Food Systems News
In the $1.5 billion U. S. aquaculture industry, largemouth bass production is a small fry.
The fish’s unusually high mortality rate across all stages of production makes it a challenge for farmers to raise this fish for profit. Researchers at Auburn University hope to expand production of largemouth bass in Alabama and the U.S. by solving the problem of high mortality rates.
A team of hatchery scientists from the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station’s E. W. Shell Fisheries Center was awarded $650,000 by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture to study the critical larval stage of largemouth bass development and share their findings with producers nationwide.
“The larval stage is the hardest stage of fish production,” said Ian Butts, associate professor and the grant project’s director. “They die so easily.”
Largemouth bass is the most popular sportfish in America, and its market value far surpasses other aquaculture species, like trout and catfish. However, due to the difficulty in raising the fish, fewer than 200 of the nearly 3,000 fish farms in the U.S. produce largemouth bass, according to the USDA’s most recent Census of Aquaculture.
Meanwhile, competitors, such as China, have increased their production of largemouth bass in recent years. America has become dependent on these other countries to supply seafood products, importing nearly 90% of the fish it consumes.
Further, as few farms raise largemouth bass from larval to juvenile stages, the U.S. suffers a serious bottleneck in production. This means not only fewer bass for sale at market as a food source, but also fewer for restocking lakes for anglers.
The problem behind the often 80% mortality rate in fish production, according to Butts, lies in the traditional method of farming largemouth bass.
Farmers tend to rely on adult bass broodstock to spawn in a commercial hatchery setting. The larvae are transferred to grow-out ponds where they feed on plankton. When large enough, they are caught and returned to the hatchery facility to be trained to feed on a commercial diet. Finally, they’re transferred back to a pond to grow until harvest.
The stress of this back-and-forth movement, in addition to the introduction of disease, the impact of natural predators (especially fish-eating birds) and environmental factors, like low oxygen levels in ponds, lead to high mortality rates.
“Farmers want to be able to have them indoors the whole time to streamline their production and keep them in a more controlled environment,” Butts said.
The series of experiments designed by Butts and his colleagues will yield best practices for largemouth bass producers nationwide to help increase fish production.
For example, experiments to study the impact of stocking density on production will help to determine the ideal ratio of larval bass to planktonic prey. Too few prey and the bass could starve, while too many creates a “confusion effect” where bass become overwhelmed, never attack prey and starve.
“It’s like it’s raining Big Macs, and you don’t know which one to grab,”Butts explained.
Bass are visual predators. Light intensity and the color of the tanks can affect their ability to see prey. Experiments will determine the optimal light intensity and tank color to ensure that more fish make it through the early stages of development.
Other experiments will determine if certain foods, given early in life, predispose bass to a soybean-based commercial diet later in life. Live food is expensive for farmers. The sooner farmers can switch to commercial fish food, the more profitable and sustainable production will become.
The research team is made of Ian Butts, Timothy Bruce, Anita Kelly, Luke Roy and Allen Davis, all from the School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences at Auburn. Karolina Kwasek of the University of New Hampshire is also a member of the grant team.
The grant funding will allow the research team to offer full assistantships to a PhD student and three new master’s students who will join the School of Fisheries, Aquaculture & Aquatics Sciences in the College of Agriculture. These students will carry out many of the experiments under the direction of the research team.
“These fish are fed every two hours from 6 a.m. to midnight every day,” Butts said. “A team is necessary.”
The experiments will be carried out over a four-year period, predominantly at the E. W. Shell Fisheries Center in Auburn, which has more than 200 ponds on 1,600 acres of research land.
“Not too many places in the country have hundreds of ponds, a fisheries center and all the right lab equipment … right in the heart of largemouth bass fishing,” Butts said. “You can’t usually get that in one facility.”
Researchers from the Department of Biological Sciences at Auburn University have discovered that honey bee colonies have surprising abilities to adapt and maintain their nest structure, even in the face of severe disruptions.
Contrary to previous assumptions, the researchers found that the disruption of three-dimensional nest structure while colonies were building their nests did not hinder colony performance. The findings shed new light on the adaptive nature of honey bee colonies and how nest structure contributes to colony function.
The study focused on the intricate three-dimensional nest building behavior of honey bee colonies. To investigate the development of honey bee nests over time, the research team employed non-destructive, photo-based sampling methods using moveable wooden bee-frames. This approach allowed them to observe and analyze the growth and organization of combs within the nests without sacrificing the colonies. They found that honey bees rapidly build a well-connected spheroid nest composed of parallel combs that expand in all directions from the nest origin.
To test how important this stereotyped structure is for colony development, the international team of researchers disrupted the nest structure of another group of colonies by rearranging the movable wooden bee-frames in a new randomized order every week. They initially hypothesized that this disruption would negatively impact colony-level performance. However, the study revealed no significant difference in worker population, comb area, hive weight, or nest temperature between colonies with intact nest structures and those with disrupted nest structures.
The surprising lack of difference in colony performance led the researchers to explore the mechanisms behind the honey bees’ ability to compensate for repeated disruptions. By modeling the colony’s building behavior, they found that colonies prioritize structural connectedness when expanding their nests, actively repairing connections in the three-dimensional nest structure following the experimental disruptions. This highlights the colony’s ability to adapt their comb shape to the available space within a cavity, an essential skill in the wild, where cavities are not uniform.
The study also identified potential reasons why honey bees prioritize nest connectedness. A well-connected nest reduces the surface area-to-volume ratio, potentially enhancing thermoregulation efficiency, improving larvae development and winter survival. It also may facilitate information-sharing among colony members and optimize travel distances within the nest for essential activities such as foraging, feeding larvae, and egg-laying.
“We were all surprised that the shuffled colonies performed as well as they did,” said Auburn’s Peter R. Marting, the first author of the study. “We expected some shuffled colonies wouldn’t even survive the summer. The bees’ resilience led us to take a closer look at how and where exactly workers were adding new comb to shape their nests and ultimately led us to develop the predictive comb growth models.”
The research team believes that understanding the underlying mechanisms behind these adaptive building strategies in social insects can provide valuable insights into collective intelligence and resilience in complex systems.
The study, “Manipulating nest architecture reveals three-dimensional building strategies and colony resilience in honeybees,” appears in the journal “Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences” and is available for reference.
“Honey bees are an extremely well-studied system, but many basic developmental questions remain unanswered, because we don’t typically look at the colony’s natural life cycle,” said Michael L. Smith, senior author of the study. “Sometimes you just have to do the experiment and see what the bees will do.”
Honey bees (photo by Peter R. Marting)
For the second straight year, Auburn University is ranked in the top 11% of U.S. research institutions, coming in at No. 100 among 915 universities, according to the National Science Foundation’s most recent Higher Education Research and Development, or HERD, Survey.
Among public universities, Auburn is ranked No. 68 out of 412 institutions. The university also increased its research and development spending overall by $11.1 million in 2021.
“Auburn’s second year of ranking among the nation’s top 100 research institutions continues to be a significant accomplishment,” said James Weyhenmeyer, Auburn’s vice president for research and economic development. “Our researchers continue to be committed to engaging in impactful research—much of which is critical to supporting major Alabama industries—and that commitment is reflected in Auburn’s being highly ranked once again.”
The annual survey, compiled from fiscal year 2021 research expenditures, saw Auburn hold its position in the rankings’ top 100 even as 10 other SEC schools saw their positions fall. During the five-year period from 2017-21, Auburn’s annual research expenditures increased from $190.3 million to $266.4 million, resulting in a rankings jump of 14 places.
For universities without a medical school, Auburn again ranked No. 61 nationally and No. 1 in the state. Auburn also was highly ranked nationally in a number of specific fields of research, including No. 51 in engineering (up three spots), No. 53 in mathematics and statistics (up one spot) and No. 94 in physical sciences, all state bests. Auburn also ranked No. 41 for non-science and engineering research expenditures (up two spots). These fields include business administration, management, communications, education, humanities, social work and human sciences.
A hallmark of Auburn’s research is the diversity of its funded projects. Highlights include:
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently awarded Auburn’s College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment $2.1 million for studies into mitigating needle blight, a growing threat to pine trees. According to EDPA, the forest products industry is the state’s largest manufacturing industry. A second USDA award of more than $1.5 million is funding another study in the college aimed at reducing the effects of climate change through forest carbon sequestration.
The Auburn College of Agriculture’s Department of Poultry Science was awarded more than $1.2 million for research into sustainable poultry processing, as well as received additional funding of approximately $1.3 million for a study of the effects of environmental conditions in production efficiency and product quality in commercial poultry operations. Like forestry, poultry production is another major industry in Alabama. Alabama ranks fourth in the nation in broiler (chicken) production.
In addition to the high ranking in the NSF HERD Survey, Auburn is recognized by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education as a top-level, or R1, university with “very high research activity.”
It looks like a natural fit: a sustainable system that produces fresh vegetables and fish located in food deserts with marginalized populations.
And, while there has been an explosion in the interest surrounding such an arrangement, there are significant technological and social barriers hindering its adoption.
Overcoming these barriers is the goal of a research project being conducted at Auburn University and led by Brendan Higgins, assistant professor in the College of Agriculture Department of Biosystems Engineering.
“At its best, aquaponics allows local people to produce their own fresh fish and produce in a sustainable manner: The wastewater from the fish is used to provide water and fertilizer to the plants,” Higgins said. “However, the development of this fusion of aquaculture with hydroponic vegetable production in food deserts doesn’t come without barriers.”
These barriers include: 1) systems that are prone to instability without advanced technical knowledge; 2) fish and produce quality that do not meet consumer quality demands (e.g., muddy fish flavor); and 3) food safety issues, given that pathogens in the fish wastewater can contaminate the vegetables.
“A failure to address these three issues will continue to place aquaponics systems—and the corresponding nutritional and environmental benefits—out of reach for marginalized populations,” Higgins said.
The objective of the research project—which is working with a $575,730 grant from the National Science Foundation—is to improve understanding of how aquaponics design decisions (e.g., integrating algae into biofloc, coupled vs. decoupled systems) impact microbial stability, pathogen dynamics and product quality.
“Our central hypothesis is that algal biofloc and decoupled systems will exceed the performance metrics of bacteria-centric biofloc and coupled systems (85% of current systems) in terms of system stability and ease of operation, nutritional and flavor profiles, and pathogen management when placed in the hands of novice users,” Higgins said.
The project will allow researchers to rigorously test integrating algal-biofloc and decoupled plant production into small-scale aquaponics systems, both independently and in combination.
Algal biofloc, Higgins explained, is a mixture of algae and bacteria that transform nutrients into less toxic forms for both fish and plants. Bacteria biofloc does the same thing but researchers have found that the mixture of algae and bacteria is even more effective, at least in a lab setting.
“We want to know if this holds true in actual aquaponics systems,” he said.
Coupled aquaponics means there is recirculation of water between the fish tank and the plant bed (and back again). Decoupled means water flows in one direction: from fish to plants but not back again.
“Our project looks at both of these design choices, both independently and in combination,” Higgins said.
The test systems will be operated by high school students in east Alabama after hands-on training in a synergistic school-university partnership.
“Our team has extensive experience conducting research on aquaponics systems and algal-bacterial treatment of waste, and it engages frequently in educational and outreach programs with novice users,” he said.
Co-investigators on the project include David Cline, Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences; Sheena Stewart, Department of Educational Foundations, Leadership, and Technology in the College of Education; and Luz de-Bashan and Paola Magallon, Bashan Institute of Science.
The three specific aims of the research project are to:
Test the integration of algae and decoupling into biofloc aquaponics to improve stability and ease of operation for novice users (high school students). Researchers hypothesize that the integration of green algae into the biofloc and deployment into a decoupled aquaponics system will improve system stability (nitrification capacity) and reliability (plant and fish survival).
Determine the contribution of algal biofloc to improved nutritional quality and the flavor profile of aquaponics products. Integrating Chlorella algae into the biofloc will hypothetically increase the omega-3 fatty acid profile of fish, antioxidant content of vegetables, and improve the fish flavor profile by displacing opportunistic bacteria and cyanobacteria species that generate muddy flavors.
Quantify the impacts of algal biofloc and decoupling on indicator pathogens in aquaponics. The presence of algal taxa like Chlorella in the biofloc and use of decoupled systems hypothetically will reduce the presence of indicator pathogens. While students and teachers will run the different aquaponics systems, Auburn University and the Bashan Institute of Science will conduct advanced chemical, microbiological and genomic analyses of the systems. Students will evaluate system ease-of-use and flavor of products through surveys.
The research project is significant because it is expected to resolve persistent challenges that have hindered aquaponics adoption to date, Higgins said.
“For example, the integration of algae into decoupled biofloc production has great promise to resolve microbial stability and pathogen concerns,” he said. “Moreover, our improved understanding of these microbial dynamics in aquaponics can translate broadly to other areas of aquaculture, nutrient recovery and waste management. An improved understanding of how design choices impact user experience can translate to research on other scalable food production technologies.”
The project will lead to measurable benefits by enhancing the education of high school student participants who live in low-income communities with limited food access.
“Approximately 225 students will engage in hands-on learning by operating the aquaponics systems, allowing them to learn and apply knowledge of agriculture, biology, chemistry, nutrition and engineering,” Higgins said.
“This is important because these students are the future of sustainable food production: The skills they learn extend to a wide range of career and education pathways. We expect that reaching them in their formative years will result in measurable changes in self-perceptions regarding STEM topics, which will be assessed through survey instruments.”
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Brendan Higgins, assistant professor in Auburn University’s College of Agriculture, is leading a research project that seeks to improve understanding of how aquaponics design decisions affect microbial stability, pathogen dynamics and product quality.
The genome, which was published in the journal GigaScience, is essential for genetic improvement using gene-editing or genome-assisted selection and will aid in the genetic enhancement of better catfish breeds for the multimillion-dollar catfish farming industry.
Catfish farming is the largest aquaculture industry in the U.S., accounting for approximately 70% of the nation’s total aquaculture output. Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas account for the great majority of total U.S. freshwater catfish production, with Alabama ranking second only behind Mississippi. The primary fish utilized for farming purposes is a hybrid produced by breeding male blue catfish with female channel catfish.
