Life Sciences News
NSF awards Auburn’s COSAM and College of Education $1 million to research how body size and reproduction evolve in the natural environment
Auburn University’s Tonia Schwartz, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM), and Melody Russell, professor of science education, and Endowed Alumni Professor in the College of Education, are the recipients of a four-year award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in collaboration with David A. W. Miller, associate professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Pennsylvania State University, and Amanda Sparkman, associate professor of biology at Westmont College.
The award provides Auburn University with $1,073,793 of funding from the NSF with a total of $2.1 million for the entire award across all three institutions. The grant will enable more than 30 undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdoctoral scientists and teachers to be part of this NSF funded research project.
The team aims to understand how body size traits and reproduction characteristics are connected by studying five reptiles that have naturally become smaller living in isolated habitats on the California Channel Islands, in this project “How to get SMAL: Studying island dwarfism to find Shared Molecular mechanisms Across Life history traits”.
“The beauty of this research is that nature has already conducted the experiment for us, many times. Animals get stuck on islands and over many generations they evolve to adapt to their new environment, often changing their body size,” said Schwartz. The research team will harness the power of one of these natural experiments where three species of reptiles (two snakes and a lizard) have each independently evolved small body size on the California Channel Islands relative to populations on the mainland California, in contrast to two species of lizards did not change in body size when isolated on the islands. They will be conducting field work with the animals both in mainland and the islands. The California Channel Islands are in the Pacific Ocean and are a protected area. None of the animals will be removed from their natural habitat during the research.
In addition to the animal research, another key aspect of this project is the involvement of Alabama high school biology teachers who will visit the Channel Islands to engage in the research with the project team. “This unique informal science education experience provides an excellent opportunity to expand science teacher content knowledge while engaging preservice and in-service science teachers in valuable outreach experiences,” said Schwartz.
“This is a phenomenal partnership,” said Russell. “This NSF funded, collaborative project will provide an innovative curriculum aligned with science teaching standards that promotes engagement and interest in STEM for the science classroom. This project also aims to broaden participation in STEM through enhanced teacher professional development and an inquiry-based science curriculum.
This research project also includes COSAM STEM Outreach Center (Mary Lou Ewald) a partner with Alabama Math, Science, and Technology Initiative (AMSTI) and Alabama Science in Motion (ASIM).
”Biology specialist, Roger Birkhead with ASIM, will be instrumental in helping us connect this research to the Alabama classrooms through working with teachers,” said Schwartz.
“We will design science curriculum modules that ASIM will implement during various outreach opportunities and programs to engage current science teachers, and these modules can also be used with our preservice science teachers in our teacher education program,” said Russell. “This project will provide invaluable experiences and opportunities to better prepare our future science teachers.”
The research in the field is led by collaborator Sparkman, with assistance from students from all three institutions. With the use of a portable ultrasound, they can measure the number and size of eggs in the animals and determine the reproductive cycles of the populations across seasons and years.
The team also collects blood samples taken from the animals and tissue biopsies to send back to Auburn. “The tissue is used to develop cell lines from the mainland and island populations, so we can study them at the cellular level without bring the actual animals back to the lab”, said Schwartz.
“We will be able to measure important factors such as the blood glucose and hormones of the reptiles that directly link to its growth and metabolism,” said Schwartz. The research team is particularly interested in the function and evolution of the insulin-like signaling network. These factors are vital to unlocking information about how the species evolve on the island.
“We will be sequencing the genomes to learn more about what has happened to this species over time, and we will search for genes that have evolved the fastest between the mainland and island populations. This will help us identify what genes are needed to adapt to island life through changes in body size and reproduction,” said Schwartz.
The molecular data on the genetics, the cell metabolism, and the hormones produced in the animals will be compiled by collaborator Miller into statistical models to understand their relationships to the life history traits such as growth rates, body size and reproduction factors.
“This research will give us insight into the molecular mechanisms of how growth and reproductive traits evolve in natural environments with real-world applications to human health, agriculture and conservation,” said Schwartz.
This project poses exciting opportunities and we are all looking forward to all the possibilities this project will provide Auburn University, Pennsylvania State University, and Westmont College.
from left: Tonia Schwartz and Melody Russell
Categories: Life Sciences
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)
Auburn’s College of Veterinary Medicine hosts 14th annual Boshell Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases Research Day
Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine will host the 14th annual Boshell Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases Research Day on Friday, April 28, at the Auburn-Opelika Marriott Resort at Grand National.
