Frontiers - Fall 1999

From the Dean

It has been an exhilarating fall for the College of Biological Sciences (CBS). We celebrated the 90th anniversary of our Lake Itasca station with a symposium in St. Paul and a weekend at Itasca attended by more than 250 people. We honored CBS alumna Shirley Tucker, recipient of the University's Outstanding Achievement Award. We broke ground for the new Molecular and Cellular Biology Building. With the College of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences, we received a $10 million gift from Cargill for a Microbial and Plant Genomics Building on the St. Paul campus. We admitted one of the most highly qualified freshman classes of any college at the University. And, finally, we are part of Campaign Minnesota, the largest fund-raising campaign ever announced by a public university.

President Mark Yudof announced the $1.3 billion campaign in October and described it as "a defining moment" for the University.

As part of Campaign Minnesota, CBS intends to raise support for the promising future that we have mapped out with five major focus areas. These are:

  • Evolutionary biology. Understanding the patterns and processes of evolution is crucial to engineering new molecular machines, addressing challenges such as diseases spread by microorganisms, and predicting how influences like crop developments and climate change will affect earth's life forms.
  • Molecular and cellular biology. Since 1997, when President Yudof chose this as one of five key investment areas for the University, we have made great progress. Several new faculty positions, created through the initiative, were posted this fall.

  • Microbial and plant genomics. This part of the molecular and cellular biology initiative will have applications in agriculture, environmental sciences, and biotechnology. Possible applications include engineering bacteria to produce useful chemicals from agricultural byproducts such as cornstalks.

  • Ecosystems: biology of the lakes and lands of Minnesota. Our state's ecosystems must be sustained in the face of increasing human pressure. CBS researchers have been major contributors to the study of ecosystems; we must continue to explore their fundamental workings and to develop scientifically based policies to protect them.

  • Lake Itasca: the signature of biology at the University of Minnesota. We intend to expand the use of our field station by bringing our freshmen to Itasca for a short, intensive introduction to biology, providing small-group, academically rigorous interactions with senior faculty.

Our fund-raising efforts will be aimed at:

  • endowed professorships and chairs to help attract and retain star faculty, who will in turn attract more research funding and the best students;
  • four-year, merit-based scholarships to help us compete for the most highly talented prospective undergraduate students;

  • fellowships to recruit and reward the best and brightest graduate students; and

  • buildings and technology to ensure that our teaching and research keep pace with the rapidly changing field of biology.

CBS is poised to help shape the University of Minnesota into one of the very best higher education institutions in the 21st century. With your support, we will make it happen.

Robert Elde

Mighty microbes

U researchers bioengineer bacteria to tackle big environmental problems.

Not everyone loves a jar of fuzzy mold. But as a kid, Lawrence Wackett was fascinated by the stuff and grew it for fun. During his college days at the State University of New York at Brockport, he used bacteria to enhance the flavor of his homemade wine. Today, after 12 years on the University's biochemistry faculty, Wackett is still indulging his passion for microbes, but in ways he never dreamed of as a child.

By taking advantage of the bacterial world's huge variety of biochemical talents, Wackett has put many of the tiny organisms to work. Generations measured in hours rather than years allow bacteria to quickly evolve ways to digest new food sources, including chemicals that would kill or sicken people. Wackett has become an expert at finding bacteria to digest harmful chemicals and, if necessary, outfitting them with new genes to help them do the job better.

No one can call Wackett an ivory tower scientist. He and his colleagues have tackled some of the world's toughest environmental problems. Take the case of nuclear waste dumps, of which the United States has at least 3,000. At many of these sites, radioactive materials and associated organic solvents have leached into soil and groundwater. Cleansing them by conventional means would take megabucks--more than $200 billion by some estimates. To get a handle on this seemingly insurmountable task, Wackett and colleagues at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md., turned to an unlikely source: a can of meat.

Actually, it was a strain of bacteria first discovered about 20 years ago in a can of irradiated meat. Known as Deinococcus radiodurans, the bacteria stand up to high-level radiation just fine. What better candidate to dispose of solvents at a radioactive site?

"When exposed to radiation, the bacteria suffer chromosomal breakage and other damage," explains Wackett. "But they thrive because they have tremendous repair mechanisms."

The bacteria don't naturally eat solvents, so Wackett inserted genes that enabled them to attack (although not completely digest) solvents like toluene and chlorobenzene, in which radioactive substances are commonly mixed. In experiments with Mike Daly and Ken Minton of the Uniformed Services University, Wackett found that, when placed in a high-energy gamma-ray field, D. radiodurans could attack the solvents with the same efficiency as fellow species members subjected to no radiation.

With the addition of a few more genes, the bacteria may be engineered to completely digest the solvents, says Wackett. He and his colleagues are now working on that. But they are also girding D. radiodurans for the fight against heavy metals, another contaminant of nuclear sites. Focusing on mercury, the team gave the bacteria an entire operon--a set of genes that allowed the bacterial cells to bind a toxic form of mercury, absorb it, and turn it into the chemically neutral form used in dental amalgams. In lab tests, the bacteria neutralized mercury with no trouble, even at radiation levels much higher than they would be expected to encounter at a nuclear waste site.

"The bacteria haven't been tested at an actual site," says Wackett. "Those sites are kept under extremely tight control. The next step would be to test the bacteria in a model system of soil spiked with one or more of the components of the radioactive waste found at the contaminated sites."

How the D. radiodurans strain came by its remarkable powers isn't known, but its radiation resistance is orchestrated by many genes, says Wackett.

"The bacteria have been turning up in feces of desert animals," he says. "It's thought that the bacteria's DNA-repair capability may have evolved to withstand desiccation-induced breakage of DNA strands." In other words, it could be the bac-terium's ability to withstand desert dryness that makes it strong enough to withstand radioactive gamma rays.

