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CBS News - June 2007

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Legislature renews IREE funding

The Omnibus Energy and Natural Resources finance bill, signed by Governor Pawlenty in May, continues funding for the U’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE) through mandated renewable energy funding from Xcel Energy. Once IREE is fully funded, it will receive about $5 million a year—a $1 million boost from current levels.

“The funding will allow us to maintain and increase our renewable energy research and outreach activities,” says IREE Assistant Director Todd Reubold, “and hopefully expand into other areas such as developing curriculum and strengthening strategic partnerships with industry, government agencies and the non-profit sector.”

Adds Reubold: “Renewable energy research at the University of Minnesota is critical to positioning the University of Minnesota as a top three public research institution and also helping the state achieve it’s goal of 25% renewable energy by 2025.”

The results are in

The 2007-08 College of Biological Sciences senate and college election results are as follows:

  • Newly elected senators: Sehoya Cotner, Bruce Fall and Sarah Hobbie
  • Continuing senators: David Biesboer and James Fuchs
  • Academic Staff Advisory Committee: Fred Dulles
  • Academic Professional and Administrative Staff Representative (Consultative Committee): Sue Wick
  • Educational Policy Committee: Sarah Corrigan
  • Civil Service/Bargaining Unit Representative (Consultative Committee): Juli Pelletier
  • Scientific/Technical Representative (Consultative Committee): Tracy Anderson

Minnesota Futures grants announced

The Office of the Vice President for Research is sponsoring a new funding opportunity—the Minnesota Futures program—to encourage interdisciplinary research on topics of interest to faculty and of strategic relevance to the University. Interdisciplinary teams will receive pilot funding for up to $25,000 to develop symposia around research questions that engage multiple disciplines. In the second phase of the program, selected teams will receive up to $250,000 to fund interdisciplinary research proposals that originate from the symposia. Deadline for proposals: August 1.


Nitrate levels in Lake Superior continue to rise

Nitrate levels in Lake Superior, which have been rising steadily over the past century, are about 2.7 percent of the way toward making the water unsafe to drink, according to a new study by University of Minnesota researchers. The complexity of the causes underlying the increase makes it difficult to predict when the water could become unhealthy. The level of nitrate, which is produced by agricultural fertilizer and fossil fuel combustion, has increased in Lake Superior about five-fold since the earliest measurements in 1906. But surprisingly, the increase has been steady. Small amounts of nitrate are harmless, but too much can reduce blood levels of oxygen, which poses a risk to infants and children or adults with lung or cardiovascular disease. Long-term exposure to nitrate has also been linked to cancer.

“We’re still a long way from drinking water advisories based on nitrate for Lake Superior, but it’s not too early to give this situation more attention,” says lead author Robert Sterner, professor of ecology, evolution and behavior. “We cannot easily or quickly reverse trends in this enormous lake.”

The study was published online May 31 in Geophysical Research Letters.

New insight into nitrogen fixation

Soybeans and other legumes “fix” their own nitrogen through a symbiotic relationship between roots and soil bacteria, which reduces the need for nitrogen fertilizers. Professor Michael Sadowsky, Biotechnology Institute, has made a new discovery about that relationship that could yield farming practices that are better for the environment.

In this study, published in the June 1 issue of Science, Sadowsky and his colleagues used genome sequencing to learn that some bacteria have alternate ways of entering and communicating with the legume plants; they enter the plant through the cracks between its main stem and branches as well as through cracks in the roots.

“This is a new paradigm; it tells us that bacteria have learned several ways to interact with their host plants in order for nitrogen fixation to happen,” Sadowsky said. “This gives us basic information we can use to tailor the interaction between bacteria and plants.”

The study is co-authored by scientists from several French laboratories, the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Center for Soybean Biotechnology.

Gombe research contributes to chimpanzee conservation

Anne Pusey, professor of ecology, evolution and behavior, is co-author of a study in the June issue of Conservation Biology describing how research on chimpanzee behavior initiated by Jane Goodall at Gombe National Park in 1960 has contributed to conservation.

“Presenting the findings of this research in popular media has educated a broad public about the remarkable nature of our primate cousins, while raising awareness of the many threats they face across Africa,” Pusey said. Pusey and co-authors, who included Jane Goodall, Lilian Pintea, Michael Wilson and Shadrack Kamenya, identified four distinct benefits of the research for conservation. These include upgrading Gombe from a game preserve to a national park; attracting financial support for the research, Gombe and other parks in Tanzania; making discoveries about social structure and habitat use; gathering data on the chimpanzee population in Gombe over the past 40 years, and identifying factors that affect population size.

Based on her experience at Gombe, Goodall went on to found Roots and Shoots, an international organization focused on conservation.