“Here at Auburn, we are attacking this disease from all sides from the laboratory through a variety of clinical studies,” said Robert Judd, director of the Boshell Research Program and professor of pharmacology in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Anatomy, Physiology and Pharmacology. “Research Day is an exciting opportunity for us to bring researchers and medical professionals together to share and discuss information about diabetes, obesity and their treatments.”
The annual Boshell Research Day event brings together experts from around the U.S. to present current topics related to diabetes and the role of obesity in its development. The meeting is highlighted by research presentations throughout the day and evening.
This year’s guest speakers include Vishwa Deep Dixit, the Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Pathology, Immunology and Comparative Medicine and director, Yale School of Medicine Center for Research on Aging; Jonathan D. Schertzer, an associate professor of biochemistry and biomedical sciences, Farncombe Family Digestive Health Research Institute Centre for Metabolism, Ontario, Canada; and Dr. Regina Benjamin, former U.S. Surgeon General and founder of the BayouClinic.
Registration and additional information are available now at www.vetmed.auburn.edu/boshell. The event is free for Boshell program members, students and postdoctoral fellows and $125 for non-members. Registration is open through April 19, and the deadline for abstraction submission is March 31.
Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine will host the 14th annual Boshell Diabetes and Metabolic Diseases Research Day on Friday, April 28, at the Auburn-Opelika Marriott Resort at Grand National. Pictured: Robert Judd
Auburn professor’s research indicates Tyrannosaurus rex, Velociraptor dinosaurs had lips, contrary to popular belief
Auburn University’s Thomas Cullen is part of an international collaboration of researchers that has uncovered evidence indicating, contrary to popular belief, theropod dinosaurs like the Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor had lips that covered their teeth.
Cullen — an assistant professor in the College of Sciences and Mathematics’ Department of Geosciences — and his colleagues published their findings on Science.org that contradict the mainstream traditional view about the appearance of the iconic extinct animals. Their groundbreaking research, originally covered by Science.org, has several important implications for understanding the animals’ biology and evolution.
“We reconstructed soft tissue anatomy, compared dental measurements and studied dental health and wear records to further uncover that what you are used to seeing on the big screen is not accurate,” Cullen said. “The teeth of these theropod dinosaurs did not experience wear and tear like a crocodile, and most likely had a lip-like covering.”
The scientific findings not only may change the way people will see theropod dinosaurs, but impacts studies of their paleobiology. These animals possessing lips means that their teeth wore down and functioned differently, discoveries that could impact future biomechanical reconstructions. The presence of additional soft tissues also has implications for their feeding ecology and life history.
Overall, these new results create an invaluable framework that impact dinosaur paleontology and studying the structure of ecosystems. Traditionally, animations and CGI of famous T. rex and Velociraptor dinosaurs in blockbuster movies like “Jurassic Park” have featured the animals with their teeth exposed and on display at all times.
But is this popular representation scientifically and historically correct?
Not according to Cullen and the team of researchers. They compared multiple aspects of the paleobiology of theropod dinosaurs, including:
- Tooth wear — The amount of wear on the actual enamel and dentine of their teeth showed less wear than those of their closest living relatives, the crocodile;
- Size and scale — The size of the skull in approximation to the jaw and teeth prove they could have had lips, and their teeth would not be too large to be covered;
- Bone anatomy — The surface features of the bone around the teeth are much more similar to lizards than crocodiles, including the possession of a line of small pits which house blood vessels and nerves for their oral skin and gums.
According to the researchers, the theropods’ lips were more similar to lizards and were not like the lips of mammals or humans.
“Dinosaur lips would be very different from our lips, in that although they would cover the teeth, they could not really be moved independently, couldn’t be curled back into a snarl, or make other sorts of movements we associate with lips in humans (or other mammals),” Cullen said. “In this way, dinosaur lips would be more similar to those of many lizards or amphibians, even if we typically associate the structure of lips with mammals like ourselves.”
The research team includes a wide range of experts, including (but not limited to) Cullen; Kirstin Brink, assistant professor, Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Manitoba; Mark P. Witton, University of Portsmouth; and Derek Larson, collections manager, Royal BC Museum. This project primarily represents a collaboration of former and current students of the two study senior authors. This group of researchers combined their expertise in anatomy, tooth histology, statistical analysis and evolutionary biology to explore this theory.