RECENTLY Wackett and colleague Michael Sadowsky found a novel strain of bacteria at an agricultural dealership in Little Falls, Minn. The bacteria, a type of Pseudomonas, were growing in soil contaminated with atrazine, a widely used herbicide. The bacteria had almost certainly adapted to the abundance of atrazine by evolving the ability to use the herbicide as their nitrogen source. Last year the two scientists put the bacteria to the test at a South Dakota farm field where 250 gallons of atrazine had fallen off a truck.

"The spill affected 35 cubic yards of soil," says Sadowsky, a professor of soil, water, and climate in the College of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences. "There were 20 grams of at-razine per kilogram of soil."

In designing the test, the scientists had to consider that while their Pseudomonas strain could subsist on atrazine, it preferred more convenient sources of nitrogen, such as ammonia or nitrates. Therefore, says Sadowsky, the best plan seemed to be to use the bacteria's atrazine-degrading enzymes by themselves, without living bacteria getting distracted by all the other goodies in the soil.

To accomplish this, Wackett and Sadowsky engineered the bacteria to over-produce the enzymes that attacked atrazine. With support from Novartis (formerly Ciba-Geigy), the manufacturer of atrazine, the researchers used facilities of the College of Biological Sciences' Biological Process Technology Institute to grow usable quantities of bacteria. Then they killed the cells and used the dead bugs for the experiment.

As usual, the devil was in the details. One of the biggest obstacles to treating the affected soil was how to mix the bacteria evenly into such large quantities of dirt. To solve that one, Wackett and Sadowsky turned to Lisa Strong, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics.

"She figured out many engineering problems--for example, how to optimize the soil mixing," says Wackett. "It was done with a bobcat on top of a tarp liner." All 35 cubic yards of soil were mixed that way; some soil got the bacterial treatment, some got either the bacteria or fertilizer or both, and control soil got neither bacteria nor fertilizer. The researchers put batches of soil, about a cubic yard apiece, in bins lined with tarps. Then the waiting began.

After 12 weeks, the first results came in: The bacteria-treated soil had lost 53 percent of its atrazine, while untreated soil showed no significant degradation. But the soil that ridded itself of the most atrazine--77 percent--was soil that had been treated with fertilizer as well as bacteria. That, explains Sadowsky, is due to phosphate in the fertilizer. After enzymes in the engineered bugs have taken the first step in breaking down atrazine, phosphate stimulates neighboring bacteria to perform the next step. This has the effect of "pulling" the breakdown of atrazine toward completion.

The experiment has now been in place for more than a year, and the researchers are curious about how much more atrazine has been degraded. "We'll look at the site again this fall to see how it's doing," says Wackett. He and Sadowsky also are investigating ways to adapt the atrazine-degradation technology for use in water purification.

Thanks to the worldwide flood of pesticides, industrial reagents, and other human-generated chemicals that bacteria now face (and often metabolize), scientists like Wackett have plenty to study. To help others get a handle on the incredible diversity of microbes and metabolic pathways that involve these newfangled compounds, Wackett has joined forces with Lynda Ellis, an associate professor in the University's health infor-matics program. Propelled by Ellis' expertise in devising databases, the two researchers have set up the University of Minnesota Biocatalysis/Biodegradation Database (UM-BBD, at to guide scientists to information about which microbes metabolize which compounds and by what biochemical pathways.

The need for such a service can perhaps best be illustrated by a case that happened before UM-BBD came along.

"In the early '70s, a California company was sued for dumping vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, into water," says Wackett. "The California environmental agency found a plume of vinyl chloride spreading out from a company factory through the soil. The groundwater led to a drinking supply. The company vehemently denied dumping vinyl chloride. Thanks to a Stanford professor, it came out that a microbe was using the solvent trichloroethylene (TCE) to make vinyl chloride. So the company had been dumping TCE, but there were no laws against that at the time.

"If our database had been around then, the company lawyers would have gone to it and saved a lot of trouble."

With links to databases in Japan, Europe, and the U.S., UM-BBD helps its users find just about anything that's known about chemicals, genes, enzymes, microbes, and metabolic pathways. Wackett also sees such databases as a springboard to the emerging field of predicting how new compounds will be metabolized. Many companies want to make biodegradable products, says Wackett, and choosing the right materials is easiest if the environmental fates of materials can be predicted during the design phase.

Besides, it's fun. Wackett once gave some of his peers the challenge of predicting the biochemical steps microbes would take to degrade the insecticide permethrin. It proved to be a tough question; he got a variety of ideas as to how it would happen. And he does the same thing with students. "I've asked graduate students to invent enzymes and pathways to metabolize various compounds," he says. "It's a good way to teach."

Where "bio" meets "tech"

When Wackett and Sadowsky wanted a facility to grow their atrazine-eating bacteria in sufficient numbers to tackle an actual spill, all they had to do was walk over to the Bioprocessing Pilot Plant facility in Gortner Laboratory. Operated by the College of Biological Sciences' Biological Process Technology Institute (BPTI), the facility supplied the reactors to grow large quantities of the bacteria, and the rest is history. That piece of work typifies the daily doings at BPTI: novel, collaborative, and aimed at solving real-world problems.

BPTI brings together scientists from diverse backgrounds, primarily biologists and engineers, to nurture projects that draw on disciplines from both of those broad fields. BPTI projects are geared to processes that take place at an interface between biology and engineering; some may be performed by organisms (often bacteria), others may simply involve biological materials. The institute also sponsors graduate programs in bio-technology and microbial engineering. It trains biologists in engineering tech-niques and vice versa, resulting in graduates who can contribute to both the "bio" and the "tech" aspects of bio-logically based industrial operations. It also helps trainees find summer jobs in industry to get their feet wet in their field.

