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CBS News - August 2009

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College news

UM researchers find simple way to detect melamine

Professors Larry Wackett and Michael Sadowsky (BTI) developed an enzyme used in a new test kit that simplifies the detection of melamine contamination in food. Melamine is an industrial chemical that killed six Chinese children and hospitalized 150,000 last year after it was added to milk to increase its apparent protein content.

Development of the test responds to a call from the World Health Organization (WHO) for a simple, inexpensive method to detect melamine contamination in infant formula and other liquids. Jennifer Seffernick, a research associate in Wackett’s lab, discovered the enzyme, melamine deaminase, while conducting research on biodegradation of s-triazine herbicides.

U of M to host Science Week

Transatlantic Science Week, which will be held in Minneapolis for the first time, will focus on transatlantic cooperation in developing sustainable solutions to climate change and other threats to the environment and public health. A collaboration between the University of Minnesota, The Research Council of Norway, Innovation Norway, and Norwegian Center for International Cooperation in Higher Education, Transatlantic Science will take place at the McNamara Alumni Center September 27–30. CBS’ Dean Bob Elde and Professor David Tilman are scheduled to take part in the three-day event.

CBS launches $100 for 100 Years campaign

The college has launched $100 for 100 Years to raise money for much-needed renovations to Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories. The campaign underscores the critical role the field station has played in biology education and research at the University over the last 100 years, and offers alumni and friends the opportunity to help ensure its future. A recent University of Minnesota Foundation Web feature explores the value of Itasca to the University. Interested in contributing? You can give online. Be sure to specify the Itasca Centennial Fund (#5284).

Microscopes needed for Cedar Creek biofuels study

Light sources and stereo microscopes with a magnification range of 10–40x or 80x with wide field of view or on a horizontal arm are needed for insect identification, part of a larger study led by Adjunct Professor Clarence Lehman to gauge the affect of biofuels on wildlife. If you have equipment to spare, contact Colleen Satyshur (608-215-0679 or 763-434-5131).


New function discovered for protein involved in muscular dystrophy

Researchers at the NIH and the University of Minnesota, led by Professor James Ervasti (BMBB), have identified a new function for a protein missing in people with the most common and lethal form of childhood muscular dystrophy. Patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy lack the protective protein dystrophin, which causes their muscles to atrophy. Dystrophin protects muscle cells by directly connecting to two of the three filament types that give cells their shape and durability.

The study demonstrates that dystrophin directly links to microtubules, which become disorganized when dystrophin is missing and may contribute to the devastating symptoms associated with the disease. The study appears in the August 10 issue of The Journal of Cell Biology.

Another study led by Ervasti, published in the June 16 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, demonstrates that the gene encoding cytoplasmic gamma-actin (Actg1) is not necessary for normal development as previously thought. However, mice that lack the gene develop progressive deafness.

AIDS discovered in wild chimpanzees

A study from an international team that includes University of Minnesota professors Anne Pusey (EEB) and Michael Wilson (EEB/Anthropology) shows that chimpanzees infected with SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus), the precursor to HIV-1, contract and die from AIDS. The finding challenges the prevailing view that chimpanzees with HIV-1 do not develop AIDS. The authors report that infected chimpanzees in their study group were 10–16 times more likely to die than those who were uninfected. The team also found that infected females were less likely to give birth and infants born to infected mothers were unlikely to survive. The discovery was published in the July 23 issue of Nature.

Litter decomposition shown to correlate with precipitation

Assistant Professor Jennifer Powers (EEB/PBIO) is lead author of a comparative study published in a recent issue of the Journal of Ecology which found that decomposition rates across 23 tropical forests on three continents in 14 countries correlated with annual precipitation. The study also showed that litter fauna such as insects affected decomposition rates, but that this was not predictable from rainfall.

Funding for protein research could lead to better hemophilia treatment

Professor Gary Nelsestuen (BMBB) is one of 20 researchers from nine countries chosen by Bayer HealthCare to receive funding for research related to hemophilia. He will receive $200,000 over two years for his study of vitamin K-dependent proteins used to treat excessive bleeding disorders. Previously, Nelsestuen identified ways to improve function of all vitamin K-dependent proteins. The enhanced proteins are currently in clinical trials for coagulation and anti-coagulation therapies. However, the structural basis for enhancement, which is tied to membrane binding, is still not fully understood. “The grant will allow us to continue to study the mechanism of membrane contact,” says Nelsestuen. “If we discover the physical mechanism of binding, we may be able to design even better proteins.”

Experts align on beneficial biofuels

Regents’ Professor David Tilman (EEB) contributed an editorial to the July 17 issue of Science urging production of biofuels from biomass with low greenhouse gas emissions (e.g. perennial plants and organic waste) and minimal competition with food production. The article was co-authored by leading researchers from Princeton, MIT and UC Berkeley.


Where science meets social media

A recent issue of the HHMI Bulletin notes a rise in the use of social media within the scientific community. Science 2.0: You Say You Want a Revolution? describes “a quiet revolution for researchers, who have relied on traditional forms of scholarly communication—peer-reviewed journals, scientific meetings—for more than a century” who are adapting to and adopting blogs, social networking, wikis (the NIH even has one) and open-access publishing to share their findings, stay current and explore new avenues for collaboration.


