Agriculture College Council organizes inaugural Ag Olympics

Ag Olymlpics participants.
Ag Olympics participants.

The inaugural University of Delaware Ag Olympics was held Saturday morning, Oct. 25, next to the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) dairy farm on South Campus.

The event was organized by the Agriculture College Council (AgCC).

Six teams — including Alpha Gamma Rho, Alpha Zeta, the Food Science Club, the Animal Science Club, and graduate students — competed in various agriculture-related contests, said Emily Fritz, AgCC president.

Sarah Tull competes in the "Day in the Life of a Farmer" event during the Ag Olympics.
Sarah Tull competes in the “Day in the Life of a Farmer” event during the Ag Olympics.

The contests included an egg toss, sack races, a pie eating contest, tug of war and “A Day in a Life of a Farmer,” a relay in which each team member had to “wake up,” complete a series of agriculture-related tasks, and then go back to bed.

Including the AgCC members, about 50 people participated in the Ag Olympics and the champion Alpha Gamma Rho team received a trophy and a gift card, said Amanda Wagner, AgCC co-president.

A second place silver medal was awarded to the Animal Science Club and a third place bronze medal was presented to the Food Science Club.

“We hope this continues for many years to come and grow each year to have more participants,” Fritz said. “This was a fun fall event for CANR students and we hope students will look forward to it every fall semester.”

This article can also be read on UDaily >>

CANR recognizes recipients of Worrilow, Distinguished Alumni awards

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Pictured are College of Agriculture and Natural Resources award winners (from left) James H. Baxter IV, Erica Spackman, Mary Ellen Setting, Craig Clifford, CANR Dean Mark Rieger, and Tom Fretz.

Five graduates of the University of Delaware College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) were presented with honors — the George M. Worrilow Award as well as three Distinguished Alumni Awards and a Distinguished Young Alumni Award — during a ceremony held Friday, Oct. 17, as part of Homecoming festivities.

The awards are given based on a clear record of outstanding career accomplishments, service and leadership to the profession, and community service, including service to UD.

George M. Worrilow Award

Erica Spackman was presented with CANR’s George M. Worrilow Award, named for the dean of the college from 1954-65 whose career was dedicated to better agriculture and better agricultural education.

It is given annually by the Ag Alumni Association to a graduate of the college who has exhibited outstanding service to agriculture.

Spackman attended Haverford College and graduated in 1995 with a major in sociology then entered the CANR master’s program in animal science. Jack Rosenberger, chair of the Department of Animal and Food Sciences from 1981 to 2004, was her adviser and she continued work in his laboratory to complete a doctorate in 2001.

Spackman then went to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Southeast Poultry Research Laboratory for a post-doctoral research program, became a staff research microbiologist in 2002 and continues to work at the facility.

Her career has focused on improving the prevention, detection and control of viral poultry diseases to maintain healthy and productive animals. Throughout her career she has worked closely with the poultry industry, government agencies and veterinary diagnostic labs to achieve these goals.

Although much of her career has focused on avian influenza virus, she has worked with numerous important diseases affecting chickens and turkeys in the areas of vaccine development, pathobiology and disease ecology.

Diagnostic tests and sample collection strategies have been among the most widely adopted elements of Spackman’s work nationally and internationally, and continue to be a major focus of her current research.

Distinguished Alumni Awards

Craig Clifford is a graduate of the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine and received his master’s degree in animal sciences/virology from UD. After completing an internship and a medical oncology residency at the University of Pennsylvania, he became a diplomat of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (Oncology) in 2003.

Clifford is Hope Veterinary Specialists’ first medical oncologist and director of clinical studies. Prior to this role, Clifford was a medical oncologist and director of clinical research at Red Bank Veterinary Hospital in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. There, he was responsible for the creation of a comprehensive clinical studies program.

Clifford has authored or co-authored more than 50 papers and book chapters and created the Veterinary Cancer Society’s resident review session and the Northeast Veterinary Co-operative Oncology Group.

Thomas Fretz

Thomas A. Fretz received an undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland in 1964, and his master’s and doctorate degrees in horticulture and plant science from UD in 1966 and 1970, respectively.

Fretz retired from the University of Maryland and the position of executive director of the Northeastern Regional Association of State Agricultural Experiment Station Directors (NERA) in March 2007, after having served from 1994 to 2003 as dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and director of both the Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station and Maryland Cooperative Extension at the University of Maryland.

He previously served as associate dean and director of the Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station at Iowa State University from 1989-94.

Among his many awards and recognitions, Fretz was co-recipient of the Kenneth Post Award from the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) in 1979 and was elected a fellow of the ASHS in 1986. He received UD’s George M. Worrilow Award in 1999, the B.Y. Morrison Award from the USDA-ARS in 2001, and the “Irving” for distinguished service to the American Distance Education Consortium (ADEC) in 2002.

Mary Ellen Setting

Mary Ellen Setting is the deputy secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA).  She has served Maryland agriculture for 37 years while working in various capacities at MDA.  She graduated cum laude from the University of Delaware in 1975 with a bachelor of science degree in agriculture, majoring in entomology and applied ecology.

As deputy secretary, Setting is responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of the agency, providing leadership to MDA staff, establishing policy and procedures for regulatory, service and educational programs, and implementing MDA’s mission.