BPTI director Ken Valentas knows the value of such varied experience. A chem-ical engineer by training, he spent a total of 24 years at Sinclair, General Mills, and Pillsbury before coming to the institute eight years ago. He points to the breadth of departments represented at BPTI--biochemistry, molecular biology, and biophysics; genetics, cell biology, and development; microbiology; chemical engineering; soil, water, and climate; and ecology, evolution, and behavior--as evidence of its unique character.

BPTI faculty have helped com-panies develop or improve ways to make a long list of products, including toxin-eating enzymes, viruses for vaccines, antibodies used to diagnose diseases, and amino acids. Many of these projects have profound implications. Take, for example, the bacteria that make amino acids--notably lysine, which is in short supply in many feed grains. These microbes, which use methanol as their carbon source, could produce animal feed with a higher nutritional content.

"To me, the biggest impact is in developing countries," says Valentas. "Currently enough methane gets flared [burned off as waste] to supply all the lysine requirements in the world. There will not be enough grain to feed China's farm animals. [With lysine from large-scale bacterial production], we could meet the expected increase in demand."

BPTI has come a long way since 1983, when the concept was proposed by biochemistry professor Victor Bloomfield and Richard Caldecott, then dean of CBS. The Pilot Plant facility was born the next year, in a dirt-floored basement room of Gortner Lab; by 1986, under founding director Michael Flickinger, it had blossomed into a state-of-the-art laboratory for trying out and scaling up new technologies for bioprocessing. Today the institute boasts exchange programs with Japan and England and continues to seek more contacts.

But Valentas is most proud of the seed grants BPTI provides for its faculty to get projects off the ground. With that support, faculty stand a better chance of bringing in federal or industrial grants to fund even the most ambitious projects. For instance, Flickinger and chemical engineering professor L.E. Scriven used seed money to develop a technology called thin-film biocatalysis, which led to a large National Science Foundation grant, three patent applications, and a small start-up company.

Valentas' biggest goal is to bring in enough support from outside grants to match what the state, through the Uni-versity, invests in BPTI. Overhead from faculty-generated grants already returns $500,000 per year to the University--more than a third of the state investment. Returning 100 percent is a lofty goal, but given the caliber of BPTI faculty and the demand for new technologies, it just might happen.

by Deane Morrison

Doing the right thing

A new U initiative calls for ethics education for all grad students--and biochemistry leads the way.

By Anita Wolters

An assistant professor receives a grant application to read as part of a peer review process. A key proposed experiment in the application is one she was planning on trying herself in about six months, after she had done the preliminary work. Should she simply review the proposal on its merits? Should she declare a conflict of interest, sending it back rather than reviewing it? Could she revise her own plans and do the experiment immediately?

Future researchers will face dilemmas like this--and the University aims to pre-pare them through a new Graduate School initiative that makes ethics education a requirement for all University graduate students.

But for grad students in Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics (BMBB), ethics education is nothing new. That program began offering ethics seminars about five years ago, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH) mandated that trainees--students involved in NIH-funded research--should receive research ethics education. Professor Victor Bloomfield, who is now associate dean of the Graduate School and vice provost for research, was director of the NIH training grant in biochemistry at the time.

Bloomfield looked at other universities' approaches to ethics education and settled on a set of topics, which he integrated into the program's existing weekly graduate seminars. Now, BMBB students and professors come together monthly to focus on topics such as how to handle data, the advisor-advisee relationship, keeping a research notebook, how to give a seminar, authorship and collaboration concerns, grant writing, and nonacademic careers in biochemistry.

For M.D./Ph.D. student Brigitte Frohnert, the seminars have brought up important issues--such as the procedures for dealing with "outlier data." What do you do if your experiment only once yields results that are way off, when all the other results are fairly consistent?

Of course undergraduates are taught not to misrepresent results of their pre-designed lab experiments to arrive at the right answer and a good grade. But, says Frohnert, "when you're pursuing novel research that you're re-porting to the scientific community as a whole, whatever answer you get is 'right,' provided you do the experiment correctly and report accurately and honestly." Other researchers may base important experiments on your results, so "you don't want to 'cook data'--to only report what supports your theory."

Frohnert, who's attended the biochemistry ethics seminars for three years, likes the fact that their format is more often discussion than lecture. "Trading stories and perspectives offers some practical knowledge, which gives you a framework--an argument for why we should or should not do things a certain way," she says. "It's important to encourage different perspectives because if the right answer is too apparent, it's oversimplified--it doesn't recognize the ambiguity that exists."

That ambiguity, says Bloomfield, makes teaching research and professional ethics a challenge. While the seminars cover NIH standards of what is and is not acceptable, "there is a murky area where it's not clear what is right or wrong," he says. When looking at examples of such gray areas, he often comes back to two guiding principles: realize that there are exceptions, or times when it may be necessary to deviate somewhat from the rigid standards, and "don't do anything that you would feel ashamed to have to defend in public."

In spite of the challenges, the seminars have had a positive outcome, according to Bloomfield. "I have come to enjoy it a good bit, and students enjoy it too. It's a way of interacting that's less authoritarian and that is valuable on both sides." At the same time, "The NIH is pleased with what they have seen when they visit, so we're doing okay."

The success of the BMBB seminars has made them a model for several programs looking to implement the Graduate School ethics initiative. Last fall, the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior (EEB) patterned its ethics education on the biochemistry seminars, although students were more directly involved in the planning. A committee of ecology grad students, with guidance from professor Ed Cushing, organized all the weekly graduate student seminars, including those on research ethics and "taste in professional activity" (or aesthetics, as Cushing likes to refer to it). The students invited speakers, enlisted a panel of professors, introduced case studies for discussion, and even arranged for someone to bring soup, to carry on one of the longest standing traditions in EEB.