For Cullen’s part, many of the analyses were conducted while he was a post-doctoral student at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, where he is now also a Scientific Affiliate. Measurements taken from the museum’s famous skeleton of “SUE” the T. rex played an important part in unraveling the mystery.
Media interested in this story can contact Communications Director Preston Sparks at (334) 844-9999 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Auburn University Assistant Professor Thomas Cullen is part of an international research team that discovered dinosaurs like the Tyrannosaurus rex likely had lips, contrary to popular belief.
Categories: Life Sciences
Christopher Lepczyk, an Alumni Professor in Auburn University’s College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment, was selected to be an elective member, a class of special membership for the American Ornithological Society, or AOS.
Formed in 2016 with the merger of the American Ornithologists’ Union and the Cooper Ornithological Society, AOS is the world’s largest international ornithological society. The AOS describes itself as a diverse, global network of empowered professionals, working together to advance the scientific study and conservation of birds.
AOS elective member nominees are expected to have met qualifications such as professional experience, society membership, engagement with the society and contributions to ornithology as a discipline and community.
Lepczyk has made numerous contributions through his time in the society. His interests center on the conservation and management of birds, with research on such topics as endangered species, urban avian ecology, landscape ecology of birds and how people affect bird diversity.
“It is an honor to be chosen as an AOS elective member,” Lepczyk said. “It is my hope that my background will help contribute to the society in impactful ways.”
With a goal to collect data that contributes to science-based policy and management decisions, Lepczyk regularly partners with nonprofit organizations, governmental agencies and collaborators around the world. His focus is on the Hawaiian Islands, the Midwest and the Southeast U.S.
Lepczyk has been recognized as an outstanding mentor and teacher at both the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and Auburn University. He has co-edited two books and co-authored more than 110 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters and advised more than 40 undergraduate researchers and over 30 master’s and doctoral students.
Lepczyk has been a lead or co-organizer of symposiums at three separate North American Ornithological Conference meetings and an AOS meeting and currently serves on the AOS Conservation Committee.
“The college is proud that Dr. Lepczyk has been selected as an elective member for the AOS,” said Janaki Alavalapati, dean of the College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment. “His work with the AOS will continue to advance the study of ornithology through his research contributions, engagement and advisement of future students.”
Lepczyk was nominated and supported by AOS ornithologists David C. Duffy, Sheila Conant and Stanley Temple.
Christopher Lepczyk, an Alumni Professor in Auburn University’s College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment, was selected to be an elective member, a class of special membership for the American Ornithological Society.
Categories: Life Sciences
Auburn University researcher exploring how policy responses to chronic wasting disease vary among states
Kelly Dunning, a researcher and professor in Auburn University’s College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment, is exploring the varied policy responses to chronic wasting disease, or CWD, among states through the Lone Mountain Fellowship at the Property and Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana.
CWD is spreading across the U.S. in free-ranging white-tailed deer, moose and elk herds. Dunning believes its arrival in a herd could cause a backlash among hunters, causing negative impacts on hunting license sales, funding for conservation, outdoor heritage and traditions and rural community livelihoods and well-being.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has placed significant attention on zoonotic diseases that can transmit from wildlife to humans,” said Dunning. “It is uncertain whether CWD can be transmitted in this way, but the consequences for the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation would be dire.”
According to the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is one of the world’s most successful systems of policies and laws to restore and safeguard fish and wildlife and their habitats through sound science and active management.
Given the high stakes nature of the CWD issue, researchers are beginning to study public knowledge and perception of CWD, including the actions hunters may take that could endanger conservation.
“There has been no research on the governance of CWD,” said Dunning. “There are currently around 30 states managing for CWD in their herds, and there has been no analysis on governance responses.”
Dunning’s goal is to fill this gap by conducting a comparative analysis of CWD governance in all states with free-ranging deer herds by working with a collaborative team that includes Stephen Ditchkoff, the William R. and Fay Ireland Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Management; Will Gulsby, associate professor of wildlife management; doctoral student Catherine Cummings; Master of Natural Resources student Vincent Rivers; Undergraduate Research Fellow Caroline Ward; and undergraduate researcher Reese Stogner.
Her findings could be used by fish and wildlife decision-makers to understand who is enacting what responses to CWD and to learn the regional patterns in CWD responses.
Dunning plans to co-author a scientific study examining governance of CWD and how governance varies according to states and regions. Her research is an innovative cross between biology and political science.
