Gas stoves ignite a heated climate and health policy debate

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Who could have predicted that gas stoves would be the latest hot topic to ignite the nation’s culture wars?

But here we are, watching as members of Congress post on social media that no one will take their gas stoves unless it is from their “cold dead hands.”

It started last month, when a member of the nation’s Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), Richard L. Trumka, said the agency will consider regulating indoor air pollution from gas stoves, starting with a request for public comment. He followed up last week by saying in an interview that he had not ruled out banning them.

The ensuing firestorm over the common household appliances — used in 40 million American homes — prompted the chair of the agency to publicly clarify that he isn’t seeking to ban gas stoves and further, that the agency “has no proceeding to do so.”

But the controversy continues, with The Wall Street Journal editorial board recently opining: “When [progressives] can’t win the political debate, they resort to brute government force. They really are coming for your stove.”

Gas stoves and indoor air pollution
The residential sector accounts for 15% of total U.S. natural gas consumption, says Matthew Kahn, director of the Healthcare Markets Initiative at the USC Schaeffer Center, a partner institute of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy. He is also provost professor of economics and spatial sciences at the USC Dornsife College.
“I actually think it’s small potatoes – one of one thousand things we need to do to mitigate climate change,” says Kahn, whose research focuses on urban and environmental economics.

He believes the more compelling argument for phasing out gas stoves can be found in new research linking natural gas use to public health risks.

Kahn is inspired by Kirk Smith, professor of global environmental health at UC Berkeley who pioneered indoor air quality research showing that millions of people in developing countries die each year from exposure to smoke from cooking and heating fuels like wood, charcoal, coal and dung.

“[Smith’s] research convinced me that we have to figure out how to move people in India up the income ladder so they can use natural gas and not these dirty fuels,” says Kahn. “Now, environmental science is making progress and we’ve learned that natural gas is dirtier than we thought.”

“I have a gas stove; my son’s bedroom was above our kitchen. What were we exposing him to as we cooked?” he asked.

Health hazards from gas stoves

Evidence is building about the potential health hazards of gas stoves. A new study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health estimates that 12.7 percent of childhood asthma is attributable to living in a household with a gas stove. Earlier research suggested that children living in a home with gas cooking have a 42% increased risk of asthma.
“People typically spend the majority of their time indoors, and while understudied, indoor air quality plays an important role in our health,” says Jill Johnston, an associate professor at the Keck School of Medicine of USC whose research focuses on exposures to harmful contaminants that affect the health of working poor and communities of color.
Johnston says gas stoves emit harmful pollution such as nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter, which can irritate the lungs and exacerbate asthma symptoms.

“Environmental justice organizations have long recognized the health hazards due to extraction and combustion of gas,” she says. “Electrification of stoves is poised to offer significant health benefits, especially for children and other vulnerable populations.”

Los Angeles, New York among cities to ban gas stoves in new construction

California is the state with the highest percentage of households – 70 percent – using natural gas for cooking. While a federal ban on gas stoves may not be imminent, the Los Angeles City Council voted in May 2022 to ban most gas appliances in new construction in the city. L.A. joins a growing list of cities to take this step, including New York City, which passed a ban on gas hookups in new buildings in 2021.

Kahn, the economist, isn’t convinced a ban on gas stoves in new buildings will help those who suffer the most from bad indoor air quality.

“Poor people are going to continue to live in older, cheaper housing built before the regulatory change,” he says. “If our goal is to help poor people contend with less indoor air pollution, this new rule won’t do much to help – unless they can be nudged through other incentives to upgrade their appliances.”

New incentives can be found in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which allows consumers to claim a rebate of up to $840 on a new electric cooking appliance and up to an additional $500 to help cover the costs of converting from natural gas to electric.

