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CBS News - December 2009

From the Dean | College news | Research | People | Events | FYI

From the dean

A look back at faculty research in 2009

CBS faculty do great research every year, but in 2009, it seems like there was one stunning discovery after another. As if to underscore this fact, an unprecedented number of faculty associated with CBS and Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve were featured in the December 4 issue of Science. The issue included a half dozen responses to a study by David Tilman, a paper based on Peter Reich’s research at Cedar Creek (along with a separate article highlighting the importance of his study), and a paper from Mike O’Connor.

This incredible showing in a single issue underscores what a great year for research it has been at the college. Here are some of the most memorable. Clearly, we’ve got a lot of talent at CBS.

  • Dave Tilman, Stephen Polasky (EEB) and Jason Hill (CFANS) published a paper in the February 2009 issue of PNAS showing that using cellulosic biomass to make ethanol would have health as well as environmental benefits because it produces smaller amounts of fine particulate matter, which causes lung disease.
  • Judy Berman and colleagues published research in the March 6 issue of PLoS Genetics showing that Candida albicans has small regional centromeres and forms neocentromeres when normal centromere DNA is deleted. The research also showed that the ability to form neocentromeres is common from fungi to humans and is clearly an integral part of the genome.
  • Daniel Voytas (GCD) was the lead author of an April 29 Nature article presenting a targeted technique for modifying plant genes without making significant changes to DNA. The new approach could minimize concerns about GMOs.
  • Sehoya Cotner and Randy Moore (Biology Program) co-authored a study published in the May issue of BioScience revealing that high school biology teachers influence whether college students accept evolution or question it based on creationism. The research was featured in a recent MinnPost story about the impact of Darwin’s work and history of the evolution-creationism debate.
  • Larry Wackett (BMBB/BTI) and Michael Sadowsky (BTI) developed an enzyme used in a simple, inexpensive new test to detect melamine contamination in milk and other dairy products. The test kit was developed and marketed by BIOO Scientific.
  • David Marks and George Weiblen (PBIO) identified genes that make up tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive substance in marijuana. The discovery, published in the September issue of the Journal of Experimental Botany has applications for the medicinal use of THC and for developing a THC-free variety of hemp that could be grown for its fiber.
  • Dan MacNulty (EEB), a postdoctoral researcher for Craig Packer, published a study in the September issue of Ecology Letters showing that wolves lose their predatory edge when they are two to three years old, although they live to be six. The study indicates that the growing wolf population in Yellowstone Park isn’t responsible for the declining number of elk.
  • Nathan Springer (PBIO) contributed to a national effort to sequence the corn genome that made the cover of the November 20 issue of Science. Springer was lead author of a related study published on the same day in PLoS Genetics showing how the huge genetic variations in strains of corn could be used to produce new strains that are better for the environment.
  • And most recently, Mike O’Connor’s lab (GCD) published research in the December 4 issue of Science showing how a brain hormone controls metamorphosis in insects. The finding could lead to pesticides that are less toxic.

I’d like to thank all CBS faculty for their ingenuity and creativity. It makes me very proud as a dean to see them tackle some of the biggest issues facing the planet and making progress against them. With more than $8 million in new federal stimulus funding, I know we are poised to have a great year in 2010 as well.

Bob Elde, Dean
College of Biological Sciences

College news

The inside story about NSF funding

Gain insider knowledge about how to get your National Science Foundation proposal funded from faculty who have worked there. Bob Sterner (EEB), Martha Flanders (Neuroscience), Jerry Cohen (Horticultural Science) and Anne-Francoise Lamblin (U of M Interdisciplinary Informatics, OVPR) will share their experience and answer questions in a panel discussion from noon to 1 p.m. on Wednesday, December 16 in 6-135 Jackson Hall. Don’t miss this valuable opportunity.

UM briefing kicks off 2010 legislative session

The University of Minnesota will hold its annual briefing to kick off the 2010 legislative session on Wednesday, January 27 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in McNamara Alumni Center. President Bruininks will preview the U’s 2010 legislative request and talk about the economic challenges higher education faces. Alumni, faculty and staff are invited to learn about how they can advocate for the U’s $140 million capital request, which includes $5.5 million for Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories. A light dinner will be served.

5:30–6 p.m. Registration, light dinner and cash bar
6–7:30 p.m. The 2010 Legislature and the Future of the U
RSVP by Wednesday, January 20 at or by calling 612-626-1417.

