Category: genetics

New genetics research: direct conversion of biomass

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Transporting_Miscanthus_BalesMore potentially transformative new research from the department of genetics, this time in the realm of transportation fuels. For sometime now, biofuels have held great promise - and have been the focus of great controversy. But the economics of the conversion process of grasses to fuels may have finally seen its last barrier fall:

Pre-treatment of the biomass feedstock—non-food crops such as switchgrass and miscanthus—is the step of breaking down plant cell walls before fermentation into ethanol. This pre-treatment step has long been the economic bottleneck hindering fuel production from lignocellulosic biomass feedstocks.

Janet Westpheling, a professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of genetics, and her team of researchers—all members of U.S. Department of Energy-funded BioEnergy Science Center in which UGA is a key partner—succeeded in genetically engineering the organism C. bescii to deconstruct un-pretreated plant biomass.

"Given a choice between teaching an organism how to deconstruct biomass or teaching it how to make ethanol, the more difficult part is deconstructing biomass," said Westpheling, who spent two and a half years developing genetic methods for manipulating the C. bescii bacterium to make the current work possible.

The UGA research group engineered a synthetic pathway into the organism, introducing genes from other anaerobic bacterium that produce ethanol, and constructed a pathway in the organism to produce ethanol directly.

"Now, without any pretreatment, we can simply take switchgrass, grind it up, add a low-cost, minimal salts medium and get ethanol out the other end," Westpheling said. "This is the first step toward an industrial process that is economically feasible."

Emphasis mine. With no pre-treatment and the ability of microbe to transform the feedstock into ethanol (and other, higher-energy-yield fuels), this process is ready for industrial scale up. Westpheling explained how biofuels are already the standard in Brazil. Is the U.S. on the verge of a transformative fuel moment?

Image: Bales of miscanthus being transported in the U.K., courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Miscanthus and switchgrass are the best biofuel feedstock because of the high tons-per-acre yield.

Two genetics professors receive CAREER awards

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sweigart_nelson.jpgThe National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars, providing crucial laboratory support to promising young researchers. Congratulations to assistant professors Andrea Sweigart and Dave Nelson of department of genetics, who were each awarded five-year, $1 million grants by this program:

Sweigart is an evolutionary biologist who studies quantitative genetics and the processes that give rise to biological species, known as speciation. The grant will support further research on hybrid sterility, a subject whose origins go back to the time of Aristotle but which confounded Darwin as it seemed to run counter to his concept of natural selection. Sweigart has spent years collecting data on the genetic basis and evolution of hybrid sterility in Mimulus, an ecologically diverse genus of wildflowers found west of the Rocky Mountains.

"One of the big questions is how species diverge, even when they are growing in close proximity," Sweigart said. "Mapping these genes will allow us to identify what causes Mimulus hybrids to become sterile and help us understand the forces that initially led to their divergence."

Nelson's research focuses on how plants sense different signals in their environment, specifically one set of compounds found in smoke that stimulate seed germination after a fire, and another class of compounds called strigolactones that control root architecture, shoot growth and stimulate interaction with beneficial fungi in soil. While the two compounds are different, Nelson's research uncovered a common element: both signals control plant growth through the same genetic pathway.

"These signals that can tell a seed whether or not it's a good time to grow, or cause a plant to modify its structure based on nutrient availability," Nelson said. "We want to find that chain of events that leads from signal perception to developmental change."

The awards to Nelson and Sweigart make four CAREER awards in the department of genetics in the last two years - beyond impressive. Congratulations to our faculty and administration for continuing to do many things right: attracting and retaining bright, young faculty members takes resources but also requires much more than that - a collegial atmosphere, great facilities and students. Congratulations to Nelson and Sweigart on the recognition and support, and to the department for all the effort behind their successful program.

New research: origins of satellite thymus glands

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PASCOMSAT_GridsphereLots of great news out of the department of genetics, and now we add to it an interesting new study:

researchers at the University of Georgia have published findings in Nature Communications that reveal where these extra glands come from and help explain what roles the extra thymuses may play in the complex network of the body's natural defense systems.

