Category: research

Examining the history of plants

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Morning_glory.jpgIt sounds like the title of a cable documentary (a good one! And maybe it is) but scientists from North America, Europe and China have published a paper in PNAS that reveals important details about key transitions in the evolution of plant life on Earth:

From strange and exotic algae, mosses, ferns, trees and flowers growing deep in steamy rainforests to the grains and vegetables humans eat and the ornamental plants adorning people's homes, all plant life on Earth shares over a billion years of history.

"Our study generated DNA sequences from a vast number of distantly related plants, and we developed new analysis tools to understand their relationships and the timing of key innovations in plant evolution," said study co-author Jim Leebens-Mack, an associate professor of plant biology in the University of Georgia Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

As part of the One Thousand Plants, or 1KP, initiative, the research team is generating millions of gene sequences from plant species sampled from across the green tree of life. By resolving these relationships, the international research team is illuminating the complex processes that allowed ancient water-faring algae to evolve into land plants with adaptations to competition for light, water and soil nutrients.

Great stuff, congratulations to this international team. More lights come on and we are able to understand our world and how it works a little better.

Image: Morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea) is a beautiful flowering plant and agricultural weed. (Credit: Lindsay Chaney/Brigham Young University)

Four Thirty-Three: Spotlight on Scholarship

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In 1952, American experimental composer John Cale composed a three-movement composition, Four minutes, thirty-three seconds, or Four thirty-three. Written for any instrument or combination of instruments, the score instructs the performer(s) not to play their instrument(s) during the entire duration of the piece throughout the three movements. The piece purports to consist of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed, although it is commonly perceived as "four minutes thirty-three seconds of silence". The title refers to the total length in minutes and seconds of a given performance, 4′33″ being the total length of the first public performance, and a standard length of 'canned music.' Cage intended to sell the composition to the Musak Company.

A reflection of the influence of Zen Buddhism on Cage, the piece challenged audiences to reconsider the function of art and the borders between traditional art disciplines and between artistic practice and philosophy.

For the 2014 Spotlight on the Arts Festival, the Arts Council is riffing on this idea in a competition aimed at UGA graduate students:

The UGA Arts Council is seeking graduate students to participate in the inaugural “4 minutes, 33 seconds: Spotlight on Scholarship” competition. The event, which will award two prizes of $433 each, will give the campus community insight into the scholarship and research in the arts conducted by University of Georgia graduate students.

For the competition, graduate students have 4 minutes, 33 seconds to describe their research. They can use up to 33 visual aid slides to help explain the topic. The event is scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday, Nov. 10 in the Chapel, as part of the Spotlight on the Arts festival.

Points will be awarded based on performance, originality and passion, as well as conciseness, comprehension, engagement and ability to convey the research to a non-specialist audience. Sound and props are permitted.

Two winners will be chosen: one by a panel of faculty within and outside the arts and another chosen as an audience favorite. The winners will receive support for their research in the form of an award of $433 each.

Today is the dealine for entries. Graduate students can apply by emailing camiew@uga.edu and CC’ing your department’s Arts Council representative (for a list of Arts Council representatives, see http://arts.uga.edu/about/uga-arts-council-directory/). The email should contain your name, degree objective and a paragraph that clearly, succinctly and compellingly describes your research topic and its significance to a non-specialist audience. A subcommittee of the Arts Council will determine the participants.

Here's Cale's Paris 1919

 

 

$1.44 million NIH grant to statistics researcher

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Wenxuan-Zhong.jpgA better understanding of epigenetics, or changes in our genetic activity that do not precipitate changes in our genetic code, is one of outcome of expanded research capabilties. As technology gets more refined, broadening possibilities for scientific investigation and, indeed, our ability to inquire into the nature of things, our best researchers gain new insights on a range of questions, conditions and phenomena. This of course includes the latest in electron micrscopy and advanced clinical trials but also mathematical and statistical modeling techniques that increasingly hold the key to advanced analysis and identification:

 [A] statistics researcher has been awarded a $1.44 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop statistical models that may one day be used to predict cancer and other diseases.

Wenxuan Zhong, an associate professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of statistics, will use the funds to develop predictive statistical models based on epigenetic change patterns.