Setting was first employed by MDA in 1977 as an entomologist for the Pesticide Regulation Section. She developed and managed Maryland’s private and commercial applicator recertification and training program. She became chief of the Pesticide Regulation Section in 1988 and was responsible for oversight of all pesticide management, educational and regulatory programs in Maryland, including enforcement of state and federal laws, and applicator certification and training.

Setting was named assistant secretary of the Office of Plant Industries and Pest Management in March 2004. As assistant secretary, she was responsible for oversight of enforcement of state and federal laws, regulations and quarantines related to management of pests that affect the health of crops, nursery stock and forests.

Distinguished Young Alumni

James H. Baxter IV

James H. Baxter IV graduated from UD with a bachelor of science degree in agriculture in 2002 before returning to Baxter Farms Inc., the family farm where he is a fourth generation farmer.

As president and manager of Baxter Farms, he oversees and farms the 2,800-acre tract in Sussex County with the knowledge and support of his grandparents, Jim and Ruth Baxter, who have been dedicated to growing the farm since 1948. Today, a majority of the acreage on the farm is corn and soybeans. The farming operation also includes overseeing the production of 200,000 broilers that are raised for Mountaire Farms Inc.

Baxter has been active in the community as director of the Delaware Farm Bureau, chairman of the Delaware Soybean Board, founding member of Delmarva Tractor Pullers Association, founding member of Southern Delaware’s Local on the Menu, as well as a number of other affiliations. He is also an active member of Young Farmers and Ranchers and the Delmarva Poultry Industry.

Also during Homecoming Weekend, Baxter was presented with a Presidential Citation for Outstanding Achievement.

Photos by Lindsay Yeager

UD’s Cooperative Extension aids local urban farms, gardens

UD Cooperative Extension is assisting with local urban gardens and farms.
UD Cooperative Extension is assisting with local urban gardens and farms.

Urban community and school gardens, and urban farms have been springing up all throughout the state and many of these have been helped along the way by the University of Delaware’s Cooperative Extension program, specifically Extension Master Gardeners and Master Food Educators.

Carrie Murphy, a Cooperative Extension agent at UD, explained that Master Gardeners, Master Food Educators and Extension as a whole are providing technical assistance and educational programming to gardens across the state, though the majority of the sites are in New Castle County.

“We’re fortunate to have over 100 Master Gardener volunteers just in this county and in the last few years we’ve had such an explosion of requests to support urban agriculture projects, school gardens, community gardens and back yard, small-scale production that we’ve focused on training Master Gardeners to help,” said Murphy, adding, “A subset of the Master Gardeners has really dedicated their volunteer time to providing urban agriculture outreach programs.”

Helpful hands

Murphy said each garden is different but in general, they have helped communities test their soil, construct garden beds, design planting schedules and learn about basic garden maintenance.

“We also work with communities to evaluate a potential garden site,” said Murphy. “We walk around the site, make sure they have what they need — for example, water and sunlight — and just insure that they get off to a successful start.”

Often, Murphy said, they are working with communities that are fairly new to agriculture and gardening.

UD Cooperative Extension is assisting with local urban gardens and farms.
UD Cooperative Extension is assisting with local urban gardens and farms.

“Master Gardeners and Master Food Educators help communities better understand where their food — like tomatoes, peppers and kale — comes from, and we partner regularly with the Delaware Center for Horticulture,” said Murphy.

One of the sites that has benefited from Extension’s help is the Garden at Linden, a community garden in Elsmere run by Elisa King, a 2013 UD graduate.

King said Murphy has made herself available to answer questions and helped get the garden up and running.

“She’s been awesome. I contacted her when we had some issues with certain plants. She stopped by and checked things out for us to see what the problem might be and gave us some possible solutions, so she has definitely made herself readily available,” said King. “She’s come to consult with us on planting season and after we built, we were trying to plan out the growing season and she helped us with that and provided us with some really good resources. Carrie has been involved whenever we need her to be.”

Delaware Urban Farm and Food Coalition

Another way that these gardens have been helped is through the Delaware Urban Farm and Food Coalition, which is made up of nearly 80 individuals and organizations and co-chaired by Murphy and Tara Tracy, urban agriculture manager for the Delaware Center for Horticulture.

One notable urban farm supported by the coalition is the first in the city of Wilmington, the 12th and Brandywine Farm. This farm was developed as the flagship effort for the coalition. It has almost 1,400 square feet of a three-season growing area in raised beds, and is situated in an area of the city where residents have little direct access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

Tracy explained that the farm has both a production component to it — supporting a farmer’s market in the community — and a community garden component, as it includes another 600 square feet of raised beds for community members to rent plots in which to grow food for their families.

Community engagement

The main thing community gardens and farms need to be successful is buy-in from the community members.

Murphy said, “Many of the projects are homegrown and grassroots where community members have identified an interest in starting or connecting into a growing project.”

When the community is deeply involved in the planning and upkeep of their farm or garden, it leads to community development and community engagement.

“When you think about farming on a small scale in an urban environment, it has a different set of impacts and benefits and considerations. Really, the benefits of social and community are almost one in the same,” said Tracy. “People in a neighborhood that might be somewhat divisive can come together in a community setting to ‘green’ their neighborhood. It might not be through a community garden, but they come together planting trees or creating rain gardens, or something like that. It’s creating those connections with people so it has the benefit of improving the community, along with economic and aesthetic benefits.”

Garden for the Community

In Newark, there is a fine example of an urban farm in UD’s Garden for the Community, which is located on a third of an acre on the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR) campus. The garden includes vegetables, herbs and some fruits to provide fresh, local, sustainably grown produce and donates some of that food to the Food Bank of Delaware steadily throughout the year.

