How Latin America is changing the world through science and innovation

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For Immediate Release: August 17, 2020

By Felipe Reisch, Office of Naval Research Global

ARLINGTON, Va.—There is groundbreaking science happening in every corner of the world. Latin America is no exception. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) Global, with regional offices in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Santiago, Chile, has been working with researchers of diverse countries since the early 2000s, funding revolutionary research that has brought the U.S. Navy the technological advantage and awareness it seeks to maintain maritime security.

Today, ONR Global is funding six projects worth highlighting, thanks to the level of innovation demonstrated by researchers and the overall diversity of disciplines. From data science to synthetic biology, nanostructured materials to social networks, Latin American universities, research centers and scientists are quickly gaining ground on their counterparts in other continents, mainly due to the frequency, quality and scope of their research projects.

Synthetic biology – Mexico

Dr. Mario Alberto Martínez from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) in Yucatán, along with his group of researchers, is identifying bacterial organisms in the coastal areas of Yucatán to obtain new chassis (framework) to be used in synthetic biology for the gene expression of commercial molecules.

Today, the development of synthetic biology focuses on the use of a small group of laboratory "domesticated" organisms such as Escherichia coli. However, their employment cannot go beyond controlled environments. Therefore, new organisms are required that can be used as chassis in environments with extreme conditions such as extreme temperature and pH, low availability of resources and competition with other microorganisms, among others.

Martínez said, “The challenge of the present project is the identification, isolation and cultivation of bacteria from coastal areas that can be used as new chassis for the expression of genes of biotechnological interest using genetic circuits outside controlled environments such as laboratories.

In regards to the applicability in today’s society, he added, “One of the great current challenges is the ecological restoration of environments that have suffered contamination processes. Through the use of new bacterial chassis that can be used in situ, our investigation seeks to influence this field, using genetic circuits that can express rhamnolipid molecules, which serve to decontaminate environments with the presence of hydrocarbons.”

Dr. Diogenes Placencia, science director at ONR Global Sao Paulo, states that “the vast sets of biological environments that surround the Yucatan make it a prime location for the discovery of novel chassis needed to explore the world of SynBio. Researchers like Dr. Martinez are providing the diversity in thought, background and training needed to revolutionize the field.”

Low-cost ventilators – Brazil

Brazil has been one of the most affected countries in the world by COVID-19. A group of researchers led by Dr. Marcelo Zuffo from the Escola Politécnica da Universidade de São Paulo is aiming to study local lung tissue damage caused by driving pressure, with the overall goal to produce low-cost ventilators for use by hospitals in São Paulo. The initial batch of 40 ventilators will be supplied to local hospitals.

“The high mortality rate of COVID-19 pandemic is associated with a secondary condition, ARDS [Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome], which demands precise protective pulmonary maneuvers promoted through lung ventilators,” said Zuffo. “Particularly, in this proposal, we have designed an open-source, low-cost emergency lung ventilator named INSPIRE. INSPIRE is built from off-the-shelf components widely available, including high-end microcomputers based on the single board computer [SBC] approach.”

The research grant awarded by ONR Global is titled, “Relation of Driving Pressure in ARDS and Local Lung Tissue Damage under COVID-19 Pandemic through Cyber Physical Emergency Lung Ventilators.” While it has immediate applicability, the comprehension of how to approach ARDS through mechanical ventilation is a relevant long-term research line.

Dr. Paul Sundaram, ONR Global Brazil science director, said, “There is a concern that simply connecting a patient to a ventilator without close monitoring is causing lung tissue damage, which may be the main cause of death. The proposed cyber-physical ventilator will also enable the doctor to monitor the patient remotely. In addition, the ventilator will be made as portable as possible to use in the operations theater for injured warfighters. Solar power is being considered for use in the field, where conventional electrical power may not be available.”

Early-warnings of social crises – Chile

Social interaction systems are difficult to investigate and manage because of their inherent complexity. Small variations, both internal and external, can lead to extremely abrupt changes associated with instabilities and bifurcations in the underlying dynamics. 

This research line is framed within the so-called ‘complexity sciences’ and the study of complex adaptive systems (CAS). The social focus of these fields is clearly the future, given the increasing complexity acquired by human societies that will lead them to face more frequently critical events where their organization is questioned.

Juan Pablo Cárdenas, Doctor in Physics of Complex Systems and lead researcher at Net-Works, a center dedicated to big data analysis, is working to detect, by means of analysis of information that flows through online social networks, early warning signals that allow anticipating the stages in which a social system transits from one type of organization to another.

Cárdenas said, “The main challenges are to find those early warning signals, which can be of diverse nature. Given the complexity of these systems, it is an important challenge due to its unpredictability. However, these systems also present regularities or patterns and it is precisely those the ones we want to detect as signals.”

Sonia Wolff, ONR Global Chile science director, said, “Given the inherent complexity of social systems, the project proposes to apply methods borrowed from applied biology and ecology to model algorithms to detect changes, or transitions, occurring from a ‘normal’ state to a critical state of society. It is becoming increasingly clear that many complex systems have critical points, the so-called inflection points, in which the system abruptly changes from one state to another, hence the difficulty detecting early warning signals of social crisis.”

She added, “This is very contingent with what is happening around the world now [generalized social unrest, institutional distrust, ecological stress, climate change and an impoverished society due to COVID-19, among other stressors], the ability to detect early warning signals is of paramount importance.”

