materials or devices within that size. Nanotechnology applications are expected to lead to the development of simple, inexpensive sensors for detecting chemicals in the environment.

A major objective of our program is technology development and its application in the field. Our expertise in this area is a strength of the Berkeley SRP and UC Berkeley in general. The proposed program consists of six interrelated projects (three with a biomedical research focus and three with a non-biomedical research focus) and four cores. Projects 1, 2 and 3 specifically aim to develop biological markers (biomarkers) and apply them in human population studies. Biomarkers of exposure, early (sub-clinical) effect and susceptibility will be developed and validated for a number of Superfund priority chemicals, including arsenic and benzene. Project 1 uses omics-based biomarkers for recent and historical exposure to low levels of benzene. Project 2 uses a high throughput omics approach to identify genes that likely play a role in susceptibility to the toxic effects of benzene, arsenic, trichloroethylene, and other contaminants of emerging concern at Superfund sites. Variation in these candidate genes will then be examined as susceptibility factors in human population studies by investigators in Projects 1 and 3. Project 3 will employ omics-based biomarkers to study the health effects of arsenic in susceptible populations, such as children and pregnant women, and will continue to study the long-term impacts of early life exposures to arsenic on health outcomes later in life.

The focus of Projects 4 and 6 is on recalcitrant contaminants that are difficult to remediate with current methods. Project 4 uses an ‘omics’ approach to examine the meta-omics of microbial communities involved in bioremediation. Meta-omics methods attempt to capture and identify the collective complement of a microbial community’s DNA, RNA, proteins, lipids and metabolic products. The goal is to identify and examine the community-level biochemical and metabolic interactions that shape the biodegradation capabilities of bioremediating communities. Project 6 is developing and testing new approaches for oxidizing contaminants that are difficult to treat with existing technologies (e.g., PCBs, 1,4-dioxane and PFOA) and apply them to make treatment systems more robust and efficient.

Project 5 used nanotechnology to develop methods to detect hazardous substances in the environment in a simple, inexpensive fashion, including arsenic, mercury, and other contaminants of emerging concern at Superfund sites. Work on Project 5 was completed in 2014 and resulted in the development, patenting, and production of an inexpensive, reliable, and reusable sensor to detect environmental mercury.

Our Program has a highly integrated research and translation program with the long term goals of enhancing our understanding of scientific knowledge to result in actions that can protect human health and the environment.

The specific objectives of our program are as follows:
  1. Develop and apply novel biomarkers in studies of human populations
  2. Enhance our knowledge of the toxic effects of benzene and arsenic, especially in early life
  3. Identify genes that confer susceptibility to Superfund chemicals through the application of functional genomics
  4. Expand our ability to remediate toxic waste sites at a lower cost using bioremediation and persulfate oxidation
  5. Improve our ability to measure Superfund chemicals in the environment using nanotechnology
  6. Promote the exchange of information among scientists, regulators, and other interested parties in order to translate basic research findings into appropriate policies and public health interventions
  7. Move our research findings into application through technology transfer