Of the Garden for the Community, Murphy said, “It’s a great growing and demonstration space where you can learn more about small-scale production and different types, including ethnic varieties, of fruits and vegetables.  I direct people to the site all the time.”

The University also has a UD Fresh to You program with produce grown on the CANR campus and sold at the UDairy Creamery and at the UD Farmers Markets throughout the summer.

In addition, the city of Newark announced that its first community garden will be opening in 2015 at Fairfield Park.

Murphy has been working with the city on the project and they are planning workshops in the winter for the community gardeners.

For those in Newark who are interested in a gardening plot, visit the city of Newark Parks and Recreation page.

For more information on the Delaware Urban Farm and Food Coalition, visit the website.

Article by Adam Thomas, can also be seen on UDaily.

UD’s Evans receives USDA grant to combat rose rosette disease

UD's Tom Evans is part of a research group that has been awarded $4.6 million by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study methods to combat rose rosette disease.
UD’s Tom Evans is part of a research group that has been awarded $4.6 million by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study methods to combat rose rosette disease.

The University of Delaware’s Tom Evans and a group of 18 fellow researchers from six institutions have received a five-year, $4.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (USDA-NIFA) Small Crop Research Initiative to study methods to combat rose rosette disease to protect the nation’s cultivated rose and the ornamental shrub industry.

Evans, professor of plant pathology in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, said that rose rosette disease (RRD) — caused by the rose rosette virus (RRV) and transmitted by the wind transported eriophyid mite Phyllocoptes fructiphilus — is now widespread throughout in the U.S. and can be found commonly in muliflora rose.

“The disease poses an enormous threat to all cultivated roses and has the potential to destroy the $400 million rose industry, which forms the cornerstone of the $2.81 billion wholesale U.S. shrub market,” said Evans.

Symptoms of RRD may vary with rose cultivar but most commonly include proliferation of lateral shoots — called witches broom — unusual thorniness, reddening of these shoots and distorted flowers. This often leads to stunting, defoliation and, ultimately, death of the plant.

While most cultivated roses are susceptible to RRV and the mite, Rosa californica and R. spinosissima and three species native to the eastern U.S. — R. palustris, R. setigera and R. Carolina — are reported to have high levels of resistance. Only one species of rose, R. bracteata, has been reported to be resistant to the mite vector.

Evans said that “this project has national importance for the horticultural industry and the rose enthusiast as the disease has the potential to kill millions of cultivated roses if left unchecked.”

The short-term goal of the project is to develop best management practices to manage mite transmission of the virus while the long-term goal is to identify sources of resistance to RRD and quickly transfer resistance into elite roses for use by the industry.

In April 2013, a formal outreach program for the project was initiated with the organization of the Rose Rosette Summit held in Newark and for which Evans served as scientific adviser.

Evans has worked with Mike Dobres of Nova Flora, a commercial breeder of flowers and ornamental plants for the garden and landscape industry, and Conard-Pyle/Star Rose for more than a year to evaluate dozens of commercial rose cultivars for resistance to RRD in the field at UD’s Agricultural Experiment Station in Newark.

According to Evans, “The project includes not only university and USDA researchers and extension personnel but also commercial rose breeders from across the country as key collaborators. All of the rose material that is developed must be evaluated for resistance to the virus and for their performance under different environmental conditions at locations across the United States.”

In the Mid-Atlantic region, Evans’ laboratory will test roses developed by the project’s public and private breeders for resistance to RRV in the field and in a new greenhouse screening facility that will allow for year-round testing of rose material.

With the addition of a new graduate student to Evans’ research group in the spring, the program will be in full swing testing the nation’s new roses for their resistance to this important rose disease and the mite that transmits the virus.

The project’s director is David Byrne from Texas A&M University and other investigators include Brent Pemberton Xinwang Wang, Charlie Hall, Kevin Ong, Patricia Klein, Marco Palma and Luis Ribera from Texas A&M; Mark Windham, Alan Windham and Frank Hale from the University of Tennessee; Matthew Paret and Gary Knox from the University of Florida; Francisco Ochoa Corona and Jennifer Olson from Oklahoma State University; and John Hammond, Ramon Jordon and Ronald Ochoa from USDA-ARS in Beltsville, Maryland.

Originally published on UDaily >>

UD’s Sparks named 2015 American Chemical Society medalist

UD's Sparks named 2015 American Chemical Society medalistThe University of Delaware’s Donald Sparks has been selected as the 2015 medalist for the Geochemistry Division of the American Chemical Society (ACS), a congressionally chartered independent membership organization that represents professionals at all degree levels and in all fields of chemistry and sciences that involve chemistry.

Sparks, the S. Hallock du Pont Chair in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, Francis Alison Professor, director of the Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN) and a leader of the University’s Environmental Soil Chemistry Group, is the first soil scientist to receive the prestigious award. Sparks also holds joint appointments in the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Chemistry and Biochemistry, and the School of Marine Science and Policy.

Of learning that he had received the award, Sparks said he was “overjoyed.”

“It means a lot to me because it’s recognition not just of what I’ve done, but also of the people I have worked with,” he said. “I’ve had a remarkable group of students and post-doctoral researchers over the years and certainly part of the recognition goes to them, too.”