Committee member and Ph.D. student Michelle Solensky says students have responded positively, especially to the informal, discussion format. She recalls a small-group discussion of a case study about a graduate student who, while presenting his work at a national meeting, mentioned a new experimental technique he had devised. When a leading researcher from another university later questioned him extensively about the new technique, he described it fully. Several months later, the student noticed a journal article by the researcher describing an experiment that clearly depended on the technique the student had developed. But when he turned to the citations expecting to see a reference to his abstract, his name was nowhere to be found.

Seminar participants talked about whether this student should have been given credit for his work, how he might have been acknowledged, what could be done at this point, and what could or should have been done differently. Different viewpoints emerged, says Solensky, and that was instructive. "People feel like they try to make the right decisions, but it's good to hear the views of others and compare them to your own," she says.

Just the fact that issues are brought up is valuable, she adds, because "you don't know what you think until you're faced with it."

Fellow committee member David Heiser, an M.S. student, agrees, recalling a seminar on risks in reporting research. Entomology professor David Andow led a discussion about a recent finding that pollen from genetically engineered Bt corn appears to kill monarch butterflies. With an understanding of the ecology of monarchs and the distribution of Bt corn, you could make a rough prediction of the percentage of monarchs that may be affected by Bt corn pollen. But the estimate could vary widely depending on factors and assumptions used in the calculation. If a news reporter asked for an estimate, would you say you don't have enough data yet? Would you give the low end of your estimate so as not to exaggerate? Or would you give a percentage that is closer to what you believe but haven't proven?

For Heiser, that discussion was a reminder that scientists are often guilty of errors of omission. "We have become wary of the consequences of being wrong. Because of this we often say nothing," he says, adding that scientists have to learn to judge when sharing information or speculation is too large of a risk and when sharing knowledge and expertise is in everyone's best interest.

One thing that seems clearly to be in everyone's best interest is making ethics education a formal part of the training of future scientists. Though there are gray areas, "there are certainly guidelines," says Cushing, "and you have to know what they are." Elmer Birney, who took over from Cushing as EEB director of graduate studies this year, adds, "you can't start learning these things too early in your career."

A can of worms

A CBS center is the world's supplier of tiny nematodes that offer clues to human genetic function--and malfunction.

By Deane Morrison

If the anti-evolutionists of Darwin's time objected to the notion of a common ancestor for humans and apes, it's a good thing they never heard about nematodes. Not many proper Victorians would have cottoned to the idea that half their genes had counterparts in the common, soil-dwelling worms. But the comma-sized nematode Caenorhabditis elegans does indeed share many gene sequences with us, a fact that has made it a prime model animal for studying the function and malfunction of human genes.

Worldwide, at least 300 laboratories work with C. elegans--and it's the College of Biological Sciences' Caenorhabditis Genetics Center (CGC) that supplies them with the strains of worm they need.

"There are about 3,500 strains of C. elegans in our collection, each with a different set of mutations," says CGC director Robert Herman, a professor of genetics, cell biology, and development. Each strain offers researchers a chance to study a different part of the worm--and by extension, human--genome. (A genome is the complete set of genes of a given organism.) Demand is brisk: between June 1, 1998, and May 31, 1999, the center filled over 7,000 requests from 381 labs for worms.

C. elegans makes an ideal subject to study development because it has so few cells--exactly 959 (excepting eggs and sperm) in the adult--and the lineage of every single cell is known all the way back to the egg. "That simplicity means we often can understand exactly where things go wrong when a gene is defective," says Herman.

The number of C. elegans researchers now stands at not much more than the number of C. elegans cells--perhaps 1,200 or so--and all can trace their professional lineage back to British biologist Sydney Brenner, who began work on the worm more than 30 years ago. Working in Brenner's lab while on sabbatical in 1974­75, Herman advanced the field of C. elegans genetics by finding ways to maintain lethal mutations in a population.

Another major advancement came last December, when the C. elegans genome became the first (and, so far, only) animal genome to be completely sequenced-- meaning a computer can quickly find any worm genes similar to human genes. If a human gene's function is unknown, the first step is to see what the worm variety does. By mutating the worm gene and noting the consequences, scientists often get a general idea of how the human gene works.

Several kinds of human genes have counterparts in C. elegans. For example, the worm has genes resembling certain human cancer genes that interfere with normal processes involving cell death. Cell-to-cell signaling processes also show similarities, says Herman, who has done work in that area. He and colleagues Michael Herman (no relation) and Jocelyn Shaw found that a worm gene called lin-44 encodes a protein that signals certain cells which way is forward and which backward. The lin-44 gene belongs to a family of structurally similar genes found in humans and fruit flies. A human member of the family is a proto-oncogene--it can cause cancer if it gets out of whack--and a mutant fly variety causes winglessness.

The CGC supplies C. elegans free to uni-versities and other nonprofits, and charges commercial buyers $100 per strain. Many biotech companies order strains with genes similar to human genes that cause disease. "They try to cure the worm mutant, or make a mutant and cure it," says Herman.

The CGC is supported by $170,000 annually from the National Center for Research Resources, a unit of the National Institutes of Health. Besides providing live worm stocks, the center also publishes a newsletter for C. elegans researchers, the Worm Breeder's Gazette; keeps a bibliography of articles about the worm; and maintains a genetic map of C. elegans under a subcontract with England's Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

As C. elegans helps science unravel more genetic mysteries, interest in the little worm can only grow. Evidently, the CGC has its work cut out for it.

Timing is everything

Besides being the supplier of C. elegans strains to labs worldwide, the University of Minnesota boasts a high concentration of labs--five of them--studying the nematode worm. And one of those labs just gained new insight into the timing mechanisms of animal development, thanks to the tiny worm.

