Life Sciences News
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.
$1.5 million NSF CAREER Award granted for study of plasticity, genetic and environmental impacts on butterflies
Brian Counterman conducts research asking insightful questions about the environment, genetics and mating preferences impacting the Dogface Butterfly. He is the recipient of a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award for $1,565,641 for “Physiological genomics of sexually dimorphic developmental plasticity on butterfly wings.” His research will also help inspire the next generation of scientists currently in Alabama middle schools through outreach programs.
Dogface Butterflies are native to the Black Belt Prairie region and have areas on their wings with distinct pink, yellow and ultraviolet markings.
Brian Counterman, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM), researches genetic and genomic changes specifically in butterflies.
“In fall, we noticed that the color markings on the Dogface Butterfly were extremely pink,” Counterman said. “The environment induces color changes of the pigment seen on butterfly wings.”
The changes are not just seen in the pigment coloration.
“Pigmentation changes occur with seasonality, but what was really interesting is that these butterflies are also experiencing structural or cell-centric changes that cause a loss of the ultraviolet colors on their wings.”
Counterman’s research focuses on the genetics of plastic responses or plasticity, which is how the environment can influence development.
“We compare which genes in the butterflies are changing and control how much pink, yellow and ultraviolet is visible on the butterfly wings,” Counterman added.
Counterman teaches a class on development plasticity for undergraduate and graduate students at Auburn University. He discusses the importance of how the environment is impacting species in this course.
“In the laboratory, we will create lines from local populations so that we can genetically map what causes the wing color differences,” Counterman said.
He anticipates that through artificial selection over several generations they will make colonies of pink colored butterflies.
“After several generations of artificial selection, we will use CRISPR to edit genes to change the pink and ultraviolet colors on the butterfly wings,” Counterman said.
In addition to pigmentation, Counterman will be able to learn if the butterflies prefer to mate with butterflies with the same color differentiation or not.
The outreach component of Counterman’s grant embodies the land-grant mission of Auburn University.
Counterman will reach out to middle school teachers and offer an interactive summer camp giving them an opportunity with hands-on research.
“These teachers will discuss hypothesis-driven research and gain insight on how to conduct this research with their students in the classroom,” Counterman said.
He then will send each teacher three experiments in the fall. Each student will receive an origami-based microscope as well as additional ones for the classroom.
Through these experiments, students will be able to learn about butterfly wing scales.
“Student will be able to then apply the information they learned and use the microscopes for projects for state science fairs,” Counterman added.
Counterman will also share information about his research at the annual Destination STEM event hosted by COSAM’s Office of Outreach. Additionally, students will be able to attend a capstone event and teachers will be able to share what their students learned through a poster presentation.
Counterman’s NSF CAREER Award will help to share a passion for science with middle school students in the state of Alabama and create the next generation of STEM leaders.
BY MARIA GEBHARDT
Auburn University researcher co-authors study determining economic impact of invasive species in U.S. exceeds $1.2 trillion
An Auburn University researcher has co-authored a study that found the economic costs of biological invasions in the U.S. have exceeded $1.2 trillion since 1960.
The study, recently published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, determined that costs were mainly related to resource damages and losses, with 53% of costs reported from invasive species, such as wild pigs, from land habitats. Agriculture was the most impacted sector with over $500 billion in damages from mammals and insects.
“Invasive species are a pressing ecological and economic problem, both here in the U.S. and worldwide. However, the impacts of these species are often poorly understood and, as a result, underestimated,” said Jean Fantle-Lepczyk, research professor in Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences and co-author of the multinational study conducted with a team of seven scientists from the U.S., Germany, France, the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom.
The objective was to raise public awareness of the economic and biological impacts of the issue to underscore the need for more decisive actions to control invasive species. Using InvaCost, a public database of the economic costs of global biological invasions, the research team compiled all published information to determine that the economic impact of invasive species within the U.S. conservatively totaled $1.22 trillion from 1960 to 2020.
Fantle-Lepczyk describes invasive species as those that were moved by humans to a new ecosystem that have begun breeding outside of the area to which they were initially introduced.