Blake Meyers, chair of the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences, said he was excited to learn that Sparks was receiving the award

“Don is an outstanding scholar, and this recognition by the ACS is a well-deserved honor that reflects the incredible contributions that he has made to the fields of soil science and geochemistry over many years,” Meyers said. “Don contributes his time generously to support environmental science here at UD, nationally and internationally. His work has helped develop the research infrastructure across campus, and he is also an excellent mentor to students, young scientists and faculty members.”

In the letter of nomination for the award sent by Scott Fendorf, a former doctoral student of Sparks who is now the Huffington Professor of Earth Sciences and chair of the Department of Environmental Earth System Science at Stanford University, he said that in addition to being a tremendous adviser and mentor, “Sparks is a leading scholar in geochemistry and soil chemistry, having contributed wide and deep to our understanding of reactions at the solid-water interface over the past 30 years. His research record illustrates both his productivity and impact: three books, nine books edited, 55 book chapters, and 225 research papers having nearly more than 9,000 citations (ISI count). This has resulted in a research program recognized as one of the world’s finest in geochemistry.”

Sparks has been the recipient of numerous awards including UD’s Francis Alison Award, the highest competitive award given by the University, and he was the first recipient of the UD Outstanding Doctoral Graduate Student Advising and Mentoring Award.

He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Soil Science Society of America, American Society of Agronomy, Geochemical Society, and European Association of Geochemists.

Other awards include Einstein Professor from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Liebig Medal from the International Union of Soil Sciences, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Sterling Hendricks medal, Northeast Association of Graduate Schools Geoffrey Marshall Mentoring Award, the Soil Science Research Award, the M.L. and Chrystie M. Jackson Soil Science Award, and the American Society of Agronomy’s Environmental Quality Award.

Sparks was president of both the Soil Science Society of America and the International Union of Soil Science. He has served as adviser to 90 graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

Douglas Kent of the U.S. Geological Survey and chair of the ACS awards committee said that Sparks “has made far-reaching contributions to understanding the physical and chemical forms of metals in the poorly ordered, steadily changing materials that comprise soils, sediments and aquifers. In addition to these contributions, he has written books that have helped transform the field of soil chemistry and, through his role as an educator and mentor, has inspired a new generation of soil and environmental geochemists.”

Sparks, who has been a member of ACS for over 30 years, said it is “always nice to be recognized by your peers, and certainly it’s nice to be recognized by fellow soil scientists, but it was particularly so in this case because this is in the American Chemical Society. To be recognized by geochemists and environmental chemists means a lot because it shows that the work we’ve done has stretched across disciplines and is not just confined to one area.”

Thoughts on research

Of interdisciplinary research, Sparks said it has always been important but it is of a special significance now because scientists are trying to answer questions related to climate change, soil contamination and water quality that cross scientific boundaries.

When he first started his career, Sparks said the areas were much more in silos but now “there’s a lot of cross-disciplinary work, and so what people do in soil chemistry is no different from geochemistry, environmental chemistry or environmental engineering.”

Sparks said that over the course of his career, he has been a strong proponent of the importance of basic research and providing students the freedom to explore their ideas.

“If we don’t understand what’s happening in a basic way, then it is hard to try to apply it,” he said. “If you’re able to stick with a topic for a long enough period of time and dig deeply, you really understand things at a very fundamental and important way.”

Sparks added, “I’m a strong believer that if you have excellent students and then you give them a lot of freedom — of course I’m always there to help them and give them input and I want to know what they’re doing — but to give them that kind of independence I think has been a major factor as to why they’ve all been able to be placed well and been very successful.”

Current work

Sparks said that his current research interests include the study of contaminants in soils, such as metals like arsenic and chromium, and sea level rise.

“This Mid-Atlantic coast is very susceptible to sea level rise and we have a lot of these old, legacy contaminated industrial sites and it’s not clear at all what’s going to happen when we have inundation of sea water into those areas,” said Sparks, whose research group is trying to understand what happens to those contaminants under different seawater flooding scenarios.

His group has done extensive research since 1991 at synchrotron facilities, located at national laboratories, in the U.S., Canada and Europe. At these facilities they employ powerful X-ray sources to determine the form and reactivity of nutrients and metals in soils and minerals.

Sparks and his group are also investigating carbon cycling in the terrestrial environment, specifically the role of carbon complexation with soil minerals in retaining the carbon in the soil so that it is not emitted into the atmosphere and adding greenhouse gases, he said.

The issue is a big one as soils are a major player when it comes to sequestering carbon but it is hard to predict what will happen to the carbon in the soils in light of climate change.

This process has been studied as part of the Christina River Basin Critical Zone Observatory (CRB-CZO), which was funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant in 2009.  Sparks said that much research has been conducted at the CRB-CZO concerning carbon sequestration in different land uses and positions on the landscape.

Sparks said he has been grateful to have been able to spend his career at the University of Delaware.

“UD has just been an incredible place to be. The wonderful support that I’ve received and the great facilities, and the ability to attract really exceptional students and post-docs has been a tremendous asset,” he said.

The medal will be presented to Sparks at a plenary symposium on Monday, March 23, 2015, at the 249th national meeting of the American Chemical Society in Denver. There will be an additional symposium to honor the contributions that Sparks has made to the field of geochemistry.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo courtesy of Donald Sparks

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

CANR Dean Rieger travels to Africa to establish Borel Fellowship Program

CANR Dean Rieger travels to Africa to establish Borel Fellowship ProgramIn an effort to identify the first Borel Fellows at the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), as well as build the infrastructure and the agreements to mobilize people for the program, Dean Mark Rieger and other University professors will travel to Kenya in November.