Epigenetics—epi meaning ‘over' or ‘other' in Greek—is the study of changes in a gene's behavior that can be passed down without actually altering the genetic code. Like an airport traffic controller, the epigenome passes along instructions that change the way the gene is expressed by switching genes on and off.

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Zhong hopes to shed light on the role of epigenetic changes in illnesses, particularly cancer.
One form of epigenetic change known as DNA methylation is particularly understudied in this area.

"There's a large amount of evidence that a process known as DNA methylation is a key player in cancer development," Zhong said. "Today's next-generation sequencing techniques give us the data we need to close the gap in this area of research."

Zhong and her team will develop a suite of statistical models to broaden the understanding of how epigenetic patterns are established and maintained during normal development and under different environmental conditions.

Large amounts of epigenetic and genomic data are routinely collected, processed and stored. Statisticians like Zhong look for ways to make the data tell the story.

Congratulations to Dr. Zhong and her team on this new support for an important path of inquiry. These pursuits represent the very best of university research and the leading edge of scientific discovery.

New approach for early diagnosis of dementia

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psychology.jpgResearchers in the department of psychology have developed a unique method for diagnosing the earliest stages of dementia by applying tasks commonly used to gauge levels of impulsive or risky behaviors related to financial decisions:

This approach, which has been used in the past to evaluate the decision-making processes of problem gamblers and other impulse control disorders like substance abuse, may help diagnose many forms of dementia before more obvious symptoms emerge. They reported their findings in the Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology.

"The brain is so good at compensating for losses associated with dementia that disorders like Alzheimer's disease can progress for years before anyone notices symptoms," said Cutter Lindbergh, lead author of the study and doctoral candidate in psychology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "By the time people realize something is wrong, the disease has become irreversible, so we need better diagnostics to give medical interventions the best chance of success."

The number of people living with dementia worldwide is estimated at 35.6 million, resulting in more than $600 billion in annual costs, according to the World Health Organization. But as people live longer and elderly populations increase worldwide, the number of dementia sufferers will double by 2030 and more than triple by 2050.

Great work that will have real impact on millions by homing in on the decision-making processes that present another view to conventional testing by neuropsychologists - not a different view, but a way to evaluate symptoms differently. Congratulations to our researchers on the publication of this new study.

NIH supports UGA glycoscience training program

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Glycogen_structure.pngComplex carbohydrates are the key to cell behavior, and the ability to study them at UGA and train the next generation of researchers just received a great boost:

University of Georgia researchers have received a five-year $850,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health to establish a glycoscience training program for pre-doctoral graduate students that will help train a new generation of carbohydrate researchers.

The award makes UGA one of only 26 NIH-funded universities to offer specialized training designed to bridge gaps between biology and chemistry, and it is the only program focused especially on the science of complex carbohydrates.

Complex carbohydrates, more commonly known as glycans, cover the surface of every living cell in the human body-allowing those cells to communicate, replicate and survive. But they are also involved in the development and spread of many diseases, including cancer, viral and bacterial infections, diabetes and cardiovascular disorders.

"UGA is home to a powerful glycoscience research program, so our faculty are uniquely qualified to lead this new initiative," said Michael Pierce, Distinguished Research Professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and co-principal investigator for the project. "This field is revolutionizing our understanding of fundamental biological processes and disease treatment, and we need to support rigorous training for new generations of researchers."

Mentoring students in chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology; special training in glycomics; specially designed courses, public seminars and an annual retreat developed specifically for the new program; all of these innovations are made possible by past investments in people and facilities that not only come to fruition in the form of breakthrough discoveries, but leading-edge training programs as well. These programmatic innovations help the university continue to draw the brightest graduate students to campus to work, teach, learn and train. Congratulations to our Franklin teams at the CCRC. 

Geology to partner with Chevron to support graduate assistantships

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Chevron5.jpgAthens, Ga. – The Chevron Corporation and the University of Georgia Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of geology will partner to support two research assistantships for geology graduate students. The new stipends, part of Chevron’s University Partnership Program, were announced Sept. 26 at a ceremony on the UGA campus.

Chevron’s President of North American Exploration and Production and UGA Geology alumnus Jeff Shellebarger (BS’78 MS’80) visited campus to take part in the ceremony and to speak with geology students, faculty, and alumni. 

