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CBS News - March 2008

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Judith Berman named Distinguished McKnight Professor

Judith Berman (GCD) has been named a Distinguished McKnight University Professor. Her contributions as an international leader in the study of yeasts span genetics, cell biology, genomics, microbiology and systems biology. Among her accomplishments, Berman and her lab identified a mechanism that enables Candida albicans to resist antifungal drugs. The breakthrough is being used to develop ways to prevent this deadly infection.

New biofuels database debuts

The University of Minnesota BioFuels Database, a Web-based database on biofuels, is online now. The database, designed to advance research on biofuels and boost efforts to develop fuels from renewable resources, is the only database of its kind that is free and available to the public.

The comprehensive database contains data generated by researchers all over the world and is used by academic and industrial researchers, government scientists, regulators, students and others interested in learning about the technical aspects of biofuels.

The project, led by Larry Wackett (BMBB/BTI), was funded by an IREE/IonE Discovery grant. Co-PIs include Lynda Ellis (Bioinformatics), John Carlis (Computer Science), Marc VonKeitz (Microbiology/BTI) and Janet Jannson (DOE Joint Bioenergy Institute).

EFS update

Progress is underway on the transition to a new finance software system and reorganization of several HR and financial functions. The goal is to maintain or improve the current level of service during the transition.

CBS faculty and staff will be receiving additional details from the administrative directors on the St. Paul campus and Terri Ritz on the Minneapolis campus regarding financial process changes and how they affect your specific department.

  • Required training for faculty and lab personnel to order from U Stores is being modified from 25 training hours to 2 – 4 training hours. (Ordering from other vendors still requires the lengthier training.)
  • The “go live” date for the new cluster teams on each campus is March 31.
  • Jane Albeck will be leading the finance function for GCD and BMBB and Juli Pelletier will be providing that leadership for BTI, EEB and Plant Biology. Leadership for the Biology Program financial function is still being determined.
  • For transactional HR functions and new staff orientation, Nicole Matteson will be the lead on the St. Paul campus and Bev Retzlaff will be the lead in Minneapolis. The HR and payroll transactions for the Biology Program will continue to be handled on the St. Paul campus.
  • Vacation tracking, payroll processing, CBS new hire orientations and HRMS changes for BTI, PBIO, EEB, Biology Program, Student Services and the Dean’s Office will all be handled by the cluster on the St. Paul campus beginning on March 31, 2008.
  • Terri Ritz will serve as the cluster team director in Minneapolis, overseeing finance, human resources, and grant management functions. She will be reporting to both department heads and both Deans’ offices.
  • Jeff Schaub will serve as lead on facilities management and work with grants management for GCD and BMBB.
  • Modified financial functions between March 31 and July 1 will largely affect the cluster team and departmental staff.
  • One change will affect everyone. Purchases that are not made through UStores or with a purchasing card will now require the procurement of a purchase order effective 3/31. If lab/areas currently do not have access to enter PO’s in FormsNirvana, they should route their order requests to their departmental accounting staff for entry.

Many employees will undergo intensive training and assessments during the months of April through June. They are participating in training in addition to their regular duties, so please be supportive of them.


Fast-growing species not necessarily taking over tropical forests

A study by assistant professor Helene Muller-Landau (EEB), published in the March 4 edition of PLoS Biology, considers changes in productivity and shifts in plant species composition in mature tropical forests. Recent studies have reported major changes in mature tropical forests attributed to global environmental change sometimes resulting in dramatic shifts in the functioning of tropical forest ecosystems. Muller-Landau’s team reassessed these findings using data from forest plots on three continents.

“We found that tree biomass increased at seven of our ten plots, and showed a large decrease at a single plot. … With the exception of one plot, slow-growing species gained more biomass than either fast-growing species or the tree community as a whole,” Muller-Landau reports. The results contradict recent studies that support the hypothesis that fast-growing species are consistently increasing in dominance in tropical tree communities.

Study identifies enzyme with central role in cell death

A study by professors Jeff Simon and Michael O’Connor (both GCD) identifies an enzyme that plays a key role in control of cell death, a finding with implications for anticancer strategies. The study—“Drosophila histone deacetylase-3 controls imaginal disc size through suppression of apoptosis”—was published in the February 29 edition of PLoS Genetics.

The researchers found that a major function of HDAC3, an enzyme that can contribute to gene silencing, is to prevent programmed cell death from occurring abnormally in certain fly tissues. The study identifies HDAC3 as a single HDAC among many that can play a key role in control of cell death and suggests that this version of the enzyme should be further investigated for regulatory roles in tumor cell killing versus survival.