Americans might need more convincing before they ditch their gas stoves
“When we enjoy products every day without experiencing direct negative consequences, it may seem that they are harmless,” observes Wandi Bruine de Bruin, an expert on risk perception and communication and provost professor of public policy, psychology, and behavioral science at the USC Price School.
She says it can take decades to change those perceptions, pointing to the dangers of smoking as one example.
“More studies that reveal evidence of health concerns associated with gas stoves would very likely change people’s awareness over time,” says Dan Wei, a research associate professor at the USC Price School who researches the economic impacts of energy and climate change policies.
Wei notes that a 2022 survey conducted by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund and the Sierra Club found nearly three-quarters of consumers did not receive any information regarding potential pollution and health risks associated with gas stoves when they purchased the stoves from retailers. Two-thirds of consumers were not told of the need for good ventilation when using gas stoves.
A better understanding of both the risks of gas stoves and the benefits of newer electric technology will be the key, says USC chief sustainability officer Mick Dalrymple, who believes induction cooktops will eventually win consumers over. Ticking off the benefits, he says: “Induction cooktops are three times as efficient as gas, they cook faster, are more controllable, are easier to clean, are healthier, reduce the heat in your kitchen, and are safer.”
“They’re simply better technology overall while also addressing the climate crisis,” he continues. “If you conducted a poll, I believe you would find that, like drivers of electric vehicles, once people experience induction cooking, very few are likely to look back.”

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Greener Gases 

Keck Medicine of USC is phasing out one of the most commonly used — and environmentally toxic — anesthetics for its surgeries, desflurane.

The discontinuation of desflurane is part of a universitywide effort to re-examine both USC’s and Keck Medicine of USC’s impact on climate change and to implement healthier, sustainable solutions whenever possible.

The operating room is one of the biggest — if not the biggest — waste generators in any hospital, says Arash Motamed, medical director for Keck Main Perioperative Operations and Keck Medicine of USC Sustainability.

“They’re very resistant to degradation; they stay in that environment for many years,” says Motamed, an associate professor and vice chair of clinical operations for the department of anesthesiology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

In June, the Association of Anesthetists noted the inconvenient truth about anesthetics.

It cited research showing that anesthetics are responsible for 0.1% of the world’s carbon emissions. At the hospital level, inhaled anesthetics make up more than 5% of acute hospital carbon emissions and 50% of perioperative emissions.

Anesthetics in the atmosphere

During a surgery with anesthetics, a patient breathes in an anesthetic gas, which circulates through the body and keeps the person unconscious. After the operation, the anesthetics are turned off, the concentration in the body decreases and the patient regains consciousness.

Keck’s operating rooms have three primary anesthetics, Motamed says. Each achieves similar effects but has different drawbacks.

Desflurane is very quick to come on and very quick to come off — that’s why people love it. But it’s expensive and horrible for the environment.

Aren Nercisian, anesthesiologist at Keck Medicine of USC

“Desflurane is very quick to come on and very quick to come off — that’s why people love it,” says Aren Nercisian, an anesthesiologist at Keck Medicine of USC. “But it’s expensive and horrible for the environment.”

Desflurane is the most commonly used. Yet, studies show desflurane is so harmful to the environment that an eight-hour surgery causes as much damage to the atmosphere as driving a car from Los Angeles to Maine.

“The contribution to emissions is huge,” said Howard Hu, holder of the Flora L. Thornton Chair in Preventive Medicine and chair and professor of population and public health sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “That insight became a clarion call for us to do something about it.”

In its own call to action on pollution reduction, the California Society of Anesthesiologists noted that desflurane lingers the longest of any anesthetic — 14 years — in the atmosphere’s lowest layer, the troposphere, just above the Earth’s surface. On the other hand, sevoflurane remains in the troposphere for just over a year while isoflurane lingers for 3.2 years.

Helping the environment, cutting costs

Global warming potential (GWP) is a way to quantify the amount that an agent contributes to global warming over a period of time. Nercisian, who leads sustainability efforts for the anesthesiology department at Keck Medicine of USC, explains that GWP measures how much energy the emission of 1 ton of a gas will absorb over a given period, relative to the emissions of 1 ton of carbon dioxide.” The larger the GWP, the more it warms the Earth compared to carbon dioxide. The GWP of carbon dioxide is 1.

Desflurane has a 20 times higher global warming potential than sevoflurane, Nercisian says.

Desflurane has the highest global warming potential — 2,540 — compared with sevoflurane, which has a GWP of 130.

