Technology at a Glance is a quarterly newsletter from the National Institute of Standards and Technology reporting on research results, funding programs, and manufacturing extension and technology services. If you have comments or general questions about this newsletter or if you would like to receive the four-page, color newsletter in hard copy, please email your mailing address to Gail Porter, editor, or call (301) 975-3392. About Technology at a Glance.
As part of a national effort to identify biomarkers for early detection of cancer, NIST is developing safer, faster, and more efficient methods for sequencing the DNA from mitochondria, the tiny energy factories of cells.
Mutations within the DNA of mitochondriaa circular strand containing more than 16,000 nucleotide base pairshave been implicated in a variety of cancers. In one small study by Johns Hopkins University, for example, such mutations were found in lung cancer cells but not the normal cells of the same patients. NIST researchers are working to validate the mitochondrial DNA sequence measurement technology and increase the speed of the sequencing protocol, to provide improved methods for use in clinical applications.
A major advance involves the use of a state-of-the-art robotics workstation to automate what is usually a manual process for determining the exact order that the DNAs four component chemicals are linked together within the strand. The team is also using fluorescent tags for the analysis, a safety advantage over the typical radioactive materials. The ghostly image above shows a subdividing cell treated with a fluorescent stain that is selectively absorbed by mitochondria.
goal is to obtain entire sequences from as little as about 200 nanograms
of DNA, about 1/10 of the sample volume used by other labs. Once the
overall process is perfected, NIST scientists will use it to sequence
mitochondrial DNA collected by Johns Hopkins from 200 people, some
with lung cancer and some without. Any systematic differences between
the two groups results could
potentially serve as a biomarker for lung cancer.
NISTs primary role in the National Cancer Institutes Early Detection Research Network is to validate findings, standardize methods, and advise other research and clinical institutions on technology. In the mitochondria project, NIST researchers are developing a standard process so that validated biomarkers can be reliably used by other labora-tories to detect cancer in asymptomatic patients, make a diagnosis once symptoms appear, or monitor cancer patients for recurrence or individuals known to be at high risk.
Contact: Catherine OConnell, (301) 975-3123.
Lead investigation Shyam Sunder explains the NIST WTC study to reporters
The act gives authority to NIST to dispatch teams of experts within 48 hours, where appropriate and practical, after major building disasters. The law gives the teams a clear mandate to:
A standing advisory committee will be created to advise the NIST Director on all aspects of investigations. Members of the committee will be recognized for distinguished professional service, possess broad technical expertise and experience, and have a reputation for independence, objectivity, and impartiality.
NIST will consult with other federal agencies in carrying out the
The new law specifically applies to the NIST World Trade Center (WTC) building and fire safety investigation that was initiated formally in August 2002.
The study of WTC Buildings 1 and 2 and WTC Building 7 is focusing on the building construction, the materials used, and all of the technical conditions that contributed to the outcome of the WTC disaster.
For more information, go to wtc.nist.gov.
A new technology developed by NIST researchers allows people who are blind or visually impaired to feel electronic images. Called a tactile graphic display, the device uses an array of more than 3,000 rounded pins that can be raised in any pattern and then locked into place.
NIST researchers John Roberts (right) and Oliver Slattery demonstrate the tactile display.
The inspiration for the tactile graphic display came from a bed of nails toy found in a novelty store. The NIST researchers just needed a way to connect an array of moveable pins with electric signals.
The answer came in the form of outdated technology. The researchers took a 20-year-old scientific pen plotter and made it work upside down. Instead of pushing a pen down to draw images on paper, the device now pushes pins up to form an image.
Unlike embossed images on paper, the tactile display can be used over and over again. Each image is sent electronically to the device, which uses software to determine how to create a tactile display that matches the image. The display converts scanned illustrations, photographs, map outlines, or other graphical images into raised patterns and can translate images displayed on Internet Web pages or in electronic books. After the pins are viewed with the fingertips, they can be withdrawn to form a flat surface ready to be reset into a new image.
NIST researchers are working with the National Federation of the Blind to field test the prototype version of the tactile display. Ultimately, NIST hopes the device will be revised and commercialized by a private company.
For further information, see www.nist.gov/public_affairs/releases/visual_display.htm.
Contact: John Roberts, (301) 975-5683.
A new tool for genetic analysis developed with NIST assistance may help scientists identify the remains of victims of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center (WTC) in New Yorkthe largest effort of its kind in history.