Faculty publish book on the history of the evolution-creationism controversy

Randy Moore, Mark Decker, and Sehoya Cotner (Biology Program) recently published No Prospect of an End: Chronology of the Evolution-Creationism Controversy (Greenwood Press). The book examines the conflict between the religious and scientific views of life on Earth in its full 3,000-year historical context, showing readers how this debate has played out over the centuries.

The book comprises 1,400 chronologically arranged entries on important political, legal and social events in the ongoing controversy between science- and faith-based views of the Earth and life, and includes appendices on estimating Earth’s age, the geologic timescale and key legal decisions involving the teaching of evolution and creationism.

Winners of EEB turkey art contest announced

Maga Gei took first place in EEB’s annual turkey art competition with her Costa Rican bird, created using cut-outs from photos of plants, animals and lizards from Costa Rica. Annika Moe, who used colored newspaper to create her turkey, came in second. And Emily Peters was third with her very charming hand-stitched quilted turkey. Congratulations to all the winners.

Toys for Tots annual drive

The CBS Deans office will once again collect donations on behalf of Toys for Tots. Bring your unwrapped donations for kids of all ages (let’s not forget the teens!) to the dean’s office, 123 Snyder Hall, through December 14. Call Juli at 624-8728 if you have questions.


Discovery could lead to new pesticides less harmful to people, environment

[Science | 12.4.09]

Mike O’Connor (GCD) and colleagues have discovered how the brain hormone PTTH, (prothoracicotropic hormone) controls the metamorphosis of juvenile insects into adults. The finding will help scientists understand how insect body size is programmed in response to developmental and environmental cues, and offers the opportunity to develop a new generation of more environmentally safe ways to control agricultural pests as well as insects that carry human pathogens.

Although humans don’t undergo metamorphosis, passage from childhood through puberty and development of adult sexual characteristics is also regulated by a brain-derived neuropeptide. Understanding how this process works in insects sheds light on human development.

O’Connor holds the Ordway Chair in Developmental Biology and is an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He recently became head of GCD. Postdoctoral researchers Kim Rewitz and Naoki Yamanaka, and Lawrence Gilbert, University of North Carolina biology professor emeritus, are co-authors.

Research grant news

Claudia Schmidt-Dannert (BMBB) received an award of $350,000 over three years from the US Naval Research Laboratory for “Programmed Pathogen Sense and Destroy Circuits.”


Craig Packer (EEB) is the subject of a long feature in the January issue of Smithsonian that explores his contributions to lion behavior and conservation.

Larry Wackett (BMBB/BTI) was interviewed about his biofuels research for Public Radio International’s Living on Earth program for a show titled “Biofuel Bugs” that aired Thanksgiving weekend.

David Marks (PBIO) has published several articles recently about research from his lab. The articles appeared in Molecular Plant, the Journal of Experimental Botany and Plant Physiology. See a list of citations.

Student researcher Nick Beermann (EEB) looks at the effectiveness of video podcasts for teaching biology.

Daniel Ballhorn, a postdoctoral researcher from Essen, Germany, has joined Imke Schmitt’s lab (PBIO). Daniel is interested in the ecology of plant-insect and plant-fungal interactions. He will be working on projects involving plant tissue inhabiting fungi (endophytes) and their effects on animal grazing. Daniel is recipient of a two-year postdoctoral fellowship from the German Science Foundation (DFG).


NSF Research Panel Discussion

Bob Sterner (EEB), Martha Flanders (Neuroscience), Jerry Cohen (Horticultural Science) and Anne-Francoise Lamblin (U of M Interdisciplinary Informatics, OVPR) will share their insights about National Science Foundation research themes and funding strategies.

DETAILS: 6-135 Jackson Hall | December 16 | noon–1 p.m.


Volunteers needed for Minnesota’s annual science bowls

Share your passion for science with middle and high school students at the Minnesota Academy of Science’s 17th annual science bowls for middle and high school students. Join other science professionals in helping 250 students apply their science and math knowledge in a competitive, quiz show format. Volunteers are needed as moderators, scorekeepers, timekeepers, scientific judges and to fill many other roles. The high school bowl will be held Friday, January 22 at Macalester College; the middle school bowl is on Saturday, February 13 at the University of St. Thomas. For more information or to sign up for a four-hour shift, go to