“Chevron is investing in geology, a strong statement of support for a program worthy of such student/research investment,” said Sara Cook, director of development for the Franklin College. “Our alumni go on to be leaders in competitive industries all over the world and Jeff is a prime example of the impact of quality that comes from the UGA Franklin College experience.”

Through the partnership with the department of geology, Chevron will support two research assistantships for geology graduate students. Each assistantship will be funded at $21,000 and allow the department to recruit students to study geophysics and stratigraphy. In addition, Chevron will support a team of five graduate students in geology to travel to the Imperial Barrel Award competition in Denver, CO. They will also be able to travel to Houston, TX to meet with Chevron consultants for training prior to the competition, as well as have access to equipment and software. 

“Chevron is proud to support the UGA geology department with a gift of $50,000 made through our University Partnership Program,” said Bill Hunter, manager, Chevron University Affairs. “We believe that UGA geology students receive an outstanding education in the basic geologic fundamentals required for a successful career in the oil and gas industry and Chevron looks forward to recruiting UGA students to help us meet energy demands around the world.”

“Funding from Chevron in the form of RA stipends and IBA team support will allow us to recruit high caliber graduate students to work on research related to energy resources,” said Douglas Crowe, professor and head of the department of geology. “As we move forward in the 21st century we face enormous challenges to continue to find and produce sufficient energy to allow society to grow and prosper, and this partnership is certainly a step in the right direction."

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Jessica Kissinger: making research usable

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Jessica_Kissinger.jpgGreat opportunity to feature not just one of our star faculty members, but also an emerging challenge for all researchers everywhere in this era of big data:

Jessica Kissinger is a molecular geneticist whose research on the evolution of disease and the genomes of eukaryotic pathogenic organisms—Cryptosporidium, Sarcocystis, Toxoplasma andPlasmodium (malaria) among them—has led her to perhaps the emerging issue among research scientists: managing data.

"To solve a complex problem like a disease, whether you're looking for a new drug target or just trying to understand the basic biology of an organism, how it interacts with its host, you have to bring together a lot of data sets," Kissinger said. "You want to be able to take the expertise of the community at large, with individually generated pieces of the puzzle, and then try to stitch them into a quilt that creates a better picture."

Kissinger's local community at UGA includes the genetics department, the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases and the Institute of Bioinformatics, where she serves as director. But her focus is the wider world of scientists and helping make the data they produce more accessible, sharable and reusable.

"So many resources go into generating some of these highly specialized data sets, with very difficult to work with and hard to culture organisms, and publishing your results doesn't necessarily make the data usable," she said. "I work on that usability part-taking data generated elsewhere and integrating it to help others access it and use it well."

Our researchers and those around the U.S. world now produce mountains of publicly available data that must be managed and archived properly in order to be utlized by other researchers. It's the way we build on scientific discovery now - whether it is about DNA of nutirents in deep ocean plumes or T-cells in the body - and the shoulders of giants now include alot of 1s and 0s. Kudos to Kissinger for maintaining her own lab investigations while also giving full force attention to bioinformatics practices that are the steps to the next great heights.

 

 

UGA discovery: building better plants

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xylan.jpgThe complexity of natural materials has long been a point of fascination for scientists, and has only increased as the technology to look closer has itself evolved. The structure and development of sea shells, for example, holds great potential for nanotechnology and building light weight materials of great strength. So, too, the cell walls of plants, whose flexibility and strength depend on two critical proteins. Now UGA scientists have discovered how these fundamental components of plant life might one day help scientists engineer improved plants for biofuels, construction materials, medicine and food production:

"The scientific community has identified a large number of proteins that the plant uses to assemble its cell walls, but it has been very difficult to identify those few proteins that are directly involved in the construction of key polysaccharides like xylan," said Will York, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in UGA's Complex Carbohydrate Research Center and principal investigator of a CCRC research team that recently published the paper describing its results in The Plant Journal.

"The work we've done gives us the fundamental knowledge we need to manipulate plants for industry and agriculture," said York, who is a member of the Bioenergy Science Center, a partnership of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Georgia and other university and industry partners. It is one of three bioenergy research centers established by the Department of Energy in 2007 to accelerate progress toward development of liquid biofuels that add an affordable, sustainable, domestically produced option to the nation's energy supply.