Remains from about half of the approximately 2,800 victims have been identified, many through the analysis of DNA in tissue samples recovered from the site. Identifica-tion is difficult because of the damaged and degraded condition of the samples. Now that standard methods have revealed all they can, new techniques for analyzing very small fragments of DNA are being used to reexamine the genetic material from as many as 13,000 recovered bone samples.
NIST staff members John Butler and Susan Ballou discuss the DNA project at a robotic sample preparation station.
One such technique is adapted from a NIST-developed method using short tandem repeats (STRs)tiny segments of DNA containing two to five base pairs (the nitrogen compounds whose unique pairings make up the genetic code of an individual). By contrast, a complete human genome contains some 3 billion base pairs.
To perform the STR analysis, many copies are made of targeted DNA fragments using a method called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). NIST designed new PCR primerstools for targeting the amplification (copying) to a specific DNA segmentthat reduce the size of the amplified regions by 100 base pairs or more. Smaller PCR products amplify better than large ones when genomic DNA is degraded.
Contact: Susan Ballou, (301) 975-8750.
President George W. Bush and Commerce Secretary Don Evans recently announced three winners of the 2002 Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, the nations premier award for performance excellence and quality achievement. For the first time, a winner was named in the health care category.
The 2002 recipients are: Motorola Inc. Commercial, Government and Industrial Solutions Sector, Schaumburg, Ill. (manufacturing category); Branch-Smith Printing Division, Fort Worth, Texas (small business category); and SSM Health Care, St. Louis, Mo. (health care category).
These three organizations are expected to receive the Baldrige Award in a ceremony in Washington, D.C., early next year.
The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award is given to U.S. organizations that have exemplary achievements in seven areas: leadership, strategic planning, customer and market focus, information and analysis, human resource focus, process management, and results.
For further information see: www.nist.gov/public_affairs/releases/baldrige2002.htm.
Software and diagnostic hardware technology developed with co-funding from NISTs Advanced Technology Program (ATP) recently helped scientists gain a much better understanding of how Huntingtons disease progresses in the body.
Researchers hope the new technologies eventually can be applied to a variety of diseases and conditions, providing the detailed biomedical information needed to design earlier and more effective treatments.
An international research collaboration used software created by 3rd Millennium of Cambridge, Mass., and DNA microarray technology from Affymetrix, Santa Clara, Calif., to learn how a cascade of biological events produces Huntingtons disease, a degenerative brain disorder. For instance, researchers discovered how the mutant Huntingtons disease gene causes brain cells to die by affecting other biological pathways. They also discovered that many of the processes that occur with Huntingtons also occur in other degenerative brain disorders. (See www.3rdmill.com.)
The researchers compiled and analyzed diverse micro-array data on the functions of genes and proteins using a system custom-built by 3rd Millennium, which developed the underlying software technology with ATP support.
The software was an intermediate step in their two-year project to develop a system to take large volumes of hetero-geneous data types from many different sources and integrate the data by using ontologiesways of representing knowledgeto help identify relationships among them. This semantic data integration approach relies on ontologies to equate different scientific terms that have the same meaning.
In the case of the Huntingtons project, 3rd Millenniums software was used to look at thousands of data files collected on a variety of model organisms used to study Huntingtons and to connect-the-dots between them. For example, the software allows studies of genes in yeast to be directly compared with studies of genes in different mouse models. The software helped the researchers find commonalities in mounds of data on disease pathways from many sources much faster than otherwise would be possible.
The data files used in the project were obtained with DNA chip technology from Affymetrix, also developed with ATP support. These miniaturized, key-chain sized laboratories can be customized to rapidly analyze, for example, all gene activities in an organism.
Contact: Richard Dweck, (617) 441-3030.
The capability to identify chemical substances easily and accurately at a crime scene or other location outside a laboratory, without handling the material or opening containers, would be a boon for many in science. A new NIST standard that reduces calibration costs as much as 20-fold represents a major step toward making such a tool practical. A small piece of chromium-doped glass, Standard Reference Material (SRM) 2241, will enable users to calibrate the output of Raman spectrometers. Without this SRM, full calibration of these instruments is so expensive that many users skip it and, therefore, may get inaccurate results. Raman spectroscopy reveals the chemical composition of a sample by illuminating it with a laser and then identifying color changes in a very small amount of the scattered light. The technique is simple enough to use in the field and, unlike some competing methods, can be used to measure samples through transparent containers. Contact: Steven Choquette, (301) 975-3096.