The five-year Borel Fellows Program was established through a generous gift from James C. and Marcia Borel. James C. Borel is executive vice president at DuPont and a member of the University’s Board of Trustees.

The program is designed to allow for human capacity development – special training to enhance skills and understanding of processes — as African students will be provided the opportunity to travel to UD to earn their master’s degrees and then return home to contribute in a meaningful way to the agricultural development of their countries.

Rieger will be joined on the trip by Randy Wisser, assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. They will visit the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) in Nairobi, Kenya.

Rieger explained that AGRA operates on funding from the World Bank and other organizations, and “one of their projects is to connect students to universities and place them in various agricultural disciplines. They will help us screen and prepare students to come and then, of course, once they hit the ground here, then it’s our responsibility.”

Rieger said that the CANR officials would like to have one or two students a year from any country in Africa, not limiting the search to Kenya. “That’s just where the AGRA headquarters is and that’s where the arrangements would be made for the students,” he said.

The hope is to find candidates working in administrative agriculture at an agricultural university or another entity such as the Cooperative Groups for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) Center, a consortium of centers around the world focused on agricultural commodities.

“We think that those people might be ideal candidates because they’ve been working at a fairly high level,” Rieger said. “Also they would provide students with resources because they will have to return to the home country and finish their research.”

Once a student returns to their home country, the faculty member from CANR who served as their mentor during their time at UD will travel to Africa to help them with their academic thesis defense.

“It will be a two-way program,” Rieger said. “The student will come to Delaware for a year, and go back and finish their thesis. Our faculty will then go to their home country. In the end, we hope that what we will have is someone who is capable of getting a job at a higher level and contributing more to agricultural development than they otherwise could have been.”

Rieger said that the trip will last a week and they will also visit a university and two or three CGIAR Centers, one of which deals with livestock improvement and one that deals with plant breeding.

Rieger said that having Wisser along will be a big plus as he “has actually been to Kenya and he knows some of the people in AGRA. That was a total coincidence because when we learned of the Borel’s gift, I thought immediately of plant breeding and I went to Randy. He said, ‘Oh, I know that person. I know the group over there,’ so it worked out really well. It is a small world in plant breeding.”

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Ambre Alexander Payne

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

Researchers at UD use ancient gene to study virus biology

Researchers at UD use ancient gene to study virus biologyResearchers at the University of Delaware have discovered that an ancient gene — ribonucleotide reductase (RNR), which occurs in all cellular life — provides important biological insights into the characteristics of unknown viruses in the sea.

The results of this finding could ultimately lead to new tools for understanding the inner workings of marine microbial communities.

Eric Wommack, principal investigator on the project and a professor who holds joint appointments in the departments of Plant and Soil Sciences and Biological Sciences and the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment, explained, “The reason we care about these inner workings is because of the influence of natural, microbial communities on the balance of carbon and nutrients in ecosystems. In order for us to understand how we’re impacting the natural systems of the planet, it all comes down to the movement of carbon and nutrients through systems. Anywhere there are viruses infecting bacteria, which is everywhere, this is a possible tool that can be used.”

Much of the work was conducted by Eric Sakowski, a doctoral student in the Department of Biological Sciences, along with a team of graduate and undergraduate students.

The results of the study will be published in an upcoming issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“This research shines a light on viral ‘dark matter’ — a major challenge to understanding the diversity of life on Earth,” says Matt Kane, program director in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Division of Environmental Biology, which co-funded the research with NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences. “The identification of ribonuclotide reductase as a marker for studying viral diversity and ecology is an important new tool for revealing how viruses affect microbial interactions and processes.”

Biological classifications

Wommack said that one of the key things biologists do in order to understand how organisms function is to develop classification schemes — categorizing everything and then figuring out what those categories mean.

In the modern era, biologists do not have to rely simply on what they can see or measure, as new technologies allow them to examine genes.

“Looking at a sequence of DNA, it’s kind of like a record of the evolutionary changes that have happened among the organisms or viruses that have that gene,” said Wommack.

Using sequence data, researchers are able to do a lot more connecting of the dots, such as understanding all the little changes in DNA that happened between humans and the last non-human ancestor.

RNR

Wommack said this study, which began in 2011, is “distilling viral biology down to the level of this single RNR gene, which is a very ancient gene. We’re talking, possibly before even the first cell. This gene is believed to have been critical to the emergence of DNA-based life.”

Sakowski added that the gene is “so ancient that every cell on the planet that we know of has it.”

A lot of viruses also have the gene but the problem with studying environmental viruses is that most of them are completely unknown.

“When we’re studying these viruses, they aren’t viruses that we can observe. We can’t grow them in the lab, we can’t physically look at most of them, so the only thing we have to go on is the genetic sequence. And then, if you don’t have sequence data that you’ve seen before, it’s really hard to make conclusions about the virus that it came from,” said Sakowski.

That’s where the researchers turned to RNR.

Viral predictions

Because RNR is so old and critical to DNA replication — which means that it will be important to viruses — Wommack and Sakowski felt that the RNR gene would be a good choice for trying to connect its evolutionary history with viral biology.

“We are always looking for ways to use sequence data to describe something about the biology of the viruses that we see and answer some baseline questions, such as which host do they infect? How fast do they grow? Does the sequence connect with their physical shape?” said Wommack.