“Once established, they can cause great ecological and economic harm,” said Fantle-Lepczyk. “Costs due to invaders are likely increasing as these species establish and spread.”
Drew Kramer, professor and co-author from the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of South Florida, said, “While not all impacts of invasive species are economically quantifiable, robust estimates of their economic impacts can be a convincing way of communicating the scale of the problem to a diverse audience.”
To provide this context, the research team mobilized to create a comprehensive record of invasion costs that would highlight the necessity of invasive species management for decision-makers and the public.
“For the first time, we were able to link all published information on the economic costs of invasive species from a variety of source documents with standardized taxonomic, sectorial, regional and temporal descriptors,” said Fantle-Lepczyk. “As higher trade volumes introduce a suite of new species, and climate change facilitates the establishment and spread of already introduced species, the number of invasive species in the U.S. is increasing rapidly.”
Auburn School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences Dean Janaki Alavalapati said the research likely will have a significant impact.
“Dr. Fantle-Lepczyk and her fellow team of researchers have addressed a critical gap in knowledge related to the economic costs associated with invasive species in the United States,” Alavalapati said.
In addition to Fantle-Lepczyk and Kramer, the research team included scientists Phillip J. Haubrock, Ross N. Cuthbert, Anna J. Turbelin, Robert Crystal-Ornelas, Christophe Diagne and Franck Courchamp.
BY GRACEN CARTER
An Auburn University-led research team found the economic impact of invasive species within the U.S. conservatively totaled $1.22 trillion from 1960 to 2020. Pictured are zebra mussels along the Lake Michigan shoreline. (Photo by Darnell Glerl, NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory)
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
Two Auburn University students, Che Ka and Grant Wilkinson, have been awarded 2021 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships, or NSFGRF—a fellowship program designed to help ensure the vitality and diversity of the scientific and engineering workforce in the United States.
Each fellowship consists of three years of support accessible over a five-year period. For each year, the NSF provides a stipend of $34,000 to the fellow and a cost-of-education allowance of $12,000 to the degree-granting institution.
“We are especially happy to see a continuation of Auburn students being awarded this prestigious fellowship,” said Tiffany Sippial, director of Auburn’s Honors College. “The NSFGRF recognizes student potential for significant achievements in science and engineering research, and these awards are a perfect fit for the work being done at Auburn University.”
Ka, of Auburn, Alabama, is a biological sciences doctoral student in the College of Sciences and Mathematics. He moved to Auburn from Senegal, Africa, at age 14. His research aims to better understand mechanisms that cells use to orchestrate their activities during animal embryonic development and help reveal how these mechanisms are tweaked through evolution to give rise to the diversity of animal forms we see today.
“This major fellowship from the NSF not only supports my research at Auburn, but also bolsters my efforts to increase science communication and share our work with the broader community,” Ka said.
Wilkinson, of Chelsea, Alabama, is a spring 2021 Honors College graduate with a double major in chemistry and physics in the College of Sciences and Mathematics. His research focused on the photophysical properties of lanthanide and actinide coordination complexes. He hopes to develop sensors for uranium to be detected in environments suspected of contamination.
“I strongly encourage anyone interested in graduate research to apply [for NSFGRF], because it prepares you like few other things can,” said Wilkinson, who served as the spring 2021 graduation marshal for the College of Sciences and Mathematics.
Alex Sauer, coordinator for scholarships and research for the Honors College, added, “This is a truly transformative opportunity for students who are starting careers in research, and we are so happy that Auburn students are continuing to be recognized for their amazing work.
“We are also so grateful for the time and effort that advisors, mentors and recommenders have dedicated to supporting these students. Nationally competitive awards are never won solely by any one individual’s efforts.”
The NSFGRF program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions.
BY WADE BERRY
Two Auburn University students, Che Ka and Grant Wilkinson, have been awarded 2021 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships,
Sixty-three students took home awards for their research and creative scholarship posters and oral presentations during the recent, virtual “Auburn Research: 2021 Student Symposium.” Nearly 350 undergraduate and graduate students from Auburn and Auburn Montgomery participated in the annual symposium, which gives students an opportunity to share their work university-wide and with the general public.
