The OPCW Plant Biomarker Challenge

The deadline for entries for the OPCW Plant Biomarker Challenge was 4 February 2021.

How can plants help keep humans safe from chemical threats?

As vegetation is part of our lives, plants are good candidates to use as sensors of toxic chemicals. We need to improve our understanding of the physical and chemical modifications that occur due to exposure to toxic chemicals. It is essential that these changes are defined and characterised, and methods established and validated, to achieve new modalities of detection. Unequivocal verification of exposure will in turn strengthen the verification regime of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

The OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) encourages scientists from all OPCW Member States to participate in the challenge and submit their proposals. Be practical, innovative, and engaged! By pushing the boundaries of science and technology you are helping to make this world a safer place.

The Challenge

The OPCW, through this crowd-sourcing challenge, is seeking proposals from scientists across its Member States that describe a method or system by which a specific type of vegetation could act as an indicator of exposure to chemicals that are toxic to humans and/or animals. As vegetation (whether natural, introduced or invasive) is always present in areas of human habitation, plants are well suited as potential sentinel species.

With a view toward prevention of the re-emergence of chemical weapons and strengthening efforts to keep humans safe and secure from chemical threats, the OPCW is interested in learning from the world’s scientific community about innovative, yet practical, capabilities that enable the recognition of biochemical signatures of chemical exposure.

Example Indicators

Plant leaves

Changes in colour

Plant Growth

Changes in leaf or stem morphology

Magnifying glass and leaf

Other observable indicators of chemical exposure

Capabilities of Interest

Capabilities of interest would include the ability to recognise chemical exposure at the earliest possible occurrence for protection and response purposes, and/or to aid in the retrospective analysis of an incident involving chemical exposure. In the latter case, especially for highly reactive chemicals or chemicals exposed to a decontamination process, effects that arise due to chemicals generated through metabolic pathways, and/or environmental fate and transport processes potentially play an important role.

Proposals should look at plants which can present an “on-site” observable change (using visual, spectral and/or other non-destructive sensing methods), and link this change to any indicative biomarker(s) that could be confidently identified in an “off-site” laboratory with suitable molecular detection methods (such as mass spectrometry).

Submissions from scientists from all of the five regional groups of OPCW Member States are highly encouraged.

Early indication

Early exposure indication

The ability to recognise chemical exposure at the earliest possible occurrence for protection and response purposes

Retrospective plant analysis

Retrospective analysis of chemical exposure

The capability to retrospectively analyse chemical incidents, especially those involving highly reactive chemicals or chemicals exposed to a decontamination process, effects that arise due to chemicals generated through metabolic pathways, and/or environmental fate and transport processes potentially play an important role.

Awards and Publication

Monetary awards are to be given for the most innovative proposals, to allow the initiation of a proof-of-concept study. Furthermore, the Secretariat would like to take the collective submissions and produce a scientific review article to be published in peer-reviewed literature and authored by all submitting scientists as a means to exchange scientific knowledge across international borders.

Requirements for Submitted Proposals

Entering the challenge requires only a written proposal. This proposal should provide a detailed description with relevant scientific literature references and citations. Submissions do not require experimental demonstration. All submissions must provide a proposal for experimentally demonstrating a proof-of-concept. As described under the introduction to the challenge, proposals should describe how a given type of plant might present an “on-site” observable change and link this change to any indicative biomarker(s) that could be confirmed with “off-site” (laboratory-based) molecular detection methods.

Submissions from collaborating scientists and research groups are encouraged. The submission should indicate the corresponding author and the institution to which the award money would be awarded. Please note that each award can only be provided to a single institution (see section that follows modalities).

As there are countless examples of chemicals that can cause harm to vegetation and also can concentrate in plant tissue once released in the environment, preference for an awarded proposal will be given to effects that are induced by a chemical action on a life (metabolic) process. This is intended to be a chemical effect that manifests itself through the interaction of biomarkers and/or adduct formation. The chemicals of interest should be relevant to chemical security concerns due to toxic effects on humans and animals. Proposals that look at commonly used and available herbicides will not be considered.

What is expected in the proposal document:

  • List of authors, associations and contact information
  • Executive summary of idea
  • Main body of proposal to include methodology, approach and implementation plan
  • Relevant references cited in text
  • Brief description of relevant expertise of proposal team; CVs of key personnel 

The following should be considered while developing a proposal:

  • The OPCW Designated Laboratory Network has developed sound and robust methods for analysis of chemical warfare agents (CWAs) in environmental samples, making traditional CWAs of lesser interest for submitted proposals (CWAs also require specific handing and safety considerations which make them poorly suited to proof-of-concept experiments outside expert laboratories). If a proposal does address an innovative idea involving CWAs, it would be considered on its merits, and a proof-of-concept study using CWA simulants would be acceptable.
  • Proposals are encouraged to include consideration of toxic industrial chemicals (TICs). Easily accessible TICs (many of which are far less toxic than CWAs) are commonly discussed in reference to chemical threats, and proposals that expand the knowledge of how to recognise environmental exposure are of interest.
  • Some types of agricultural chemicals, including pesticides but excluding herbicides, may also be of relevance. 
  • Another commonly discussed category of chemicals that pose security concerns are the so-called central nervous system (CNS)-acting chemicals (see example). While these chemicals are thought of for their effect on animal and human nervous systems, there are molecules within vegetation that may be of relevance to biochemical interactions (for example, plant species that express acetylcholinesterase are known).
  • The observable effect should be distinct enough to suggest that a certain chemical or type of chemical might have been present (this could be also the result of degradation and/or reaction products that form metabolically after exposure or through environmental fate and transport processes). The observable change of interest is one that is intended to serve as an indicator of need for further characterisation. If an observable change in vegetation can be induced by a variety of chemicals, the proposal should be clear on which types of chemicals these might be (noting that from an early warning perspective, the ability to generate a response from a variety of possible toxic chemicals is advantageous).
  • For whichever chemicals and/or classes of chemicals are considered in the proposal, the submission should include an explanation of why these chemicals have relevance to chemical security.

The underlying biochemistry of exposure for the type of vegetation and the chemicals considered must be described in detail. This would include relevant biomarkers and metabolic processes, as well as environmental fate and transport processes.

The proposal for experimentally demonstrating a proof-of-concept should include a detailed description of how the observable change would be recognised through a non-destructive on-site measurement method. This should include the type of equipment required and a means of creating an alert. Proposals that include the use of mobile devices, computer vision, apps, remote and/or automated data collection tools, and sensors are encouraged.

For the off-site proof-of-concept aspects of the proposal, suitable methods should be identified that could be used to experimentally confirm the presence of indicative markers. Proposals that employ OMICS and systems biology-based approaches are encouraged.

Modalities

The Challenge will be run in three phases. 

Phase 1

In Phase 1, proposals as described above will be evaluated by a technical evaluation team made up of members of the OPCW Technical Secretariat and the OPCW SAB. The corresponding authors (principal investigators) from up to 10 submissions (at least one from a State within each regional group that provides submissions) will be invited to deliver a presentation to the Plant Biomarker Challenge proposal evaluation team to “pitch” their proof-of-concept proposals to the scientific review committee.

Based on the presentations of the principal investigators, up to five of the submissions will be awarded a fixed-price contract of up to 40,000 to allow the proof-of-concept project to be performed as Phase 2 of the project. Should travel be necessary, The OPCW will provide travel, accommodation and entry visa (if needed) support for all invited principal investigators.

The grant will be paid out in a schedule that includes an initial payout with two staggered smaller payouts after receipt of a mid-term and final report of the project, respectively. Upon awarding of a grant, terms and conditions will be reviewed with the principal investigators receiving the award.

Individual awards can only be given to a single institution, where the money can be used by an individual principal investigator or collectively by collaborating scientists within that institution; if this is the desired outcome, it should be made clear in the submission. Proposals that are intended to be collaborative with multiple institutions represented are also possible (and encouraged); for this situation each institution should work together to draft one proposal that incorporates the entire body of work to be done. The submission should indicate the corresponding author and the institution to which the contract would be awarded. Please note that each award can only be provided to a single institution. The lead institution will then work with its collaborators to further disseminate the funding as necessary.

Phase 2

In Phase 2, the principal investigators receiving the grants will be given one year to demonstrate the proof-of-concept that was proposed. Within the year time frame, at least one progress report will be requested (at the 6 month mark), and opportunities will be provided to engage with the technical evaluation team.  

Phase 3

Phase 3 will take place no later than three months after the end of Phase 2. All the principal investigators who received grants will be invited to present the results of their research to the technical evaluation committee. The OPCW will provide travel, accommodation and entry visa (if needed) support for all invited principal investigators.

A final report, that takes into account the questions and comments of the review committee, will be the final deliverable for the principal investigators. This is due within two months after the aforementioned final presentation.

To Enter

The deadline for the Phase 1 proposal submission was 4 February 2021.

Late submissions and submissions that do not meet the requirements outlined in the submission instructions and the statement of work will not be considered.

All submissions, including those not receiving an award, will be considered for inclusion in a scientific review of chemical exposure effects on vegetation. This review would be published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. The review is intended to capture the knowledge produced by the challenge on underlying biochemistry of security-relevant toxic chemical exposure on vegetation. This would focus on vegetation-based biomarkers and metabolic processes, as well as environmental fate and transport processes that may serve as indicators for exposure and/or presence of a chemical which is toxic to humans and animals.

All principal investigators will be asked to give their consent for the information they provide to be included in the publication. In exchange, all consenting principal investigators whose proposals contribute to the review article will be included as authors and given opportunity to review and edit the manuscript. The scientific review committee will facilitate and coordinate the drafting and journal submission of the paper. This review article will be an open access publication to promote international exchange of scientific knowledge.

Contact

For more information, contact OPCW Procurement.

Do not contact anyone else in the Technical Secretariat about the challenge as this may disqualify your proposal. 

About the Scientific Advisory Board

The OPCW Scientific Advisory Board is comprised of 25 independent experts from OPCW Member States. The role of the SAB is to assess and report to the Director-General developments in scientific and technological fields that are relevant to the Convention. On request, the SAB provides advice on technical matters related to the implementation of the Convention, including on co-operation and assistance to the Technical Secretariat.

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