Sakowski looked at RNR sequences from known viruses to see if there were any biological trends that would provide context to the unknown viruses. Using this marker gene approach, he found several things using RNR sequences.

“A marker gene, like RNR, is a specific gene that we use to understand evolutionary relationships and the community structure of the viral populations that we find in the environment,” said Sakowski. “The first nice thing about RNR is that we were able to take a look at a much broader spectrum of the viruses that are present and see which ones are the most abundant, not just within one small group but across a breadth of diversity. This includes the most abundant, and we think, the most biologically important viruses in the environment. So we can get a better understanding of what these natural populations look like.”

With RNR in marine environments they found it mostly occurs in lytic viruses — viruses that replicate rapidly — that the researchers believe are the key players in controlling a lot of the bacterial populations and influencing things like energy flow and carbon and other nutrient cycles.

They have also found that by comparing the RNR gene sequences of known viruses with those from environmental viruses, they can make predictions about the physical shape of some environmental viruses. They can also predict more about the biology of those viruses.

“RNR is really interesting because there are three different classes based on how the enzyme reacts to oxygen,” said Sakowski. “There’s an oxygen-dependent enzyme that only works when there’s oxygen available, an oxygen-independent version that can work regardless of whether oxygen is present or absent, and an oxygen-sensitive version of the enzyme that only works in the absence of oxygen.”

By knowing which version of the RNR gene the virus is carrying, they know the conditions under which it is actively replicating so they can tell if it is infecting a host that is potentially an aerobe — a host that’s using oxygen — or if it is replicating in a host that is an anaerobe.

“We can really start to gain insight into some of those biological aspects that you couldn’t with some of the other genes that we’ve been looking at,” said Sakowski.

Womamck said that predicting which host groups these viruses may be infecting has been a “difficult question to answer, and an incredibly important one because we’re only looking at half the equation when we look at the virus. Obviously some host population was infected and killed to produce those viruses so we believe from the analysis that for some groups we can actually predict the host groups that produce that virus.”

The implications for the field of microbial ecology and environmental microbiology are that researchers can now go in and look at a viral community and potentially, over time, make predictions about which host populations could be most impacted by viral infection.

“What it means is that we’re dissecting the inner workings of the system, which is ultimately what science is aiming to do, to really understand how natural systems work,” said Wommack.

Now that the evolutionary analysis has been done and the drawing of connections with biological features has been completed, Wommack said they hope more researchers will use this information going forward.

The researchers were aided along the way by undergraduate researchers, Mara Hyatt and William Kress, who worked with Sakowski and Wommack through the support of undergraduate research internships from Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program and the Delaware Water Resources Center (DWRC). Sakowski was funded on a graduate fellowship through the DWRC

They also acknowledged the Delaware IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) program and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, both of which were instrumental in the research.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos and images by Lindsay Yeager

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

UD researchers track fall migratory patterns of insects

Dr. Jeff Buler,  uses this balloon to collect insects for a study on fall insect migration. His assistants Jaci Smolinski and Matthew Levendosky launch this balloon in the evening (approx 500 feet in the air) with a net attached to it to capture insect specimens.To study the nocturnal flight patterns of migrating insects during the fall, researchers at the University of Delaware have been spending their nights on the Newark Farm launching a balloon equipped with a tow net to try to catalogue insect species.

Jeff Buler, assistant professor, and Charles Mason, professor, both in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, have teamed up for a pilot study on migrating insects during the fall, something that has not been well researched in the United States.

The professors are being assisted on the project by Matt Levondosky, a UD alumnus who was a wildlife ecology major, and Michael Palmer, a senior chemical and biomolecular engineering major who was brought into the project after taking an entomology course with Mason.

Buler said the study has been a nice mix of disciplines from within the department.

“I mostly study birds and bird migration but our department has a number of entomologists, so this is a nice collaboration between the wildlife ecologists and the entomologists,” he said.

To conduct the study, the researchers used a large balloon known as a helikite – a special kite with a helium filled balloon on loan from UD’s Department of Geography — with a tow net that has a catch bag at the end acting as a one-way funnel into which insects fly.

The balloon has been launched around sunset on the Newark Farm, between the Allen Laboratory and the apiary, where it flies for four hours. It is launched at that time because both insects and birds initiate their nocturnal flights around civil twilight, which is about 40 minutes after sunset.

Buler is leading the pilot project and said he was interested in the study because he uses radar to track bird migration and one of the biggest obstacles he faces in analyzing data is whether he is seeing insects or birds on the radar.

Usually, researchers who use radar to track bird migration use the air speeds of biological targets to differentiate between birds and insects.

“Birds are stronger fliers than insects so they’re generally moving at faster air speeds than the insects, which tend to act more like aerial plankton, just barely moving faster than the ambient wind speeds. That’s how we distinguish birds from insects on the radar, but we’d like to be able to collect some data to validate what we think we’re seeing,” Buler said. “That’s why I’m trying to sample to see if on those nights that we do see insects, we are also catching insects.”

Another reason for the study is that while insect migration has been widely studied in the spring, where pest insects can pose a problem for crops, it has not been very well studied in the U.S. in the fall.

In other places around the world — specifically China, India and Europe — entomologists have studied the fall migrations of insects closely. To get the UD study off the ground, Buler said the team relied heavily on those studies to learn how to utilize the balloon properly.