Structure of protein that mutates HIV-1 DNA pinpointed

Assistant professors Hiroshi Matsuo and Reuben Harris (both BMBB) have determined the structure of APOBEC3G—a protein that inhibits the AIDS virus, HIV. This discovery is the first to shed light on the atomic structure of the protein.

Proteins could be compared to miniature machines, each of which carries out a specific function. The APOBEC3G “machine” is capable of modifying HIV DNA so that the virus is no longer infectious.

HIV-1, however, has unfortunately developed a way to evade this potent cellular protein with its own protein called Vif, which literally triggers the destruction of APOBEC3G. The discovery will help researchers manipulate APOBEC3G to make it effective in combating HIV. Current studies also will help develop methods to neutralize Vif before it has a chance to destroy the protein.

“This new information is a crucial step toward understanding how APOBEC3G and Vif talk to each other,” Harris says. “Furthermore this new information will undoubtedly help researchers identify candidate drugs for future novel HIV-1/AIDS therapies.”

The research was published in the online edition of the journal Nature on February 20.

Waste to electricity conversion one step closer

Research by assistant professors Daniel Bond and Jeffrey Gralnick (both Microbiology/BTI) has resulted in a key finding, reported in the March 3 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, about how bacteria convert organic compounds into electricity. They discovered that riboflavin (commonly known as vitamin B-2) is responsible for much of the energy produced by Shewanella bacteria.

“This is very exciting because it solves a fundamental biological puzzle,” Bond said. “Scientists have known for years that Shewanella produce electricity. Now we know how they do it.”

The interdisciplinary research team, which included several students, showed that bacteria growing on electrodes naturally produced riboflavin. Because riboflavin was able to carry electrons from the living cells to the electrodes, rates of electricity production increased by 370 percent as riboflavin accumulated.


Professor Larry Wackett (BMBB/BTI) recently gave biofuels lectures in the Bay Area. He spoke at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (“Biocatalysis for the synthesis of novel fuel molecules”) and biocatalytic chemical processes developer Codexis (“Biocatalysis for the synthesis of novel fuel molecules”). Wackett also published a review on biofuels in Current Opinion in Chemical Biology titled “Biomass to fuels via microbial transformations.”

A new book on the history of the evolution-creationism debate co-authored by Mark Decker and Randy Moore (Biology Program) will be released later this month. The book is titled More than Darwin: An Encyclopedia of the People and Places of the Evolution-Creationism Controversy.

Assistant professor Anja-Katrin Belinksy (BMBB) received a five-year Scholar Award for $550,000 from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in support of her research on fragile sites in budding yeast.

Anh Tran, a senior majoring in neuroscience and psychology, is one of only 50 students at the University of Minnesota to receive the 2008 President’s Student Leadership Award.

The Office of Naval Research awarded assistant professor Daniel Bond (Microbiology/BTI) a $300,000 grant to study the implications of riboflavin secretion in biofilm development, corrosion and energy production. Bond’s lab also received a $75,000 exploratory research grant from the NSF Energy for Sustainability program to look at whether enzymes able to transfer electrons to electrodes can be linked to very small light-emitting semiconductors, allowing the activity of each enzyme to be monitored by measuring light produced at each site. Such a device could also be used to screen bacteria or other biological catalysts involved in electricity production.

Professor Ken Valentas (BTI) received a $225,000 grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture for a “White Earth Biofuels Feasibility Study.”

Prevention of Cancer, authored by Bob McKinnell (professor emeritus GCD) was published by Chelsea House in January. The short, accessible text, covers the latest research on the biology of cancer.

Assistant professor Jeffrey Gralnick (Microbiology/BTI) received a $300,000 grant from the Office of Naval Research to explore the biological side of riboflavin in Shewanella bacteria as it relates to corrosion, bioenergy and biocatalysis.


CBS Imaging Center open house

Students, staff and faculty are invited to come meet the Imaging Center staff and get acquainted with newly acquired imaging and printing capabilities and instrumentation. Watch demonstrations of a new hyperspectral imaging system designed to collect unprecedented image information from microscopic samples. See the center’s new Nikon C1si spectral confocal microscope in action. Invitrogen and Millipore representatives will be on hand to discuss the latest in labeling reagents and substrates.

DETAILS: 37 Snyder Hall | St. Paul campus | March 27–28 | 10 a.m.–4 p.m.

2008 Undergraduate Symposium

Come support the efforts of CBS undergraduates as they present their research at this year’s Undergraduate Symposium.

DETAILS: Coffman Memorial Union | April 18 | Noon–5 p.m.