“Dunning’s exploration of the governance of wildlife diseases will help inform conservation decision-making,” said Janaki Alavalapati, dean of the College of Forestry, Wildlife and Environment. “This can be impactful to governance on CWD as well as other wildlife diseases.”
For media inquiries, contact Jamie Anderson at email@example.com.
A deer with chronic wasting disease is seen outdoors. Auburn Professor Kelly Dunning plans to co-author a scientific study examining governance of the disease and how governance varies according to states and regions. (Photo by Terry Kreeger, Wyoming Game and Fish and Chronic Wasting Disease Alliance.)
Categories: Life Sciences
Auburn alumnus Lamb named president of HudsonAlpha, continues Institute’s vision of translating power of genomics into real-world results
Neil Lamb’s story reads like the tagline from his Shareable Science blog—the building blocks of life, one story at a time.
An Auburn alumnus, Lamb graduated from the College of Sciences and Mathematics, or COSAM, in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology and completed a doctorate in genetics and molecular biology from Emory University in 1997. As he begins his leadership role at HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, Lamb’s journey as a scientist can be traced back to a solid foundation at Auburn.
Reinforcing HudsonAlpha’s vision
On Feb. 10, HudsonAlpha’s board of directors announced the expansion of its executive leadership team amid rapid growth and advancements in genomics and life science research. Effective July 1, Richard Myers was named HudsonAlpha’s new chief scientific officer and president emeritus, and Lamb, former vice president for educational outreach, was named president of the Institute, leading day-to-day operations for the entire organization. Kelly East, an Auburn graduate and one of Lamb’s first hires, will serve as the vice president for educational outreach.
Founded in 2005 by James R. Hudson Jr. and the late Lonnie S. McMillian, HudsonAlpha is a nonprofit institute with a vision of leveraging the synergy between discovery, education, medicine and economic development in genomic sciences to improve the human condition around the globe. In addition to the nonprofit institute, HudsonAlpha houses more than 45 diverse life science companies on its biotech campus in Huntsville, Alabama.
As president, Lamb plans to align his strategic goals with HudsonAlpha’s founding vision to foster continued growth and impact.
“My focus for the institute moving forward is to support the three-part vision that our founders set before us,” said Lamb. “How can we support our research faculty as they carry the science of genomics forward? How do we drive the creation and growth of life science businesses across Alabama? How do we create a more genomic-literate society and train tomorrow’s bioscience workforce?”
“I could not be more proud of the individuals across our HudsonAlpha campus who directly contributed toward that impact,” said Lamb. “Moving forward, I want to keep us pointed in the same direction toward accomplishing our three-part mission, but not get in the way of the work our colleagues are doing. I see my new role as providing guidance and direction yet letting them do the incredible work that continues to generate a meaningful impact.”
Building a genomic-literate society
Lamb came to HudsonAlpha in 2006 with a calling to share his passion for human genetics and biotechnology with others through education. As vice president for educational outreach, he led HudsonAlpha’s educational outreach team from conception, creating innovative teacher training and toolkits, student experiences, public enrichment and digital resources that have reshaped how science education is now delivered.
With the goal of increasing a more genomic-literate society, inspiring the next generation of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, leaders is something Lamb says the Institute takes very seriously.
“We look at how to increase awareness by creating real-world experiences that bring textbook pages to life, how to create an enthusiasm around that awareness by showing how genomics and biotechnology relate to our everyday lives and how to create pathways they can take moving forward,” said Lamb.
In March 2020, the unforeseen COVID-19 pandemic presented a unique outreach opportunity through Lamb’s creation of the Beyond the Blog video series. In the early days of the pandemic when copious amounts of information was circulating quickly, Lamb recognized that he could research the science and explain it to a broader audience, replacing fear with fact.
He and his communications team set up a simple video concept—Lamb talking about science accompanied only by a whiteboard. Early on, they were filming up to three videos per week. Throughout the pandemic, Lamb and his team produced more than 70 total videos.
“I am so incredibly proud of the work that was done in that timeframe,” said Lamb. “People really responded to these videos, and I’m humbled and honored by that. It helped me grow my own teaching and communication style. I’m grateful that HudsonAlpha let our team invest time and energy into this outreach effort.”
Throughout his tenure in outreach, getting to experience the Institute’s history has proven beneficial for Lamb as he looks ahead.