A significant milestone has been reached in the effort to develop new transplant technologies for treating a wide variety of diseases. In a project co-sponsored by NISTs Advanced Technology Program (ATP), PPL Therapeutics Inc. (Blacksburg, Va.) reported major progress in producing altered pigs whose organs and tissues might someday be transplanted into humans with a low probability of rejection. PPL scientists cloned four piglets that have been modified genetically to knock out or silence both copies of a key gene tied to the acute rejection of pig organs by the human immune system. The advance builds on last years success in using genetic engineering techniques to knock out one of the two copies of the gene in five piglets. Pigs long have been eyed as a possible source of transplant organs for humans; pig heart valves treated to remove pig cells have been used in humans for two decades. Contact: David Ayares, (540) 961-5559, firstname.lastname@example.org.
A NIST test arena for evaluating the performance of autonomous mobile robots is going international. A Japanese version of the arena was installed at a stadium in Fukuoka, Japan, for the first international competition in robot search and rescue organized by the RoboCup Rescue League. The competition is a proving ground for robots such as those used to search the World Trade Center site after the Sep- tember 11 terrorist attack and to showcase state-of-the-art robot capabilities in realistic scenarios. Ten teams fielded a variety of robots at the competition, including tracked vehicles, wheeled vehicles, and a small blimp. Iran and Japan earned awards, with the Iranian team taking top honors. The Japanese versions of the arena, which feature changes to materials and furnishings to represent those typical of Japanese buildings, will reside year-round at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Technology in Tokyo. Next years competition will be held in Italy. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency helped fund the NIST test arena work. Contact: Adam Jacoff, (301) 975-4235.
Recent experiments at the NIST Center for Neutron Research on the nanoscale behavior of magnetic atoms may help explain natures organizing principles, such as the folding of proteins into three-dimensional shapes and the clumping of stars in galaxies. Researchers from NIST, Johns Hopkins University, and Rutgers University used beams of neutrons as a high-power magnetic microscope to probe interactions in zincochromite, a mineral. Their findings, reported in the journal Nature, account for surprising properties of so-called frustrated magnets. Atoms in this lattice-like geometry of triangular units, have to find a way to align their spinstheir sources of magnetism. Spin clusters emerge from competing interactions, organizing into six-sided, or hexagonal, structures that repeat throughout the material. The spins at each corner of a hexagon are arranged so that each one is in opposition to its two nearest neighborsa highly stable organization. Contact: Seung-Hun Lee, (301) 975-4257.
Building MaterialsA novel device that quickly and accurately predicts the weathering of building materials was unveiled recently by NIST, six industrial research partners, and five other government agencies that support the project. The NIST SPHERE, which generates controlled exposure environments for more than 500 samples, will help predict the damage to polymer coatings, materials, and structures exposed to the suns ultraviolet radiation and different conditions of temperature and humidity. The facility is expected to accelerate the introduction of new products and reduce building repair costs. Contact: Jonathan Martin, (301) 975-6707.
Energy EfficiencyWorking with industry and the Department of Energy, NIST has developed a power loss measurement system and procedures for testing transformers used in the distribution of electric power. The system precisely measures the electrical power input and output, determines the small differences between them, and calculates the amount of energy lost in the equipment. The advance will help manufacturers of transformers meet proposed federal regulations for efficiency that should yield dramatic energy savings. Contact: Gerald FitzPatrick, (301) 975-8922.
Easier-to-use softwareTo help reduce the frustration and lost productivity caused by poorly designed software user interfaces, NIST teamed with industry to develop a standard way for companies to report and exchange information on how software was tested for usability. The result is the Common Industry Format (CIF) for Usability Test Reports, which was approved recently by the American National Standards Institute. Several pilot studies by companies such as The Boeing Co., Oracle Corp. and Microsoft Corp. have verified the new standards usefulness. Contact: Emile Morse, (301) 975-8239.
NIST is an agency of the US Department of Commerce's Technology Administration. NIST develops and promotes measurement, standards, and technology to enhance productivity, facilitate trade, and improve the quality of life. Technology at a Glance is produced by Public and Business Affairs, NIST, 100 Bureau Dr., Stop 3460, Gaithersburg, Md. 20899-3460. Any mention of commercial products is for information only; it does not imply recommendation or endorsement by NIST. Technology at a Glance Editor: Gail Porter, (301) 975-3392, email: email@example.com. For patent information, call (301) 975-3084.