“The hybrid catfish is superior in growth and disease resistance,” according to Xu Wang, assistant professor of comparative genomics in animal health in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Pathobiology and adjunct faculty investigator with the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, who is one of the leaders of the project.
“Faster growth means more profit. Originally, farmed fish were primarily channel catfish, but three major bacterial pathogens resulted in a 40% loss of production and annual economic damage of over $100 million in the U.S. industry alone. The hybrid mix of the blue and channel catfish has improved disease resistance and reduced mortality by half.”
Even so, Wang says there is a critical need for further genetic improvement using genomic methods.
“The channel catfish genome was mapped in 2016 by John Liu’s lab at Auburn [now at Syracuse University], but the blue catfish genome was not available until we published it,” Wang added. “Our high-quality blue catfish genome addresses the urgent needs to achieve the long-term goal of improving growth, feed utilization, stress and disease resistance and reproduction.”
Wang served as senior author of the GigaScience paper, assisted by Haolong Wang (no relation), a doctoral student in biomedical sciences supported by both an Auburn Presidential Graduate Research Fellowship and a College of Veterinary Medicine Dean’s Fellowship. The veterinary researchers collaborated closely with a team from the College of Agriculture’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences led by Professor Rex Dunham, an internationally recognized authority in the genetic enhancement and gene editing of catfish.
“This is a fantastic step forward,” Dunham said of the mapping of the blue catfish genome. “There have been many genetic enhancement projects related to gene transfer and gene editing that were not possible for blue catfish without it. As a result, we could not do parallel work with what we are doing with channel catfish. Since a hybrid between channel and blue is the best genetic type for the catfish industry, that also put limitations on what we could do with these tools to improve the hybrid.
“That roadblock is now gone. Having the blue catfish genome available opens a huge treasure chest of markers we can use for other approaches, such as marker assisted selection, and also gives us many more tools to distinguish and track different genetic types of blue catfish. Thanks to this research, we are much less limited than before.”
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Auburn University postdoctoral student Baofeng Su is part of an Auburn research team that recently became the first to map a high-quality genome assembly of the blue catfish.
Auburn University is part of a $20 million collaboration among nine Alabama universities and one private firm to develop transformative technologies in plasma science and engineering, or PSE.
The five-year effort—which is being led by the University of Alabama in Huntsville, or UAH—is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, or NSF, Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR. The goals of the Future Technologies enabled by Plasma Processes, or FTPP, initiative are to develop new technologies using plasma—the most abundant form of matter in the observable universe—in hard and soft biomaterials, food safety and sterilization and space weather prediction.
“This research directly impacts two of the largest industries in the state of Alabama, space and agriculture,” said Ed Thomas Jr., interim dean, Auburn College of Sciences and Mathematics and project lead. “For more than three decades, Auburn has been a leader in plasma research, and we have one of the highest ratios of plasma physicists in our faculty in the entire nation.”
Auburn’s team includes: Saikat Chakraborty Thakur, Uwe Konopka, Evdokiya (Eva) Kostadinova, Yu Lin, Stuart Loch, David Maurer, Joseph Perez from the Department of Physics, Mary Lou Ewald, director of COSAM Outreach, Virginia Davis from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Amit Morey from the Department of Poultry Science.
“The Alabama EPSCoR program continues to promote cutting-edge research and economic advancement in the state, and this funding presents a great opportunity for Auburn University and its collaborators,” said James Weyhenmeyer, Auburn’s vice president for research and economic development.
The alliance will build Alabama’s PSE research capacity, as well as the supporting workforce, while making the state a world-renowned PSE hub.
“The funding is the result of a team effort from the co-investigators in assembling the group, who generated the concepts and ideas underlying the proposal and executed the plan by writing a successful proposal,” said Gary Zank, FTPP’s principal investigator and director of UAH’s Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research, or CSPAR, and the Aerojet Rocketdyne chair of the Department of Space Science.
“The Alabama EPSCoR committee that oversees all the Alabama EPSCoR activities—especially Professor Chris Lawson and his team of Alabama university vice presidents of research—was instrumental in guiding and helping us develop the proposal.”
Alabama Sens. Richard Shelby and Tommy Tuberville, as well as former Sen. Doug Jones, have helped champion the collaboration.
“This grant will allow for ground-breaking plasma research to occur, accelerating new technologies for a variety of applications, and will further solidify Alabama as a leader in this field,” Shelby said. “I look forward to seeing the impact that this five-year initiative will have on the future utility of plasma science and engineering.”
Tuberville called the grant welcome news and said it is well-deserved for this innovative collaboration.
“Our state is home to many talented researchers and developers, and this funding will go a long way in making Alabama a leading pioneer in PSE research and stimulating meaningful advancements in plasma technologies,” Tuberville said.
Although different in intentions, research goals and scope from a previous $20 million NSF EPSCoR grant awarded in 2017, the new FTPP grant will continue to build plasma expertise, research and industrial capacity, as well as a highly trained and capable plasma science and engineering workforce, across Alabama.
Both plans prioritize advanced manufacturing, agricultural and food products, biosciences and biotechnology, chemical and petrochemical, energy, forestry products, information technology and cybersecurity, metal and advanced materials, nanotechnology, plasma science and transportation.
Partnered with Auburn and UAH are: the University of Alabama; (lead: R. Branam); the University of Alabama at Birmingham (lead: Y. Vohra); Tuskegee University (lead: V. Rangari); the University of South Alabama (lead: E. Spencer); Alabama A&M University (lead: R. Mentreddy); Alabama State University (lead: K. Vig); and Oakwood University (lead: A. Volkov); along with a commercial/industrial partner CFD Research Corporation (lead: V. Kolobov), that specializes in computational fluid dynamics software and is located in Cummings Research Park in Huntsville.
In addition, FTPP cooperatively partners with three national laboratories: Los Alamos National Lab, Sandia National Lab and Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. FTPP will harness and share cooperatively the project team’s collective expertise, resources and workforce.
FTTP will exploit low-temperature plasma, or LTP, physics to develop technologies for advanced materials, agriculture, food safety and health-related applications. It will use space plasma physics from the sun to the ionosphere to develop actionable space weather forecasting and nowcasting models to mitigate potentially damaging effects on spacecraft, humans and infrastructure.
Those are two of the six Grand Challenge problems identified in the Plasma 2020 decadal report. The National Academy of Sciences named Zank co-chair to produce that report in 2018, and Thomas was a member of the Plasma 2020 committee and one of the co-authors of that report.
“The FTPP project is the next step in Alabama’s and Auburn’s growing contributions in plasma science and engineering,” Thomas said. “We will use the FTPP project to continue to expand our collaborations in the state, nationally and internationally and create new educational, economic and scientific opportunities for our students and the people of Alabama.”
Proposed educational and outreach programs for college and K-12 students, collaboration with national and international partners, scientific exchange programs, workshops and internships between academic institutions and national labs and industry partners also will build PSE capacity. FTPP partnerships will work toward building a sustainable foundation from which further PSE ambitions can be realized, such as a hub for cutting edge PSE in Alabama.
The National Science Foundation Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR, is committing $20 million to a research collaboration among nine Alabama universities and one private firm to develop transformative technologies in plasma science and engineering.
Di Tian, an assistant professor in the Auburn University College of Agriculture’s Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences, has been named a recipient of the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, Award.
The CAREER program is a foundation-wide activity that offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Activities pursued by early-career faculty should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.
Tian’s award is for his integrated project titled “Analytical methods for understanding and predicting agricultural flash droughts in a changing climate.” The total award is $574,706 over five years, co-funded by the NSF Hydrologic Sciences and NSF Climate and Large-Scale Dynamics programs.
The research, Tian said, will investigate underlying drivers of agricultural flash droughts using machine learning-based causal inference analysis, develop and evaluate sub-seasonal agricultural flash drought forecasts using deep learning approaches and assess changes in agricultural flash drought under contemporary and future climate based on coupled general circulation models large ensembles.
“These research objectives will be integrated with an education and outreach plan focusing on developing and implementing innovative lessons on drought through the 4-H ‘head, heart, hands and health’ program, conducting workshops on sub-seasonal forecasts and decision making with stakeholders through a climate learning network and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students,” Tian said.
Deliverables from this project will contribute to an improved understanding and predictions of flash droughts at the regional scale and will provide a framework for analyzing a broader class of extreme climate events, which will be transferrable to different locations around the world, he added.
Flash drought, Tian said, is an extreme hydro-climate event characterized by sudden onset, rapid intensification and devastating impact on communities. A notable example is the U.S. Southeast flash drought in September 2019.
“It rapidly depletes soil moisture, posing significant water and heat stresses for agriculture and ecosystems and potentially driving water demand and irrigation expansions to traditionally rainfed regions,” he said. “Flash drought is challenging to predict because of its fast onset and development and complex land-ocean-atmosphere factors that contribute to or affect their formation. The NSF CAREER Award allows me to probe into the immediate goal to understand and predict flash droughts, which can potentially accelerate strategies for climate change adaptation.
“It also encourages me to continuously pursue my long-term research goal to integrate terrestrial hydrology, climatology and data science to address gaps and needs for better understanding and predicting hydro-climate impacts and risks in water and food sustainability, and my educational goal to integrate research and real-world applications to enhance learning and climate-aware decision making.”
Tian’s lab, Climate Analytics Group, focuses on understanding and predicting primary climate and hydrologic indicators, extreme events and impacts on water resources, ecosystem and food and agriculture using data science and artificial intelligence techniques, process-based modeling, high-performance computing and emerging earth system data generated from numerical simulations, sensors and satellites.
BY PAUL HOLLIS
Auburn University recently participated in the BIO Alabama conference at the Grand Bohemian Hotel in Mountain Brook, showcasing seven of its biotechnology research developments.
BIO Alabama is the trade organization for the state’s biosciences industry. This year’s event—the first meeting following a six-year hiatus due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic—featured approximately 200 scientists and their research developments April 25-26.
Melinda Richter, global head of Innovation at Johnson & Johnson, served as keynote speaker under this year’s theme, “Building Alabama’s Biohorizons,” focusing on the future of the industry’s participation in Alabama’s innovation economy.
Auburn’s presentations included:
Vivosphere cell encapsulation technology platform for drug development and discovery (Elizabeth Lipke; presented by co-inventor Yuan Tian) – This is a 3D cell encapsulation method and device for more accurate and cost-effective drug screening, bioinks and regenerative medicine.
Anti-cancer immunotherapy targeting CD47 (James Gillespie, joint project with VCOM) – Development of an anticancer treatment that could replace immunomodulatory therapies targeting CD47.
Computational tool for speeding discovery of natural beneficial compounds (Angela Calderon and Cheryl Seals; presented by Kabre Heck and Muhammad Gulfam) – A collaborative project about an automated method to analyze mass spectrometry data to identify potential bioactive compounds in complex mixtures.
Engineered bacteria for producing biofuels and other compounds (Yi Wang) – Engineering of bacteria to express record levels of butanol for biofuel or other industrial applications or to express record levels of butyl acetate for use in foods, consumer goods or industrial processes.
Computationally designed compounds for treating Alzheimer’s disease (Raj Amin; presented by Ian Steinke and Fajar Wibowo) – A custom-designed therapeutic compound for treating Alzheimer’s without the side effects seen with other drugs in this class.
Gene therapy vectors for therapeutic treatment of neurological disease (Doug Martin) – Engineered AAV vectors for treating neurological diseases such as rabies.
Medical device for improving diagnosis and monitoring of neuropathy in diabetic patients (Michael Zabala and Thomas Burch; presented by co-inventor Kenny Brock, VCOM) – A medical device for accurately monitoring and measuring loss of feeling in diabetic patients. (Jon Commander is also a co-inventor and is with VCOM.)
BIO Alabama is the leading advocate for Alabama's bioeconomy. The organization represents the state on a national and international stage, promoting the intellectual and innovative capital to make Alabama a premier place to invest, start and grow in bioscience.
Alabama’s bioscience industry provides a $7.3 billion impact on the state’s economy, according to BIO Alabama data. Auburn has participated in BIO Alabama events for a number of years.
"As presenting sponsor for this year’s BIO Alabama conference, Auburn University had an important opportunity to showcase some of our latest technologies during a reverse-pitch session to industry,” said Bill Dean, executive director of the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation.
“Auburn’s participation in events like the BIO Alabama conference speaks to our role in growing the region’s bioeconomy and demonstrates our commitment to the bio-sector in the form of industry collaboration and partnerships that will advance research and impact quality of life throughout the state.”
BY MITCH EMMONS
Liz Smith, College of Agriculture academic advisor, works at Auburn’s booth during the BIO Alabama conference. She talked with companies about opportunities for applied biotechnology graduates.
Auburn University’s ‘AI-driven Innovations in Agriculture’ conference to feature some of Southeast’s top agricultural experts
The Auburn University College of Agriculture and its fellow land-grant universities throughout the Southeast are jointly hosting a conference next month to address the potential of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation in agriculture.
Titled “Envisioning 2050 in the Southeast: AI-driven Innovations in Agriculture,” the conference will be held March 9-11 at The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center thanks to funding from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
“The Envisioning 2050 in the Southeast: AI-Driven Innovations in Agriculture conference will bring together academics, industry and stakeholders to share their expertise and develop a vision for the future,” said Arthur Appel, interim associate dean of research for the College of Agriculture. “Conference speakers include AI leaders from IBM, NIVIDIA and John Deere, as well as academics from across the country. Attendees will be able to learn about the depth and breadth of AI in agriculture from the experts who are making the promise of AI a reality.”
The caliber of speakers scheduled to attend is one of the highlights of this conference, according to co-organizer Brenda Ortiz, professor and Alabama Extension specialist in the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences at Auburn.
Speakers include Hendrik Hamann, a Distinguished Research Staff Member and Chief Scientist for the Future of Climate in IBM Research; Mark Chaney, engineering manager of the automation delivery teams at Intelligent Solutions Group at John Deere; Steven Thomson, a national program leader with the USDA National Institute Food and Agriculture; and dozens more.
Auburn President-elect Christopher Roberts, currently dean of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, will give the opening remarks.
Ortiz said the invited speakers from academia, the federal government and the industry will share their work in areas such as crop production, plant and animal breeding, climate, agricultural extension, pedagogy, food processing and supply chain, livestock management and more.
