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Current supported activities

New transatlantic research teams (2016-2018)

In June 2016, six new "transatlantic dream teams" were selected to initiate new research projects starting in the Fall of 2016. Below you will find a listing of the currently funded researchers and their projects.
Quantifying the role of mycorrhizal fungi in soil organic matter dynamics in boreal forest soils

Håvard Kauserad, University of Oslo; Lina Nybakken and Mikael Ohlson, NMBU and Peter Kennedy, University of Minnesota

fungiThis project will investigate how plant-associated symbiotic fungi influence the storage of carbon in boreal forest soils. The work will specifically focus on how changes in soil fertility and climatic conditions influence the decomposition of dead fungal and plant biomass, which represent major sources of carbon inputs into soils. Researchers at the three universities will collaborate on a set of field-based observational and experimental studies located in both Norway and the United States. The research will leverage experimental infrastructure already present in both countries and involve scientists with synergistic expertise in fungal and plant ecology, ecosystem biogeochemistry, molecular microbial identification, and bioinformatics. Collectively, the project will provide fundamental new insights into the role of plant-associated symbiotic fungi in carbon sequestration processes and how changes in resource availability and environmental conditions may mediate the below-ground response of boreal forest ecosystems to climate change.

Structural characterization of the Shewanella oneidensis 5' nucleotidase UshA

Jeffrey Gralnick, University of Minnesota and Hans-Petter Hersleth, University of Oslo

Shewanella oneidensisThe development of effective and sustainable technologies to clean our environment and provide alternative energy is critical for the future of our society. One promising technology aimed at providing solutions toward these priority areas involves utilization of bacteria. Shewanella oneidensis is a bacterial species capable of breathing a diverse array of extracellular substrates, including environmental contaminants and electrodes. Breathing extracellular environmental contaminants, including uranium and chromium, renders the substrate insoluble, allowing for reduced movement through waterways and easier remediation. Additionally, the process of breathing electrodes can potentially be harnessed as a sustainable energy source. The general mechanism of S. oneidensis breathing extracellular substrates has been characterized. However, to enhance our ability to implement these technologies we must first understand precise biochemical and genetic mechanisms related to the cell’s ability to carry out these reactions. As such, this proposal aims to characterize the structure of S. oneidensis UshA, a key protein involved in breathing extracellular substrates. Through collaboration between groups located at the University of Minnesota and the University of Oslo, we will characterize the general structure of UshA and identify critical amino acid residues for UshA activity using both genetic and biochemical methods. Our findings will provide a foundation for development of S. oneidensis-based applications concerning environmental and energy challenges facing our society.

Advancing a novel mouse model to study APOBEC-catalyzed DNA damage and its misrepair as a major source of mutation in cancer

Hilde Nilsen, University of Oslo and Reuben Harris, University of Minnesota 

APOBEC-catalyzed DNAMany mutations must occur for a normal cell to become cancerous and for primary tumors to become aggressive and life threatening. Apart from obvious environmental and dietary sources, very little is known about the molecular origins of most cancer-causing mutations. The Harris laboratory at the University of Minnesota recently identified a DNA mutating enzyme called APOBEC that provides mutational fuel in the majority of breast cancers. The Nilsen laboratory at the University of Oslo is expert in the DNA repair enzymes that normally work to counteract such mutational activity. Here, we are working together to develop a new animal model for cancer research by determining whether mice with APOBEC and defective DNA repair enzymes show an elevated incidence of cancer. If so, such animals may be instrumental for future pre-clinical studies of new cancer drugs.

The role of selective autophagy in the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative diseases

Thomas Neufeld, University of Minnesota and Anne Simonsen, University of Oslo

Neurodegenerative diseases​Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease are associated with the accumulation of aggregated proteins within neuronal cell bodies. Healthy cells are able to eliminate such aggregates through a digestive process called autophagy, involving engulfment of cellular material into membrane — bound vesicles. Activation of autophagy in animal models of neurodegenerative diseases has been shown to improve outcomes. However, the mechanisms by which autophagy selectively removes protein aggregates and damaged organelles is poorly understood. The proposed studies are aimed at identifying and characterizing the factors that participate in selective autophagy and prevent neurodegeneration, using two approaches. Cell based imaging assays will be used to test the requirement for a collection of membrane — associated signaling proteins in sequestering protein aggregates and organelles through selective autophagy. In parallel, the effect of these proteins on neurodegeneration will be tested in established animal models of neurodegeneration using the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. These complementary strategies are designed to improve our understanding of intrinsic cellular defense mechanisms against neurodegeneration, and to identify potential therapeutic targets. 

