Category: research

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.

 

Genetics researchers unveil fully functional lab-grown thymus

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Manley_Nancy-portrait.jpgA major advance from researchers in the department of genetics:

A team of scientists including researchers from the University of Georgia have grown a fully functional organ from scratch in a living animal for the first time.

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The researchers created a thymus, a butterfly-shaped gland and vital component of the human immune system. Located beneath the breastbone in the upper chest, the thymus is responsible for producing T-lymphocytes, or T-cells, which help organize and lead the body’s fighting forces against threats like bacteria, viruses and even cancerous cells.

“We were all surprised by how well this works,” said Nancy Manley, professor of genetics in UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and co-author of the paper describing their finding in Nature Cell Biology.

“The general idea in science is that to make cells change their fate, you need to reprogram first to a stem-cell like state and then coax them to change into what you want,” said Manley, who is also director of UGA’s Developmental Biology Alliance. “But we jump-started the process just by expressing a single gene that was sufficient to initiate the entire process and orchestrate organ development.”

Congratulations to the research team on this fantastic news, a very big step along the way to clinical trials and treatments which, while they might be still far out in the future, seem to have just become significantly closer.

Nature article highlights UGA malaria researcher

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R_cellbio2012_01.jpgCongratulations are in order to University of Georgia professor Vasant Muralidharan, an assistant  professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of cellular biology. His research was recently highlighted in the journal Nature.  Muralidharan, who studies the biology of the deadly malaria eukaryotic parasite, worked with with a group of researchers as a post-doc at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis to investigate a means to trap and kill the parasite. You can read more and hear an accompanying audio piece about this published research here

Scientists may be able to entomb the malaria parasite in a prison of its own making, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis report July 16 in Nature.

As it invades a red blood cell, the malaria parasite takes part of the host cell’s membrane to build a protective compartment. To grow properly, steal nourishment and dump waste, the parasite then starts a series of major renovations that transform the red blood cell into a suitable home.

But the new research reveals the proteins that make these renovations must pass through a single pore in the parasite’s compartment to get into the red blood cell. When the scientists disrupted passage through that pore in cell cultures, the parasite stopped growing and died.

Muralidharan now works on his research here at UGA and his work is a great addition to the collaborative efforts of researchers at the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases. His lab website describes the crux of his research interests as follows:

New research tracks Amazon River microbial activity, effects on global carbon budget

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New research from the University of Georgia Franklin College of Arts and Sciences  departments of microbiology and marine sciences could have a major impact on the study of microbial activity in the Amazon River, as well as the effects on the global carbon budget.. The Amazon River, the largest in the world in terms of discharge water, transfers a plume of nutrients and organisms into the ocean that creates a hotspot of microbial activity.  This affects many global processes, including the storage of atmospheric carbon.

The new study further reveals detail about the microbial activity of the Amazon River Plume as part of a broad project to understand the global carbon budget and its possible impacts on a changing ocean. The study, "Microspatial gene expression patterns in the Amazon River Plume," was published July 14 in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"By collecting data from genes and gene transcripts in the water samples, taking billions of sequences of DNA and RNA from organisms at various places in the plume, we were able to construct the most detailed look that's ever been put together of the microbial processes in a drop of seawater," said Mary Ann Moran, Distinguished Research Professor of Marine Sciences at UGA.

UGA researchers from the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences departments of marine sciences and microbiology took samples from the plume 300 miles offshore from the Amazon River mouth, then isolated the genes of organisms using the nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon being carried into the ocean by the river plume.

Discharge from the plume, more than 200,000 cubic meters of fresh water per second, delivers nitrogen and phosphorus to microscopic phytoplankton that live in the upper sunlit layers of the ocean. Via photosynthesis, phytoplankton capture carbon dioxide that dissolves into the ocean from the atmosphere, a mechanism that captures a larger proportion of CO2 than is consumed by the world's rainforests.

Until now, quantitative data about the microbial activity underlying this mechanism has been elusive.

Data in the paper will used be as part of a larger model of the Amazon and will be available to researchers around the world.

"The scientific community as a whole can draw new conclusions or study different aspects from the data sets," said Brandon Satinsky, a doctoral student in microbiology at UGA and lead author on the study. "It's such a large amount of water and material, and the location of the plume moves over the course of the year, from the Caribbean virtually over to Africa."

"It's first time we've had this kind of data, at this level of detail, and so now we can share with teams of modelers to help them make better predictions about the future of the system," Moran said.

The project is part of two major UGA research initiatives: ROCA, the River Continuum of the Amazon; and ANACONDAS, Amazon iNfluence on the Atlantic: CarbOn export from Nitrogen fixation by DiAtom Symbioses, both of which are led by associate professor of marine sciences Patricia Yager. The initiatives are supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation through grant GBMF2293 and the National Science Foundation.

For more on UGA research in the Amazon, see http://amazoncontinuum.org/.