"This was a really important question for me as a developmental biologist studying the thymus," said Nancy Manley, professor of genetics in UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator for the project. "It would almost be akin to someone discovering that humans have extra heart tissue somewhere else in the body."

Manley and her team of researchers discovered that the small satellite thymuses, known as cervical thymi, have two distinct origins, and while it's not entirely clear if they play a major role in human health, the T-cells these thymi produce could be either helpful or harmful.

It seems to difficult to believe that there is so much about the human body that is still being discovered. But great science is all about building on the framework of new questions and this new work is terrific evidence of both.

Newly sequenced genome addresses Darwin's 'abominable mystery'

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Amborella flowerThe origin and early evolution of flowering plants, based at least in part on his frustration with the fossil record of the time, was a particularly puzzling subject for Charles Darwin. His correspondence between 1875 and 1881 reveals that he was deeply bothered by the apparent origins and rate of diversification of flowering plants in the mid-Cretaceous.

A newly sequenced genome of the Amborella trichopoda plant addresses Darwin's mystery and sheds new light on the origin of flowering plants:

A paper by the Amborella Genome Sequencing Project, published Dec. 20 in the journal Science, includes a full description of the analyses performed by the project as well as the implications for future research on flowering plants.

Jim Leebens-Mack, University of Georgia associate professor of plant biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, co-led a team of scientists at UGA, Penn State University, the University at Buffalo, the University of Florida and the University of California-Riverside to decipher the Amborella genome. The team is uncovering evidence for the evolutionary processes that paved the way for the diversity of the more than 300,000 flowering plant species on Earth today.

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The Amborella genome sequence facilitated reconstruction of the ancestral gene order in the ‘core eudicots,' a huge group that comprises about 75 percent of all angiosperms. This group includes tomato, apple and legumes, as well as timber trees such as oak and poplar," said Leebens-Mack.

It's fascinating how mysteries propel science forward, connecting eras and researchers over great periods to advance our knowledge of the universe. And a lagniappe that in this instance, such a significant insight turns on the life of a delicate little flower. Great work.

Image: The small flowers of Amborella trichopoda, an understory tree species native to New Caledonia.

First McClintock Prize

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Barbara_McClintock with microscopeBarbara McClintock (1902-1992) was one of the foremost women scientists in 20th century America, noted for her pioneering research on transposable elements in maize. For this work she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983. She was the third woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in the sciences. Obviously a giant in the field of genetics, the McClintock Prize for Plant Genetics and Genome Studies was established by the Maize Genetics Executive Committee and very first recipient is Sir David C. Baulcombe, of the University of Cambridge, U.K.:

The announcement was made Dec. 19 by Jeff Bennetzen, chair of the committee and the Norman and Doris Giles Professor of Genetics and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar at the University of Georgia.

This inaugural award was presented to Baulcombe in recognition of his career of scientific accomplishments. His work includes the characterization of mechanisms of viral pathogenesis in plants and identification of virus resistance genes. 

There is much more news from the department of genetics on the way in early 2014, so stay tuned. Lots of great work going on there and it's also of note that our faculty are integrally involved in recognizing one of the leaders in the field.

Image: Barbara McClintock, 1947, via Wikimedia Commons.

Improving Sorghum

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Sorghum_fieldSorghum is a genus of grass species, one of which is raised for grain and many of which are used as fodder, either cultivated or as part of a pasture. Though these highly drought-resistant plants thrive in warmer climates worldwide and were was among the first plants of African origin to have their genome sequenced, little has been done in the way of improving sorghum production, until now:

An international team led by the University of Georgia’s Plant Genome Mapping Laboratory will work toward sustainable intensification of sorghum production through a $4.98 million grant recently funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s global hunger and food security initiative.

Through the new Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Climate-Resilient Sorghum, UGA and partner researchers will use new genomics tools to address urgent needs for a more drought-resilient food supply, increase rates of sorghum improvement to better meet long-term population growth, and investigate production systems that promote sustainable farming, particularly regarding preservation or restoration of soil resources and water quality. 