Plague ecosystem resilience to Intervention (PERI): A One Health approach

Christian Stenseth and Boris Schmid, University of Oslo and Marlene Zuk and Susan Jones, University of Minnesota

Pandemic mapFuelled by a changing global climate, the rate at which new infectious diseases emerge is reaching unprecedented levels and is becoming an increasing threat to the globalized human population – a situation that has recently been called one of the most formidable ecological problems of our time. Against this backdrop, we propose a project focusing on the most devastating pandemic disease in human history, namely plague (Yersinia pestis) – an ancient infection in wild rodents that periodically spills over into human populations. Using a multi-disciplinary team of Norwegian and American scientists, the objective of the project is to evaluate which ecosystem-scale plague interventions have been effective, and why, in order to guide future prevention of plague outbreaks. The proposed project concentrates on the plague wildlife reservoir control program of the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation (1930s – 2000s). This Anti-Plague System was responsible for monitoring an estimated 2.2 million km2 area of semi-arid deserts, steppes and montane grasslands that harbored a large variety of plague-infected wildlife rodents. Applying modern scientific methods to evaluate the interventions on the 43 natural plague foci in Russia and its former federated states offers a unique opportunity to retrospectively study the effectiveness of these ecosystem-scale  interventions at a time when there is a growing interest in employing similar disease interventions elsewhere. There is a great potential here for opening up important avenues for research, by studying some of the largest man-made interventions ever undertaken in resilient disease ecosystems.

Real-time robotic sensing and manipulation for fruit picking

Pal Johan From, NMBU and James Lubu and Volkan Isler, University of Minnesota

robotic sensingSpecialty crop farmers such as apple, peach and berry farmers rely on seasonal workers to pick fruit. Availability and cost of employing seasonal workers is a concern for producers across the world. For example, in the United States, it is estimated that “the apple harvest workforce is short about 20 percent.” This is a proposal to develop a general-purpose robotic system capable of picking fruit to address this shortage. Robotic technology has revolutionized automation in structured environments such as factory floors. Today, robots are used in manufacturing a wide range of products ranging from cars to consumer electronics. Outside the factory floor, however, the use of robots has been limited due to the unknown and dynamic nature of the environment and challenges in sensing, navigation and manipulation. Fruit-picking is an especially challenging task for robots because high value fruit must be picked without being damaged. The robots must be rugged enough to operate on farms yet precise enough to handle fruit gently. Sensing algorithms must be capable of detecting all fruits in the environment and in all environmental conditions. To overcome these challenges, we propose to develop a sensing system capable of reconstructing a precise model of the farm on-the-fly and a robotic manipulator capable of picking fruits using this model. These components will be integrated into a mobile robotic base and tested in two challenging fruit picking settings: an apple orchard in Minnesota and a berry farm in Norway.


Past transatlantic research teams

In June 2015, a first group of transatlantic research teams were selected. A listing of the researchers and their projects is shown below. 
Structural characterization of the manganese transporter MntH of Escherichia coli

Robert Brooker, University of Minnesota | Preben Morth, University of Oslo

Iron and manganese function as essential cofactors for a variety of enzymes and protein complexes found in all living organisms. Among a wide range of species including humans, a major pathway for iron and manganese uptake is via membrane proteins called the Nramp family. Nramp2 in humans functions as the major pathway for the dietary uptake of iron into intestinal cells. This transporter is involved in diseases affecting iron metabolism, such as hereditary hemochromatosis and anemia. Nramp proteins in pathogenic bacteria also play an important role in their ability to cause disease.  Our research is aimed at understanding the structural basis for iron and manganese uptake into cells. The goal of the proposed research is to determine the structure of MntH using X-ray crystallography. MntH and other Nramp proteins share no significant sequence identity with any of the membrane transporters that already have been determined by X-ray crystallography.