“This conference is multipurpose,” Ortiz said. “The primary purpose is to share knowledge, expertise and resources among Southeastern universities, stakeholders and industries on artificial intelligence-driven innovations that can be applied to agriculture.”
This two-and-a-half-day conference will include a combination of invited plenary presentations, two-panel sessions and breakout sessions that include invited oral presentations, facilitated working sessions, a poster session and a pre-conference workshop on current and advanced AI-driven data analysis.
Kati Migliaccio, co-organizer of the conference and professor and chair of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the University of Florida, said the timing of the conference is perfect.
“This is an opportune time to host this conference focusing on AI in agriculture in the Southeast because of the resources invested in AI, the state of innovation of AI in agriculture and the critical need to adapt agriculture for current world challenges, including labor, nutrition, energy and climate,” she said.
“It brings together expertise from all sectors—industry, academics, government and stakeholders—to focus on agriculture innovation with AI, particularly for the Southeast. The format of this conference was created to allow for knowledge sharing, as well as networking and greater exploration for future endeavors. Attending this event will provide the ‘spark’ for further innovation and collaboration among those with AI and agricultural interests across professions and across disciplines.”
Ortiz said in-person participation will allow networking, discussions for future collaboration and first-hand knowledge exchange. For those who cannot attend in person, a limited, virtual option will be available that will include access to plenary and breakout sessions.
More details and registration information are available on the conference website.
BY KRISTEN BOWMAN
Auburn University will host the conference, “Envisioning 2050 in the Southeast: AI-driven Innovations in Agriculture,” March 9-11 at The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center. Pictured are doctoral student Rafael Bidese Puhl, left, and Assistant Professor of Biosystems Engineering Yin Bao.
The negative impact humans can have on their own environment is constantly on full display, with climate change, land alterations and harmful algal blooms impacting people’s lives daily.
But this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, according to a recent study published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” or PNAS, by Auburn University paleolimnologist Matthew Waters. PNAS is the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences and one of the world’s most cited and comprehensive multidisciplinary scientific journals.
The research leading to the study was a jointly funded project between the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation, which took Waters and his team to Lake Amatitlán in the highlands of Guatemala. The research also has been highlighted in the magazines “Popular Science” and “Scientific American.”
“Human-induced deforestation and soil erosion were environmental stressors for the ancient Maya of Mesoamerica,” said Waters, an associate professor of environmental science in the College of Agriculture’s Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences. “My study adds water quality/harmful algal blooms to the list of stressors, which was not addressed by the scientists previously studying the Maya.”
Waters also is a National Geographic Explorer and leads the Auburn PaleoEnvironmental Lab, where he and his team of researchers reconstruct historic data recorded in lake sediments and cave environments to document ecological change throughout time.
“Today, lakes worldwide that are surrounded by dense human settlement and intense riparian land use often develop algae/cyanobacteria blooms that can compromise water quality by depleting oxygen and producing toxins,” Waters said. “Such environmental impacts have rarely been explored in the context of an ancient Maya settlement.”
Blooms of algae and cyanobacteria can reduce oxygen in the water column and produce toxins. Such harmful algal blooms are typically caused by nutrient-dense runoff from human activities.
Waters and his colleagues from the University of Florida and the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala examined sediment from Lake Amatitlán in Guatemala to determine whether ancient Maya societies, which reached dense populations within the lake’s watershed, contributed to or were affected by algal blooms.
The study’s authors report that more than 1,000 years ago, harmful algal blooms rivaled eutrophic conditions currently found in the highland lake. The authors measured biomarkers for nutrients, algae, cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins in a sediment core representing approximately 2,100 years, from 110 BCE to present times.
The analyses revealed moderate nutrient and low cyanobacteria levels until 550 CE and a rise in cyanobacteria from 550 to 1200 CE, coinciding with the highest ancient population levels and human disturbance within the watershed.
Cyanobacteria declined in 1380 and remained low until around 1800, when current eutrophic conditions began. According to the authors, harmful algal blooms are not a modern phenomenon and should be considered among the factors that affected the ancient Maya population.
“Human-associated harmful algal blooms have affected both modern and ancient societies and deserve attention when exploring past human-environment interactions,” Waters said.
The study suggests that pre-Columbian Maya occupation of the Lake Amatitlán watershed negatively impacted water potability.
“Prehistoric cultural eutrophication indicates that human-driven nutrient enrichment of water bodies is not an exclusively modern phenomenon and may well have been a stressor for the ancient Maya,” Waters said.
BY PAUL HOLLIS
An Auburn University-led study examined sediment from Lake Amatitlán in Guatemala to determine whether ancient Maya societies, which reached dense populations within the lake’s watershed, contributed to or were affected by algal blooms. Pictured, from left, are Alehandra Agular, undergraduate student at the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala; Jason Curtis, senior associate professor of geology at the University of Florida; Mark Brenner, professor of geology at the University of Florida; Matthew Waters, associate professor of paleolimnology and environmental science at Auburn; and Ninoshka Lopez, undergraduate student at the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala.
Auburn University has been awarded $1.6 million in research grants from the state of Alabama through the Alabama Research Development and Enhancement Fund.
The grants, administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, are earmarked for research and development of four different sustainability projects housed in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering.
Of the $1,590,470 total awarded to Auburn:
$727,677 goes to research for producing jet and diesel fuels from woody biomass and waste plastics;
$294,008 goes to researching and assessing the economic feasibility of converting organic wastes into bioplastics;
$268,353 goes to conducting research involving polymer smart machines; and
$300,432 goes to developing soybean hulls as a means to keep aquaculture feed pellets in mass, resulting in less waste and more intake by farm-raised fish and shellfish.
The researchers include principal investigator Sushil Adhikari, professor and director of the Center for Bioenergy and Bioproducts, Department of Biosystems Engineering; principal investigator Peter He, associate professor, and co-principal investigators Jin Wang and Mario Eden, Department of Chemical Engineering; principal investigator Jason Clark, assistant professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and principal investigator Zhihua Jiang, assistant professor and director of the Alabama Center for Paper and Bioresource Engineering Science, and co-principal investigator Burak Aksoy, Department of Chemical Engineering.
Summaries of the projects are as follows:
Title: Advanced Liquid Transportation Fuels from Co-Liquefaction of Forest Biomass and Waste Plastics
The goal is to advance economic development in the state and nationally through reinvigoration of natural resource-based industries and to establish new industries based on advanced liquid fuels from woody biomass grown in the state and the waste plastics collected from cities. Woody biomass prevalent in Alabama will be co-liquefied with waste plastics using a pyrolysis technology, which will then be subjected to hydrogen treatment to produce jet and diesel fuels.
Title: A Novel Biotechnology That Converts Agricultural and Municipal Waste into Bioplastics
Investigators: He, Wang and Eden
Alabama is one of the top agricultural producing states in the U.S., with annual agricultural exports exceeding $1 billion. As a result, there is a significant amount of organic wastes produced in the state, and Alabama ranks 14th among all states in terms of biogas generation potential from organic waste through anaerobic digestion, or AD. These organic wastes represent an underutilized renewable feedstock for biofuel and biochemical production. This project aims at researching and assessing the economic feasibility of converting organic wastes into bioplastics. Specifically, the project will develop and optimize a prototype of a patent-pending biotechnology that enables the conversion of organic wastes into bioplastics, and to assess its technical and economic feasibility at scale through techno-economic analysis, or TEA.
In the proposed technology, a microalgae-methanotroph coculture will be cultivated in a novel patent-pending circulation coculture biofilm photobioreactor, or CCBP, to convert biogas (both methane and carbon dioxide) derived from organic wastes into microbial biomass while simultaneously recover chemicals from AD effluent to produce treated clean water. The produced mixed microbial biomass can be economically processed to produce high-value bioplastics that is in rising demand. The project will advance the progress of the patent pending biotechnology towards commercialization, which has potential to create many new jobs in the state of Alabama.
Title: Polymer Smart Machines
This project aims to research and develop the foundational building blocks of “polymechatronics,” which will enable the realization of 3D printable polymer smart machines. The research includes designing, fabricating, modeling and characterizing piezopolymer versions of traditional active mechanical and electrical building blocks such as actuators, sensors, energy harvesters, energy storers and analog and digital circuit elements. Compared to traditional devices, polymer smart machines are expected to be less expensive, easier to manufacture, biocompatible, recyclable, use less energy, operate over a larger range of temperatures, offer new functionalities and be more environmentally friendly.
Title: A Novel and Sustainable Feed Binder from Soybean Hulls: Scale-Up Production and Evaluation
Investigators: Jiang and Aksoy
The goal is to establish a low-cost, high-value and novel compound feed binder from soybean hulls, a co-product of soybean processing for oil and meal production. The specific objectives of this project are: 1) to scale-up feed binder production to around 1.5 kg/hour and optimize process conditions for production; and 2) to scale-up shrimp feeding trials simulating shrimp farming operations at a commercial shrimp operation in west Alabama.
Successful completion of this project will establish a high-value and novel compound feed binder platform using 100% soy hulls that is ready for commercial scale productions and applications with significant economic and environmental benefits: It will significantly enhance competitive advantage of shrimp farmers in Alabama by reducing their feed costs. This will, in turn, improve employment opportunities in seafood farming and processing sector, making more local seafood and services available to the citizens of Alabama. In addition, it will also significantly improve water quality by reducing leached nutrients.
Auburn is among five Alabama universities and one research institution sharing in grants totaling $4.85 million, according to the announcement released recently by the Alabama governor’s office.
“Our universities and research institutions in Alabama truly impact the world, and I am proud to continue investing in the important work they are doing,” Gov. Kay Ivey said. “This $4.85 million is an investment in the future of Alabama and the future of research.”
BY MITCH EMMONS
Auburn University launched two new pilot internal awards programs in 2021 and has named the program’s first recipients.
The Research Support Program, or RSP, and the Creative Work and Social Impact Scholarship Funding Program, or CWSI, were established by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development. Both programs provide a competitive internal funding source to support faculty and to provide an opportunity for them to experience a small-scale pilot and refine their projects before competing for larger awards.
“This is a pilot version of a larger intramural award program,” said Bob Holm, associate director of Proposal Services and Faculty Support, the unit that administers the programs. “It enables faculty to participate in a competitive funding program and make improvements to their projects before a commitment to a long-term award program is made. The pilot provides a platform to test what works and what does not.”
The RSP is intended to be an annual cycle funding program to foster the development and growth of innovative and transformational research activities. It builds on faculty expertise, stimulates interdisciplinary collaborations and strengthens seed research activities. It is a strategically focused Auburn investment that promotes promising and impactful new lines of research as well as the growth of collaborative and interdisciplinary teams to build the foundations of science, to overcome scientific and societal challenges and to promote and enhance the quality of life and wellbeing of individuals, groups and communities.
The CWSIS funding program fosters innovation and discovery and builds faculty reputation and competitiveness. Examples of prestigious recognition for CWSIS include: the McArthur Genius Award, the Gates Foundation Award, appointment to the National Council on the Humanities or the National Council on the Arts and an NSF Senior Advisor for Public Access. Disciplines associated with CWSIS include design and the arts, humanities and applicable areas within business, education, social sciences and health and well-being.
As a form of research, creative work poses questions and searches for the answers through iterative processes that demand intellectual rigor and hard work. Related scholarship narrates, analyzes and evaluates the production and products of creative work, or proposes new and innovative approaches to that work, including interdisciplinary collaborations and explorations. The goals of creative work and scholarship are ultimately tied to making significant contributions to a meaningful and dignified quality of life.
Social impact scholarship involves research that is specifically aimed at societal challenges and values both theoretical and applied domains to produce core knowledge and address persistent and complex issues to create a better world and improve the lives of all individuals. Research in this domain often engages a diversity of stakeholders with the goal of bringing beneficial effects and valuable changes to the economy, society, education, public policy, health and quality of life.
This year’s recipients are:
Research Support Program
Brian Albanese, College of Liberal Arts, $24,999.34; “Neurobehavioral sensitivity to negative reinforcement in suicide”;
Benjamin Bush, College of Architecture, Design and Construction, $24,987; “EX4C: Next Generation Blood and Vaccine Transport for Combat, Austere and Challenging Environments”; co-investigators: Lorenzo Cremaschi, Samuel Ginn College of Engineering; Joellen Sefton, College of Education; David Crumbley, School of Nursing;
Nathaniel Hardy, College of Agriculture, $25,000, “The Evolution of Virulence in Xylella fastidiosa”; co-investigator: Leonardo De La Fuente, College of Agriculture;
Amal Khalil Kaddoumi, Harrison School of Pharmacy, $25,000; “Amylin role in Alzheimer’s disease”; Co-Investigator: Ahmed Hamid, College of Sciences and Mathematics;
Peng Li, Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, $25,000, “Probing Novel Quantum Phases in van der Waals Magnet Fe5GeTe2”; co-investigators: Masoud Mahjouri-Samani, Samuel Ginn College of Engineering; Wencan Jin, College of Sciences and Mathematics;
Panagiotis Mistriotis, Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, $25,000; “Bioengineering tools to uncover the mechanisms of human mesenchymal stem cell migration”;
Kristina Neely, College of Education, $25,000; “Inhibitory Motor Control in Adults with ADHD,” co-investigator: William Murrah, College of Education;
Janna Willoughby, School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, $24,998; “How do environmental and genetic effects interact to determine individual fitness?”; co-investigators: Avril Harder, School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences; Lana Narine, School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences; Kelly Dunning, School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.
Creative Work and Social Impact Scholarship Funding Program
Junshan Liu, College of Architecture, Design and Construction, $20,000; “Digitally Preserving and Re-presenting Alabama’s Rosenwald Schools”; co-investigators: Gorham Bird, College of Architecture, Design and Construction; Richard Burt, College of Architecture, Design and Construction;
Alicia Powers, College of Human Sciences, $19,191.92; “A clinical-community pediatric wellness initiative to manage and prevent cardiometabolic diseases in children with limited resources in Alabama”; co-investigators: Jeanna Sewell, Harrison School of Pharmacy; Felicia Tuggle, College of Liberal Arts, Sarah Watts, School of Nursing.
More information about these and other funding support programs supported by the AU Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development can be found by clicking here.
BY MITCH EMMONS
Reduce, reuse, recycle. Especially if you can research cool, new ways to do it.
