Scientists Team Up Against Russian Pollution

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Biologists, chemists, and engineers from the United States and Russia are finding opportunity in Russia's extremity.

Their primary objective: to bring their combined expertise to bear on the country's formidable pollution problems. The hope, they say, is to develop more effective methods to clean up a vast array of toxic and explosive substances, ranging from TNT and compounds for chemical weapons to metals in water supplies.

Yet the efforts serve a second purpose: to give skilled Russian scientists at least temporary access to fully functioning high-tech labs, where they can continue their work. Research and development has fallen casualty to Russia's economic woes. This has led many of the country's brightest young talents to leave the country for opportunities in the West. But the exodus also has raised concerns that many researchers could end up taking their services to the highest bidder, which would work against the security interests of Russia and the West.

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''In Russia, it's not a problem of how much the science budget will be,'' says Evgenia Rainina, a chemist from Moscow State University, who is here at Texas A&M as part of a team conducting pollution research. ''It's whether the science budget will exist at all.''

The magnitude of Russia's environmental problem is staggering. A study released last month by the Russian Academy of Sciences said that 75 percent of Russia's water is undrinkable; toxic wastes permeate the ground over areas that when combined roughly equal all the land in Texas, Alaska, and West Virginia. Alexei Yablokov, an environmental expert at the academy, told reporters at the time the document was released that ''there's no way to choose the worst environmental problem in Russia. It's a nightmare.''

Equally daunting is the difficulty in mustering the scientific and technical skills to confront the crisis. Lacking budgets for research, Dr. Rainina says, the prospects appear grim. Rainina, who runs a six-person lab at Moscow State University, says that these days, her group there goes to the lab each day, but often has little to do. ''There is no dry ice, no nitrogen; the simple things are missing.'' They earn no salary. She says she sends some of the stipend she receives here to help buy spare parts for some of the lab equipment back home -- when the parts are available.

For Alexander Simonian, director of the biosensor laboratory at the Yerevan Physics Institute in Armenia and another member of the Texas A&M collaboration, one of the key problems besides money is reliable energy supplies. His lab does most of its work in the summer, when it's warmer. The lab has electricity only one hour a day, and the scientists never know when it will come on. ''How do you do science'' under those conditions, he asks.

Against such problems stand a growing number of researchers who are forming collaborations across disciplines as well as across the Atlantic to target specific pollutants. The Texas A&M team, for example, was formed by James Wild, a professor of genetics at the university's department of biochemistry and biophysics, who met Rainina and Dr. Simonian while attending conferences in the former Soviet republics. The team also includes chemical-engineering professor Brian Dale and James Bonner, a professor of civil engineering.

With a string of grants cobbled together from sources as diverse as the US Army and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Dr. Wild says, the group is developing genetically altered microbes to detect and break down a class of chemicals known as organophosphates, which are found in chemical weapons as well as in agricultural pesticides.

Wild says that Simonian has just developed a single microbial means of sensing the presence of pesticides and neurotoxins. (Asked if the results have been published in a scientific journal yet, Wild chuckles, ''We're still working on whose English gets to prevail.'')

Among the other projects: The team has developed a system for immobilizing high concentra- tions of pollution-fighting organisms in beads made from polyvinyl alcohol. When added to polluted soil that is mixed with water, the beads dissolve, leaving the microbes to do their work.

With a small grant from the EPA, the team also has developed an approach to soil pollution that involves genetically altering plants to generate an enzyme that breaks down pollutants. The enzyme can be emitted through the plant's roots or be introduced to the soil by plowing the crop under.

The task now, Dr. Dale says, is to resize these efforts for large-scale demonstrations on organophosphates. Three of his graduate students are designing the tanks that can be used for the reaction. In the meantime, ''There are about 25,000 tons of nerve agents, a lot of them sitting in great big tanks,'' making such sites ideal for technological demonstrations. We've already run the experiments in the lab'' to validate the approach.

One of the challenges is overcoming the not-invented-here syndrome. ''The Army has spent 30 years developing incineration techniques,'' he says, adding that while the techniques work, communities don't want such incinerators nearby.

''We've calculated that the cost for a facility to degrade pollutants biologically is about $100,000,'' essentially for the reactor tanks, he says. This is in sharp contrast to the $500 million to $800 million cost that Wild cites for state-of-the-art incinerators. That is a price difference even the Kremlin can appreciate.

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