It looks like a natural fit: a sustainable system that produces fresh vegetables and fish located in food deserts with marginalized populations.
And, while there has been an explosion in the interest surrounding such an arrangement, there are significant technological and social barriers hindering its adoption.
Overcoming these barriers is the goal of a research project being conducted at Auburn University and led by Brendan Higgins, assistant professor in the College of Agriculture Department of Biosystems Engineering.
“At its best, aquaponics allows local people to produce their own fresh fish and produce in a sustainable manner: The wastewater from the fish is used to provide water and fertilizer to the plants,” Higgins said. “However, the development of this fusion of aquaculture with hydroponic vegetable production in food deserts doesn’t come without barriers.”
These barriers include: 1) systems that are prone to instability without advanced technical knowledge; 2) fish and produce quality that do not meet consumer quality demands (e.g., muddy fish flavor); and 3) food safety issues, given that pathogens in the fish wastewater can contaminate the vegetables.
“A failure to address these three issues will continue to place aquaponics systems—and the corresponding nutritional and environmental benefits—out of reach for marginalized populations,” Higgins said.
The objective of the research project—which is working with a $575,730 grant from the National Science Foundation—is to improve understanding of how aquaponics design decisions (e.g., integrating algae into biofloc, coupled vs. decoupled systems) impact microbial stability, pathogen dynamics and product quality.
“Our central hypothesis is that algal biofloc and decoupled systems will exceed the performance metrics of bacteria-centric biofloc and coupled systems (85% of current systems) in terms of system stability and ease of operation, nutritional and flavor profiles, and pathogen management when placed in the hands of novice users,” Higgins said.
The project will allow researchers to rigorously test integrating algal-biofloc and decoupled plant production into small-scale aquaponics systems, both independently and in combination.
Algal biofloc, Higgins explained, is a mixture of algae and bacteria that transform nutrients into less toxic forms for both fish and plants. Bacteria biofloc does the same thing but researchers have found that the mixture of algae and bacteria is even more effective, at least in a lab setting.
“We want to know if this holds true in actual aquaponics systems,” he said.
Coupled aquaponics means there is recirculation of water between the fish tank and the plant bed (and back again). Decoupled means water flows in one direction: from fish to plants but not back again.
“Our project looks at both of these design choices, both independently and in combination,” Higgins said.
The test systems will be operated by high school students in east Alabama after hands-on training in a synergistic school-university partnership.
“Our team has extensive experience conducting research on aquaponics systems and algal-bacterial treatment of waste, and it engages frequently in educational and outreach programs with novice users,” he said.
Co-investigators on the project include David Cline, Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences; Sheena Stewart, Department of Educational Foundations, Leadership, and Technology in the College of Education; and Luz de-Bashan and Paola Magallon, Bashan Institute of Science.
The three specific aims of the research project are to:
Test the integration of algae and decoupling into biofloc aquaponics to improve stability and ease of operation for novice users (high school students). Researchers hypothesize that the integration of green algae into the biofloc and deployment into a decoupled aquaponics system will improve system stability (nitrification capacity) and reliability (plant and fish survival).
Determine the contribution of algal biofloc to improved nutritional quality and the flavor profile of aquaponics products. Integrating Chlorella algae into the biofloc will hypothetically increase the omega-3 fatty acid profile of fish, antioxidant content of vegetables, and improve the fish flavor profile by displacing opportunistic bacteria and cyanobacteria species that generate muddy flavors.
Quantify the impacts of algal biofloc and decoupling on indicator pathogens in aquaponics. The presence of algal taxa like Chlorella in the biofloc and use of decoupled systems hypothetically will reduce the presence of indicator pathogens. While students and teachers will run the different aquaponics systems, Auburn University and the Bashan Institute of Science will conduct advanced chemical, microbiological and genomic analyses of the systems. Students will evaluate system ease-of-use and flavor of products through surveys.
The research project is significant because it is expected to resolve persistent challenges that have hindered aquaponics adoption to date, Higgins said.
“For example, the integration of algae into decoupled biofloc production has great promise to resolve microbial stability and pathogen concerns,” he said. “Moreover, our improved understanding of these microbial dynamics in aquaponics can translate broadly to other areas of aquaculture, nutrient recovery and waste management. An improved understanding of how design choices impact user experience can translate to research on other scalable food production technologies.”
The project will lead to measurable benefits by enhancing the education of high school student participants who live in low-income communities with limited food access.