A team of Auburn faculty recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to host a research experiences for undergraduates (REU) site, a program in which a university hosts 10 undergraduate students to do scientific research each summer. The project will focus on ways to convert waste into new and useful products through bioprocessing.
Led by Brendan Higgins, assistant professor of biosystems engineering and Sushil Adhikari, Alumni Professor of biosystems engineering and director of the Center for Bioenergy and Bioproducts, the 10-week program will be offered to a selection of students from a pool of undergraduate applicants studying at universities around the nation, who will each be paired to work directly with an Auburn University faculty member.
“The purpose of our site is to train them in research focused on converting waste materials and waste products back into products of value,” Higgins said. “So we have a team of faculty across the university who do research in this area, and we have four projects that the students will engage in.”
The program received $391,099 from NSF, with a focus on giving opportunities to underrepresented students. Students from around the country who go to universities that do not have research programs will have priority when it comes to this program, Higgins said.
“NSF’s goal when they created this program was to maximize the diversity of students that are able to experience research,” Higgins said. “We’re particularly targeting students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to do this.”
Students will do research either in a lab or in the field, depending on what kind of work is necessary for the individual project, Higgins said. Most of the 10-week period will be dedicated to research. A smaller amount of time, however, will be dedicated to professional development.
“The students are going to be learning how to become a researcher,” Higgins said. “Another theme of our site is teamwork. The communication aspect of science is also a big component.”
To do that, students will be encouraged to co-author a paper about their research with their faculty mentor, Higgins said.
“I kind of have this viewpoint that if you didn’t tell someone you did something, you didn’t do it,” Higgins said. “Also, publishing is really part of the scientific process. Telling people what you’ve discovered is really important.”
Some of the projects that the students will be working on include: making sensors for disease detection out of waste biomass, making adhesive out of discarded plant matter and upgrading agricultural waste water into protein. All of these projects will be significant in helping convert waste into useful products, which will help our planet long-term, Higgins said.
“The most impactful outcome we want from an REU site is a change in perception among the students,” Higgins said. “We want to know how the attitudes of our students changed throughout the program, and if they began to see themselves as a researcher during this program. Our hope is that this will reinforce and strengthen the desire in our students to continue their research career.”
The application for this REU site will open in September.
Media Contact: Cassie Montgomery, email@example.com, 334.844.3668
BY VIRGINIA SPEIRS
Sushil Adhikari and Brendan Higgins
Auburn University researcher developing management practices for problem algal blooms in aquaculture
Aquaculture is the fastest-growing sector of animal agriculture; however, sustainable expansion and intensification of aquaculture is severely hampered by issues related to aquatic animal health.
A researcher in Auburn University’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences is focused on developing programs to help the aquaculture industry better manage problematic algae growth in ponds and other water sources.
Alan Wilson, professor and assistant director for instruction in his school, is partnering with the Aquatic Animal Research Unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service, or USDA-ARS, to conduct research involving catfish growers in west Alabama.
“We are currently focused on projects involving 21 ponds across five catfish farms,” Wilson said. “We are monitoring algal growth and gathering environmental data to help those growers establish best management practices for water quality.”
Wilson says algal blooms can be a normal occurrence in ponds with elevated nutrients, but there is an urgent need to manage water quality in aquaculture ponds that favors beneficial algal communities versus those that can be harmful to the fish.
“A ‘green pond’ can be a good thing in the healthy context,” Wilson said. “Algae are important, as they produce oxygen. But blooms can also become too abundant with harmful types of algae, creating conditions that kill the fish. This is what our control focus is on.
“We are developing new detection, prevention and control measures for harmful algae to reduce fish/shellfish mortality, safeguard animal performance and ensure product quality.”
Harmful algal blooms are occurring with increased regularity and severity in freshwater, estuarine and marine systems around the world, according to Wilson. These harmful algal blooms have brought about large-scale catastrophic losses of valuable catfish and shrimp, particularly in the summer months immediately prior to harvest.
In Alabama alone, since 2015, mortality levels attributed to harmful algal blooms have surged to nearly 1 million pounds of catfish annually, according to Wilson’s USDA-ARS collaborator Benjamin Beck.
Moreover, harmful algal blooms are thought to exert profound chronic effects, such as causing the fish to have less-than-normal feeding rates, thereby increasing the time to harvest, along with stress and immunosuppression that can potentially predispose fish to parasitic and bacterial disease.
Wilson conducts his research through his lab at Auburn, which includes a team of four graduate students, five undergraduate students, one high school student and one technician, in collaboration with scientists located at federal and state agencies, nonprofit environmental groups and universities around the world.
“We are starting our second year of this five-year project,” Wilson said. “We collect monthly water samples from each pond that allow us to monitor changes in water conditions with the objective of developing management tools to assist those aquaculture growers in managing their ponds more effectively and efficiently.”
While Wilson’s current USDA-ARS-funded project focuses largely on catfish growers, his lab is broadly interested in understanding the ecology of freshwater lakes, ponds and reservoirs.
“We study the abiotic and biotic mechanisms mediating the promotion or control of freshwater harmful algal blooms and taste-and-odor events in aquaculture ponds, recreational reservoirs and drinking water reservoirs,” Wilson said.
Wilson routinely helps homeowners understand factors associated with harmful algal blooms in their private ponds. He also conducts water quality analyses to determine the threat that algal toxins pose to a variety of aquatic food webs, livestock and zoo animals.
BY MITCH EMMONS
Alan Wilson, professor and assistant director for instruction in Auburn’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences, is partnering with the Aquatic Animal Research Unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service, or USDA-ARS, to conduct research involving catfish growers in west Alabama.
A pathogen detection system that rapidly isolates contaminants in large liquid volumes may enable improvements for food and water safety applications.
Developed by researchers in the Department of Materials Engineering in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering at Auburn University, the technology uses magnetoelastic sensors that, when placed in a magnetic field, resonate to indicate the presence of a pathogen. Professor Emeritus Bryan Chin and McWane Professor ZhongYang “ZY” Cheng have been developing the technology for some 15 years, according to Brian Wright with Auburn’s Office of Innovation Advancement and Commercialization, or IAC.
“This technology has been proven in the laboratory prototype, and the university is seeking a development partner to take this forward through commercialization,” Wright said.
Current pathogen detection methods may take hours, or even require overnight shipping or incubation steps to obtain results, according to the IAC. This magnetic system allows for rapid, specific detection of target pathogens in large volumes of fluid, such as wash water, irrigation water, food effluent and beverages such as milk or fruit juices.
“For example, an entire tank of produce wash water could be examined for salmonella, with results provided in a matter of minutes,” Wright said.
Chin and Cheng have worked together for nearly 20 years at Auburn, but not all of their research and development has been in the realm of detection technology.
“We also have worked on specialized polymer development and in developing actuators that can serve as artificial muscle,” Cheng said.
“We began working on this pathogen detection technology because we were looking for a way to detect a small number of bacteria in a large volume of liquid,” Chin said. “In the food industry, this would enable the examination of large quantities of food for very small numbers of pathogens.”
IAC describes the development: Auburn’s base technology uses magnetoelastic sensors. When placed in a magnetic field, these inexpensive sensors change their resonance frequency based on their mass. Thus, when coated with a bio-recognition element such as phage or antibodies, a binding event can be easily detected based on a change in resonance frequency.
“It is kind of like a sound produced when someone wets the edge of a glass containing an amount of liquid and rubs the edge with their finger,” Wright said. “Changing the amount of liquid in the glass can change the pitch of the sound produced by that rubbing. These magnetoelastic sensors can be coated with a pathogen-specific antibody and tailored to detect a specific pathogen by producing a specific alarm sound.”
The sensors are arranged inside a pipe or other vessel that carries the fluid to be tested. Because they are magnetic and can be arranged in various arrays, they monitor in real time as the flow passes through.
“This system has the advantages of being rapid, highly sensitive and non-clogging, and it is able to be applied to large-volume testing. It also is recoverable, meaning that bound pathogens can be recovered for further analysis,” Wright said.
According to the IAC, this technology has demonstrated its effectiveness for multiple pathogens in multiple sample fluids. The technology also has application for other detection methods, including with smaller samples and on surfaces.
BY MITCH EMMONS
Auburn University Professor Emeritus Bryan Chin (left) is partnering with McWane Professor ZhongYang "ZY" Cheng to develop a pathogen detection system that rapidly isolates contaminants in large liquid volumes and may enable improvements for food and water safety applications.
Auburn University agricultural economics researchers seek to aid new farmers in changing business climate
The challenges facing today’s small- and medium-sized farm operators are numerous, but perhaps the most daunting challenges are those faced by beginning farmers in a business climate that is currently in the midst of a generational turnover.
A three-year study by Auburn University’s Valentina Hartarska, Alumni Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, and a team of ag economists from Auburn and North Carolina State University seeks to help new producers in the Southeast.
Supported by a $500,000 award from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, or USDA-NIFA, Hartarska and her team are developing an analytical framework to evaluate the efficiency and productivity of successful beginning farmers. The project would help these farmers make better business decisions based on such factors as market volatility and shocks, climate change and other variables.
“The main goal of our research is to help small- and medium-sized beginning farmers in the Southeast to sustain their farming activities and to prosper through improved efficiency and productivity, better access to health care and by lowering the hurdles in the initial states of their operation,” Hartarska said. “We also are interested in providing information that can help an emerging increase in women who are entering farming today.”
One of the most vexing problems in today’s farming industry is the generational turnover, according to Hartarska.
“Farming is experiencing a time when older farmers are leaving and younger farmers are entering the industry,” Hartarska said. “For every farmer under age 35, there are four farmers who are over the age of 65, and more than half of landowners are older than 65.
“This research is important because this new generation of farmers is different, they face different sets of challenges and they need business information and business tools that can help them to remain viable in the future of farming.”
Hartarska and her colleagues, Denis Nadolnyak, professor of agricultural economics at Auburn, and Ivan Kandilov, associate professor of agricultural economics at North Carolina State University, are utilizing data from the USDA’s Census of Agriculture that is collected every five years. Their study—which they hope to expand—is presently focused on small- and medium-sized farms in the Southeast.
“We have five objectives in our project,” Hartarska said.
Identify agricultural industries and niche markets in the Southeast attracting beginning farmers of small- and medium-size and identify factors affecting their survival;
Employ novel empirical models to identify how each industry group and subgroup of beginning farmers can improve their productivity and efficiency;
Evaluate to what extent state and federal governmental support programs improve survival and economic efficiency of each group of small- and medium-sized beginning farmers;
Identify how limited access to health insurance and affordable health care services affects sustainability, entry and retention of beginning farmers and their hired workers; and
Identify constraints and opportunities specific to female beginning farmers in the region.
Hartarska is especially enthusiastic about exploring the last objective and hopes that her research would be helpful to female farmers in the region.
In the Southeast, the share of beginning farmers increased by more than 20 percent between the last two Census of Agriculture rounds, Hartarska said. In each southeastern state, this share is higher than the national average of 27 percent.
“Beginning farmers and ranchers make an outsized contribution to important new categories of agriculture, and women producers are entering farming in larger proportions than men,” Hartarska said.
“Even though less than a third of new entrants survive, research identifying which producers survive and thrive and why is lacking. Therefore, understanding the challenges to and opportunities for these new farmers is timely and important. The results of our work will assist farmers, farmer groups, extension programs and policymakers in decision-making to develop strategies that enhance the economic efficiency, sustainability and competitiveness of small- and medium-sized beginning farmers.”
BY MITCH EMMONS
Faculty members in Auburn University's Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, Valentina Hartarska (left), Alumni Professor, and Denis Nadolnyak, professor, are collaborating on a USDA-funded project to help beginning farmers in the Southeast sustain their farming activities and improve efficiency and productivity.
Significant use of nitrogen fertilizers worldwide is increasing concentrations of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere, study finds
Rising anthropogenic nitrous oxide emissions are jeopardizing climate goals and the Paris Accord, a study published in Nature and led by an Auburn University researcher has found.
The significant use of nitrogen fertilizers in the production of food worldwide is increasing concentrations of nitrous oxide in the atmosphere—a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide—which remains in the atmosphere longer than a human lifetime.
This finding is part of a study co-led by Professor Hanqin Tian, director of the International Center for Climate and Global Change Research at Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences and an Andrew Carnegie Fellow. The study was published today in Nature, the world's most highly cited interdisciplinary science journal.
Tian co-led an international consortium of scientists from 48 research institutions in 14 countries under the umbrella of the Global Carbon Project and the International Nitrogen Initiative. The objective of the study, titled “A comprehensive quantification of global nitrous oxide sources and sinks,” was to produce the most comprehensive assessment to date of all sources and sinks of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.
Tian’s Auburn colleagues including Professor Shufen Pan, postdoctoral fellows Rongting Xu, Hao Shi and Yuanzhi Yao and graduate student Naiqing Pan served as co-authors among an international research team of 57 scientists.
The study points to an alarming trend affecting climate change: Nitrous oxide has risen 20 percent from pre-industrial levels, and its growth has accelerated over recent decades due to emissions from various human activities.
“The dominant driver of the increase in atmospheric nitrous oxide comes from agriculture, and the growing demand for food and feed for animals will further increase global nitrous oxide emissions,” Tian said. “There is a conflict between the way we are feeding people and stabilizing the climate.”
The researchers further identify an emerging cause of increased atmospheric nitrous oxide coming from the interaction between global warming and nitrogen additions for food production further enhancing emissions from agriculture. Warmer temperatures tend to increase nitrous oxide emissions.
The study also determined that the largest contributors to global nitrous oxide emissions come from East Asia, South Asia, Africa and South America.
Emissions from synthetic fertilizers dominate releases in China, India and the U.S., while emissions from the application of livestock manure as fertilizer dominates releases in Africa and South America, the study found. The highest growth rates in emissions are found in emerging economies, particularly Brazil, China and India, where crop production and livestock numbers have increased.
The co-authors agreed that the most surprising result of the study was the finding that current trends in nitrous oxide emissions are not compatible with pathways consistent to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, or the Paris Accord.
Signed by 195 nations, the agreement aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise in the 21st century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature rise even further, to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“Current emissions are on track to cause global temperature increases above 3 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, twice the temperature target of the Paris Accord,” said Robert Jackson, a professor and coauthor from Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project.