Ann Rougvie, an associate professor of genetics, cell biology, and development, found that a protein involved in timing the development of the worm from larva to adult is similar to proteins that regulate the timing of circadian rhythms--such as the wake/sleep cycle--in fruit flies, mice, and humans. The work was published in the November 5 issue of Science.

The study arose from a larger effort to learn how the onset of puberty and other developmental events are timed, says Rougvie.

"Puberty happens only after many years of life, and there must be mechanisms to trigger that event at the right time," she says. "These mechanisms aren't accessible in most higher organisms, so we turn to simpler organisms for clues.

"I find the study of timing fascinating because it is an aspect of development that you can't see."

Rougvie and graduate students Mili Jeon and Heather Gardner looked at the worm gene lin-42, which belongs to a class of worm genes controlling the timing of several events that occur after the egg has hatched into a larva. Mutations in lin-42 cause the molting worm to produce its adult skin too early.

They found that the protein made by lin-42 is very similar to proteins in insects and mammals that are linked to circadian rhythms. For instance, fruit flies with mutations in genes containing these proteins go through activity/rest cycles that are longer or shorter than the 24-hour rhythm of normal flies.

The similarities between the proteins may be due to evolutionary conservation, Rougvie says. That is, it's possible these proteins were related in the evolutionary past, but they diverged somewhat as they adapted to different timing mechanisms in different organisms.

Rougvie intends to study lin-42 further to try to sort out how C. elegans times its development so that all the events are synchronized and happen at the right times.

Whether or not the protein made by lin-42 has anything to do with human developmental events such as puberty, says Rougvie, "is pure speculation at this point."

No doubt Rougvie's work will bring science closer to finding the answer.

by Deane Morrison and Nancy Rowe

Turning over a new leaf

Most people might think that a first-grade class studying trees would be one of the last places you'd find mention of Y2K, but then most people haven't met Jennifer Ellison.

With the new millennium looming, Ellison posed a question to her class at Pilgrim Lane Elementary School in Plymouth: "Are the school's trees Y2K compatible?"

It's a new twist to a topic that has generated enormous interest around the globe, but one that could be reduced to its simplest form for a group of first graders. "I asked my students if [the trees] have what they need to make it through the turn of the century," Ellison says. "Do they have things like sun, water, air? Will they get knocked down for construction projects or a new parking lot?"

Ellison took her class around the school grounds and examined all 14 trees. "We looked at every tree to decide if it was growing and adapting to the environment," she says. "If we decide they're Y2K compatible, we tie a yellow ribbon around them."

It's a nifty, relatively simple lesson about trees and what they need to survive, but it's a lesson that, Ellison admits, she wouldn't have been prepared to teach had she not attended the College of Biological Sciences' Intermediate Workshop in Investigative Plant Biology this summer.

Ellison is one of more than 40 elementary teachers across the Twin Cities who are teaching the fundamentals of tree biology using fun, clever tools and methods learned through the weeklong workshop led by plant biology associate professor Tom Soulen and instructional labs coordinator Jane Phillips in August. Combining tree biology and Y2K was Ellison's idea, but she credits the workshop for giving her the confidence and knowledge she needed to devise the lesson.

"The staff was incredibly caring and knowledgeable," says Ellison. "I thought it was very valuable."

Last summer's workshop was a new branch of a well-established annual workshop that dates back to 1991, when Soulen and Phillips began running a two-week Plant Biology Workshop for elementary teachers from the Twin Cities. These workshops were very popular because they offered the materials and knowledge teachers needed to teach general plant science in their classrooms.

But participants wanted more: more content, more experience, and more help in teaching science to their changing and challenging student populations.

Soulen and Phillips opted to focus on trees for a variety of reasons, one of which is that many districts receive kits that have materials for teaching about trees, paper, forests, and wood. A tree work-shop, they figured, could supplement that material. Soulen and Phillips had also heard from teachers that they were interested in tree biology because of the difficulty of teaching the subject, given that trees have such a long life-span.

"The way teachers responded was very enthusiastic," Soulen says, adding that the tree workshop was open only to teachers who had taken the Plant Biology Workshop. "The thing we were struck by the most was that teachers are hungry for an ex-perience like this."

Apparently, the teachers were also hungry for creative tools to help them teach the material. They learned how to test the compactness of soil with a "compact-o-meter" made from a plastic pipe and a screwdriver. They learned how to measure the height of a tree by floating a helium-filled balloon, with a long piece of string attached, to the top of the tree and then measuring the string needed. ("It's important to remember to hold onto the string, or your tree will seem really, really tall," Phillips says with a laugh.) And they learned how to test the strength of leaves using a "tough-o-meter," where an upright golf tee is balanced on a leaf with the aid of a hole drilled in a small piece of wood. Weight is then added to the top of the golf tee until it rips through the leaf. The lesson is that leaves become tougher the farther away they are from the center of the tree.

The tools have already been helpful in the classroom for some of the teachers, but more importantly, the workshop gave them the confi-dence to lead a discussion about the critical biological role trees play--regardless of their Y2K compatibility.

by Geoff Gorvin

CBS News

Groundbreaking for the new Molecular and Cellular Biology Building took place in October and included (l to r) BMBB head Charles Louis; Charlie Moldow, Medical School associate dean for research; GCD head Tony Faras; CBS dean Robert Elde; Medical School dean Al Michael; Christine Maziar, vice president for research and dean of the Graduate School; President Mark Yudof, Regents David Metzen and Jessica Phillips; and Robert Bruininks, executive vice president and provost.


Franklin Barnwell, professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior (EEB), and Iris Charvat, associate professor of plant biology, have been inducted into the ranks of the University's Academy of Distinguished Teachers.

EEB professor Elmer Birney received the Hartley H.T. Jackson Award from the American Society of Mammalogists at its 1999 annual meeting. The award recognizes his long and outstanding service to the society; he was president from 1988 to 1990 and is a member of the board of directors.

