Once Upon a Time…

About the author: Gargi Singh is a PhD student in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech. Check out her profile on the VTSuN student page.

Gagi and Saina

Once upon a time, two roommates, Gagi and Saina lived happily in Blacksburg pursuing their education. (Note to my roommate – These two characters are entirely fictional and any resemblance to any object alive or dead, real or imaginary , is purely coincidental.)

One day, Gagi and Saina found a cool t-shirt in the mall that acted like a tablet screen and could display their names or pictures or anything that they wanted their shirt to look like. Flexible displays like this were new to Gagi, so she wanted to know what made them so magical. She found out that this shirt was made with the same material that makes up the wood in the trees, cellulose. But to make the shirts the cellulose is broken down into extremely tiny pieces to get nanocellulose. This nanocellulose is then used to make flexible displays like their new shirts!

“Woah! This shirt is cool! Nanocellulose must be even cooler!” – she thought.

She found out that nanocellulose has special qualities that bulk cellulose does not have! It is used in food, medicine, clothes, machines, and so many other places. Gagi also discovered that nanocellulose, though made from the natural material cellulose, does not normally occur in nature without the work of people.

Gagi told Saina what she learned from her research. She also told Saina that nanocellulose will soon be present in many other products that they use such as sunscreens, yogurt, fruit jelly, chocolates and medicines. When Saina heard this, she wondered how Earth and its life forms will react to nanocellulose. Will it hurt life on earth or will life accept it like she accepts so many other substances, even its parent cellulose?

Our big beautiful Earth is the only planet that we know of that has life. Note that NASA claimed in Feb 2014 that it has discovered about 1700 planets so far1. Protecting our environment and keeping it suitable for life is our collective responsibility.
Our big beautiful Earth is the only planet that we know of that has life. Note that NASA claimed in Feb 2014 that it has discovered about 1700 planets so far [1]. Protecting our environment and keeping it suitable for life is our collective responsibility.
Saina, who is usually more thoughtful than Gagi soon realized that no matter where nanocellulose is used, it will eventually reach our wastewater treatment facilities. From there it might reach environment and then it might affect our ecosystems negatively.

Nanomaterials in clothing, food and other commercial products (left) will eventually reach wastewater treatment facilities (middle). They might not be completely removed from wastewater and reach ecosystems (right).
Nanomaterials in clothing, food and other commercial products (left) will eventually reach wastewater treatment facilities (middle). They might not be completely removed from wastewater and reach ecosystems (right).

Saina then considered the innumerable microbes in the environment that will get in contact with nanocellulose and she was concerned about how these microbes might respond to it.

Intrigued with so many questions concerning the tiny hard-working microbes in the environment and nanocellulose, Saina went to her elder sister Mina and asked her if she had answers to her questions. Mina, a young environmental microbiologist patiently comforted Saina, saying that the scientific community has been looking for the impact of nanocellulose exposure on wastewater treatment facilities and wetlands.

Mina quickly sketched a bacteria and its response to nanocellulose and explained how the response of bacteria to nanocellulose is being studied indirectly by observing changes in their genes.

Bacteria in environments such as wetlands have  long acclimated to presence of cellulose. Some of them even actively degrade cellulose as their sole carbon source!
Bacteria in environments such as wetlands have long acclimated to presence of cellulose. Some of them even actively degrade cellulose as their sole carbon source!
Nanocellulose differs from cellulose in its physical and chemical properties. It might either be toxic for bacteria in the environment, or even become their new favorite food!
Nanocellulose differs from cellulose in its physical and chemical properties. It might either be toxic for bacteria in the environment, or even become their new favorite food!
I am interested in knowing how bacteria in environment will respond to exposure of different kinds of nanocellulose. We must understand that bacteria are very very tiny and it is very hard to directly 'see' their behavior. So, we need a different way of 'looking' at the bacteria. We know that genes of bacteria shift when the behavior of bacteria changes. And, genes can be monitored easily using some quick and simple tools (ex. qPCR). I make use of this neat trick and observe the changes in genetic fingerprint of microbes to see how they respond to exposure of nanocellulose.
I am interested in knowing how bacteria in environment will respond to exposure of different kinds of nanocellulose. We must understand that bacteria are very very tiny and it is very hard to directly ‘see’ their behavior. So, we need a different way of ‘looking’ at the bacteria. We know that genes of bacteria shift when the behavior of bacteria changes. And, genes can be monitored easily using some quick and simple tools (ex. qPCR). I make use of this neat trick and observe the changes in genetic fingerprint of microbes to see how they respond to exposure of nanocellulose.

Mina also shared that so far the research indicates that nanocellulose is not toxic to cellulose eating microbes. Saina felt overjoyed to hear from Mina that the cellulose eating microbes responded positively to nanocellulose in scientist’s lab.

“Aha! What joy it is to know that I can wear a cool nanocellulose shirt and know that it is safe for the environment!”

“Yes, indeed my dear. That’s quite a joy and relief. We definitely want to preserve our environment. Hopefully, when you grow up the earth will continue to be a cool, safe place of wonder! And, I believe now is your bed time!” – Mina smiled.

Saina made a mental note to share all she learned with Gagi next day – after all, as her sister Mina tells her, “Happiness is only real when shared” [2].

References:

[1] NASA’s Kepler Mission Announces a Planet Bonanza, 715 New Worlds

[2] Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild (2007)

 

3 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time…

  1. I have a question: the two friends Saina and Gagi are roommates, and that means they live in the same home. Then Saina meets her elder sister Mina, who reminds her it is bed time and bids her to sleep. This implies that Mina and Saina live in same building too. My question is – why does Saina need to wait until next day to tell her friend and ‘roommate’ Gagi what she learned from her sister? Are all three of them roommates, and if so is Mina a disciplinarian elder, who ensures that her sister sleeps right after she is reminded about her bed time?
    I feel utterly confused.
    (Ofcourse, I am just trying to mess up with Gagi, who is totally imaginary and is not at all similar or related to the author. As they say- goodness of the blog post is in that one meaningless nasty comment.)

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