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Dr. Te-Hsiu Ma and a Spiderwort plant
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NATO-Sponsored Conference on Pollution Detection Hosted by Western Illinois University

June 21, 2004

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MACOMB, IL - - More than 30 scientists from 14 world nations will participate in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Advanced Study Institute (ASI) Tuesday, July 6 through Friday, July 16 at Western Illinois University.

This institute, “Plant Bioassay on the Genotoxicity of Contaminated Water, Air and Soil,” is a subdivision of the NATO Environmental and Earth Science and Technology (EST) Program that deals with the detection of genetic damage from common pollutants, radioactive pollutants and the contaminants from warfare in water, air and soil. The focus of the institute will be on the eastern European area.

The NATO/EST Advanced Study Institute will introduce participants to the principles and technical skills of three biological tests (Allium-micronucleus, Tradescantia-micronucleus, Tradescantia-Stamen Hair Mutation) using the genetic material of plants - - onions (Allium) and spiderworts (Tradescantia) - - through tutorial instruction and hands-on exercise. The participants, mostly from the eastern European area, will then complete follow-up studies to monitor and detect genetic damage of environmental pollutants in each of their home territories, explained Te-Hsiu Ma (say Tee Mah), Western Illinois University biological sciences professor emeritus, who serves as co-director of the institute along with Professor Rouben Aroutiounian from Armenia, under the directorship of Dr. Alain Jubier, NATO Science Affairs Division.

“Special emphasis will be aimed at radioactive and warfare contaminants in the environment in the eastern European area, and reports of the follow-up studies will be published to show the status of pollution level in these countries and the potential genetic damage to the ecosystem and human health,” Ma said. “In the long run, this monitoring program could contribute to homeland security of this area.”

A common plant, the Spiderwort (Tradescantia species)is used in two (Stamen-hair- mutation, and Micronucleus) of the three tests. The Stamen–hair-mutation (Trad-SHM) test, developed by the late Dr. Arnold Sparrow of Brookhaven National Laboratory (NY), detects gene mutation. The micronucleus (Trad-MCN) test, developed in 1976 by Ma during a six-month sabbatical leave at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, detects chromosome (DNA) damage from chemical and physical pollutants, including radiation.

Genetic materials in plant cells are more sensitive to pollutants than those of animal cells because there is less protection in plant tissues from the impact of pollutants, Ma explained. These genetic tests which are highly sensitive, simple and economical have been used in more than 40 countries across five continents for more than 30 years. Test results of the Trad-MCN test and Allium-micronucleus test can be obtained within 24 to 48 hours, while results of the Trad-SHM test require at least seven days.

Institute participants will receive instruction and have hands-on experiment exercises during daily laboratory sessions in Western’s Radiation Biology lab, which is equipped with X-ray and Gamma ray facilities; the Cytogenetic lab; as well as the Nuclear Physics laboratories in the physics department. Assisting with the physics lab work will be WIU physics Professor Keh-Chang Chu and Assistant Professor Brian Davies.

Ten international scientists will join Ma in presenting specialized lectures, including radioactive pollution from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident; plant bioassay in carcinogen screening; contaminated soil from ammunition testing grounds; genetic toxicity of common poison, cyanide and arsenics; epidemiology of respiratory patients and on-site genetic toxicity monitoring; remote sensing of environmental pollution; ecology and ecosystem change as well as the variation of background radiation around a nuclear power plant.

Opening ceremonies will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday, July 6 in Morgan Hall 109, followed by an address by Ma on the timetable,DNA damage from chemical and physical pollutants and the mission of the Advanced Study Institute.

Ma joined Western’s biology faculty in 1964. He retired in 1997; however, he has maintained his laboratory and has increased his international activities. Since developing the Trad-MCN bioassay in 1976, Ma has conducted 89 workshops around the world, training scientists on the three simple and effective genetic tests, under the auspices of the International Program on Plant Bioassays.

Opening ceremonies and lecture sessions during the NATO/EST/ASI program are open to any individuals who are interested in the topics, according to Ma.

Additional support for this ASI is provided by Western’s College of Arts and Sciences and the department of biological sciences.

NATO Science web site

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