However, opportunities to reduce nitrous oxide emissions do exist, said Wilfried Winiwarter, a senior research scholar with the International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis in Austria and former director of the International Nitrogen Initiative and its European center.
“Europe is the only region in the world that has successfully reduced nitrous oxide emissions over the past two decades,” Winiwarter said. “Industrial and agricultural policies to reduce greenhouse gases and air pollution and to optimize fertilizer use efficiencies have proven to be effective. Still, further efforts will be required, in Europe as well as globally.”
Rona Thompson, a senior scientist from the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, was another study co-leader.
“This study shows that we now have a comprehensive understanding of the nitrous oxide budget, including climate impacts,” Thompson said. “We are able to assess and quantify measures to reduce nitrous oxide emissions, and many of these measures will also improve water and air quality, benefiting both human health and ecosystems.”
Study co-leader Josep “Pep” Canadell, chief scientist in the Climate Science Center at the Australia-based Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and executive director of the Global Carbon Project, agreed the research is significant and urgent.
“This new analysis calls for a full-scale rethink in the ways we use and abuse nitrogen fertilizers globally and urges us to adopt more sustainable practices in the way we produce food, including the reduction of food waste,” Canadell said. “These findings underscore the urgency and opportunities to mitigate nitrous oxide emissions worldwide to avoid the worst of climate impacts.”
Francesco Tubiello, a senior statistician and team leader for Agri-Environmental Statistics in the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, added, “Many of the actions to improve nitrogen use efficiency and improve crop and livestock productivity, required now to begin reducing these emissions, are also needed to achieve sustainable and productive agriculture under the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals.”
BY TERI GREENE
Auburn University researchers co-authored a breakthrough study showing that rising nitrous oxide emissions are jeopardizing climate goals and the Paris Accord. Auburn co-authors are, front row from left, Rongting Xu, Shufen Pan, Hanqin Tian, and, back row from left, Naiqing Pan, Yuanzhi Yao and Hao Shi.
Brendan Higgins is doing his part to make sure nothing in this world goes to waste. Not even waste.
The USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture recently funded the assistant professor of biosystems engineering's four-year project aimed at developing a three-step process that will transform nutrients found in dairy and swine industry manure wastewater into protein-rich fish feed.
The total value of the project, titled "Development of a bacterial-algal-zooplankton process for conversion of agricultural waste into aquaculture feed," is $434,659.
"I've been working on this research topic in one form or another since spring of 2017," Higgins said, "so it feels great to get external funding to really grow this project."
And he does mean grow.
"The first step is to grow a mixture of bacteria on the manure wastewater, which is essential because it removes chemical inhibitors found in the water that harm algae growth," Higgins said. "We then grow algae on the water and these organisms use photosynthesis to convert the nutrient pollutants in the water into protein. We then feed the algae to Daphnia zooplankton."
Daphnia are well-known in biology as indicators of aquatic toxicity.
"We are using special strains of Daphnia that grow very well on our wastewater-grown algae," he said. "In fact, we have found that they grow better on our wastewater algae than they do on their normal algae feed, and Daphnia are valuable as a protein-rich fish feed."
But Higgins' research isn't just good news for fish. It's also good news for the environment.
"The U.S. dairy and swine industries produce huge amounts of liquid manure and they usually store it in large open pits or lagoons," Higgins said. "The storage lagoons smell awesome, of course, and nearby communities complain about them all the time. They're also a big problem when hurricanes hit because the lagoons overflow and spill into rivers and creeks and ultimately flow into the ocean.
"It is a huge public health and environmental problem and our system provides a possible solution."
Two professors within the Auburn University College of Agriculture — Alan Wilson, a professor in the School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences, and Rishi Prasad, assistant professor in the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences — are co-PIs (principal investigators) on the project.
BY JEREMY HENDERSON
Media Contact: Jeremy Henderson, firstname.lastname@example.org, 334-844-3591
Brendan Higgins, assistant professor of biosystems engineering, examines Chlorella algae in his lab.
Auburn’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology conducts integrated research to look at the human side of science
Grants from the National Science Foundation are some of the most prestigious and competitive researchers can receive, with only one out of every five proposals ultimately being approved for an award.
So for one department in Auburn University’s College of Agriculture to have three researchers be part of teams approved for three separate NSF projects at roughly the same time is uncommon, to say the least.
“NSF grants are elite,” said Joshua Duke, chair and professor for Auburn’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology. “These particular projects are integrated grants, involving scientists creating innovations but also involving the economists and rural sociologists discovering how these innovations actually affect people.”
While some NSF grants are disciplinary, focusing on one area, integrated grants bring together researchers from different fields to work together on a common problem.
“Some of the best research occurs when social scientists can connect the innovations of science to how peoples’ well-being improves and the productivity of our natural resource base,” Duke said. “In the past, it wasn’t common for these integrated studies to occur, but they have been accelerating in recent years.”
Social scientists have two roles in integrated science research projects, he said.
“The first role is understanding how humans interact with natural resources—how the decisions we make affect agricultural production and natural resources,” Duke said. “This can help scientists to model natural processes.”
At the same time, economists and rural sociologists also can help understand the impact of these scientific changes, he said.
“For instance, if there is an improvement in water-use efficiency in agriculture, it can trigger changes in market prices for commodities. I like to think we’ll be able to contribute in the beginning and in the end of a scientific research project. We can advance the science and often have the greatest impact in doing so.”
One of the NSF grant participants is Ruiqing Miao, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology. His project addresses an important research challenge: how to balance food-energy-clean water production, both spatially and temporally, with limited resources and a changing environment.
“To meet the growing demands of human population that is expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050, the global and regional capability in providing abundant and affordable food, energy and water will be increasingly important to social stability and economic development,” Miao said.
The $500,000 project’s focus is on the Mississippi River Basin in the U.S. because it is the largest river basin in North America, draining about 41 percent of the contiguous U.S. and most of the U.S. Corn Belt.
“Research outcomes from this project will shed light on optimizing resource use efficiencies and predicting food, energy and clean water sustainability in the context of multiple-factor global changes including climate change, air pollution, urbanization, land and water use changes and social-economic development,” Miao said.
This project will foster science communication and stakeholder engagement for critical issues through summer school programs, workshops and conferences and universities’ broad strategy of external engagement. It also will assist policymakers in making informed decisions regarding future policies that will enhance the quality and quantity of food, energy and clean water.
“As an economist on the team, my role is to develop an economic optimization model to evaluate the economic tradeoffs between resource inputs and product returns, targeted at optimizing food-energy-water provision in sub-basins and the entire Mississippi River Basin as a whole,” Miao said.
Other members of the research team from Auburn University include principal investigator Hanqin Tian and Susan Pan, both of the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. Chaoqun Lu, a quantitative ecosystem ecologist at Iowa State University, also is a team member.
Another professor in the Department Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology—Denis Nadolnyak—is working on an NSF grant that will study whether more irrigation-fed farms in the Deep South could lead to a more robust agriculture industry, possibly becoming an even greater economic engine.
Irrigation-fed farming is not as commonplace in the humid and wet Deep South, particularly in Alabama, as in the rest of the country. The 17 states in the western United States, for instance, make up three-quarters of all irrigated farmed acres, and, in California, nearly half of all farmland is irrigated, according to the latest federal data.
In contrast, only about 4 percent of farmland is irrigated in Alabama, while it is the fourth wettest state in the nation.
The four-year, $1.75 million NSF grant will allow researchers to examine how a transition from rain-fed farming to irrigation-fed farming could impact harvests and water use, providing crucial data to policymakers considering initiatives to encourage irrigation.
The study will look at the Mobile River Basin, the 44,600 square miles that drain into Mobile Bay that includes central Alabama and portions of eastern Mississippi and northwest Georgia. The research team will examine how the linked resources of food, water and energy within the basin would be impacted through a transition to irrigation farming.
Through computer modeling, the team will study how various levels of irrigation, from continuing the current course to a significant shift to irrigation, will affect agriculture productivity, energy production, water supply and waterway navigation. Researchers also will work with 60 farmers within the basin to evaluate their openness to transitioning.
“My role as an economist on the research team is to analyze the economic benefits and costs of adopting irrigation-fed agriculture in Alabama and in the Southeast, particularly the benefits and costs that accrue to the producers and rural communities,” Nadolnyak said.
Leading the research is Hamid Moradkhani, the Alton N. Scott Endowed Professor of Engineering and director of the University of Alabama’s Center for Complex Hydrosystems Research.
In yet another NSF project, Professor and Rural Sociologist Michele Worosz is part of an interdisciplinary team of researchers from Auburn University that received a $3 million Research Traineeship, or NRT, grant to train the next generation of scientists and leaders to conduct cutting-edge interdisciplinary and applied research, develop effective communication skills and prepare them for the workforce.
This grant is the first NRT award for Auburn and the first in the state of Alabama that will train students to make a sustainable, lasting impact increasing the climate resiliency in the Southeastern United States.
“Many times stakeholders have difficulty using specific climate models, whereas climate scientists may have difficulty understanding why their models are not being used,” Worosz said. “These students will be trained in climate research, science communication and multidisciplinary collaboration, all of which will help them work with diverse audiences in the co-development of resilience strategies.”
Worosz will be serving three roles. First, she will direct sociological research on climate resilience in agri-food systems focusing on food safety, small-scale production and local foods. Second, her course—Sociology of Natural Resources and the Environment—which focuses on media framing of climate change politics and science, will be offered to trainees as part of the curriculum. Third, she will supervise trainees in rural sociology and serve on thesis and dissertation committees for other trainees.
Nine faculty and senior administration will work with approximately 85 graduate students including 18 fully funded trainees.
Leading the NSF Research Traineeship is Karen McNeal of Geosciences. Other College of Agriculture team members include Puneet Srivastara, professor of Biosystems Engineering and director of the Water Resources Center, and Di Tan, assistant professor of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences.
BY PAUL HOLLIS
Auburn’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology has three faculty members working on National Science Foundation projects: Professor Denis Nadolnyak, Assistant Professor Ruiqing Miao and Professor Michele Worosz.
Auburn University’s Research and Economic Development Advisory Board has selected Rex Dunham as the 2019 recipient of its Advancement of Research and Scholarship Achievement Award.
Dunham is a professor in Auburn’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences and a College of Agriculture Alumni Professor. The award recognizes Dunham for his nearly four decades of collaborative, international research in the field of fish genetics and genomics.
The advisory board is made up of more than 40 industry professionals from across the country who actively support Auburn’s research efforts. The group established the award in 2014 to recognize significant research and scholarly activity that exemplify and advance Auburn’s research and scholarship mission. The recipient of the annual award receives a $25,000 grant to further his or her research.
In addition to extensive work benefitting the catfish industry, Dunham has conducted population genetics research on native sport fish populations, influencing genetic management policy of various natural resource agencies in the South. He continues to advance the field of genetic reproductive control of fish, with the goal of having traditional and molecular genetic technologies used to improve aquaculture and fisheries management while ensuring the lowest possible environmental impact.
“Dr. Dunham is an internationally recognized researcher whose work has helped revitalize the catfish industry,” said James Weyhenmeyer, Auburn’s vice president for Research and Economic Development. “The Research and Economic Development Advisory Board has made a great choice in selecting him for this award.”
During the course of his career, Dunham has obtained over $20 million in research funding and published nearly 400 scholarly works, including three manuscripts in the journal Nature. He has trained nearly 100 graduate students and has conducted joint research with collaborators in 19 U.S. states and in numerous countries across six continents.
BY JONATHAN CULLUM
Dr. Rex Dunham—the Butler-Cunningham Eminent Scholar in Agriculture and a professor in the School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences—recently received the Research and Economic Development Advisory Board’s 2019 Advancement of Research and Scholarship Achievement Award.
Categories: Food Systems
Nearly 600 Auburn students showcasing their research and creativity April 9 at Auburn Research Student Symposium
Nearly 600 Auburn University students with a flair for research and creativity will showcase their talents when they gather for the annual Auburn Research Student Symposium.
With projects ranging from chemical engineering to plant pathology to architecture and design, the symposium on April 9 will provide Auburn and Auburn Montgomery students an opportunity to share their discoveries university-wide. The daylong event will take place in the Student Center.
Undergraduate and graduate students from almost every department have registered to participate through posters, oral presentations and creative scholarship displays. Approximately 400 of the young researchers will present posters and displays more than 180 will give 10-minute talks, all under the watchful eyes of judges who will award top honors in a variety of university-wide and college-specific categories.
An awards ceremony and reception will be held April 18 at 5 p.m. in the Student Center ballroom. The keynote speaker will be Michael Zabala, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Auburn in 2007.
Steve Taylor, chair of the Research Symposia Committee and associate dean for research in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, said, “Our students’ innovative research covers many areas, from projects in STEM disciplines [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] to the arts and humanities. They are working with our world-class faculty on life-changing projects that could shape new developments in many fields.”
Following the April 9 symposium, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry George P. Smith will visit Auburn University and the College of Veterinary Medicine April 10-11. Professor Smith will present a public lecture at 2 p.m. April 10 in The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center auditorium, which will be followed by a reception. On April 11, he will be available to meet with faculty and students at the College of Veterinary Medicine.
A fall event, the Auburn Research Faculty Symposium, will be held in September to recognize faculty excellence in research and creative scholarship.
WRITTEN BY CHARLES MARTIN
Auburn students with a flair for research and creativity will showcase their talents when they gather April 9 in the Student Center for the annual Auburn Research Student Symposium. Pictured, student Elizabeth Bankston discusses her research poster with Steve Taylor, chair of the Research Symposia Committee, at last year’s symposium.
In another affirmation of its drive forward to excellence, Auburn University achieved a research milestone Monday - being elevated to an “R1” institution by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.
The announcement follows a concerted effort by Auburn to elevate its commitment to life-saving research, beginning with an announcement by Auburn President Steven Leath in December 2017 and subsequent awarding of $5 million for three years toward the Presidential Awards for Interdisciplinary Research, or PAIR. An R1 designation by Carnegie is reserved for doctoral universities with the highest levels of research activity.
Among 120 institutions to receive the R1 designation Monday, Auburn was listed in the top 100 of such universities, raising its classification from an already lofty “high research” R2 classification to Monday's “very high research activity” R1 label.
