With its tropical climate and persistent moisture, New Orleans has long been a hotbed of fungal disease and research. But when hurricane Katrina blew through, the town quite literally became one giant mycology laboratory. "We're the mold capital of America now," says Seth Pincus, director of the Research Institute for Children at Children's Hospital, New Orleans.
Mold is everywhere, on everything. Pincus, an immunologist, says his facility spent three weeks cleaning up the fungus that took over his freezers and filled his sample boxes. "I was amazed at the power of mold," he says. "People trying to reclaim their houses after the floods have spent tens of thousands of dollars to have houses cleaned and disinfected, only to have mold grow back." He adds that it has also been blamed for respiratory illnesses.
And yet much remains unknown, such as how to speciate molds, which species and proteins in particular are harmful to humans, and how the environment affects mold growth. Complicating matters is the "observer effect" - the act of setting up equipment in a room to monitor mold growth can actually disrupt that growth.
So Pincus looked to the local experts for help. The result was the "New Orleans Mold Project." Comprising mycologists, engineers, imaging experts, and software designers, the project has two basic goals. The first is to develop technology for identifying molds in real time, growing and speciating them in the lab, and understanding their molecular properties (for instance, what proteins they produce). The second phase is "the mold mobile," an autonomous platform that can enter a building and monitor mold growth with minimal disruption. The long-term goal is to address issues of mold and human health in a 20-year research project, as Pincus envisions it.
Each team member brings a unique skill-set to the party. Team members Haibo Yao and Zuzana Hruska from the Institute for Technical Development in nearby NASA Stennis Space Center, Miss., brought experience in mold identification using hyperspectral imaging. The institute is working with NASA to identify mold in space vehicles, and with the US Department of Agriculture to identify agricultural molds. "They showed reasonably good preliminary data that says you can speciate molds, at least molds grown in the laboratory, by their spectral patterns," Pincus says.
Other members, from the Gray Insurance Company in Metarie, La., bring expertise in remotely operated vehicles. Last year, the company placed fourth in a $2 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Grand Challenge to build an autonomous vehicle capable of crossing 132 miles of the Mojave desert. The vehicle, named Kat-5 (as in the hurricane's strength) was built from a Ford Escape Hybrid, an SUV, but the mold mobile will likely be much smaller. "It's got to be able to fit inside of a building," he explains, and move very slowly, "like two centimeters an hour or something." The team is considering building a stationary platform instead, Pincus says, but whether mobile or static, the system will be largely nonintrusive. "We want an autonomous, long-term sensor sitting there, taking pictures, moving real slowly," for six months to a year.
To fund the Mold Project, Pincus is hoping for assistance from private industry, supplemented with funding from the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation. The group has submitted a preproposal for a one-year, $80,000 NSF Small Grant for Exploratory Research. The project is already moving forward, however, thanks to underwriting from the Research Institute for Children that Pincus expects to grow to as much as $75,000. "We're already monitoring for mold in the tissue culture lab," he says.