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Research Round-Up: Summer 2015

The latest publications from College of Biological Sciences researchers.
Researchers find metabolic enzyme may have broader reach

A study led by Michael O’Connor and post-doctoral fellow Arpan Ghosh (Genetics, Cell Biology and Development) found that a metabolic enzyme thought to be active only in microbes and not in higher eukaryotes may be active in higher eukaryotes as well. The paper was published this month in Scientific Reports.

The enzyme uracilphosphoribosyl transferase (UPRT) catalyzes conversion of uracil to uridine monophosphate that is required for RNA synthesis. Homologues of the enzyme from higher eukaryotes — including the genetic model organism Drosophila melanogaster and humans — lack a couple of amino acids in its ligand binding site. O’Connor and colleagues used Drosophila to show that the enzyme is, in fact, active in vivo and can recognize and act on uracil derivatives. Moreover, the fly enzyme is essential for maintaining the fast growth seen in Drosophila larvae and is required for maintenance of adult life span.

These findings have important implications for vertebrate and human biology as well since the human homologue of UPRT is highly expressed in all tissues, is very similar to Drosophila UPRT, and is considered a therapeutic target for both antimicrobial therapies and suicide gene therapy.

EEB graduate students’ publish studied on effects of nutrient on grasslands

With a focus on the effects of nutrient availability on grassland biodiversity and carbon dioxide release, Ecology, Evolution and Behavior Ph.D. candidates Charlotte Riggs and Peter Wragg published their Nutrient Network-based research in three separate journals this summer.

Riggs, whose research focuses on the effects of elevated nitrogen inputs on the decay of soil carbon by soil microorganisms, published in Biogeochemistry. She and her co-authors reported results from a study of five Nutrient Network experimental grassland sites in the Central Great Plains of the United States, where they found a decreased amount of carbon dioxide released from soil and decreased decomposition of soil carbon following nitrogen addition. Together, these results suggest that nitrogen increase could increase soil carbon sequestration in grasslands in the future.

Wragg’s research examines human impacts on how grassland plants interact through resources, fire and microclimate. Wragg has established two Nutrient Network experiments in South Africa. Published in both Nature Plants and Nature Communications this July, Wragg was part of a Nutrient Network team that found that plant production was limited by more than one nutrient at most of the 42 grassland sites that they examined. Cedar Creek, for example, a high-latitude site, was most limited by nitrogen. The team also found that as nutrient availability increases, grasslands could become more heavily populated by exotic species.

Both Riggs and Wragg have performed experiments with the global Nutrient Network as well as working with the Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve.

Study tracks faculty attitudes toward whole genome sequencing

A recent study led by Heather Zierhut, associate director of the genetic counseling graduate program, examines the attitudes and experiences of a group of U of M faculty and medical professionals who participated in whole genome sequencing. Based on data gathered before, during and after last year’s Understand Your Genome Conference at the U of M, the paper was published earlier this month in the American Journal of Medical Genetics.

The conference — hosted by the College of Biological Sciences and the Medical School — was designed to provide participants with personal perspective on whole genome sequencing. As a part of the research study, participants received their genome data and answered questions about their experience throughout the process. Zierhut found that whole genome sequencing generally had a positive impact both professionally and personally on participants.

Participants experienced firsthand what it’s like to sit across the table and get those result,” says Zierhut. “I think the implications for clinical care and teaching are particularly strong since going through the process helps faculty understand the patient perspective as well as  limitations and benefits to the technology.”

CBS graduate students contribute to study on effect of drones on bears

CBS graduate students Jessie Tanner (Plant Biological Sciences), John Vincent and Lealand Werden (Ecology Evolution and Behavior) contributed to a study on the impact of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, on bears. The study, published in Current Biology, found that despite a calm demeanor when in the presence of UAVs, bears’ heart rates soar, a sign of acute stress. The study was led by Mark Ditmer, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology (CFANS).

CBS research in the news

Minnesota to go slow on industrial hemp pilot project, frustrating farmers eager to grow crop
Star Tribune | August 8, 2015

How lions became social
Inquiry | August 4, 2015

Can hunting save the lion?
The Sunday Times | August 2, 2015

The lion that broke the internet: Hard truths about Cecil and our woefully short attention span
Salon | July 31, 2015

Forget hunters. Humans pose all kinds of risks to lions
Washington Post | July 31, 2015

Seven reasons to love lions
BBC | July 30, 2015

Lions in the balance: Can hunting save the kings of the jungle?
New Scientist | July 29, 2015

Hemp vs. marijuana: Minnesota researcher finds genetic difference
MPR News | July 21, 2015

Senators tell DEA to stop messing with state hemp crops | July 20, 2015

Hemp vs. marijuana: Why growing hemp should not be restricted like pot
Medical Daily | July 20, 2015

U of Minn. study: Invasive plants get a leg up in fertilized grasslands
MPR News | July 15, 2015

Americans are malnourished (but not for the reasons you'd think)
Shape | July 10, 2015

Malnutrition rates are up worldwide. Here's why.
Huffington Post | July 8, 2015

Step away from the burger: Why a 'Western' diet is bad for your health
CNN | July 7, 2015