The triple aim of a health system should be improving patient experience, improving the health of the population and reducing the cost of health care … sustainable delivery of care should be the fourth aim.

Arash Motamed

The three also differ in cost. Desflurane tends to be the most expensive. And so far, no studies have indicated whether one is worse for patients more than the other.

“There’s never been a study to prove that you have better outcomes with sevoflurane vs. desflurane vs. isoflurane,” Nercisian says. “Though some agents have specific advantages.”

Keck Medicine of USC has not ordered more desflurane in the past year.

“According to Institute for Healthcare Improvement, the triple aim of a health system should be improving patient experience, improving the health of the population and reducing the cost of health care,” Motamed says. “Howard Hu, chair of Population and Public Health Sciences at USC, says that sustainable delivery of care should be the fourth aim. I couldn’t agree more.”

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USC Marshall student launches a digital game to change the world

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A Game to Change The World
USC Marshall student launches digital game that teaches teams how to tackle the most difficult problems facing organizations, governments and countries across the globe.
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Larissa Gurjao Pereira De Lima is a jetsetter. It’s not wanderlust, exactly, that inspires her sojourns, but a desire to learn, educate and impact. On one such journey to a small town in Thailand, Gurjao explored how education is approached in different settings, with different resource sets. As an English teacher there, she realized the limitations that can come from silos and, on the flip side, the power of technology to accelerate and deepen learning.

It was then that she knew she had an opportunity to make a greater impact.

Pivoting from a career in IT, Gurjao, a USC Marshall School of Business graduate student, set for on a daunting task: changing her career. Beginning at Amani Institute’s Social Innovation Management program in Nairobi, Kenya, Gurjao said she had a clear mission to change how businesses operated. “I already had a business background,” she said, “But I wanted to do something different–help businesses be more sustainable.” From there, she enrolled in the USC Marshall Master of Science in Social Entrepreneurship (MSSE) at Brittingham Social Enterprise Lab to build her own sustainable enterprise.

Over the last five years, Gurjao has founded several organizations–all aimed at social impact through innovation, self-development and empowerment. In 2017, she founded Trips Connection, which supported organizations to identify strategies for innovation through gamification. The organization’s goal was to facilitate direct actions in solving complex social problems. Most recently, in 2019, she founded SIB Impact, a board game aimed at building team’s ability to collaborate and innovate toward solving a big, challenging–often global–problem. To heighten its impact even further, the game’s latest release–set for December 12th–will take it digital.

Fundamentals of Gamification

Three years ago, Gurjao began building a prototype that would eventually become SIB Impact. Central to the game’s design are out-of-the-box troubleshooting, critical thinking and most important: collaboration. In the development phase, she did a lot of research about board games in general. “How do board games work,” she said. “What are their mechanics? How can they be fun and educational?”

Gurjao joined the MSSE program in June 2022, after a friend recommended several courses. “I knew I could connect with great people here,” she said, “and build my business.”

SIB Impact is an educational game that can be applied inside organizations, governments, startups, NGOs, private companies and universities alike. “The idea is to teach participants how they can create innovative solutions,” Gurjao said. “You have to help the other players solve the world’s biggest social and environmental issues.”

The game aims to create toolkits for individuals and teams to take theoretical solutions and transform them into tangible actions. In short, it aims at creating change and changemakers, effecting internal strategies and culture and more deeply integrating ESG into company missions.

“The tool can be applied to different teams within a single organization, for example helping work on the ESGs from the perspective of human resources and finance and marketing,” Gurjao said.

First shared with audiences in Brazil to test how audiences would engage with it and whether or not they would pay for it, SIB Impact is very-research heavy to develop, Gurjao said. Modules are based on location-specific data, as different solutions will work better in different contexts. This allows it to be specific, but also, players benefit from lessons learned across the world.

But Gurjao doesn’t want to stop there. From hunger and climate change to the war in Ukraine and the ongoing global pandemic, hopes to connect teams to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, a framework of 17 goals that are part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development adopted by the UN in 2015. These goals aim to create a better world by improving health and education, ending poverty and inequality, and tackling climate change and other threats to our environment. Essentially if we can learn together and from each other, maybe we can collectively implement solutions from our areas of expertise to bring peace and stability to the world.