David Sherman, associate professor of microbiology and faculty member in the Biological Process Technology Institute, is the principal investigator on a 4.5-year, $5 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to discover and develop new anti-cancer drugs using genetic material from bacteria and fungi.


Cargill donated $10 million toward a proposed $20 million Plant and Microbial Genomics Building to be constructed on the St. Paul campus. The gift is one of the first visible fruits of the partnership between CBS and the College of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences (COAFES).

The University has authorized several "blue-chip" faculty hires in molecular and cellular biology over the next three years, including a total of 5.5 positions in Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics (BMBB); 5 for Genetics, Cell Biology, and Development (GCD), and 8 for Plant Biology.

Groundbreaking for the new Molecular and Cellular Biology Building took place October 28 on Moos Plaza and featured the opening of time capsules from Owre and Millard Halls. With funding expected from the 2000 legislature, the building should be completed in early 2002.


CBS student Joy Wavra, recipient of the Palmer Rogers Scholarship, with Palmer Rogers at the CBS Scholarship Dinner in November. The dinner is an annual event to honor both scholarship winners and donors.

Erika Kocon became the first graduate of the Master of Biological Science program in July. The M.B.S. program, which started in fall 1998, admitted 17 new students this fall.

CBS started the academic year with 50 students enrolled in the M.B.S. program, 200 other graduate students, and nearly 900 undergraduates. The University welcomed the best academically prepared freshman class in its history this fall; the 220 CBS freshmen are among the most highly qualified of this impressive group.


Stephen Polasky is the new Fesler-Lampert Professor of Ecological/Environmental Economics. Before coming to the University, he was senior staff economist for the President's Council of Economic Advisors and an associate professor at Oregon State University. His position is a collaboration between EEB and the Department of Applied Economics; he has offices in both departments.

Ralph Comstock, Regents Professor Emeritus of Genetics and first head of the Department of Genetics, died July 6 in Sun City, Ariz. He was 86. Comstock made substantial contributions to the study and use of artificial insemination and is credited as the co-creator of a breeding method used widely for both plants and animals. He earned his bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees from the University. With the formation of CBS in 1965, Comstock became head of the newly formed Department of Genetics, a position he held until 1968, the year he was named a Regents Professor. He retired in 1981. His book, Quantitative Genetics with Special Reference to Plant and Animal Breeding, was published in 1996. He is survived by his wife, Helen; children Mary Sue and John; and two grandchildren.

Samuel Kirkwood, professor emeritus of biochemistry, died October 8 at his home in Hugo, Minn., of cancer. He was 79. Often cited by CBS graduates as their most memorable teacher, he received the University's Horace T. Morse-University of Minnesota Alumni Association Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education in 1978. He was also instrumental in revitalizing the General Biology program, which he took over in 1981. He is survived by his wife, Carol; daughter, Nancy; son, Duncan; and two granddaughters.

Dan Prestridge, former director of CBS' Advanced Biosciences Computing Center, died October 12 of cancer in Rochester, Minn. He was 43. After leaving the University in early 1998, he was employed at AXYS Pharmaceuticals in La Jolla, Calif., before being appointed director of the Mayo Clinic Research Computing Facility. He is survived by his wife, Suzanne, and son, Brandon.

Pearl Rosenberg, former assistant dean of student affairs at the Medical School and widow of genetics and cell biology professor Murray Rosenberg, died September 18 of bone cancer. She was 76. Rosenberg was a pioneer for women in the medical field and won the Chrysalis Feminist of the Year Award in 1983.

Lyn Steere, artist and photographer in the zoology department during the '60s and '70s, died July 9 of esophageal cancer. She left the University when the zoology department reorganized and moved to the St. Paul campus. She spent the next 20-plus years working with her husband in his consulting firm in occupational safety. She is survived by her husband, Norm.


The General Biology Program offered intensive multimedia workshops to 20 high school biology teachers and technology support coordinators from 10 Minnesota high schools in June. The emphasis was on using digital content and software as effective instructional tools. Each school left with about $11,000 worth of hardware and software. This year's workshops were the last in a two-year pilot project funded by the state legislature.

The 1999 High School Summer Science Research Program, sponsored by CBS and the National Institutes of Health, supported 12 students from Twin Cities-area schools. The program recruits high-ability, disadvantaged students to work in faculty labs on independent research projects. Faculty from CBS, COAFES, and the College of Veterinary Medicine were involved.

The 1999 Itasca Field Biology Enrichment Program took 11 high school students to Itasca for two weeks last summer to study field biology.

The Science Museum of Minnesota teamed with CBS to offer a Zoology Camp for 5th graders in July and August. The camp is part of the Bioneers project, which is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and is targeted toward children from economically disadvantaged families.

Astronaut Scholar achieves liftoff

 Given that as a child she did math problems and science experiments for fun, it may not be too surprising that Amanda Kostyk ended up one of only 17 students in the nation to receive the 1999­2000 Astronaut Scholarship.

The $8,500 scholarship was established by Mercury Seven astronauts for top college students who plan to pursue graduate degrees in science and engineering.

Kostyk, a microbiology senior who has won multiple scholarships during her undergraduate years, is currently applying to M.D./Ph.D. programs with the goal of becoming an immunologist.

Kostyk says she's known since age 10 that she wanted to do medical research. She has since narrowed down her interest to autoimmune diseases, a category embracing ailments from common allergies to lupus. "I have to do research that's applied," she says. "Improving the quality of life for people--that's just something I need to do."

She got her research start in a very different area of science, when she took part in the University's High School Summer Science Research Program, working on rhizobium bacteria. She so impressed the soil science professors she worked with that they offered her a part-time lab position during her senior year in high school.