David Merrell, professor emeritus of ecology, evolution and behavior, died May 13. He was 89. Merrell joined the University of Minnesota faculty in 1948 and served as a professor of zoology, of genetics and cell biology, and of ecology, evolution and behavior until his retirement in 1987. His research centered on the genetics of the evolutionary process, using the fruit fly and leopard frog as models. Merrell’s classic study of frog mutants linked mutant phenotypes to the environment in which they are found, and provided supporting evidence for seasonal selection, in which one morph has a selective advantage during one season but is at a disadvantage during the alternate season.

Merrell is survived by sons Edward, David and James Merrell and daughter Ann Merrell as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his wife of 63 years, Jessie C. Merrell.

After volunteering at an orphanage in Peru over winter break, CBS undergraduate Michael Torchia (Biochemistry) decided to take things further. This summer he completed a seven-day, 400-mile trek from Duluth to Rochester to raise awareness and funds for scholarships. Check out an audio slideshow about his experience.

Scientists at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, led by CBS alum Mark Tuszynski (B.S. Biology ’79) have demonstrated that regenerating axons can be guided to their correct targets and re-form connections after spinal cord injury. Their findings were published in the August online edition of the journal Nature Neuroscience.

Professor Jim Cotner (EEB) received a National Science Foundation grant for $443,474 to support research into the potential for carbon sequestration in temperate lakes. The project, “Collaborative Research: Burial of organic carbon in temperate, shallow lakes,” is led by Cotner in collaboration with Kyle Zimmer at the University of St. Thomas and Mark Edlund at The Science Museum of Minnesota.

CBS alumni ambassador and former BSAS board member Imee Cambronero recently completed a documentary about family planning in India as part of her MPH thesis project. She also accepted a fellowship in Tanzania working on issues relating to HIV-AIDS in at-risk populations.

Pete Magee, former dean and professor emeritus of genetics, cell biology and development, was profiled in the June 29 “How I Got This Body” feature in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Magee is a competitive swimmer and an avid skier, cyclist and hiker.

Professors Sehoya Cotner and Randy Moore (Biology Program) accompanied two groups of University of Minnesota students to the Galápagos Islands as part of their “Biology of Galápagos” course, offered annually through the Learning Abroad Center.

Adam Manteuffel, a 2009 CBS graduate, joined the college as freshman admissions counselor this month. While an undergraduate, Adam worked as a research assistant in the Department of Plant Biology and served as a tutor for the McNamara Academic Center. Outgoing freshman admissions counselor Leah Brus leaves CBS to pursue a master’s in environmental health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

Igor Libourel joined the college as an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Biology earlier this month. His work in the area of systems and computational biology centers on metabolic flux analysis and the design principles of core metabolism.

Associate Professor Jane Glazebrook (PBIO) has been named director of graduate studies for the Plant Biological Sciences program. Jane served as associate director for the interdepartmental program for the past two years, and is widely respected for her research on the genomics of plant defense responses.

Associate Professor George Weiblen (PBIO) gave a lecture on the science and politics of cannabis July 7 in Telluride, Colorado as part of a science lecture series sponsored by the Telluride Science Research Center.

CBS undergraduate Erica Rokke, who studies genetics and viticulture, and works on a vineyard near Northfield, MN, describes how her biology background ties in to her passion for wine.


Molecular plant-microbe interactions seminar

Plant Biology faculty and graduate students will present short lectures on a range of topics relating to plant-microbe interactions at the molecular level at this Microbial and Plant Genomics Institute seminar.

105 Cargill | St. Paul campus | August 13 | 10 a.m.–2 p.m.
Microbes to ecosystems seminar

U of M and visiting faculty and graduate students will present short lectures on a range of topics from sequencing the influenza virus to nitrogen dynamics at this Microbial and Plant Genomics Institute seminar.

105 Cargill | St. Paul campus | August 14 | 10 a.m.–2 p.m.
Transatlantic Science Week 2009

Science Week brings together leaders in government, higher education and industry from the United States and Norway to discuss research and trends.

McNamara Alumni Center | University of Minnesota | September 27–30?
University of Minnesota Developmental Biology Symposium

This year’s symposium, titled “Development and Cancer: Good Cells Gone Bad,” will feature speakers from Johns Hopkins, UC Berkeley and Columbia University along with a poster session and a reception at the Weisman Art Museum.

DETAILS: Coffman Memorial Union | East Bank campus | September 29


New Regents Scholarship policy takes effect

Changes to the Regents Scholarship Program, recently approved by the Board of Regents, are now in effect. Beginning fall 2009, employees pursuing a first baccalaureate degree will pay 10 percent of their tuition. Employees who are non-degree seeking students, those pursuing an additional baccalaureate, or those pursuing a graduate or professional degree will pay 25 percent of their tuition. Regents Scholarship Program policy statement

College news | Research | Trendwatch | People | Events | FYI