The digital game is just a small part of what Gurjao hopes to accomplish. The game already has been translated into Portuguese and Spanish, and Gurjao wants to see more languages added so it is truly accessible all over the globe.

“I hope to travel to all 80 cities included in the game and film my experiences, showing the problems the people of the world are facing and the possible, positive solutions that they can have,” she said.

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Report updates USC’s Culture Journey, an ongoing examination of the university’s values

USC leadership on Tuesday released an update on the university’s Culture Journey, a multiyear examination of the institution’s values and priorities.

“The 2022 Culture Report I am sharing today demonstrates progress in key priority areas and reflects your commitment to advancing our values and holding ourselves accountable,” USC President Carol L. Folt said in the report. “Most importantly, the critical work highlighted here is brought to life by you — passionate individuals dedicated to making positive changes at USC.”

For three years, tens of thousands of students, faculty, staff and administrators have contributed to Culture Journey discussions and surveys. The result was the creation of USC’s Unifying Values — accountability; integrity; excellence; open communication; well-being; and diversity, equity and inclusion — and a commitment to an ongoing process of collective self-examination, improvement and renewal.

“Our culture shapes our future,” Folt said. “Each day, there are countless meaningful conversations and advancements happening in every corner of our university and medical system. Listening to the community, learning from our collective experiences and centering our Unifying Values are fundamental tenets to building our culture together.”

The report can be read online.

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Medicine from garbage? New process shows promise turning plastic trash into pharmaceuticals

Catalina Island, located 22 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, once collected Hollywood royalty, smugglers and silver miners. Now, it collects trash. Its windward-facing harbor is a collection point of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an enormous spread of microplastics with accumulated larger debris that stretches more than 600,000 square miles. It is stark evidence of the impact of ever-increasing production of plastics globally, which is estimated to reach a volume of 1.1 billion tons annually by 2040.

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Inspired by this problem, USC researchers have devised a method to transform post-consumer mixed plastics into a variety of diverse and valuable secondary products with unprecedented efficiency. This two-stage method, described this month in Angewandte Chemie, has exciting potential applications for pharmaceutical development, manufacturing materials and other products.

“Polyethylene is the least recycled of the large-scale plastics — the EPA estimates less than 6% is actually recycled — and only 30% of the mass is typically recoverable,” said Travis Williams, co-author of the study and professor of chemistry at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “We developed conditions where it is possible to get 83% of the mass of the polymer recovered as discrete, useful products. We can even take a low-density product like a plastic grocery bag and recover about 36% of those discrete monomers — that’s unheard of in polyethylene recycling.”

Keeping plastic’s utility without environmental devastation like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Polyethylene, commonly used in plastic shopping bags, automotive parts and packaging, has contributed countless improvements to quality of life and health. The same properties that make plastics useful — durability and sterility, among others — also prevent environmentally friendly degradation and recycling. Current methods to recycle or remanufacture polyethylene are also not cost-effective, something chemical recycling might alleviate.

To test this new process, the researchers tapped various student and community groups to collect unprocessed plastic waste from Catalina Harbor as samples. This waste included plastic shopping bags, milk cartons, carryout containers and other household items. The researchers then broke the samples down with chemical catalysts and pressurized oxygen to produce chemical groups called diacids — in this case, asperbenzaldehyde, citreoviridin and mutilin.

Following the initial stage, the research team introduced the diacids to engineered strains of Aspergillus nidulans, a versatile, easy-to-engineer fungus often utilized in drug discovery. When fed diacids as a carbon source, the fungus produced significant quantities of antibiotics, cholesterol-lowering statins, immunosuppressants and antifungals — all within a week.

“If you look at the biological cycle, that efficiency is very exciting because the process will be cost-sensitive,” said Clay C.C. Wang, senior author of the study and a professor at the USC Alfred E. Mann School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. “We’re going to make the products in bulk quantities.”