That job and the scientists she worked alongside helped persuade Kostyk to attend the University. "I already had such a history with the U, and I knew it was the research institution in Minnesota," she says.

As a sophomore, Kostyk received an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program grant to work with genetics, cell biology, and development professor David Largaespada on retrovirally induced tumors of acute myeloid leukemia, and since then she's been hooked on medical research.

Last summer she furthered that interest by working with a London-based World Health Organization group seeking to isolate new and potentially lethal strains of the influenza virus. This paid lab position was one Kostyk found herself through the Internet. She used the Astronaut Scholarship to fund her trip.

"If you want something, you have to make it happen," she says. "People aren't just standing around waiting to help you. I always say that dreams are made."

The next dream Kostyk hopes to make come true is to be accepted into a National Institutes of Health-funded M.D./Ph.D. Medical Scientist Training Program. Though it means six to eight more years of school, Kostyk faces the challenge with equanimity. "If it's something you love and you're passionate about, time goes quickly," she says.

She realizes, too, that M.D./Ph.D. programs in the U.S. are made up mostly of men. Again, that doesn't give her pause. "You definitely encounter some guys who can't handle it when a woman is doing better than they are," she says. "But you have to be strong and believe in yourself, and just keep moving on."

For some of that self-confidence, she has her parents to thank. Her father, an organic chemist who brought home polymer experiments to show his children, "always encouraged me to be curious and explore the world." Her mother, a community college math instructor, "told me to do what I wanted to do and not let anyone tell me I couldn't."

And even if anyone does, it'll take more than that to stop Amanda Kostyk now.

by Lynette Lamb


Sometimes I feel like Forrest Gump, the movie character whose life takes unbelievable twists and turns, landing him in the middle of some of America's most intriguing events.

I felt that way last April during a business trip to Washington, D.C., which happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the NATO summit. My memories of that trip are complete with Apache helicopters circling overhead and secret service men in suits and sunglasses positioned along rooftops as I calmly strolled around the nation's capitol.

And now, as I begin the academic year as president of the Biological Sciences Alumni Society (BSAS) at the University of Minnesota, I wonder with great anticipation what new and fun adventures await me as I strive to undertake this honor with grace and energy. Certainly several exciting and worthwhile events are forthcoming, with many talented and interesting people to meet.

One of those events was the 90th anniversary of the Itasca biology field station, held the first weekend of October. This weekend getaway is always offered to CBS alumni, but this year was a special celebration of the field station with many exceptional visitors in attendance. Plan to visit the station during future Itasca weekends as several renovations and a new station center become part of Itasca's next 90 years.

I am proud to lead the current BSAS board--a large group of talented and focused individuals representing a true cross section of careers, reflecting in part the broad spectrum of job options open to CBS graduates. The board has reorganized to function more efficiently; as a result, we have formed two high-level committees: alumni relations and events, and student services. We will continue to operate our successful scholarship, mentoring, and Itasca weekend committees, but will add a focus on events and services for CBS alumni, with a special task force assigned to serve alumni needs. If you would like more information or have ideas for events, please call Paul Germscheid, CBS alumni relations officer, at 612-624-3752.

The timing of our new alumni services initiative couldn't be better. It coincides with the opening of the University's new "Gateway"--the McNamara Alumni Center-- this fall on the site of the old Memorial Stadium. The construction of the McNamara Alumni Center is a strong testament on the part of University administration that alumni are invaluable assets. Please join me and other CBS graduates this February at the Gateway's grand opening.

Finally, I would like to extend a strong invitation to CBS alumni and friends to participate on any level possible in our committees and upcoming events.

Although we can't promise you the experience of Apache helicopters circling overhead, the coming year does hold promise for you to experience many "Forrest Gump" moments. They can be some of the best.

Yours in the University,

Lisa A. Weik
President, Biological Sciences Alumni Society

Mentor program successful

The BSAS Mentor Program has become very popular, with more than 80 student requests for mentors this year. With the help of a committed volunteer committee and coordination with the Medical School, we were able to make 59 mentor/student matches--more than twice as many as last year.

Our only limiting factor is the number and diversity of mentors in our database. Mentors commit two to three hours a month from November to April, working with an undergraduate student who has an interest in their career field. With the diversity of careers available in the biological sciences, we need more mentors. Please help us by completing the enclosed envelope and volunteering to mentor. All alumni and friends of CBS are welcome.

Alumni events

To better serve our alumni, the BSAS board is developing a series of professional development opportunities. The first event will be a winter lecture on genomics in collaboration with the Institute of Technology Alumni Society. We also are planning spring lectures on genetically modified foods and bioethics. Look for updates on the CBS online calendar.

These events are the first in an events schedule that will include not only lectures but also family outings such as trips to the Science Museum, Bell Museum, Hawk Ridge, or Itasca State Park or tours of campus collections. We are also exploring the idea of a summer eco-tour beginning in summer 2001 that would take alumni and friends to exotic places around the world. We need to know what kinds of activities you would attend. Please contact Paul Germscheid, alumni relations officer, at 612-624-3752.

Network at work

BSAS would like to bring the college to your company. If you work with other CBS alumni, we would like to sponsor a bag lunch or reception at your work site with the CBS dean, faculty, or current students as special guests. If you would like to help facilitate this activity, please contact Paul Germscheid.

BSAS Board of Directors--Officers

President: Lisa Weik
President-elect: Jerald Barnard
Past President: Tom Skalbeck
National Board Representative: Carol Pletcher
Chair, Alumni Relations and Events Committee: Dick Osgood
Chair, Student Services Committee: Deanna Croes

A career that blossomed

A CBS alumna wins the University's Outstanding Achievement Award for her work as a botanist.

By Angelo Gentile

When Shirley Tucker left the University of California-Davis in 1956 armed with a Ph.D. in botany, she ran headlong into the barriers then facing women in science. For 10 years, she was able to find only temporary teaching positions with "no potential to gain university status or research funding," says University of Minnesota plant biology associate professor Iris Charvat.