“This tremendous designation acknowledges the hard work involved in the pioneering discoveries happening at Auburn every day,” said Leath, who was recently named one of seven new members appointed by President Trump to the National Science Board, a policy-making body of the National Science Foundation. “We are grateful to the university’s faculty and staff, especially Graduate School Dean George Flowers, for their unwavering commitment to elevating Auburn’s profile as a world-class academic institution.
“Auburn is on the move, and this prestigious distinction recognizes Auburn’s critical role in creating new knowledge and helping others live better lives.”
Universities considered for the R1 designation must have awarded at least 20 research/scholarship doctoral degrees and had at least $5 million in total research expenditures, according to Carnegie’s classification website. Auburn has grown its research efforts in both STEM and non-STEM areas, furthering its institutional commitment to offer solutions to real-world problems and grow its reputation as a go-to university in providing results that transform and inspire.
“Auburn University is known for its innovative and transformational research, and receiving the R1 classification is a significant accomplishment,” said Jennifer Kerpelman, interim vice president for research. “This classification recognizes the dedication, commitment and hard work of Auburn’s faculty and student researchers across all disciplines.”
Dr. Amal Kaddoumi, left, a professor in Auburn’s Department of Drug Discovery and Development, works in a lab with graduate research assistant Sweilem Al Rihani. Kaddoumi is leading a multi-disciplinary team in an investigation of oleocanthal, a molecule that appears naturally in extra-virgin olive oil, as a novel preventative treatment for such diseases as Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Categories: Food Systems, Cyber, Energy & the Environment, Health Sciences, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), Transportation, Engineering, Auburn In the News, Creative Scholarship
The National Academy of Inventors, or NAI, has named Joseph Kloepper, a professor of plant pathology in Auburn’s College of Agriculture, as one of the association’s 2018 fellows.
The 2018 fellows represent 125 research universities and governmental and non-profit research institutes worldwide and are named inventors on nearly 4,000 issued U.S. patents. To date, there are over 1,000 NAI Fellows who have generated more than 11,000 licensed technologies and companies, created more than 1.4 million jobs and generated over $190 billion in revenue. Kloepper conducts research on beneficial bacteria to promote plant growth and provide biological disease control of crop plants.
Specifically, his research focuses on the use of rhizobacteria (PGPR) for promoting plant growth, plant health and nutrient uptake. Kloepper’s work has provided breakthroughs in potential commercial applications, as the call for greener, more organic crop treatments to replace harsh chemicals has influenced the market. One strain developed by Kloepper has been licensed for use as a biofertilizer and biopesticide in numerous seed and soil applications.
In one recent year, his PGPR library was the subject of two license agreements and three option agreements—all with different companies. One of the agreements even branched out into a new area: improved production in aquaculture. Kloepper and his colleagues also have developed additional bacterial libraries of strains from long-term crop rotations and other sources.
“Dr. Kloepper is very deserving of being recognized as an NAI Fellow,” said Dr. Jennifer Kerpelman, Auburn’s interim vice president for research. “He has a significant track record of innovation in the area of crop disease control, and his achievements as an inventor and researcher are certainly worthy of this high honor.”
Election to NAI Fellow status is the highest professional distinction accorded to academic inventors who have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society.
BY PAUL HOLLIS AND JONATHAN CULLUM
Joseph Kloepper, a professor of plant pathology in Auburn’s College of Agriculture, has been named as one of the National Academy of Inventors 2018 fellows. Kloepper conducts research on beneficial bacteria to promote plant growth and provide biological disease control of crop plants.
Categories: Food Systems
Farmers will need to change their management strategies over the next few decades to adapt to impending climate extremes, according to a study recently published by researchers at Auburn University and Pennsylvania State University.
The study, featured in the June 11 issue of the open access journal PLOS ONE, is the first climate change study on corn that focuses on aspects of growth and development from an agronomic viewpoint. The majority of such studies have used either simulation or statistical models to evaluate yield losses.
And while the research itself focuses on three northeastern U.S. states, the general conclusions are applicable for all regions, including the Southeast, says Rishi Prasad, assistant professor and extension specialist with the College of Agriculture’s Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences.
“We need to investigate the Southern region as well,” said Prasad, who began the initial study during his time as a post-doctoral scholar at Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Unit of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service at Penn State.
“We are going through similar phases as those in the Northeast, where we have a very wet period followed by a very dry period. We need to understand how future climate change is going to affect our current scenario and what kind of best management practices we need to be prepared for the next 50 years.”
The warming trends occurring are specific to location, he says.
“The globe is warming, but we are seeing different heating effects from one location to another,” Prasad said. “It will be difficult to make a general recommendation for an entire region. Instead, recommendations will need to be location-specific, depending on how fast a location is warming.”
Prasad and his colleagues chose corn as the subject of their study because of its importance to U.S. agriculture, offering many possibilities for feeding and fueling a growing world population.
“However, future corn production will potentially face vagaries of extreme weather in a warming climate that is being affected by greenhouse gas emissions,” he said. “These emissions currently are the highest in human history and are expected to continue (rising?)in coming decades.”
While mean annual temperatures already have increased throughout the world, the global temperature is expected to increase further by 36 degrees F. by 2050, Prasad said, and the local effects on heat, cold and precipitation extremes will vary widely, with regional differences in geography and landscape features.
Corn production in the Northeast U.S. will suffer from the impacts of climate extremes like other corn-growing regions, but it draws special attention from researchers because it is a major dairy region, and corn is a major feed for the industry. Also, the Northeast is cited as the fastest-warming region in the contiguous U.S.
“Most climate-change studies on corn have been carried out in the Midwest and Great Plains, with little attention to the Northeast, so we saw a need to evaluate the local risks of extreme climate on corn production in the region,” Prasad said.
Although several global and regional studies have evaluated heat and water stress effects on corn yield using historical weather data, there is less information on growth-stage-specific anomalies in corn production at local levels, he said.
“Warming trends in the U.S. are not spatially and temporally uniform, so local evaluations of climate-change effects on corn production are important,” Prasad said. “Examining temperature anomalies, water deficit periods and frost occurrences during the growing season are of great importance as these factors are strongly associated with yields.”
The study views data from nine different climate models that simulate the climate of the entire world.
“Because they’re simulated on a larger scale, we fine-tuned the data down to a smaller scale,” Prasad said. “We downscaled it so we could study the impact of climate change from one place to another place in one particular region.”
Researchers used the climate models looking 100 years into the future, all the way to the end of the 21stcentury. They considered current farming practices, such as the time when farmers are planting and harvesting their corn. The study focused on locations in New York and Pennsylvania, where corn production provides feed for the dairy industry.
“We looked at how corn production is going to change in the future,” Prasad said. “One of the most important stages of the corn lifecycle is the reproductive stage, where the corn produces pollens. If, during that period, the temperature exceeds the upper threshold of 95 degrees F., the pollen viability decreases, or the pollens will not be fertilized and will not form corn grains. We’re looking at what’s happening in the future in terms of these high temperatures episodes, especially during the corn reproductive phases.”
The study concludes that if farmers continue with current management practices, there will be a dramatic decrease in yield, and the reason for that is two-fold, he said.
“High-temperature frequencies will increase, and 2050 is when we can expect to see a very clear demarcation of this effect,” Prasad said. “We also looked at the moisture deficit trends during corn growth stages, and it is widening. The corn will experience more drought during its main reproductive phase. These two situations will make the scenario worse in the future.”
The study goes on to recommend possible remedies for corn producers, including a shift in planting dates and irrigation.
“The months of January, February and March are getting relatively warmer than they used to be, and the warming trends will continue in the future,” Prasad said. “This means growers can shift their planting dates backward from the typical April planting dates for corn to avoid high heat intensities during the reproductive stage of corn.”
Also, with the widening gap between evapotranspiration and precipitation, especially during corn’s prime reproductive phase irrigation is recommended.
Prasad’s research at Auburn continues to focus on the development of next-generation best management practices for crop-livestock systems
“We need to approach in an integrative way how these weather changes will affect environmental nitrogen and phosphorus losses and affect water, air and soil quality.” Prasad said. “We need to develop the next generation of best management practices in terms of managing water and in terms of managing nutrients so that we have an adaptive response to a changing weather pattern.”
Also involved in the research were Heather Karsten, associate professor of crop production ecology, and Greg Roth, professor of agronomy, Pennsylvania State University; Alan Rotz, Stephan Kpoti Gunn and Anthony Buda, all with the Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Unit, U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service; and Anne Stoner, Climate Science Center, Texas Tech University. This research was supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.
BY PAUL HOLLIS
Dr. Rishi Prasad, assistant professor and extension specialist in the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences
Cost and efficiency are high on the list of concerns for Alabama farmers and equally high on the list of priorities for Auburn University researchers.
The Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station’s Production Agriculture Research, or PAR, grants program, now in its second year, is committed to finding timely solutions to problems that prevent the state’s farmers from being profitable.
Administered through the AAES with USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Hatch funding and matching state appropriations, the PAR program is funding nine research projects this year, with a total commitment of $446,138.
“These projects address needs identified by farmers, commodity groups and other agricultural stakeholders in Alabama, and cost and efficiency are at the top of everyone’s list,” said Henry Fadamiro, associate dean for research for the College of Agriculture and associate director of the AAES.
Among those stakeholders is the Alabama Farmers Federation, the state’s largest farm organization.
“I am excited that Auburn University is continuing this effort to address real-world production challenges and opportunities for Alabama farmers and timber owners,” said Brian Hardin, director of governmental and agricultural programs for the federation and a member of the PAR proposal review panel.
The projects selected for funding show the diversity of the state’s agriculture and the issues that need to be addressed across all areas, Hardin said.
“Alabama farmers are fortunate to have the expertise of these researchers at Auburn University and the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station,” he said. “Even more though, we are fortunate that the administration and faculty are paying attention to how they can help people be profitable on their farms and land. That is the ultimate mission of the land-grant university.”
The grants program is a first of its kind for the AAES, in that it focuses specifically on production agriculture, Fadamiro said. Last year, the program supported 15 projects, with a total commitment of $622,000.
Many of the two-year, $50,000 PAR grants support combined research and extension projects that address current farming problems in a timely manner through applied research..
“This is an opportunity for College of Agriculture and AAES faculty to work on solving or providing immediate solutions to production challenges,” Fadamiro said.
For central Alabama’s fledgling new kiwifruit industry, a serious concern is winter freeze damage in young orchards.
“Winter freeze injury is not a significant problem on mature vines, but vines have proven to be susceptible in the establishment phase,” said Jay Spiers, Department of Horticulture associate professor and lead kiwifruit researcher. “This issue has deterred us from establishing cultivar trials and small commercial plantings throughout the region.”
Currently, producers use overhead sprinklers and/or microsprinklers for freeze protection, and, while that works for spring frosts, it is not a good control option during hard winter freezes. In his PAR project, Spiers will test the efficacy of several different trunk protection strategies for winter freeze protection.
He will present his results at grower and scientific meetings, where it will be applicable for kiwifruit and citrus producers and other stakeholders faced with management decisions on winter freeze protection.
In another new PAR initiative, the Alabama Animal Waste and Nutrient Management team at Auburn, the Alabama Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Soil and Water Conservation Committee will work together to find ways to improve on-farm phosphorus management and minimize phosphorus runoff.
While applying manure to agricultural lands can improve soil health and promote nutrient cycling, phosphorus mismanagement can lead to eutrophication of waterbodies and jeopardize their designated use.
“We will evaluate phosphorus retention and release rates of Alabama soils under different management practices and determine the ability of soil to act as source or sink of phosphorus to the environment,” said project leader Rishi Prasad, extension animal-systems environmental specialist, and Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences assistant professor.
The project also aims to develop a soil test–based decision support tool for assessing the risk of environmental phosphorus loss from agricultural lands.
Another PAR grant project, looks to stem economic losses from reduced animal gain and reproductive performance in endophyte-infected tall fescue forage systems. The fungus costs the U.S. beef industry more than $1 billion per year.
Study leader Kim Mullenix, Department of Animal Sciences extension assistant professor, said endophyte-infected tall fescue is the predominant perennial forage ecotype in north Alabama and the Black Belt region, where more than 60 percent of Alabama beef operations are located.
“As tall fescue matures during the early summer months, the endophyte produces high levels of ergovaline, a plant chemical compound that has negative impacts on animal performance,” she said. “Alternative forage systems are needed to improve animal production potential and extend the grazing season in regions otherwise dominated by cool-season species.”
In her two-year grazing project at the Black Belt Research and Extension Center in Marion Junction, Mullenix will determine the forage production, nutritive value and animal performance characteristics of alternative warm-season grasses in replacement-heifer production systems.
Meanwhile, School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences professor Terry Hanson will be leading a project to solve the Alabama catfish industry’s big-fish problem.
“For some time now, there has been a surplus of big catfish, or fish greater than 4 pounds in pond inventories for which catfish processors have been unable to identify a viable market,” Hanson said.
Subsequently, processors are paying half price for fish between 4 to 6 pounds and nothing for fish larger than 6 pounds, resulting in lost revenue for commercial catfish farms.
“Our research seeks to determine the cost of different management strategies toward long-term management of the big-fish problem in the Alabama aquaculture industry,” he said. “Catfish aging techniques will be employed to determine the age of different size classes of fish in commercial ponds to provide much needed information on harvest efficiency.”
Data from the study will provide management solutions towards solving the big-fish problem, he said.
The titles of and lead investigators on the five remaining projects that received 2018 PAR grants follow.
- Derive “double cash” from trash: Co-production of single-cell protein as aquafeed along with the lactic acid production from paper mill sludge: Yi Wang, assistant professor, Department of Biosystems Engineering, $50,000.
- Assessment of profitability of irrigation in crop production and acreage expansion in Alabama: Denis Nadolnyak, associate professor, Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, $50,000.
- Evaluation of summer annual forage mixtures for grazing and baleage production in Alabama: Leanne Dillard, assistant professor, Department of Animal Sciences and Department of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Sciences, $49,983.
- Agrometeorological monitoring and forecasting for sustainable water and agronomic management: Di Tian, Department of Crop, Soil, and Environmental Sciences, $49,975.