“A colleague I’ve been in contact with is Jason Chapman, who is a British entomologist, and he had a nice paper come out recently looking at the convergence of behavior between insects and birds,” said Buler. “Birds tend to be not as picky about the winds and they just sort of fly on most nights. Because of their own power, they can contend with the winds and get to where they want to go. But because insects are such weak fliers, they seem to be very choosy about the wind.”

Chapman and his collaborator Don Reynolds, another British entomologist, helped Buler’s team with the aerial trapping system.

“They have a very similar sort of aerial trapping system in which they use a helium balloon to lift a net and they sent me their schematic, which was the inspiration for us to build our own. I’ve been in contact with them and they’re excited about it because they said that nobody in North America has really done much and they’re interested in what we might find,” said Buler.

One problem the team members have encountered has been their inability to get the balloon as high as they want.

“We’re limited by how high we can fly. It can fly up to 500 feet, which is fine because there should be insects at that height, but its also likely that there are a bunch of insects above that height. But we’re getting far enough off the ground that we’re probably sampling this layer of insects in the air above the ground,” said Buler.

The insects that they have catalogued so far include a noctuid moth, the green cloverworm, which Doug Tallamy, professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, helped them identify.

Buler said the green cloverworm was interesting because it is a species that is known to winter along the Gulf Coast and migrate north in the spring, so it is likely that it was moving south through this area with the approach of fall.

As for the next steps for the project, Buler said he hopes to conduct the study again next fall.

“I’m more interested in the fall migration mostly because that’s less well studied,” he said.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos by Lindsay Yeager

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

Awokuse named to Nigerian National Agricultural Policy Committee

Titus Awokuse named to Nigerian National Agricultural Policy CommitteeThe University of Delaware’s Titus Awokuse has been named to the 14-member Nigerian National Agricultural Policy Committee to help the country develop a strong policy roadmap and advise its agriculture ministry.

The committee includes agricultural experts, policy experts and economists from the private and public sectors, as well as research agencies, and will evaluate and assess projects related to agriculture nationally, especially with regard to the Agricultural Transformation Agenda (ATA) put in place as part of President Goodluck Jonathan’s National Economic Policy Transformation Agenda. 

Awokuse, chair of the Department of Applied Economics and Statistics in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, traveled to Nigeria in September for the inauguration of the committee and said that there are many challenges that face agriculture in that nation.

“A big challenge to agricultural productivity and food security in Nigeria is the lack of adequate infrastructure to support food production and distribution,” said Awokuse. “Another issue of concern to Nigerian farmers is the lack of access to credit. Banks are reluctant to provide loans to farmers because the risk of default is high and farmers who need loans to embark on expanding their operations are unable to do so. The business financing mechanism is not in place to be able to access loans like what farmers are used to in America.”

Dealing with uncertainty is another issue that faces Nigerian growers. When an environmental event such as drought threatens crops, they have no crop insurance policy to help compensate them for the loss, though the federal government plans to launch a national crop insurance program for farmers in 2015.

There are also challenges in terms of international agricultural trade policy, where past policies and practices favored imports of staple foods at the expense of locally grown food products that could be sold domestically and on the international market.

Although Nigeria was a net food exporter in the 1960s, it’s has become a leading net importer of food and the largest global importer of rice. According to. Akinwumi Adesina, the minister of agriculture and rural development, the nation annually spends “on average $11 billion on importing wheat, rice, sugar and fish alone.”

Perhaps the biggest policy challenge, however, is the ability to facilitate agricultural production via access to agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and seeds. Nigeria has begun to deal with this problem through a national fertilizer project known as the Federal Government of Nigeria’s Growth Enhancement Support (GES) program.

Of the project, Awokuse said that it is ongoing and has been “a big improvement over the previous corruption-laden subsidized fertilizer distribution program that few farmers actually received. The GES program has been very successful in providing subsidized inputs to farmers directly instead of going through intermediaries. By 2013, over 10 million small holder farmers had been registered to participate in the GES program via an Electronic Wallet System which uses mobile phone technology to distribute subsidized electronic vouchers to farmers for receiving agricultural inputs.”

Now that the committee has been inaugurated, Awokuse said that Adesina asked members to serve in an ongoing policy advisory role and undertake several program assessment projects.

Awokuse will take an active role in assessing agricultural and international trade policy in Nigeria and will help to develop a more effective policy approach, looking at best practices in other countries, specifically the United States.

“I have taught agricultural policy at the University of Delaware for several years and believe some of the policy frameworks that are taken for granted in the U.S. Farm Bill could be very useful as we work on revamping the national agricultural policy in Nigeria,” said Awokuse. “We will also explore the development of an agricultural sector model that will be a comprehensive analytical model that could be used to analyze the potential impact of different policies and programs.”

As for what he is most looking forward to about being part of the committee, Awokuse said that it will be a great opportunity to be involved with meaningful work that will have a real benefit to the millions of people in the country, as well as Africa as a whole.

“Nigeria is usually referred to as the ‘Giant of Africa’ because it is the most populous country in Africa. It has about 174 million people — more than half of the U.S. population – and is the seventh most populous country in the world. It’s also the largest economy in Africa and internationally, it’s ranked as the 26th largest economy,” Awokuse said. “However in 2014, with income per capita of $2,688 and a ranking of 121, Nigeria’s standard of living still significantly lags many other nations. Even though there is a high level of poverty in the country, the future is bright and full of promise for Nigeria.”

He added, “Policies that are made in Nigeria have a huge impact on many people, as many of the countries in Africa look to Nigeria as a role model. If something works well in Nigeria, most likely it’s going to affect other countries on the African continent.”