Undergraduate Research Awards
The undergraduate first-place award in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics poster presentations went to Anna Solomonik of Drug Discovery and Development. Shalom Kim of AUM Chemistry and Biochemistry captured first place in the STEM oral presentations.
In the category for Human Sciences, Social Sciences, Creative Arts, Nursing and Humanities, Sally Ann Missildine of Interior Design won first place for her poster presentation, while Stanley Wijaya of Nutrition, Dietetics and Hospitality Management took first in the oral presentations.
Graduate Research Awards
The graduate first-place winner for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics poster presentations was Manjusha Annaji of Pharmaceutical Sciences, while first place in the STEM oral presentations went to Kaelyn Fogelman of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences.
In the category for Human Sciences, Social Sciences, Creative Arts, Nursing and Humanities, Kassandra Ross of Consumer and Design Sciences won first place in the poster presentations, while Juliana Parma of Kinesiology captured first in the oral presentations.
College-specific awards were also presented for undergraduate and graduate student categories. A complete list of winners, as well as titles of their projects, is available on the “Auburn Research: 2021 Student Symposium” website.
Sixty-three students have won awards for their research presentations given during the Auburn Research: Student Symposium 2021 virtual event held March 29 through April 2.
Auburn professor co-authors study finding that carbon dioxide levels within plant communities influence soil carbon dioxide emissions
Predicting future climate and ecological change is among the world’s top priorities, and an Auburn University faculty member is among a group of researchers whose findings in a recently published study on carbon dioxide emissions could make a vast contribution to those future outlooks.
Mike Aspinwall, assistant professor of tree physiology and ecophysiology in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, said the study examines how rising atmospheric carbon dioxide, or CO2, might impact CO2 emissions from grassland soils.
The findings of the nearly decade-long study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, stresses that understanding ecosystem carbon-cycling responses to atmospheric CO2 enrichment is critical to preserve biodiversity and maintain vital ecosystem services in grasslands impacted by global change.
The research explored CO2 emissions from soil, which represent the largest flux of CO2 from the land surface to the atmosphere, Aspinwall said.
“Changes in soil CO2 emissions will have consequences for future climate, yet our understanding of the impacts of rising atmospheric CO2—a key driver of global change—on CO2 emissions from soil is limited,” he said.
There has been a particularly limited understanding of how factors such as plant species diversity and soil properties might influence the way rising atmospheric CO2 impacts soil CO2 emissions, he added.
Aspinwall’s co-authors represented the USDA Agricultural Research Service, the University of Texas at Austin, Stanford University and Tennessee State University.
He said the team approached the research in several unique ways.
First, instead of using two discrete CO2 treatments, the researchers used a continuous gradient of atmospheric CO2, spanning past CO2 concentrations—about 250 parts per million, or ppm—to future CO2 concentrations of about 500 ppm.
“This allowed us to examine both the ‘shape’ and magnitude of the response to CO2,” Aspinwall said.
Secondly, the experiment incorporated different soil types and textures—including sandy, silty and clayey—an important inclusion since texture influences both nutrient and water availability, which in turn can influence how plants and ecosystems respond to changing CO2.
Aspinwall said the third unique approach involved the length of the experiment—eight years—which is important to this research.
“Longer-term experiments like this are very rare and provide more certainty about future responses,” he said.
Janaki Alavalapati, dean of the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, underscored the study’s significance.
“The research of Dr. Aspinwall and his team on CO2 emissions from soil presents important findings that will go a long way in future predictions of climate and ecological change,” Alavalapati said. "The team’s dedication to this uniquely sourced research is a noteworthy contribution.”
Aspinwall is optimistic about its impact.
“We hope this research will improve our ability to predict changes in soil CO2 emissions over space and time—which will inform predictions of future climate and ecological change,” he said.
BY TERI GREENE
Auburn University faculty member Michael Aspinwall is among a group of researchers whose findings in a recently published study on carbon dioxide emissions could influence predictions of future climate and ecological changes.
Kayleigh Chalkowski, a doctoral student in the Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, is leading a research study that’s making important discoveries about the scope of disease caused by a deadly parasite spread by feral cat populations—not just in Kauai, Hawaii, where the study took place—but worldwide.