- Value-added building blocks from locally abandoned biomass for advanced food packaging materials, Maria Soledad-Peresin, School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, $49,762.The 2018 PAR grant call for proposals included several improvements that were based on feedback from stakeholders.
“In their grant proposals for this year, we specifically asked faculty members to consider project outcomes and impacts,” Fadamiro said. “We also asked for stakeholder involvement in developing the projects. We didn’t want faculty thinking about projects in a vacuum, so we asked them to work with stakeholders from the conception of the project, and we requested letters of support from stakeholders.”
In addition, projects that will be based at one of the 15 AAES outlying research units required letters of support from the unit director.
These changes, Fadamiro said, raised the quality of all proposals received.
“Almost all the proposals submitted this year could have been funded had the dollars been available, because they all were specific and relevant to the goals of the program.”
BY PAUL HOLLIS
Jay Spiers, Department of Horticulture associate professor, is leading a research project that will test the efficacy of several different trunk protection strategies for winter freeze protection of kiwifruit and citrus crops.
Categories: Food Systems
Auburn research teams are tackling local and global challenges ranging from housing affordability to advanced manufacturing of medical implants, thanks to a new $5 million investment in 11 groundbreaking projects designed to deliver practical, life-changing solutions.
“Auburn research is on the move,” said Auburn President Steven Leath. “Our world-renowned faculty are leading Auburn in our drive to solve problems, provide real-world benefits and serve the social good.”
Today’s announcement is part of an initiative funded through the Presidential Awards for Interdisciplinary Research, or PAIR, that Leath created last year to propel Auburn to new levels of research and development distinction. The PAIR funding will span three years. Additional research topics include rural health disparities in poverty-stricken areas, treating the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, neuroscience research and graduate education, reducing carbon dioxide emissions or using them for other means, and other critical areas of human and environmental health.
Project teams were selected from three award tiers: Tier 1 for new teams, with funding up to $100,000 per year; Tier 2 for established teams, with funding up to $250,000 per year; and Tier 3 for high-impact teams, with funding up to $500,000 per year. All proposals received an in-depth evaluation from Auburn’s associate deans for research, and Tier 3 proposals were also externally evaluated. Top-evaluated proposals were those that most closely aligned with the goals of PAIR as stated in the program guidelines. From 101 proposals received, 11 project teams will receive funding (the two top-evaluated proposals per tier for up to three years of funding, as well as five additional, top-evaluated Tier 1 proposals for two years of funding with a third-year no-cost extension available).
Project teams to receive funding are:
Project: Creating better bio-medical implants for patients in need using additive manufacturing, or “3D Printing” (Tier 3; $1,275,000 total funding over three years)
The issue: Auburn researchers plan to develop improved implants/orthotics for those with neuromuscular and skeletal system needs through the process of additive manufacturing. This process, also known as “3D printing,” allows for more customizable implants for small animals and humans and the possibility of embedded drugs in implants to ward off infections that can sometimes follow implant surgeries.
The Auburn solution: Research will take place to ensure “3-D printed” biomedical implants will remain durable during use and conform well to a patient’s needs while serving as a reliable drug-delivery source that can offer injury-triggered pain relief. The additive manufacturing process also helps reduce implant production costs.
Project: Unlocking Home Affordability and Prosperity in Rural America (Tier 3; $1,275,000 total funding over three years)
The issue: Auburn researchers are focusing on helping those in poor, rural areas gain greater access to resources that will ultimately lead them to finding affordable housing options.
The Auburn solution: Auburn researchers will work toward the creation of a National Institute of Rural Prosperity that will foster partnerships to help rural residents more easily overcome barriers to home ownership, including mortgage lending, home insurance and local ordinances and policies.
Project: Reducing the burden of neurological disease by increasing fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system (Tier 2; $637,500 total funding over three years)
The issue: Auburn researchers will work to mitigate against mental, neurological and substance use disorders, which make up a substantial proportion of the world’s disease burden.
The Auburn solution: A team of experts in chemistry, physiology, development, degeneration, and imaging of the brain will collaborate to develop a neuroscience center to increase fundamental knowledge about the brain and nervous system and to use that knowledge to reduce the burden of neurological disease.
Project: A Mobile Mitochondria Laboratory (AU MitoMobile) to Lead the World in Measuring Bioenergetics in Natural Settings (Tier 2; $636,941 total funding over three years)
The issue: Because the successful study of genetic and environmental impacts on mitochondria (the energy-providing part of the cellular makeup of plants and animals) can be severely limited in a laboratory setting, Auburn researchers will collaborate to build a mobile laboratory to bring this research to field sites.
The Auburn solution: A team of evolutionary biologists, environmental biologists, exercise physiologists and engineers will develop a mobile laboratory for measuring mitochondrial energy production of vertebrates at remote locations, such as oil spill sites and other places where environmental disturbances have damaged the health of local wildlife.
Project: Rural African American Aging Research (Tier 1; $255,000 total funding over three years)
The issue: Auburn researchers will assess the psychosocial stressors that can contribute to the problem of rural African Americans having a lower life expectancy and a faster progression of age-related diseases. Research in this area has the potential to inform health-promoting interventions and polices and lead to health and social equity.
The Auburn solution: PAIR funding will be used to establish a sustainable research structure in east-central Alabama focused on improving health in that community and beyond by partnering with surrounding communities. The ultimate goal is to grow the scientific knowledge of how psychosocial risk factors can accelerate aging among African Americans.
Project: Reducing and reusing carbon dioxide emissions for useful means (Tier 1; $255,000 total funding over three years)
The issue: Auburn researchers seek to combat the dire environmental effects of carbon dioxide emissions through a plan to reduce such emissions and store or utilize them for other useful means.
The Auburn solution: Researchers will work toward the development of an Alabama CO2 Utilization and Storage Center at Auburn University, with a goal of establishing Auburn as a leader in carbon dioxide utilization and storage research focused on best ways to capture CO2 emissions and convert them into helpful forms such as green fuels.
Project: Extra-virgin olive oil examined for uses in treating hallmarks of Alzheimer’s (Tier 1; $150,000 total funding over two years)
The issue: Auburn researchers are examining the consumption of extra-virgin olive oil for its potential to have a positive effect on the disease hallmarks of Alzheimer’s Disease. The research team is seeking to conduct more research into this area to determine the viability of findings for humans.
The Auburn solution: A multidisciplinary team will be assembled to conduct a pilot study on the positive effects of extra-virgin olive oil and to produce data for a strong human clinical trial to be submitted to funding agencies.
Project: Drugs from Dirt: Development and Characterization of Novel Antimicrobial Compounds (Tier 1; $150,000 total funding over two years)
The issue: Because many disease-causing organisms are resistant to current drug therapies, Auburn scientists are pursuing new approaches to the development of antibiotics.
The Auburn solution: Researchers will test and develop new therapeutic strategies for treating infectious diseases, through the study of antiobiotic-producing bacterial cultures they have discovered in soil. These are potentially life-saving antibiotics that could have application in human medicine, agriculture, and veterinary practice.
Project: Creating a Climate Information System to aid in planning for climate-related disasters (Tier 1; $150,000 total funding over two years)
The issue: Auburn researchers will create a climate service model that will help guide decision making in planning for climate-related disasters that can cause great economic and social damage.
The Auburn solution: A cross-disciplinary team of investigators will develop a science-based, Unified Climate Information System to better inform planning, policy and practices at regional, national and global scales. In addition to exploring emerging climate data, the research will seek to improve and integrate impact models for water quantity, water quality, crop growth and disease transmission simulations. The project also will include the creation of an interactive website platform, with all work being focused on the southeastern U.S. and being easily adaptable to other locations worldwide.
Project: Emerging Contaminants Research Team (Tier 1; $150,000 total funding over two years)
The issue: Auburn experts are conducting research into newly recognized environmental contaminants, such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which have not been studied sufficiently to determine their impact on the environment and their possible health risks to humans and wildlife.
The Auburn solution: This Auburn research team will use its expertise in civil engineering, pharmacology, aquatic sciences, and other key areas to collaborate on focused research into the effects of these and other previously understudied contaminants, to increase knowledge and public awareness of risk factors.
Project: Development of the AU-NASH Research Program (Tier 1; $150,000 total funding over two years)
The issue: Auburn researchers are seeking solutions to the problem of nonalcoholic steatotic hepatitis, or NASH, the most severe form of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and perhaps the most significant form of chronic liver disease in the world today, which has no current approved therapies available.
The Auburn solution: The research team will work to address this urgent, unmet medical need by developing a disease therapy program to increase positive outcomes for those suffering from liver disease.
For more details on each PAIR project and how Auburn is inspiring as a leading provider of life-changing research, creative scholarship and community engagement, visit auburn.edu/auburninspires.
BY JONATHAN CULLUM AND PRESTON SPARKS
Auburn Professor Charles Chen was part of the Peanut Genome Consortium—an international team of scientists—that unveiled the map of the cultivated peanut’s entire genome, marking the completion of a rigorous five-year research project.
New and improved peanut varieties could be coming growers' and consumers' way more frequently in the future with the successful mapping of the crop's genetic code.
The Peanut Genome Consortium—an international team of scientists that includes Auburn University's Charles Chen—unveiled the map of the cultivated peanut's entire genome in January, marking the completion of a rigorous five-year research project.
The genetic breakthrough will allow scientists to pinpoint beneficial genes in cultivated and wild peanuts and use those in breeding new varieties. These traits can lead to greater yields, lower production costs, lower losses to disease, improved processing traits, improved nutrition, improved safety, better flavor and virtually anything that is genetically determined by the peanut plant.
"This project gives us the tools to accomplish a lot of different things," said Chen, a plant breeder and geneticist in the College of Agriculture's Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences and head of Auburn's peanut breeding and genetics program.
"Genetic improvement will now occur more quickly and more efficiently, and farmers will benefit greatly from the gains this research allows," Chen said. "This advancement gives scientists around the world a map that can be used to unlock the genetic potential of the peanut plant."
The discovery is a significant boost for Auburn's peanut breeding program, the youngest of its kind in the Southeast. The program's first runner peanut variety—AU-NPL 17—was officially released in 2017 and is already winning accolades for its high yields, resistance to disease, longer shelf life and healthy traits.
Limited supplies of AU-NPL 17 seed should be available to U.S. farmers in 2019. Alabama is the second largest peanut-producing state in the U.S., with 225,000 acres planted in 2017.
"We're working on new varieties that will incorporate improved disease resistance and drought tolerance, and the mapping of the genome helps tremendously with the basic science," Chen said.
An added advantage of the project is that it increases Auburn's capability to train graduate students, providing more resources and advanced technology, he said.
In 2012, The Peanut Foundation, with industrywide support, launched the International Peanut Genome Initiative, the largest research project ever funded by the industry. Peanut growers, shellers and manufacturers footed the $6 million bill.
Peanuts are a staple in diets across the globe, from the Americas to Africa and Asia. They are also a key ingredient in ready-to-use therapeutic foods that treat severe acute malnutrition and a crop that farmers in developing countries rely on for personal and community economic well-being.
"Mapping the genetic code of the peanut proved to be an especially difficult task, but the final product is one of the best [genome maps] ever generated," Steve L. Brown, executive director of The Peanut Foundation, said. "We now have a map that will help breeders incorporate desirable traits that benefit growers, processors and, most importantly, the consumers that enjoy delicious and nutritious peanut products all over the world."
Bob Parker, National Peanut Board president and CEO, agreed.
"Peanuts are already more sustainable and affordable than any nut available today, and consumers choose them for their flavor and familiarity," he said. "I don't know that any of us can fully articulate what this advance means to our ability to grow more peanuts with fewer resources to feed the world. But I'm excited just thinking about the promises ahead of us."
The Peanut Genome Consortium was comprised of scientists from the U.S., China, Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, India, Israel and several countries in Africa. In addition to Auburn's Chen, the U.S. research team included University of California-Davis, University of Georgia, Texas A&M University, North Carolina State University and University of Florida researchers, along with scientists at USDA–Agricultural Research Service labs in Tifton and Griffin, Georgia; Stillwater, Oklahoma; Ames, Iowa; and Stoneville, Mississippi and from the National Center for Genome Resources in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Researchers with the Huntsville-based HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology coordinated the assembly of the final peanut genome.
The entire report is available on the Peanut Foundation website at www.peanutfoundation.org.
BY PAUL HOLLIS
Categories: Food Systems
Imagine pointing your smart phone at a head of lettuce in the grocery store and having the phone tell you what farm the lettuce came from and that the produce arrived in the grocery store three days ago. What if your phone could even tell you what temperatures the lettuce was exposed to in transit?
Would you pay extra for that lettuce? You bet I would.
This scenario might sound like science fiction, but the technology already exists. It’s called Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), the technology already used by some retailers for inventory control.
To learn more, visit: http://www.auburnspeaks.org/2015/02/20/tracing-food-history/
Categories: Food Systems
Auburn’s Gulf Coast Research and Extension Center and the Underwood Family: Putting Good Ideas To Work in the Pecan Industry
One measure of a land-grant university’s success is the impact it has on people throughout its state. The Underwoods, from Baldwin County, Alabama, are leaders in the pecan industry and credit Auburn for significant contributions to their success.
Gary Underwood grew up in a pecan orchard near Foley, helping his parents, Vaughn and Marcline, take care of the family pecan orchard, a task he continues today. Later he gained experience in the pecan nursery business while working with his uncle, Bill Underwood.
Today, Gary and his wife, Billie Jo, are a farm family living in Summerdale and are extensively involved with the pecan industry. They have their own pecan orchard and a pecan and fruit nursery business. They assist with the family retail marketing of pecans. Billie Jo, a certified public accountant, helps with the business management. Sister-in-law Amanda Underwood runs the retail side of the business. Gary Underwood is a national leader in the industry.
Gary is quick to recognize Auburn University as instrumental in his success. The proximity of his orchard and nursery to Auburn’s Gulf Coast Research and Extension Center at Fairhope has led to his being a frequent visitor to the center. A keen observer, he has kept up with the center’s ongoing research and has gained valuable information about the farming and nursery business.