“I’ve had the incredible blessing to be a part of HudsonAlpha in the early days before the building was even built,” said Lamb. “I’ve seen the way the vision was set before us and how we’ve grown into that. Education is intentionally cross-linked and works with all different aspects of the Institute. While I may not know the details of all the different pieces, I have a good sense of how they all fit together, and that is going to be a huge benefit for me as I step into the presidency role.”
A framework for Auburn partnerships
HudsonAlpha is connected to Auburn University through various partnerships, creating scientific collaborations that support each institutions’ mission while positively impacting the state of Alabama.
“We run a summer internship program called BioTrain where we bring 30-40 college students from across Alabama to work in our research labs and companies, and we always have Auburn students participate,” said Lamb.
“While we have collaborations with multiple Auburn faculty, two work particularly closely with us. Xu Wang, assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Pathobiology, is a HudsonAlpha adjunct faculty investigator. Alex Harkess, holds a joint appointment as a HudsonAlpha faculty investigator and an assistant professor in the College of Agriculture’s Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences at Auburn University. Xu and Alex both make connections across the Auburn campus to the technologies and opportunities that are available at HudsonAlpha.”
Many of HudsonAlpha’s agricultural faculty work closely with Alabama Cooperative Extension System agents throughout the state as they develop new varieties of agriculturally important crops and test the crops in growing spaces.
Appointed in 2013, Lamb continues to partner with the university by serving on Auburn’s Research and Economic Development Advisory Board.
Pouring the Auburn foundation
As a high school senior from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Lamb came for a campus visit in the spring of 1988, the first in his family to attend Auburn University. He met with Bill Mason, who served as associate dean in COSAM, and Mason mentioned a new molecular biology major based on Lamb’s interest in genetics.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but Dr. Mason would later become one of my advisors and an incredibly guiding force in my life,” said Lamb. “The breadth of knowledge that I received from being in one of the first molecular biology cohorts prepared me incredibly well for graduate school.”
Lamb was soon introduced to another influential figure, Marie Wooten, describing her genetics class as “captivating.” The summer after his sophomore year, Lamb completed research at a different university that was not an ideal experience. He returned to Auburn’s campus questioning his field of study.
“Drs. Mason and Wooten both pulled me aside to talk through the experience,” said Lamb. “They told me that there’s something they both see in me—that I am a scientist who communicates science well. They kept me from stepping away from a field just because of one bad experience.”
While at Auburn, Lamb worked in Joe Shaw’s lab. His first job was to wash glassware, then to prep media and pour plates. Later, he became involved in Shaw’s research with transforming bacteria that infected plants.
“Those initial roles taught me that none of us come in and start running our own research project,” said Lamb. “Everyone must put the time in and show that they can be trusted before moving to a different task. As my knowledge grew, Dr. Shaw involved me in more projects. I really benefitted from my multiyear connection in his lab.”
Lamb met his wife, the former Cynthia Owen, at Auburn—marrying into an Auburn family. The couple has three children who have each built on the Auburn foundation—Preston, who graduated in Biosystems Engineering in 2020, Olivia, who graduated in Early Childhood Special Education in 2021 and is currently pursuing a master’s degree, and Emma Grace, who will start Auburn in the fall.
Everything Lamb has been involved with can be traced back to some set of experiences he had as an Auburn undergraduate student.
“My time at Auburn really poured the foundation that the scaffolding of the rest of my career has been built on,” said Lamb. “I am so incredibly grateful for the breadth of experiences I had in the classroom and lab and the opportunities I had on and off campus to step into leadership roles and begin testing out what it meant to be a science communicator.
“I have those iconic Auburn memories of rolling Toomer’s Corner or going to The Flush. But Auburn let me begin to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be. That’s an incredible opportunity to be in a place that encourages you to try new things and stretch your wings.”
Constructing your own path
As Lamb’s journey as a scientist takes a new direction in leadership at HudsonAlpha, his advice to those interested in pursuing a career in science is simple—be curious and explore opportunities.
“With all the accessible content that’s available to us online, take advantage of this knowledge and ask questions—stay inquisitive,” said Lamb. “Don’t be afraid to make your own path. There could be multiple detours that might lead to an atypical pathway, but these opportunities can allow you to pull together skills and interests that can take you to where you want to be.”
BY LESLIE LEAK
Auburn alumnus Neil Lamb, who graduated from the Plains in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology, is the new president of HudsonAlpha. The nonprofit institute has a vision of leveraging the synergy between discovery, education, medicine and economic development in genomic sciences to improve the human condition around the globe.
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.