The study, published recently in Pacific Conservation Biology, has public health policy implications for wherever feral cats can be found.
Researchers sampled sentinel feral chickens on Kauai as environmental indicators of the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, or T. gondii, which is spread by cats. The parasite is a leading cause of mortality among endangered species, including the monk seal, and can cause serious neurological symptoms in humans.
While the implications are for feral cats and other animals, Chalkowski’s study focused on the prevalence of T. gondii among the research area’s chicken population.
“In our study, we found that nearly 40% of chickens were positive for this parasite, and there were positive chickens at nearly every sampled site with positive correlation with proximity to the coast,” Chalkowski said.
“Our findings of positive chickens at community centers and public beach parks suggest a public health risk, and our findings of positive chickens at wildlife refuges and coastal areas suggests exposure risk to endangered birds and marine mammals.”
Chalkowski has spent years in Kauai conducting on-the-ground conservation work. The island’s wide-ranging topography, variety of ecosystem types and abundance of feral chickens offer optimal model systems to examine the parasite’s prevalence. The feral chicken is an ideal sentinel species for this research, recent evidence that T. gondii contributes to local declines of Hawaii’s endemic bird and mammal species.
Chris Lepczyk, a professor in the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, was a coauthor on the study.
“Kauai, and the Hawaiian Islands more broadly, are really a focal point in the world for understanding how the parasite is spread across the landscape and how it is affecting ecosystem health,” Lepczyk said.
Chalkowski’s longtime field experience in the Hawaiian Islands led to a strong appreciation for effective predator control and an interest in diseases that impact endangered species as well as humans. Identifying this and other environmental factors that predict or impact T. gondii exposure is important for mitigating disease risks.
The one-year project involved collaboration with the Kauai Invasive Species Committee, Fish and Wildlife Service, and the University of Hawaii’s College of Agriculture and Human Resources Cooperative Extension.
“Given the dual interests of all these organizations in outreach and either public health agriculture or wildlife health, I think it was a good example of how partnerships can develop to work toward understanding an issue that can address concerns that relate to both conservation and public health,” she said.
Next steps for mitigation
There is a long road of research ahead before the health impacts of T. gondii are mitigated. And after that, public health policy change will be necessary.
“Our study is absolutely not the last step in this process of mitigating the health impacts of this parasite,” she said. “Detection and understanding how parasites like this may vary with environmental and landscape features are important to inform and direct mitigation efforts, but of course policy change is a crucial next step.
“Our hope is that in addition to guiding mitigation efforts, this study will also improve awareness of just how widespread and common this parasite is in public land-use areas.”
She and her team also hope this widespread awareness will result in more public support for animal control measures, such as prohibiting feeding of feral cats anywhere on the island, since the parasite is widespread—not site-specific or clustered in specific locations—and increasing trapping efforts to control feral cats.
“Stronger legislation on cat ownership would be helpful too: stricter fines for dumping or abandonment, requirements to spay or neuter and improving access for spay and neuter services, for a start,” she said.
Health risks far beyond the islands
These implications for public health policy are becoming clearer on islands such as Kauai, but they are hardly limited to that part of the world.
“Could these control efforts benefit other regions? Absolutely,” Chalkowski said. “T. gondii is not just a problem in Hawaii. This parasite is spread by domestic cats—which are found pretty much anywhere humans are found—and can infect any bird or mammal. This parasite can be found on every single continent, literally even Antarctica in marine mammals.
“This sounds crazy—clearly there are no populations of cats living in Antarctica—but it’s an example of the ability of this parasite to move through the environment and through chains of hosts.
“It is both fascinating and horrible, given how little we know about the health impacts of this parasite in many species,” she said. “This parasite is a problem worldwide, there's a lot we still don't know, and efforts to control or understand this parasite in one region may very well be helpful somewhere else.”
BY TERI GREENE
Kayleigh Chalkowski, a doctoral student in the Auburn University School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, is leading a research study that’s making important discoveries about the scope of disease caused by a deadly parasite spread by feral cat populations.
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.