That, Charvat believes, is the root of Tucker's commitment to encouraging students in botany.

"She frequently goes out of her way to give a junior scientist or student a rewarding experience," says Charvat, "and she maintains a high level of interest throughout their career."

Tucker's interest in nurturing the next generation of plant biologists--along with her internationally known research in floral anatomy and morphology, plant taxonomy, and lichenology--led the University of Minnesota to recognize her with an Outstanding Achievement Award in September. The award is the highest the University grants to its alumni.

Tucker's exceptional career stemmed from a very early interest in botany: Her father was a plant pathologist at the University, where she would often play in the greenhouses.

"My idea of paradise was to be in the warm greenhouse in the middle of winter," she recalls.

Naturally, Tucker pursued botany degrees at the University, studying with renowned botanist Ernst Abbe, who became an early influence and mentor. As she completed her master's program, Abbe and others counseled her that the University of California-Davis "was the best place in the country at that time to study plant anatomy . . . so off I went," she says.

From 1956 to 1966, Tucker worked in non-tenure research and teaching positions--but it was these early career challenges that led her to excel in more than one research area. As Charvat points out, "lichens differ greatly from higher plants, and it is most unusual for a scientist to attain distinction in both areas."

As Tucker herself remembers it, she sometimes didn't have access to certain equipment needed to do plant pathology- and botany-related work, so she took to outside work in lichenology. "This was a good alternative when I didn't have access to labs," she says.

Lack of lab access didn't keep her from pursuing external funding. She received her first National Science Foundation grant in 1957 and has had nearly continuous NSF funding since then, a strong endorsement of her research capabilities. "Shirley is a highly regarded botanist in the U.S. and internationally because of the quality and consistency of her work," attests noted plant anatomist Ray Evert, who worked with Tucker in the Botanical Society of America.

In 1968, Tucker finally found a tenure-track, assistant professorship at Louisiana State University. By 1982, she had achieved the highest possible rank at LSU: the Boyd Professorship, awarded on the basis of national and international distinction.

Louisiana's environs were especially suitable for Tucker's research projects and field trips, she says, and adds with a laugh, "It's wild there. Poisonous snakes, quicksand. But, happily, I can report we never lost a student."

Tucker, who retired from LSU in 1995, lives in California with her entomologist husband and is an adjunct professor at UC-Santa Barbara. Her long list of accomplishments includes serving as president of the Botanical Society of America and the American Society of Plant Taxonomists. Ever dedicated to her alma mater, she chaired the 90th anniversary celebration of CBS' Lake Itasca Forestry and Biological Station this fall.

Itasca weekend 1999

The Itasca 90th Anniversary Weekend, October 1-3, featured more than 250 participants, clear skies, not-too-far-past-peak fall colors, cold weather, and hot food. It was also a lot of fun, with several outdoor nature programs and a gala celebration banquet.

Class Notes

Sally Jorgensen (M.S. '64, Ph.D. '66), retired associate dean of CBS, was featured in the September ScienceWorks! newsletter for her volunteer work with ScienceWorks!, a National Science Foundation (NSF)-supported reform effort to bring hands-on science education to Minneapolis public schools. Sally does a lot of "running around and solving problems" and recently designed a database to track 5,000 science kit deliveries to 70 schools.

Cynthia Hagley (B.S. '78) of Minnesota Sea Grant is part of a team of scientists that received a 1999 Technology Enhanced Learning-Innovation Award from University president Mark Yudof in June. The award recognizes their Water on the Web project, an NSF-funded effort to integrate new technologies into Minnesota school curricula to encourage understanding of environmental and basic sciences by allowing students to collect real-time lake data off the Internet.

Julie Kirihara (B.S. '81, Ph.D. '88) co-founded ATG Laboratories in 1994. The company does contract research in genetics for pharmaceutical companies and university labs. ATG employs seven people, including CBS alumni Justine Malinski (B.S. '83, Ph.D. '88) and Erik Lazarich (B.S. '98). Julie also serves on the board of directors of MNBIO.

Huan Ngo (B.S. '86) completed his Ph.D. in 1996 and is in his third year of postdoctoral training in cellular and molecular parasitology at Yale University.

Christine Schoenbauer (B.S. '94) does analytical research for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. She met with a group of CBS students there in October to talk about opportunities in the department.

Joseph Fong (B.S. '98) has begun a master's program in health care administration at the University of Minnesota.

Dinel Dingfelder (B.S. '99) has begun a graduate program in genetic counseling at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Katherine Himes (B.S. '99) has begun a master's program in business administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Jennifer Johnson (B.S. '99) is serving in the Peace Corps in Gambia.

Ellen King (B.S. '99) was accepted into medical school at the University of Iowa and will enroll in fall 2000. She is currently working as a research assistant in a pain research lab there.

Guillermo Aviles Mendoza (B.S. '99) is conducting research at the Genome Institute at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.

Among the first-year students at the University of Minnesota Medical School are the following.
Sharone Kamran Askari (B.S. '98)
Jared Bernard (B.S. '99)
Cynthia Brenden (B.S. '99)
Bradley Chmielewski (B.S. '97)
Mike Healy (B.S. '99)
Viet Hoang (B.S. '98)
Thu Huynh (B.S. '99)
Patti Jordan (B.S. '99)
Hyon Kim (B.S. '99)
Michael Lushine (B.S. '97)
Vadim Pisarenko (B.S. '99)
Tracy Ricke (B.S. '98)
Shawn Ronan (B.S. '99)
Jamie Steen (B.S. '97)
Michelle Tomes (B.S. '98)
Rochus Voeller (B.S. '99)
Martin Zielinski (B.S. '99)