Lithium used to treat neurodegenerative disease

Lithium, a drug used for decades to treat bipolar disorder, may be useful for spinocerebellar ataxia (SCA1), a genetic neuromuscular disease, according to a study co-authored by Harry Orr, professor of genetics, cell biology and development, and Huda Zoghbi, Baylor College of Medicine.

The study was conducted in mice bred with the SCA1 gene and given dietary lithium before and after the onset of the disease. In all cases, the lithium improved coordination, learning and memory. The researchers believe it may also be beneficial for similar conditions. It did not extend lifespan, however, and is not likely to represent a cure. Since lithium is already approved for use in humans, clinical trials in patients could begin soon.

The study was published by PLoS Medicine on May 29.

Beware of E coli bacteria at the beach

Beach sand may serve as a repository for E. coli bacteria from waterfowl and sewage, according to a study led by Professor Michael Sadowsky, Biotechnology Institute, and published in a recent issue of the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology. Sadowsky and colleagues collected studied samples of sand and water from the Duluth Boat Club Beach, which is periodically closed during summer because of high counts of E. coli bacteria. They found more than 3,500 strains of the bacteria, but only one of those posed a health risk to humans. Primary sources of the bacteria appear to be a nearby wastewater treatment plant and migrating waterfowl such as terns, geese, and gulls.

New drug target for congestive heart failure

Research by Lincoln Potter identifying a new drug target for congestive heart failure was highlighted in the June issue of Endocrine News. Full results of the study will be reported in an upcoming issue of Endocrinology. Potter is associate professor of biochemistry, molecular biology, and biophysics.


Robert Sterner has been appointed to a two-year term as director of the environmental biology division at the National Science Foundation (NSF). The division supports basic research and education in ecology and evolutionary biology in such areas as biodiversity, molecular genetic and genomic evolution, population dynamics, ecosystem processes, conservation biology, restoration ecology and the ecological effects of global climate change. Read the news release.

CBS undergraduates Justin Miles and Sean Polster and faculty member Kathryn Hanna (Biology Program) received a $3,200 grant from the University’s Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences to develop “Bursting the Boundaries of Scientific Discoveries: A Colloquium for Undergraduates.”

Faculty promotions and tenure

Romas Kazlauskas (BMBB), Sharon Murphy (BMBB), Antony M. Dean (EEB), Steve Ekker (GCD), Ann Rougvie (GCD) and Jeffrey Simon (GCD) were recently promoted to full professor. Arkady Khodursky (BMBB), Caroline Wilmot (BMBB), Hiroshi Nakato (GCD), William Gray (PBio) and John Ward (PBio) received tenure and were promoted to associate professor.


International Conference on Transposition and Animal Biotechnology

WHEN: June 21–22
WHERE: McNamara Alumni Center, East Bank campus

Experts from the United States and abroad will discuss the use of transposons for gene discovery and gene transfer in sessions on transposon biology, gene therapy, animal biotechnology and more. The conference will serve as a key forum for information exchange and development of transposon tools for genetic applications from functional genomics to molecular medicine.

BioBook Club

WHEN: June 27, 6 p.m.
WHERE: Eastcliff, St. Paul

Robert Elde, dean of the College of Biological Sciences, will lead a discussion of Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. The book traces the development of four plants and their associated desires—apples for sweetness, tulips for beauty, marijuana for intoxication and potatoes for control.

Schaefer Prairie Tour

WHEN: June 24, 1–4 p.m.
WHERE: Bell Museum of Natural History, East Bank campus
TICKETS: $10–$15

Schaefer Prairie is one of the last and best examples of the tall grass prairie that once covered millions of acres of Minnesota. Ed Cushing, professor emeritus of ecology, evolution and behavior, leads the trip.

Maroon and Gold Day at the State Fair

WHEN: August 26
WHERE: Minnesota State Fairgrounds, St. Paul

Hear Jason Hill and Clarence Lehman discuss the potential for cellulosic biofuel to address global warming at the Renewable Energy and the Environment booth. Hill and Lehman were co-authors with David Tilman on the December, 2006 Science cover story about the benefits of using mixed prairie grasses to make cellulosic ethanol. This will be part of the U of M exhibit in the Crossroads Building located on Dan Patch Avenue between Underwood and Cosgrove.

E3 2007 Conference

WHEN: November 27, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
WHERE: Coffman Memorial Union, East Bank campus

IREE will host a conference focusing on the intersection between innovative technologies, visionary policies, environmental benefits, and emerging market opportunities as they relate to developments in the renewable energy sector. In addition to University faculty members, the E3 2007 conference will feature speakers from business and industry, government, and the non-profit sector.