Understanding how and why plants don't make enough xylan and so do not grow normally and thus cannot transport life-giving water from the roots to the leaves is potentially major breakthrough. The complexity evinced by millions of years of evolution holds unlimited promise, and as scientists continue to unlock different rooms in the grand, mysterious mansion of life on Earth, unimaginable connections, products and processes become possible. The force of great research is as humbling as the wonders of life it seeks to understand. Congratulations to the teams at the CCRC and the national research centers who support their work. 

Image: Electron micrograph scan shows a dried film of polymeric xylan isolated from Arabidopsis thaliana stems.

Yellow pigment in the eye and greater visibility

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1920px-Eye_iris.jpgHow our eyes absorb light and achieve great definition in visibilty is a fascinating subject and the focus of one of the best neuroscience researchers in the country, a faculty member in our department of psychology:

[People] with more yellow in their macula may have an advantage when it comes to filtering out atmospheric particles that obscure one's vision, commonly known as haze. According to a new University of Georgia study, people with increased yellow in their macula could absorb more light and maintain better vision in haze than others.

Billy Hammond, UGA professor of brain and behavioral sciences and director of the Vision Sciences Laboratory, conducted the study published in the September issue of Optometry and Vision Science. He explored how yellow light in increased macular pigment helps filter out shortwave light called blue haze, which is damaging to retinal tissue.

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"We've found that the yellow filters out the effects of blue haze," Hammond said. "The pigment affects how far people can see outdoors and how they can adapt to their environment."

Hammond's recent findings support his philosophy on eating healthy and regular exercise. Through his research, Hammond has found that the amount of macular pigment in the eye depends on a person's diet. The macular pigments, known as lutein and zeaxanthin, are most commonly found in leafy, green vegetables. Hammond recommends that in order to maintain healthy eyes, people eat more vegetables.

Dr. Hammond is unfliching about the connections between diet, exercise and good health, which sounds obvious but represents an indefatigable conundrum in American society. Walk more. Eat green vegetables and fruit. The impediments we have created to good health - the keys to vitality and creativity - are mostly a product of passive, sedentary lifestyles and, importantly, workstyles. It's all in our hands to change. Thanks to Hammond for continuing to draw attention to the unnatural ways we live and their deleterious effects on living well.

Expanding the fight against Infectious Diseases

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CEIGD.pngThe UGA Faculty of Infectious Diseases is comprised of many Franklin College faculty members and departments, researchers who have garnered significant resources in the fight against a variety of global health challenges:

"The board of regents investment in infectious disease research provided a unique opportunity to recruit strategically to bridge existing strengths in veterinary medicine, ecology, tropical and emerging diseases, and vaccine development as well as the rapidly expanding the new College of Public Health at UGA," said Duncan Krause, director of UGA's Faculty of Infectious Diseases and a professor of microbiology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "The resulting synergy has been exceptional."

Their studies promise to continue to enhance the research enterprise at UGA and foster new partnerships, both within the UGA Faculty of Infectious Diseases, which brings together researchers across UGA colleges and schools, and with researchers globally.

"A particular strength of the faculty members recruited through the board of regents initiative is their ability to identify promising collaborative opportunities that enable new research capabilities and often spawn new research directions," Krause said.

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Don Harn and Biao He study very different infectious agents, but both expand UGA capabilities in vaccine development. A major research focus of the Harn lab is schistosomiasis, a disease caused by worm-like organisms found in water. This work builds upon UGA's global leadership efforts to control this disease, including the Gates Foundation SCORE program here under the direction of Dan Colley. Harn's research also explores how schistosomiasis can limit the effectiveness of vaccines against HIV and other viral diseases.

He has identified a virus with potential as a delivery vector for vaccines and gene therapy. This discovery has spawned multiple new collaborations with researchers at UGA and beyond.

Having met an Infectious Diseases researcher from another Franklin department earlier today, I can vouch for this program's broad reach across our campus. The nature of fighting emerging and established global diseases dictates an interdisciplinary mix of specialties plus an ability to synthesize voluminous amounts of data even as they expand on it. Data management and sharing is an emerging challeneg itself for scientists and researchers in the digital age, one will revisit soon.