A Web site for tracking water contamination

Once, it was disparate information stored in different places, hard to find and use. Now, after being cataloged, combined, and integrated into a database by Lawrence Livermore scientists, the information has become a Web site called GeoTracker (http:/geotracker.llnl.gov), a tool for identifying leaking underground fuel tanks and their proximity to municipal water wells. It will help regulators and the public to evaluate the safety of their drinking water.
GeoTracker resulted from concerns over groundwater contamination caused by the gasoline additive MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether). A potential carcinogen that has been discovered to be leaking out of underground fuel tanks and seeping into groundwater, MTBE is slated to be banned statewide in 2002. In the meantime, studies are being conducted to understand its environmental and human health effects, among them, how and where the additive has been transported in the environment.
GeoTracker was mandated by 1997 legislation and made a reality through the efforts of California Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl of Santa Monica. She was instrumental in getting funds to develop it after city officials determined that there was a leaking underground storage tank next to Santa Monica's municipal water supply.
At the Laboratory, the Web site was developed under project director Anne Happel, a member of the Environmental Protection Agency's blue ribbon panel studying MTBE. The site shows a state map on which a user can zoom in and click on an area for detailed information, including data on locations of underground fuel tanks, tank owners, location and capacity of water wells, how many people are served by those water wells, and other chemicals in the fuels, particularly those thought to be cancer-causing. Laboratory staff spent more than a year cataloging the necessary information. They will run the site for a year and then hand it over to the state.
Site creators say that GeoTracker will give regulators the widest range of information available as well as improve communication between agencies and make information-gathering more efficient. James Giannopoulos, a manager at the State Water Resources Control Board, says that the state is monitoring at least 18,000 cases of leaking underground tanks, 10,000 of which involve MTBE. He adds, "I think [GeoTracker] is going to represent a major change in the way we collect, store, and analyze data."
Contact: Bill Dunlop Anne Happel (925) 422-1425 (happel1@llnl.gov).

"Superbug" genome decoded

Researchers at the Joint Genome Institute (JGI) in Walnut Creek, California, have completed the first phase of genome sequencing (called the shotgun sequencing phase) for Enterococcus faecium, a microbe that is a leading cause of hospital-acquired infection in the United States. It is dubbed a "superbug" because it has a propensity to quickly develop resistance to any antibiotic used against it.
The sequencing work was a collaboration between JGI, led by Elbert Branscomb and Trevor Hawkins, and George Weinstock and Barbara Murray of the University of Texas Health Science Center and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. The sequencing is notable for the speed at which it was done. An entire strand of E. faecium's DNA, consisting of 2.8 million base pairs, was done in the equivalent of a single day. Says Branscomb, "I believe this kind of a fast response capability could prove to be very useful to researchers in medical, national security, and agricultural contexts."
The work paves the way for researchers to develop a preventive vaccine and better diagnostic tests and treatments to combat the microbe. E. faecium is likely to infect only those patients with long hospital stays who are on multiple antibiotics and have a number of medical problems. What is particularly worrisome about the microbe is its adeptness at developing drug resistance. Researchers think it's just a matter of time before the microbe transfers its drug-resistant genes to other, more virulent types of drug-resistant bacteria. "The increase in resistance is a grave signal of the reduced effectiveness of antibiotics," says Weinstock. "If Enterococcus passes its resistance to staph, we're in trouble."
Future work at JGI and the Baylor College of Medicine will complete the final assembly of the E. faecium genome and provide a more complete analysis of its genetic structure.
The JGI is a merging of the genome programs of Lawrence Livermore, Lawrence Berkeley, and Los Alamos national laboratories.
Contact: Elbert Branscomb (925) 296-5700 (branscomb1@llnl.gov).
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