Nanostructures – Costa Rica

Dr. Sergio Paniagua of Centro Nacional de Alta Tecnología (CeNAT) in San Jose, Costa Rica, is working alongside his team of young researchers to develop passivating strategies to keep a given surface bacteria-free by use of nanostructures.

Paniagua stated, “Technologies such as the ones proposed could have application to decrease intrahospital contagion by having treated surfaces or biomedical devices that would deactivate or reduce bacteria colonies. We can foresee an interest from the commercial sector to use such technologies in high-touch surfaces”.

 “The warfighter depends on science and technology to keep them safe from biologically related problems that can arise from operating in places like ships, submarines and forward-operating bases,” said Placencia from ONR Global Sao Paulo, and lead program officer. “The constant pursuit to develop surfaces that prevent the growth of bacteria that can wreak absolute chaos for our Sailors and Marines is a very relevant and pressing problem in the U.S. Navy, and, hence, funding research like that of Dr. Paniagua is critical.”

Furthermore, with the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been interest in extending similar nanotechnologies to combat the spread of viruses. Based on the results on bacteria, researchers may fine tune structures to attempt to inactivate viruses. “As with all new approaches, finding the process window to obtain reproducible results demands a large number of experiments, and there is hard work associated in collecting reliable data at the nanoscale,” said Paniagua.

Data science – Mexico

With the explosion of both the types and amount of data in recent years, developing new techniques for understanding and interpreting the data has become critical. Moreover, although data classification/clustering problems are relatively simple to state, scientifically, they have proven to be extremely difficult.

Dr. Antonio Rieser of Centro de Investigación en Matemáticas (CIMAT) in Guanajuato, Mexico, is leading an approach that has its origin in a pair of unique perspectives on the problem, the first coming from algebraic topology, and the second coming from noncommutative probability and random matrix theory. Algebraic topology provides a number of computable ways to count the number of connected components of a topological space -- which one may think of as a generalized surface -- most of which are relatively simple.

Rieser states, “What is less simple, but critical for our approach, is that one of these methods relates the number of connected components to the properties of an abstract heat flow on the space. Roughly speaking, ‘heat’ from one component should not be able to leak to another one, so if you keep close enough track of how heat travels in your space, you should be able to identify the connected components. Our main scientific challenge is to develop the required noncommutative statistical techniques to solve the specific problem of choosing a heat flow on a data set.”

Solving this problem would open up a number of important lines of future research. As mentioned above, data classification is a ubiquitous problem in modern life. Some possible applications include image and voice recognition, computer-assisted medical diagnosis, drug design and even the classification of archaeological artifacts.

“Think of it this way,” said Placencia, “with the constant exponential growth of information that our integrated networks handle in the operational theater, methods for predicting data vectors (e.g., movement of foes, targeting, image processing), based upon an already acquired information set, is the only way to go. There’s simply too much information, and not enough computing power, speed and overall resources to maintain a robust warfighting force. There’s no other option.”

Metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) – Argentina

Selectivity, capacity and adaptability to wearable devices are key factors for the design of new adsorbent materials for air filtration devices. Metal-Organic Frameworks (MOFs) are poised to be ideal porous materials for this use and related applications due to their ultra-high porosity and pore environment tunability, by the means of reticular chemistry and post-synthetic modifications.

In this dual affiliation project from Universidad Nacional de Córdoba and Instituto de Investigaciones en Fisicoquímica de Córdoba, lead researcher Dr. Alejandro Fracaroli proposes to design and prepare macrocycle-containing MOFs with extremely high selectivity towards organophosphate models compounds of air toxins.

Fracaroli said, “The incorporation of macrocycles into extended solid structures such as MOFs is challenging because macrocycle’s cavities can coordinate metal ions preventing these structures to form. In fact, in most of the successful examples of MOFs incorporating macrocycles the cavity is no longer accessible as it participates in the coordination bonds that hold the structure together.”

He added on the potential applicability: “Already prepared amorphous polymers incorporating cyclodextrins have demonstrated to be highly efficient for the water-pollutant sequestration (i.e. bisphenol A). There is also reason to believe that the prepared materials will have outstanding properties in the selective capture of target compounds present in the air in with low partial pressures, therefore impacting in fields related to solid-gas interfaces like air filtration and purification devices.”

Placencia, a research chemist by training, appreciates the basic science nature of the program, while also cognizant of its important impact. “MOFs are such versatile materials, due to the endless combinations of metal cations and organic ligands that can be assembled to provide a wide array of functional devices like gas-separating membranes, catalytic surfaces and even supercapacitors. Yet, these materials are an important line of research for the DoD, especially DTRA, due to their ability for air toxin trapping, based solely on their chelation chemistry. It’s beautiful, basic and impactful.”

ONR Global sponsors scientific efforts outside of the U.S., working with scientists and partners worldwide to discover and advance naval capabilities.

Low-cost ventilator
Office of Naval Research
Corporate Strategic Communications
875 N. Randolph St., #1225-D
Arlington, Va., 22203-1771
Office: (703) 696-5031
Fax: (703) 696-5940
E-mail: onrpublicaffairs@navy.mil
Web: www.onr.navy.mil/onr-global
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/company/onrglobal

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