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“We have spent 20 years building genomic tools and developing a fundamental knowledge of sorghum,” said the project director, UGA Regents Professor Andrew Paterson. “This is an exciting opportunity to put all this research to work, improving human lives in some of the most impoverished parts of the world while also advancing progress toward a more bio-based economy through sustainable intensification of agricultural production.”

Paterson, a joint appointment between the Franklin College and the CAES, led the international effort to map the sorghum genome in 2009. This very important work is all the more critical as a response the changing conditions of our climate around the world. It is work on behalf of the future, being performed today in one of the few sectors (university research) where that kind of thinking prevails. More on Paterson and his research in this feature

Image: A field of hybrid sorghum, via Wikimedia Commons.

Genetically Speaking

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GasterosteusAculeatus fish head

Genetics lectures series begins today

By Jessica Luton

jluton@uga.edu

New book discusses genetic testing as disease predictor

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250_Happe-book coverRecent headlines concerning the actress Angelina Jolie brought renewed emphasis to the use of genetic testing. A new book by Franklin College assistant professor Kelly Happe further fleshes out the social and cultural context to the discussion of medical decision-making based on genetic testing:

Although Jolie cautioned readers that risks are different for each woman and only a fraction of breast cancers result from an inherited gene mutation, her article rekindled an ongoing debate among patients and medical experts about genetic testing and its role in modern health care.

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Happe urges readers to consider not only how genetics can affect health, but also how discoveries related to heredity and disease can reinforce negative ideas about social concepts like race and gender.

"I look at a research article written by a scientist as a kind of ‘social text,' because it shows us how social and cultural ideas work their way into the research process," said Happe, who holds a joint appointment in communication studies and the Institute for Women's Studies in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "I want to show how research is shaped by values and norms that we often think don't exist in the lab."

Congratulations Dr. Happe on such a timely publication. The book is available from the NYU Press.

Alumna wins Breakthrough Prize in the Life Sciences

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Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Yuri Milner jointly established a foundation to reward excellence in life sciences, the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation. And a Franklin alumna is among the 11 inaugural winners of the $3 million award:

The newly created Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation on Wednesday announces the first 11 winners of an award intended to inject excitement into the sometimes lonely, underfunded quests to understand and combat cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's disease and other maladies.

Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook; Brin, who co-founded Google; and Milner, a venture capitalist, have dipped into their fortunes to sponsor awards worth $3m each, compared with a Nobel prize's monetary value of $1.1m.

Cori Bargmann (BS '81) is the Torsten N. Wiesel Professor at Rockefeller University and head of the Lulu and Anthony Wang Laboratory of Neural Circuits and Behavior who studies how animals detect and respond to a sensory stimulus. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has received the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience. She received her degree in biochemistry at UGA and as an undergraduate, studied with former Franklin College Dean Wyatt Anderson:

"I had to sit down on the floor for a while. I thought it must be a practical joke or a Nigerian scam," said Cornelia Bargmann, 51, who has pioneered work on neural circuits and behaviour at the Rockefeller University. "The scale of this is so outsized I think it will have a huge impact on the life sciences." Asked how she would spend the money she hesitated. "It's so far outside my normal planning I don't know. Get the car fixed?"

Congratulations, Cori. Your alma mater is proud and we know you'll find some great ways to put the money to use.

Microbiology researchers publish discovery on Earth's oldest life forms

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This is a big discovery:

University of Georgia researchers discovered important genetic clues about the history of microorganisms called archaea and the origins of life itself in the first ever study of its kind. Results of their study shed light on one of Earth's oldest life forms.

"Archaea are an ancient form of microorganisms, so everything we can learn about them could help us to answer questions about the origin of life," said William Whitman, a microbiology professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and co-author on the paper.

Felipe Sarmiento, lead author and doctoral student in the microbiology department, surveyed 1,779 genes found in the genome of Methanococcus maripaludis, aquatic archaea commonly found in sea marshes, to determine if they were essential or not and learn more about their functions. He found that roughly 30 percent, or 526 genes, were essential.