For the last five years, the lab group of Geoffrey Hill, biological sciences professor and curator of birds, has been collaborating with the Miguel Carneiro lab at the University of Porto in Porto, Portugal, and the Joe Corbo lab at Washington University in St. Louis to study different breeds of the domestic canary as a model system for finding the genes that underlie the different plumage coloration and patterns displayed by different canary breeds.
The team has recently made a new discovery through their research which has been published as a cover article in the scientific journal, “Science.” This investigation focused on sexual dichromatism, which is a difference in the coloration of males and females. The paper, which is titled “A genetic mechanism for sexual dichromatism in birds,” describes how changes in the expression of a single gene can generate dramatic differences in coloration between male and female birds.
“The genetic basis for male and female differences is a fascinating topic,” Hill said. “In some bird species, males and females appear so different that they were originally classified as different species. Until our study, we could only speculate on what sorts of genes could cause males and females to have different plumage coloration.”
The canaries that formed the basis for this study were a breed of red canaries. These red canaries were produced years ago when yellow canaries were crossed with a red finch from South America, the red siskin. The resulting offspring captured a gene that enabled them to produce red feathers, with the males having a brighter hue.
Most red canaries were bred to be monochromatic, with males and females both brightly colored, but in one breed, the mosaic canary, sexual dichromatism was selected, making this the only canary breed with distinctly difference male and female coloration. The researchers correctly predicted that with many years of selective breeding, the DNA of mosaic canaries would be of yellow canary origin with the exception of genes responsible for creating differences in coloration between males and females. The scientists found a single strongly divergent region in the DNA of mosaic canaries compared to other canary breeds. This region of differentiation was right next to a key color-controlling genes, Beta-Carotene Oxygenase 2 (BCO2). The authors speculated that the differentiated region controls sex-specific production of BCO2.
Hill said the team expected genes for sex-specific traits to be on sex chromosomes, but the gene for sexual dichromatism that they discovered was not.
“It was on an autosome, so the same in males and females,” Hill explained. “We have to presume that other sex-linked genes, probably genes that control hormone release, interact with our dichromatism gene to cause the different appearances of males and females.”
The scientists tested whether their discovery was specific to canaries by studying the patterns of gene expression in other finches. The same mechanism discovered in canaries was found to work in other finches as well.
Hill added that the group plans to continue their research together.
“The genetic basis for different morphologies of males and females is a very fundamental discovery,” he said. “This particular study focused on plumage coloration in birds, but it provides a foundation for studies of other dimorphic traits, including in humans.”
BY CARLA NELSON
Geoffrey Hill, Auburn University professor of biological sciences and curator of birds, has co-authored a Science Magazine cover article examining sexual dichromatism in birds.
Categories: Life Sciences
Pair of Auburn graduate students awarded prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships
Two graduate students in Auburn University’s College of Sciences and Mathematics have been awarded Graduate Research Fellowships by the National Science Foundation, or NSF.
Akilah Alwan and Victoria Coutts have been awarded fellowships that provide up to three years of support for graduate education, including a $34,000 annual stipend and $12,000 per year toward the cost of their graduate work. The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship program receives more than 12,000 applications each year and selects about 2,000 students.
Alwan, a doctoral student in the Department of Geosciences, is conducting research in a project focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, and learning. Coutts, a doctoral student in the Department of Biological Sciences, is pursuing a project in physiology.
As the oldest graduate fellowship of its kind, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program has a long history of selecting recipients who achieve high levels of success in their future academic and professional careers. The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited United States institutions. Numerous Auburn graduate students have been awarded fellowships through the program the past 20 years.
The reputation of the fellowship follows recipients and often helps them become lifelong leaders who contribute significantly to both scientific innovation and teaching. Past fellows include numerous Nobel Prize winners; U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu; Google founder Sergey Brin; and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt. In addition to funding support, fellows also enjoy opportunities for international research and professional development.
BY MITCH EMMONS
Akilah Alwan (left), a doctoral student in Auburn’s Department of Geosciences, and Victoria Coutts, a doctoral student in Auburn’s Department of Biological Sciences, have received Graduate Research Fellowships from the National Science Foundation.