Underwood says now-retired station superintendent Ronnie McDaniel was a good source in the beginning, and former Auburn research associate Monte Nesbitt, a pecan and citrus authority, worked hand-in-hand with Gary on both the orchard and nursery projects. Nesbitt and Gary shared a love for budding and grafting, and they worked together on perfecting this intricate process. Current research associate Brian Wilkins brings a strong background in fruit research that is also valuable to Gary—he grows Satsuma oranges, blackberries, pears, plums, and persimmons, as well as pecans, in his nursery business.
Auburn Extension horticulturist Bill Goff developed a technique for improving the success of whip-grafting nursery stock using small trees and placing the graft on controlled- temperature heating cables. Gary further refined the technique, which enables him to produce a marketable grafted container pecan tree in one season. The process formerly took three seasons, so this was a huge advantage, especially considering the high demand for pecan nursery stock following the exponential increase in Chinese imports of pecans.
Not only was the technique of how to propagate the nursery trees developed at Auburn, but most of the cultivars Gary grows were discovered and/or evaluated and recommended by Auburn. Since south Alabama is among the rainiest locations in the country where pecans are grown, resistance to disease is a major consideration in cultivar choices. Auburn’s nearby low- input cultivar trial at Fairhope served as a model for selecting the proper cultivars for Gary to grow. Gafford, McMillan, Syrup Mill, and Amling seedling selections were identified by Auburn scientists, evaluated thoroughly, and ultimately recommended, and these cultivars are the mainstays of Gary’s nursery sales. Once these were identified, members of the Auburn team, notably Cathy Browne, provided graftwood to Gary to allow him to propagate the selections and get them into the industry trade. Further, Auburn arranged—in cooperation with the Louisiana State Forest Nursery—to procure a source of seedling trees for Gary to use.
“I could never have achieved what I have achieved in the pecan or nursery business without the assistance I have received from Auburn,” Gary says. Adds Billie Jo, “He and I will be forever grateful.”
As Gary developed his pecan orchard and nursery business, he also became involved in leadership roles in the pecan industry. He was selected Alabama Pecan Grower of the Year by the Alabama Pecan Growers Association in 1999, serving as president of the association from 1999-2001 and continuing in an active role on their board of directors today. His leadership expanded from state to regional to national offices, and he was elected president of the Southeastern Pecan Growers Association in 2010. Finally, in 2012, Gary became president of the National Pecan Growers Council.
The latest national pecan association with which he is involved is the National Pecan Council, an organization representing the interests of the entire U.S. pecan industry—growers, shellers, and processors. The National Pecan Council named Gary as its Southeastern grower representative in 2012.
This article was written by Karen Hunley of the Auburn University Food Systems Institute (AUFSI) to accompany Auburn Speaks: On Food Systems. To learn more about AUFSI, visit: www.aufsi.auburn.edu. To read more great articles like this one, visit: www.auburn.edu/auburnspeaks.
Categories: Food Systems
On July 30, 2015, Auburn University will be hosting a by invitation only forum on industrialized additive manufacturing.
Experts will discuss the application of this advanced technology for industries ranging from aerospace to biotechnology. Industry leaders from GE Aviation, GKN, NASA, Carpenter Technology, Alabama Laser, U.S. Army Aviation and faculty from Auburn University, University of Alabama, UAH and University of Memphis will describe the role their organizations are playing in developing, implementing and utilizing new processes and computer-aided hardware and software to produce components from material and composites once considered exotic.
A keynote address will be given by Greg Morris, the General Manager of Additive Technologies for GE Aviation.
To learn more about this day-long forum and networking reception to follow, or if you are interested in attending, please email forum organizers at email@example.com.
Auburn University might be relatively new to the peanut breeding business, but its just-released runner peanut variety is already winning accolades for its high yields, resistance to disease and healthy traits.
The new release—AU-NPL 17—is the product of a peanut breeding program operated jointly by the College of Agriculture’s Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences and USDA’s National Peanut Research Lab in Dawson, Georgia. It’s the first runner-type cultivar released by the program and is well-adapted for growing conditions throughout the Southeast.
Runner peanuts are most commonly used for making peanut butter and are typically grown in Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi and Arkansas. They account for 80 percent of the estimated 1.5 million acres of peanuts grown in the United States, with Alabama growers planting approximately 175,000 acres this past year.
While the Auburn peanut breeding program is the youngest of its kind in the Southeast, it is rapidly making a name for itself, says Charles Chen, a former USDA Agricultural Research Service research geneticist who joined the College of Agriculture in 2012 and is a professor of peanut breeding and genetics.
“With the release of this first runner-type variety, we’re establishing a research pipeline,” Chen says. “Now we’ll be able to make new crosses or selections and other varieties can be released through the program. There’s always something to improve upon; you never reach perfection. That is why we are here.”
Future releases will build on AU-NPL 17’s high yield, disease resistance and other factors, he says.
“You can never totally suppress pests if you continue to grow a cultivar in the field,” Chen says. “By nature, pests will mutate and fight resistance and tolerance, so resistance eventually will be conquered by pest mutations.”
AU-NPL 17 has been tested throughout Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and North Carolina, where runner-type peanuts of a medium maturity group are adapted.
“It has shown good adaptability, with its primary advantage being high yields and good adaptation from irrigated fields to nonirrigated, from single to twin-row patterns, and when grown with or without fungicide treatments,” Chen says.
In terms of yield per acre, AU-NPL 17 compares favorably with Georgia-06G, the University of Georgia release that has been the gold standard of Southeastern growers for several years now. In yield tests conducted in 2014 and 2015 in Headland, Fairhope, Dawson and Hattiesburg, Mississippi. AU-NPL 17 averaged 6,499 pounds per acre in eight tests as compared to Georgia-06G’s average of 6,175 pounds per acre.
In USDA Uniform Peanut Performance Tests 2016, AU-NPL 17 yielded higher than Georgia-06G in Alabama and North Carolina. In terms of ranking, the Auburn variety was ranked No. 1 in Alabama tests and No. 2 in North Carolina tests, with GA-06G ranking No. 5 in both tests.
AU-NPL 17 also is resistant to tomato spotted wilt virus and tolerant to leaf spot disease, both primary pest concerns for Southeastern growers. In addition, it has some resistance to white mold.
“In tests without fungicide treatments, AU-NPL 17 is generally more resistant or tolerant to tomato spotted wilt virus, early and late leaf spot and white mold than other cultivars in the test,” Chen says.
A healthier peanut
Auburn’s new peanut release also contains a higher amount of oleic acid compared to standard peanuts. Oleic acid is a monounsaturated fatty acid, also known as a “good fat,” that reduces the amount of LDL, known as “bad” cholesterol, while boosting the levels of “good” HDL. Monounsaturated fats are commonly found in foods such as nuts, seeds, olive oil, canola oil and avocados. This trait also substantially improves the shelf life of peanuts and peanut products.
“The industry is demanding a high-oleic peanut,” says Chen. In fact, Mars Chocolate, one of the top five peanut buyers globally, has committed to using 100 percent high-oleic peanuts in their products by the end of this year.
“We don’t produce as many high-oleic peanuts in the U.S. as countries such as Argentina and Australia, and that hurts our competitiveness internationally,” Chen says. “I believe high oleic will become the standard for U.S. peanut production.”
Yet another value of high-oleic peanuts is that peanut buyers normally pay farmers a premium for growing them.
Six-thousand pounds of breeder seeds of AU-NPL 17 will be planted this year by the Alabama Crop Improvement Association, Chen says.
“Hopefully, next year, we will have 120 tons of foundation seed,” he says. “We should have a few farmers growing the cultivar on a test basis in the spring of 2018, and most farmers will have the seed available to them in 2019.”
While the peanut cultivar breeding process typically takes about 10 years to complete, Chen was able to shorten it by a couple of years by growing peanuts in Puerto Rico during the winter months.
“Peanut breeders can send seed to Puerto Rico in November and then get increased seed back at the end of March to speed up the process,” he says. “We did that for two seasons, so it gave us a shorter interval with this cultivar.”
The first of many
John Beasley, professor and head of Auburn’s Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences, says AU-NPL 17 should prove to be of tremendous benefit to growers in Alabama and throughout the Southeast. Beasley should know; he was a peanut agronomist at the University of Georgia for 30 years before coming to Auburn.
“We’re very excited for Dr. Chen and his program,” Beasley says. “In addition to outstanding yields, this new cultivar also has resistance to some of the more common peanut diseases and, even more important, it has high oleic acid, which is now being required by the industry and demanded by consumers. AU-NPL 17 should be an especially good fit for Alabama producers, since it was developed and tested in the state, and it should help growers lower their seed and overall production costs.”
Beasley says AU-NPL 17 is the first of what will be many runner-type releases from the program at Auburn.
“We’re looking at sources from other programs, and our program will help to expand the genetic resources available in the Southeast,” he says. “This release certainly puts us on the map as far as breeding programs go, and we’re expecting many new releases in the coming years with different genetic traits.”
One area the breeding program will focus on in the future will be traits that enable more efficient plant water use, Beasley says. This would prove beneficial for producers in Alabama, where a majority of the cropland is not irrigated.
BY PAUL HOLLIS
Charles Chen, professor of peanut breeding and genetics, says the new peanut variety AU-NPL 17 establishes a research pipeline for future releases.
Categories: Food Systems
At the beginning of July, the Innovation and Economic Prosperity Universities Program, part of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, created an IEP Case Study Library that allows interested parties to learn about and from designee economic development projects provided in awards submissions. As both a designee and an award winner in the "Place" category, Auburn University's case studies are currently featured there. Case studies include information on the Rural Studio, the National Poultry Technology Center, and the Off-Bottom Oyster Farming efforts at the Auburn University Shellfish Lab. To learn more, visit the IEP Case Study Library.
By: Jacque Kochak
Every fall, tens of thousands of football fans descend on the Auburn University campus to participate in a tradition almost as important as the game itself: tailgating. It's a way of life here on the Plains and at college campuses all over the country. Auburn University's new Tailgate Times website is a central source for information on safe tailgating.
Tailgate Times is a project of the Auburn University Food Systems Institute, or AUFSI. The website, at www.aufsi.auburn.edu/tailgate, offers ideas for both popular and unconventional tailgating food and provides tips on how to have a safe tailgate party. Food safety is one of AUFSI's main concerns, and tailgaters should understand the risks associated with outdoor cooking, preparation and storage.
"We also thought tailgaters might like to know a little about the story behind classic tailgating food such as barbecue, tailgating history, safety from fires and bad weather and much more," said Pat Curtis, AUFSI director.
With an estimated 50 million Americans spending about $20 billion each year on tailgating setup, food and drinks, AUFSI offers guidance to both tailgate beginners and aficionados – specifically when it comes to food, since tailgate parties are synonymous with lots of food. Barbecue chicken, ribs and pork; hamburgers and hotdogs; sausages; stews; sides like coleslaw, potato salad, baked beans; chips and dip – you name it, it's probably been served up at an Auburn Tiger tailgate.
Visit the Tailgate Times website at www.aufsi.auburn.edu/tailgate, where you can also download a print version of the magazine. Plans to develop a Tailgate Times ebook are also in the works. AUFSI is also on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AUtailgatetimes.
The Auburn University Food Systems Institute was created to bring together the many disciplines at Auburn that deal with a complex, integrated food system, from producing food through processing food to consuming food. For more information, visit us at www.aufsi.auburn.edu.
For more information about the Auburn University Food Systems Institute, contact Karen Hunley, (334) 844-9172 (Karen.firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Categories: Food Systems
While avian influenza has been confirmed in 20 states, Alabama remains free of the disease and Alabama poultry producers are doing all that they can to keep the disease at bay.
A poultry scientist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System said poultry producers are more vigilant than ever when it comes to sanitation and other biosecurity measures.
"All our Alabama poultry growers have biosecurity measures in place," said Ken Macklin. "Biosecurity measures are the first line of defense against avian influenza and other poultry diseases."
Macklin said that more than 43 million chickens and turkeys have either died from the disease or had to be euthanized because the flock tested positive for a highly contagious form of avian influenza in the first five months of 2015. The most severely impacted states are in the upper Midwest, including Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.
"These cases in commercial poultry operations in the upper Midwest have mostly been linked to a failure of biosecurity," said Macklin. "Growers may have thought they were following biosecurity guidelines fully, but it seems that there were lapses."
Macklin, who is also an associate professor of poultry science at Auburn University, said strong biosecurity measures take many forms.
- Isolating the birds from other animals
- Minimizing access to people and unsanitized equipment
- Keeping the area around the poultry buildings clean and uninviting to wild birds
- Sanitizing the facility between flocks
- Cleaning equipment entering and leaving the farm
- Having an all in, all out policy regarding the placement and removal of the birds
- Disposing properly of bedding material and any mortalities
Joseph Giambrone, an Auburn University professor of poultry science, called the losses to the national poultry industry staggering.
"The losses are in the hundreds of millions of dollars," said Giambrone. "We can expect a reduction of at least 10 percent in egg laying production and a similar drop in turkey production nationally."
Macklin said the potential production loss is why Alabama producers are working hard to keep their flocks free of the disease. According to Auburn University research done in 2012, poultry and egg production and processing contributed more than $15 billion to the state's economy and employed more than 86,000 people.
Giambrone, whose research focuses on viral diseases of poultry, said the disease is spread by migrating water fowl such as ducks and geese.
"This outbreak began in Canada, and water fowl spread it south along the migratory bird flyways," he said. "It was brought into the Midwest by birds using the Mississippi flyway. It has persisted so long there because of the heavy concentration of poultry producers in that region of the country."
Giambrone said ducks and geese shed the virus in fecal material.
"Infected water fowl shed the virus into ponds and lakes as well as onto the land they are grazing."
Macklin said that warmer weather may slow the disease's spread.
"The virus can survive for days, especially if it is in water. In water, the virus can survive up to 100 days with a water temperature of 63 degrees Fahrenheit. But when water temperatures reach the 80s, the virus can survive for less than a month."
He said the virus has a reduced ability to survive on land.
"On land, the virus can survive for 30 days at 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 7 days at 68 degrees Fahrenheit," said Macklin. "Once the outside temperature hits the 80s the virus breaks down in hours."
While warmer weather may halt the disease's progress in the United States, Giambrone emphasized that the disease can return next year.
"Even if we get control of the disease this year, wild water fowl in Alaska and Canada remain carriers of the disease and are a threat to bring it back to the United States when they migrate again next year."
By Maggie Lawrence