Chemical recycling may have applications beyond polyethylene

The team, in coordination with researchers at the University of Kansas, is exploring whether the method can be applied to other types of plastic.

“The ultimate goal is developing a method that could be used on a mixture of plastics,” Wang said. “Right now, if you go to recycle your plastic waste, there’s only one bin, but there are actually several different classes of plastics. There are systems that sort them, but ideally, we’d like to be able to tackle mixtures of plastics using a similar approach.”

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Sustainability will move into key campus space as USC increases focus on Assignment: Earth

Assignment: Earth is on a trajectory to land in the heart of USC’s University Park Campus.

This spring, the university will open the USC Sustainability Hub — a coworking and collaboration space in the Gwynn Wilson Student Union building where students, researchers and sustainability staff can gather.

USC Assignment: Earth logo 2022

“Establishing the new Sustainability Hub at the center of campus means ensuring USC’s Assignment: Earth is at the heart of all we do at USC,” said USC President Carol L. Folt. “This new space will provide a dynamic home for Trojans to come together, share ideas and collaborate on solutions that will have lasting impact on our campuses and this beautiful planet we love.”

Given the undeniable impact of climate change — powerful storms, extreme drought, rising sea levels –sustainability is on many people’s minds. A survey conducted earlier this year revealed that nearly half of the university’s students, faculty and staff shared moderate to strong interest in getting involved with university sustainability efforts.

Across the university, significant sustainability initiatives are already underway. USC stopped purchasing single-use plastic beverage bottles in July and recently celebrated diverting 32 tons of plastic waste to landfills — or 1 million plastic bottles. USC faculty in public health, economics and architecture are looking for ways to decarbonize the health care industry. The USC Marshall School of Business is incorporating sustainability into the business curriculum.

In addition, a zero-waste team is greening up the USC tailgate tradition with a roving trailer of recycling bins. And $8.8 million in funds will support sustainability-focused research projects on alternative energies and pollution reduction as well as efforts to help shade L.A. neighborhoods.

USC Sustainability Hub: a place for positive change

“Environmental sustainability is a central priority for the university, and this new location will allow our staff to better engage and inform the USC community,” USC Chief Sustainability Officer Mick Dalrymple said. “The results of the university’s first sustainability literacy survey showed that increased engagement led to higher sustainability literacy and behavior scores. Through expanded services and informational resources, we hope this new location at the heart of campus will provide a platform to create positive change and grow our environmentally conscious students, faculty and staff.”

The Sustainability Hub also will become a workspace for the university’s first group of postdoctoral fellows who will focus on developing solutions to climate-related issues, ranging from the economic impact to the effects on human health.

The first fellows will arrive this spring.

Pharmacy space to become USC Sustainability Hub; new pharmacy in the works

The Sustainability Hub will fill a 1,500-square-foot space that was home to one of two pharmacies on the University Park Campus operated by the USC Alfred E. Mann School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. Pharmacy operations are expanding into a larger location in King Hall, close to USC’s Engemann Student Health Center, in late summer. The new location will allow the USC Mann School to serve more patients and offer additional educational opportunities for students. In the interim, services will continue through the pharmacy across from Student Health.

“Pharmacists play an increasingly important role in community health, and the new facility will help us demonstrate that for the USC community at large,” said Vassilios Papadopoulos, dean of the USC Mann School, which operates the campus pharmacy. “In California, pharmacists provide vaccinations, the COVID-19 antiviral treatment Paxlovid, nicotine replacement therapy, contraception and HIV prevention pills as well as distribute the opioid reversal drug naloxone. We also help older patients and patients in need to manage their medications safely.”

The pharmacy’s move to King Hall will double the space for the pharmacy and make way for more services, said Raffi Svadjian, the executive director of USC pharmacies who oversees the USC Mann School’s four community pharmacies and a specialty pharmacy.

Pharmacists play an increasingly important role in community health, and the new facility will help us demonstrate that for the USC community at large.

Vassilios Papadopoulos, USC Mann School dean

Still in the design phase, the new pharmacy will feature a larger waiting area — in the current space, windowsills serve as seating — as well as clinical space for pharmacists to meet with patients privately and discuss their health needs, Svadjian said. Branded carts will deliver prescriptions to longtime and new customers among USC faculty and staff.

