Science Wednesday: The Future is Now

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By Aaron Ferster

When I was a kid one of my favorite shows was a cartoon about a space-age family that tooled around in a flying, spaceship-like car. Cool. “I hope we have that when I’m a dad,” I thought.

While my mode of transportation is earthbound, some of the show’s futuristic gadgets have actually come to pass: I call home with a pocket-sized phone, video conferencing is here, and many of us spend our workdays surrounded by banks of computer screens—even if we don’t make sprockets.

I recently got another glimpse of our emerging high-tech future when EPA joined its research partners from the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) National Toxicology Program, the National Institute of Health (NIH) Chemical Genomics Center, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and others to unveil a high-speed robot screening system. The robots are set up to test chemicals for their potential to trigger health problems.

The system consists of robot arms that continually move rectangle “plates” through the toxicity testing process. Each plate contains 1536 small wells that can hold a dab of chemical solution and cells (human and non-human animal), and the arm precisely moves each plate though exposure testing and computer analysis. Take a look at this video to see it in action.

The robot system, housed at the National Institutes of Health Chemical Genomics Center (NCGC) in Rockville, Maryland, was purchased as part of the Tox21 collaboration between the EPA, NIEH’s National Toxicology Program, NCGC, and FDA. Tox21 merges existing resources—research, funding and testing tools—to develop ways to more effectively predict how chemicals will affect human health and the environment.

Tox21 partners have already screened more than 2,500 chemicals for potential toxicity using robots and other innovative chemical screening technologies, such as ToxCast. EPA tapped such technologies to test oil dispersants for potential endocrine disrupting activity following the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

The 10,000 chemicals the robot system will screen include those found in industrial and consumer products, food additives, and drugs. Testing results will provide information useful for evaluating if these chemicals have the potential to disrupt human body processes enough to lead to adverse health effects.

While I’m still looking forward to my first flying car, knowing the future should contain fewer potentially harmful chemicals is pretty exciting, too. Especially now that I’m a dad.

About the author: Aaron Ferster is the editor of Science Wednesday and a frequent contributor.

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