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos by Danielle Quigley and courtesy of Titus Awokuse

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

UD researchers, students work on plan to revitalize Laurel

UD researchers, students work on plan to revitalize LaurelAn interdisciplinary University of Delaware research team has joined forces with the citizens of Laurel, Delaware, to map out a plan to revitalize and provide specific landscape design recommendations for the town, specifically the waterfront area along the Broad Creek.

The project is known as “The Ramble,” and features a large walkway that will extend the length of the town and includes six major development projects. 

The idea came about when Ed Lewandowski, Delaware Sea Grant’s coastal communities development specialist who had been working with the town on implementing water quality mandates in the river as a part of a regional effort to restore the Chesapeake Bay watershed, discovered that the town was also interested in coming up with a master plan to re-develop the Broad Creek waterfront.

He got in touch with Jules Bruck, associate professor of landscape design in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), who worked through the summer with Lorelly Solano, a doctoral student in urban affairs and public policy, to develop and finalize the plans.

In addition, students from Bruck’s computer-aided design (CAD) class helped spur the project proposal on by studying and presenting examples of small town revitalizations to help flesh out viable and environmentally friendly options for the space.

Bruck put a proposal together for the Laurel Redevelopment Center — a private, nonprofit organization that works to support economic development in the town, located alongside Route 13 in Sussex County — and Lewandowski held focus groups to learn what the community wanted, as it was important for the team to come up with a proposal that pleased the citizens of Laurel.

“We really loved the idea that we were having a great collaboration between this not-for-profit, three colleges at the University, undergraduate students and members of the community of Laurel,” said Bruck.

Bruck is a member of the CANR faculty and Solano is studying in the Institute for Public Administration, a center in the School of Public Policy and Administration in the College of Arts and Sciences, while Delaware Sea Grant is housed in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment.

The group presented drafts of the plan to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) Planners Technical Advisory Committee (PTAC), which offered advice on the plan and how the group could undertake modifications to make it more ecologically sound.

In fact, Bruck said that halfway though the project PTAC was able to provide an updated 100-year flood plain map to help the group revise its plan to accommodate for flood plain restrictions.

Also, Troy Mix, a policy scientist in Institute for Public Administration and a member of the American Institute for Certified Planners, looked at the ideas and offered his opinion about the direction the group was taking.

“We were proposing a housing development and park and playground, a new block of mixed used homes, or mixed use stores with houses above — sort of like a mixed block community that you’d see in downtown Newark, with people living above the stores,” said Bruck.

The proposal also used ecological landscaping as the main conceptual framework to revitalize the small town using green infrastructure such as vegetated bioswales —used to remove pollution from surface water runoff — as well as the planting of thousands of trees and the installation of permeable parking surfaces that will allow water to infiltrate through instead of having the storm water run off the surface.

“We have some of these at UD, actually, and they are very beneficial for water quality. It seemed especially appropriate for Laurel, where we are dealing with a creek running through town,” said Bruck.

The team also looked at how to brand and market Laurel, particularly in the ecotourism market. Input by the citizens of Laurel showed they also were interested in having people come to the town to live and be part of the community.

The planners learned that while having a tourism aspect was important, it was also important to market the town to future community members.

“A lot of small towns do get a bit of a revitalization kick if they have an artsy community and people come on the weekends and go to the art fair and then go home, but Laurel is really interested in having people come there and live there and be part of the community,” said Bruck.

The group was able to conduct an interview with a UD student from Laurel to get their perspective on the town, such as what it was like growing up in Laurel and if they would move back to figure out how to encourage others to move there.

Project collaboration

Bruck said she thinks the collaborative nature of the project led to the community members agreeing with even some of the potentially controversial aspects of the plan, such as proposals to retrofit houses to become cafés with apartment living upstairs, and adding new buildings, a new pedestrian bridge and an underpass below the existing railroad bridge.

The ideas were met with little resistance when the project was presented to the community at a Laurel town meeting.

“We had such a diverse audience — there were state legislators, the mayor, the school superintendent, community members, contractors, environmentalists — and nobody had any objections,” said Bruck. “At the end of the meeting there was a long pause after I asked for questions and one woman said, ‘I can’t believe you put into the plan everything we vocalized during the focus group. I couldn’t understand how our words would ever get translated into a landscape design and you have done it.’ I think I owe the success of the project to the real collaborative nature and just being honest about the process.”

Mix, who provided advice on the market feasibility of the proposed design, offered reflections on the public presentation, saying, “I feel honored to have played even a tiny part in the project. I’ve not seen a public forum end with the kind of positive reaction I saw — definitely the mark of a well-executed process and inspiring to witness.”

Next steps

Bruck and Lewandowski will travel to Laurel on Oct. 22 to present the proposal at a Rotary Club meeting and talk about the plans moving forward.

The first phase of the project would be a large infrastructure construction program in which everything would be put in place for the walking system, such as the pathways, lights and benches.

Also involved in the first phase of the project would be the installation of a Can-Do park that can be used by people of all abilities in a lot where the town has its Fourth of July festivities. Because of the location, the park is tentatively named Independence Playground.

Bruck said the Ramble is the backbone of the design and that “it will make a big difference in the town. Right now, I think there is a lack of connectivity in the downtown area and I think it’s going to make a real difference in the way the community perceives the space along Broad Creek.  It’s a very exciting project.”

Article by Adam Thomas

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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