Also in the spirit of expansion, the pharmacy school plans to place additional health-product vending machines around campus. One such vending machine, currently located in King Hall, stocks general and reproductive health products to provide access outside pharmacy hours. Antibiotic ointment and emergency contraception are among the offerings.

Svadjian said that until the new location opens, the pharmacy’s prescription-filling and other services, including delivery of prescription medications, will be offered through the other, smaller campus pharmacy that is near the Engemann Student Health Center.

The new University Park pharmacy is slated to open in summer 2023. Architectural sketches for another new USC Pharmacy, planned for South Los Angeles, offer a taste of the clean lines and open spaces in store; USC is using the same design firm for both locations.

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Student muralists spruce up Peace Garden near University Park Campus

Just a few blocks northeast of the University Park Campus, a 120-year-old house, once boarded up, now shines with freshly painted murals that bring a little vibrancy to Trojans’ commute. The front features a vivid image of multicolored hands releasing a bird into the air, and a simple greeting adorns the mural’s bottom-left corner: “Welcome to the Peace Garden.”

USC Assignment: Earth logo 2022Around the back of the house, another full mural of the California landscape stretches down the wall to cover the stairs. Mountains, rolling hills and clear skies sprawl across the back porch, with a sprinkling of bears, mountain lions, squirrels and other animals found across the state. The backyard houses several raised garden beds filled with vegetables and other native plants.

The mural and garden are part of the University Park Peace Garden Project, launched by the USC Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy this past March to create “a flourishing urban garden in which educational, research and health programming can serve community needs.”

“Coming here is a breath of fresh air,” said muralist Daniella Leon, a junior in both the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the USC Roski School of Art and Design. “Los Angeles is so crowded and fast-paced that just having a space to ground yourself is really important.”

Peace Garden provides a space to relax and learn

The project launched in March with funding from USC Chan’s recent Responding to Society’s Post-pandemic Occupational Needs (ReSPONs) initiative. The unoccupied house is managed by USC Real Estate and Asset Management, which has no plans to occupy it or develop it at this time.


? VIDEO: Student muralists discuss their work


Camille Dieterle, an associate professor of clinical occupational therapy at USC Chan, is leading the project, and said the garden provides a space for people to relax, get outside and appreciate a little patch of natural space.

“Environmental sustainability is a wellness issue,” Dieterle said. “As an occupational therapist, I think about how nature and the built environment impact people’s health and wellness, so we’re really trying to create a space that feels peaceful but also creates delight and awe and stimulates our senses.”

One aspect of the Peace Garden that Dieterle highlighted was the use of plants native to California, such as sage. Six species of the shrub are planted in the garden.

“We’re emphasizing California native plants because they don’t need a lot of water, and to preserve their populations,” Dieterle said.

For the Peace Garden murals, students were asked to submit designs that would cover the front and back entrances to the house. The back mural, painted by sophomore Trenyce Tong, completely covers the back entrance and extends to the wooden stairs connected to the porch.

“I was really excited about that, because when do you get the chance to paint stairs?” said Tong, a student at USC Roski. “That was a major selling point.”

From first murals to the Peace Garden

Tong said her interest in murals started in high school, where every floor of her school featured a wall painted by students.

“Every time you’d walk by them, you’d be filled with inspiration — and then some of them were just so ugly,” Tong said with a laugh. “So, the range of how murals can affect your daily life really impacted me.”

Every time I see an empty wall, I’m like, ‘I could put a mural on it.’

Trenyce Tong, mural artist

This was Tong’s first stationary mural, having only ever painted on a canvas that was tacked to a wall. Painting a mural that will be affected by the elements over time was more of a challenge than her previous mural, but now she’s hooked.

“Every time I see an empty wall, I’m like, ‘I could put a mural on it,'” Tong said.

Originally from Peru, Leon first painted a mural of The Jungle Book in her mother’s pediatric dental practice. While children usually don’t like spending time at the dentist’s office, Leon credits that experience with sparking her desire to bring happiness to unlikely places.

