Genome analysis creates tree of life for modern birds

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Long long ago in a land far far away not so far from here at all, crocodiles, dinosaurs, and birds all arose from early reptiles called thecodonts.

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Using new computational methods developed by assistant professor of statistics Liang Liu, Travis Glenn of the College of Public health and others, an international team of scientists has shed more light on an obscure period of avian evolution and further untangle the bird family tree.

Members of the Avian Phylogenomics Consortium—composed of 200 researchers from 80 institutions and 20 countries—have sequenced and analyzed the genomes of 48 species of birds and three species of crocodiles to better understand the fundamental evolutionary events that led to feathers, flight and song.

The consortium simultaneously published 28 papers this past week—eight papers in a special Dec. 12 issue of Science and 20 more in Genome Biology, GigaScience and other journals.

Glenn, an associate professor of environmental health science in the College of Public Health; Liu, an assistant professor in the department of statistics and Institute of Bioinformatics in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences; and John Finger Jr., a doctoral student in the Interdisciplinary Toxicology Program and College of Public Health, were co-authors on two of the eight papers published in Science.

The first of these two papers, "Whole genome analyses resolve the early branches to the tree of life of modern birds," creates the most reliable tree of life for birds to date.

Fantastic work by our faculty and all members of the consortium, all celebrated in a special issue of Science. This is the kind of atmosphere that attracts the best graduate students, among other interested parties. So we celebrate this marvelous achievement and all the other indicators it provides, campus-wide and beyond.

UGA-Emory collaborations in Infectious Disease research

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The Provost's Office highlighted some research collaborations in the state of Georgia among our premier institutions, the cummulative extramural support awarded these efforts and its effects. The summary included work by Franklin College professor of genetics, Jessica Kissinger:

Kissinger, who directs the UGA Institute of Bioinformatics, is leading a team that is organizing, distributing and mining the massive quantities of data produced by the project with the ultimate goal of identifying new opportunities to diagnose the disease, which causes an estimated 660,000 deaths annually.

"The goal of my team is to integrate the terabytes of data being produced on both the host and the parasite and make it accessible to our mathematical modelers, who are looking for patterns and signals, as well as the global malaria research community to guarantee that this large investment has the biggest impact possible on malaria research," Kissinger said.

More news coming soon on Kissinger's work with bioinformatics. Suffice it to say we are inspired by her efforts and those of other faculty members working beyond campus to further important goals for improving health around the world.

CCRC-Franklin researchers target cancer stem cells

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A new paper by research scientists at the Complex Carbohydrate Research Center focuses on cancer stem cells:

the research team demonstrates that the sugar molecule, made by an enzyme known as GnT-V, regulates the development of a particular subset of cancerous cells known as cancer stem cells.

Much like normal stem cells that sustain organs and tissues, cancer stem cells can self-renew, and their cellular offspring clump together to form tumors. Conventional treatments like surgery, chemotherapy or radiation may reduce overall tumor size, but if they do not kill the cancer stem cells, the disease is likely to return.

"You can think of it like a colony of ants," said Michael Pierce, director of UGA's Cancer Center, Mudter Professor in Cancer Research in UGA's Complex Carbohydrate Research Center and principal investigator for the study. "You can kill the ants in the mound, but if you don't get the queen, they will come back."

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Their discovery paves the way for new cancer treatment methods specifically designed to inhibit GnT-V, which, when combined with other treatments, may help prevent disease recurrence.

While their study focused particularly on colorectal cancers, the researchers hope their discovery may one day work for a variety of cancer types.

"This is a rapidly growing field within the cancer research community," said Pierce, who is also a Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "We want to know what makes these cancer stem cells unique and what we need to do in order to target them specifically so we can develop new treatments and save lives."

Great work by some of our best. Congratulations to Pierce and his team. Continued good results on this important work.

Linguistics PhD grad wins international dissertation prize

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MUnze.gifCongratulations to Dr. Mark Wenthe, currently a parttime instructor at UGA and also a recent PhD alumnus in linguistics in the department of classics, who won an international competition for best dissertation for the year 2013 from the Society of Indo-European Studies (Indogermanische Gesellschaft).

Wenthe's dissertation, ISSUES IN THE PLACEMENT OF ENCLITIC PERSONAL PRONOUNS IN THE RIGVEDA, among the four canonical sacred texts (śruti) of Hinduism known as the Vedas, actually shared the award with Konstantinos Sampanis from the Univ. of Salzburg (Austria). Both scholars received full marks for their work.

Congratulations as well to Jared S. Klein, professor of linguistics, classics, and Germanic and Slavic languages director, program in linguistics in the department of classics. Our scholars are making an impact around the world, as their work is celebrated, noted and honored. Congratulationd again on this outstanding achievement.

Retirement in Academia

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no-8-1952_Rothko.jpgAs a normal part of my duties in research reporting, I had an enjoyable interview/conversation yesterday afternoon with a junior faculty member. An energetic, very bright and motivated young professor, I could see how his infectious enthusiasm might effect students and as well as departmental colleagues. The tone of that experience brought to mind this Chronicle Review post from last month by friend of the blog (and Hofstra U. art faculty member) Laurie Fendrich:

The 1994 law ending mandatory retirement at age 70 for university professors substantially mitigated the problem of age discrimination within universities. But out of this law a vexing new problem has emerged—a graying—yea, whitening—professoriate. The law, which allows tenured faculty members to teach as long as they want—well past 70, or until they’re carried out of the classroom on a gurney—means professors are increasingly delaying retirement past age 70 or even choosing not to retire at all.

Like so much else in American life, deciding when to retire from academe has evolved into a strictly private and personal matter, without any guiding rules, ethical context, or sense of obligation to do what’s best—for one’s students, department, or institution. Only the vaguest questions—and sometimes not even those—are legally permitted. An administrator’s asking, "When do you think you might retire?" can bring on an EEOC complaint or a lawsuit. Substantive departmental or faculty discussions about retirement simply do not occur.

University professors may be more educated than the average American, but now that there’s no mandatory retirement age, their decisions about when to leave prove that they are as self-interested as any of their countrymen. When professors continue to teach past 70, they behave in exactly the same way as when we decide to drive a car on a national holiday. Who among us stops to connect the dots between our decision to drive and a traffic jam, or that traffic jam and global warming?

There's a balance to be had that keeps fresh blood mixing with venerable experience on campus - an important mix for which there exists no formula about getting it just right. Both are crucial, even as they fluxuate, and knowing when to move on and make room for new faculty is arguably one of the great challenges for career academics - and of course not only them. A great, honest appraisal from Fendrich. Food for thought.