Thermodynamics and kinetics of bacteriocin mechanism of action

Yiannis Kaznessis, University of Minnesota | Dzung Diep, Norwegian University of Life Sciences | Jon Nissen-Meyer, University of Oslo

Antibiotics have changed the course of human history, saving innumerable lives and substantially improving the quality of life across the globe. Bacteria are fighting back though. Superbugs, species that do not respond to our most potent drugs, are evolving, infecting humans with alarming frequency. And our drug war chest is not being updated with new antibiotics because of a financial disincentive: one dose, one treatment with antibiotics may cure the disease, in stark contrast to medicines prescribed for life. We will borrow from nature and harness the potential of bacteriocins, naturally occurring antimicrobial peptides (AMPs).These are small proteins that lyse and kill bacteria rapidly. Experimental evidence strongly suggests that bacteriocins act primarily through specific interactions with membrane receptors and subsequent disruption of the cell membranes of target pathogens. We will investigate in detail how bacteriocins interact with bacterial membranes, determine the structural elements that make the peptides active against certain pathogens, and engineer new peptides that may have therapeutic potential.

Establishing a novel mouse model to study APOBEC-catalyzed DNA damage and its misrepair as a major source of mutation in cancer

Hilde Nilsen, University of Oslo | Reuben Harris, University of Minnesota

Many mutations must occur for a normal cell to become cancerous and for primary tumors to become aggressive and life threatening. Apart from obvious environmental and dietary sources, very little is known about the molecular origins of most cancer-causing mutations. The Harris laboratory at the University of Minnesota recently identified a DNA mutating enzyme called APOBEC that provides mutational fuel in the majority of breast cancers. The Nilsen laboratory at the University of Oslo is expert in the DNA repair enzymes that normally work to counteract such mutational activity. Here, we are working together to develop a new animal model for cancer research by determining whether mice with APOBEC and defective DNA repair enzymes show an elevated incidence of cancer. If so, such animals may be instrumental for future preclinical studies of new cancer drugs.

The role of phosphoinositide binding proteins in autophagy and disease

Thomas Neufeld, University of Minnesota | Anne Simonsen, University of Oslo

Eukaryotic cells possess the ability to engulf and degrade portions of their own cytoplasm through a process called autophagy. By promoting the turnover and recycling of cellular components, autophagy has been found to have a major impact on a range of human health and disease states including obesity, cancer, aging, neurodegenerative diseases, and inflammatory disorders. The ability to exploit autophagy as a novel therapy for a variety of diseases is an exciting prospect, but requires an improved understanding of how autophagy is regulated in the cell. This research project uses cultured human cells and in vivo studies in the fruit fly Drosophila to investigate a family of signaling molecules that regulate membrane remodeling and trafficking during autophagy.

Supply chain analysis of United States and Norwegian bioenergy policies

Dennis Becker, University of Minnesota |  Erik Trømborg, Birger Sølberg, Hanne Sjølie, Berit Lindstad, Norwegian University of Life Sciences

The United States is in the midst of a rapid proliferation of policies to create a bioeconomy that simultaneously addresses national security concerns, forest health, and economic development. Norway is equally eager to increase development but for reasons linked to carbon mitigation and energy diversification. In both countries, the level of production falls well short of national goals despite significant investments. The goal of this project is to stimulate policy innovation and financial investments in forestry bioenergy production by building understanding of the mix of policy instruments commonly used at each supply chain step (e.g. tax incentives, regulations); the extent to which US and Norwegian policy structures result in different levels of bioenergy production; and which components of those policy structures can be effectively translated to one country or the other.

Using Lidar to enhance forest inventories

Ronald McRoberts, University of Minnesota | Erik Næsset, Terje Gobakken, Norwegian University of Life Sciences

Lidar (light detection and ranging) is an optical remote sensing technology that can be used to estimate the vertical distribution of tree volume for a ground location. A large, unique reference dataset will be constructed and used to support three projects on using lidar and inventory plot data to enhance forest inventories. A lidar-based map of growing stock volume for St. Louis County, Minnesota, will be used to construct stratifications for increasing the precision of inventory estimates. Our recent Norwegian study suggests that precision can be increased by a factor of 4-5, an increase that would otherwise cost more than $2.5 million in increased sample sizes. Optimization of lidar techniques will be investigated for carbon accounting and for estimating forest change. A successful outcome means that lidar enhanced inventories may be operationally implemented almost immediately.