As a biology and art double major, Leon is familiar with unexpected combos. While a boarded-up house adjacent to campus doesn’t seem like a place to find beauty and relaxation, Leon hopes that her mural — as it faces the street — evokes smiles from people passing by.

“I just want to convey community, and how we can all come together in the Peace Garden and work toward building a really nice and needed space,” Leon said.

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Students engineer microbes to quickly remove medicinal drugs from the water supply

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Students engineer microbes to quickly remove medicinal drugs from the water supply

USC Dornsife undergraduates showcase their inventive method of ensuring sustainably clean water at the International Genetically Engineered Machine Grand Jamboree, a global synthetic biology competition.
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Eight months ago, a team of students launched a project to develop an accessible and affordable biofilter to eliminate certain toxins from water. These undergraduates at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences presented — albeit remotely — their enterprising effort at the 2022 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Grand Jamboree in Paris.

The world’s premiere synthetic biology competition, the Grand Jamboree, taking place Oct. 26-28, featured some 350 interdisciplinary student teams showcasing their synthetic biology-based inventions addressing critical challenges such as climate change, food security and sustainable industrial production.

Improving water quality

Alan Xu, a junior majoring in quantitative biology, resurrected USC’s iGEM student team late last year with the support of Josh Atkinson, postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Moh El-Naggar, Dean’s Professor of Physics and Astronomy and professor of physics, biological sciences and chemistry at USC Dornsife.

During the spring 2022 semester, undergraduates in the upstart group gathered for mini-lectures on synthetic biology topics and began brainstorming potential projects for iGEM’s Grand Jamboree. In April, the students broke into teams and crafted project pitches based on different iGEM themes before collectively deciding to proceed on the toxin-removing biofilter project as their iGEM submission.

From spring into summer, nearly a dozen undergraduates dove into biological research in USC labs under the guidance of graduate students and postdocs like Atkinson. The team developed a biosensor using genetically engineered yeast to sense estradiol, a toxic chemical known to alter the concentration of hormones in water and subsequently threaten the growth and behavior patterns of humans and other species.

After sensing the contaminants, the yeast releases a biochemical signal to genetically engineered bacteria, causing them to degrade the toxin and metabolically transform it into a harmless product.

“Rather than using any chemicals, this is an easier and more natural way to see specific contaminants in the water and activate remediation, so the water is cleaner,” explains Nicolette Romo-Zelada, a sophomore majoring in biological sciences.

In limited-resource environments like developing countries with contaminated water systems or minimal wastewater treatment infrastructure, the USC Dornsife team’s Toxi-Gone project has the potential to clean water prior to agricultural use or human consumption. Toxi-Gone might also serve as a filter to limit the escape of contaminants from industrial sources.

“Having the privilege to work with a group of students interested in learning how we can use DNA to program the behavior of cells has been inspiring,” Atkinson says. “These students chose to spend large chunks of their summer break learning laboratory techniques and creatively solving a global challenge.”

A formative experience

Earlier this summer, USC Dornsife’s Toxi-Gone project earned one of 90 iGEM Impact Grants, collecting $2,500 to further propel their promising work.

Funding issues prevented the team from traveling to Paris and participating in the Grand Jamboree in person, so Xu and Romo-Zelada presented Toxi-Gone remotely during the competition before a panel of international judges.

“It would have been amazing to be there in person, but it’s still an honor to share our project and learn about other eye-opening and innovative projects,” Xu says.

Though the team didn’t win, and despite the disappointment of missing out on iGEM, both Xu and Romo-Zelada call the fast-charged effort a formative experience. Xu, for instance, savored learning cutting-edge lab techniques alongside PhD students and postdocs, while Romo-Zelada relished the freedom of tinkering with biology and testing different options through constant experimentation.

“Being a part of this iGEM team gave me more confidence as a young scientist,” she says, adding that the experience solidified her plans to pursue a research career.

Atkinson, whose initial introduction to synthetic biology came from participating in the iGEM competition during his undergraduate years at the University of Michigan, says performing independent, team-based science as an undergraduate student ignited his own career in synthetic biology. Now an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow working in Denmark, Atkinson hopes the iGEM experience proves just as powerful for Xu, Romo-Zelada and their iGEM teammates.

“By working on this project, these students trained to become future leaders in the bioeconomy and gained useful laboratory, teamwork and leadership skills,” Atkinson says.

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USC plastic bottle ban keeps a million bottles out of landfills

USC Assignment: Earth logo 2022USC’s march toward “zero waste” by 2028 took a big step July 1, when the university stopped purchasing single-use plastic beverage bottles across its campuses and at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Since that time, the Trojan Family has avoided sending 32 tons of plastic waste to landfill — about a million plastic bottles. Instead, university entities — including Athletics, Auxiliary Services, Procurement, and Cultural Relations and University Events — are using more eco-friendly alternatives like glass and aluminum.

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COP27 summit: Eyes on Russia-Ukraine as global energy, food insecurity threaten U.N. climate ambitions

This month’s COP27 summit is an event to rally nations together against a common enemy — climate change — but it may well be overshadowed by the humanitarian, economic and geopolitical crises wrought by Russia’s war on Ukraine.

On top of addressing an existential threat for all of humanity, world leaders must consider how to counter Russia’s provocations as it wields its golden hammer in the global economy: its fuel.

Just a few weeks ago, European officials discovered that the Nord Stream 1 pipeline had been severed in what officials suspect was an act of Russian sabotage to retaliate against Europe’s efforts to support Ukraine. Europe had been working to source its fuels from elsewhere amid political pressure to wean itself from Russian gas and oil.

The timing could not have been worse. Winter is coming, and now Europe must consider options that would inevitably derail its ambition to become climate-neutral by 2050.

From coal and nuclear options to stockpiles of timber and firewood, the choices are limited and consequential both for the health of the planet and its people, USC experts say. The usage of fossil fuels inevitably increases carbon emissions and other pollutants, and in the case of nuclear energy, challenges with disposing of harmful radioactive waste.

“Europe is importing more from North Africa and other African countries,” said Robert English, associate professor of international relations, Slavic languages and literature, and environmental studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “They’re also going back to using more coal, even though they’ve already phased out dirty coal. And Germany has delayed shutting down its nuclear reactors.”

COP27 convenes as demand for coal skyrockets

Shon Hiatt, an expert on global energy markets at USC Marshall School of Business, said the demand for coal is skyrocketing as natural gas prices surge.

“Globally, we’re seeing massive reuptake of coal because natural gas has become more expensive, and in the case of Europe, scarce. People need to heat their homes and keep the lights on. It makes sense that countries are moving to coal and petroleum. There’s no other choice,” explained Hiatt, an associate professor of management and organization. “Europe has another two years before they have the infrastructure in place to get by without Russian gas. And it sounds like Europe wants to stop depending on Russian gas, regardless of the Ukraine outcome.”

Hiatt said that due to their own limitations, solar and wind are unlikely to fill the energy gap left by Russia.

You can’t power an economy with wind and solar alone.

Shon Hiatt, USC Marshall School

“With wind and solar, the best complement is natural gas because they’re intermittent energy sources. We know when the sun is up and down, and the wind only blows occasionally. In order to maintain voltage and hertz, which are required to keep the grid stable, we need dispatchable gas generators. You can’t power an economy with wind and solar alone,” Hiatt explained.

A hard lesson amid COP27: diversify supply

The pain Europe is feeling now may have been self-inflicted. Steven Lamy, professor emeritus of political science, international relations and spatial sciences at USC Dornsife, said that Europe’s error is in its preference for cheaper, short-term contracts with Russian energy suppliers over long-term investments in developing its own infrastructure and supply chain networks.

Germany and other European nations could have built ports to bring in liquefied natural gas, or LNG, which can be cooled to a liquid state and used in areas too far for pipelines to reach.

But they didn’t. Instead, they relied on the Nord Stream pipelines.

“Now, countries like Germany that lack LNG terminals are going to spend billions storing the energy alternative on barges out at sea,” Lamy said.

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