“Approximately 225 students will engage in hands-on learning by operating the aquaponics systems, allowing them to learn and apply knowledge of agriculture, biology, chemistry, nutrition and engineering,” Higgins said.
“This is important because these students are the future of sustainable food production: The skills they learn extend to a wide range of career and education pathways. We expect that reaching them in their formative years will result in measurable changes in self-perceptions regarding STEM topics, which will be assessed through survey instruments.”
For media inquiries, contact Kristen Bowman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY PAUL HOLLIS
Brendan Higgins, assistant professor in Auburn University’s College of Agriculture, is leading a research project that seeks to improve understanding of how aquaponics design decisions affect microbial stability, pathogen dynamics and product quality.
The genome, which was published in the journal GigaScience, is essential for genetic improvement using gene-editing or genome-assisted selection and will aid in the genetic enhancement of better catfish breeds for the multimillion-dollar catfish farming industry.
Catfish farming is the largest aquaculture industry in the U.S., accounting for approximately 70% of the nation’s total aquaculture output. Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas account for the great majority of total U.S. freshwater catfish production, with Alabama ranking second only behind Mississippi. The primary fish utilized for farming purposes is a hybrid produced by breeding male blue catfish with female channel catfish.
“The hybrid catfish is superior in growth and disease resistance,” according to Xu Wang, assistant professor of comparative genomics in animal health in the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Pathobiology and adjunct faculty investigator with the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, who is one of the leaders of the project.
“Faster growth means more profit. Originally, farmed fish were primarily channel catfish, but three major bacterial pathogens resulted in a 40% loss of production and annual economic damage of over $100 million in the U.S. industry alone. The hybrid mix of the blue and channel catfish has improved disease resistance and reduced mortality by half.”
Even so, Wang says there is a critical need for further genetic improvement using genomic methods.
“The channel catfish genome was mapped in 2016 by John Liu’s lab at Auburn [now at Syracuse University], but the blue catfish genome was not available until we published it,” Wang added. “Our high-quality blue catfish genome addresses the urgent needs to achieve the long-term goal of improving growth, feed utilization, stress and disease resistance and reproduction.”
Wang served as senior author of the GigaScience paper, assisted by Haolong Wang (no relation), a doctoral student in biomedical sciences supported by both an Auburn Presidential Graduate Research Fellowship and a College of Veterinary Medicine Dean’s Fellowship. The veterinary researchers collaborated closely with a team from the College of Agriculture’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences led by Professor Rex Dunham, an internationally recognized authority in the genetic enhancement and gene editing of catfish.
“This is a fantastic step forward,” Dunham said of the mapping of the blue catfish genome. “There have been many genetic enhancement projects related to gene transfer and gene editing that were not possible for blue catfish without it. As a result, we could not do parallel work with what we are doing with channel catfish. Since a hybrid between channel and blue is the best genetic type for the catfish industry, that also put limitations on what we could do with these tools to improve the hybrid.
“That roadblock is now gone. Having the blue catfish genome available opens a huge treasure chest of markers we can use for other approaches, such as marker assisted selection, and also gives us many more tools to distinguish and track different genetic types of blue catfish. Thanks to this research, we are much less limited than before.”
For media inquiries, contact Jayne Hart at email@example.com.
BY MIKE JERNIGAN
Auburn University postdoctoral student Baofeng Su is part of an Auburn research team that recently became the first to map a high-quality genome assembly of the blue catfish.
A revolutionary variety of grass developed in Auburn University’s College of Agriculture has recently taken root at some exclusive golf courses around the nation following an acquisition of rights by an Oregon-based seed grower and wholesale supplier.
The bentgrass variety, called AU Victory, was forged from the adversity of historic drought conditions that decimated golf courses throughout the state in 1999 and 2000. AU Victory was developed by Edzard van Santen, professor in the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences. He recognized the potential in a grass that survived a devastating drought and then began years of research that ultimately produced AU Victory in 2015.
Fast-forward to today and to Oregon-based Mountain View Seeds’ recent acquisition of rights to AU Victory. Adam Russell, vice president of Mountain View Performance Genetics, a subsidiary of Mountain View Seeds, or MVS, said the company expects great things ahead for their partnership with Auburn and for the little seed that could.
Already, MVS has sold AU Victory to golf courses around the nation, including as the exclusive variety for greens at the scenic McLemore in northwest Georgia. AU Victory is part of a new course in South Africa and has also been chosen to seed in the fall by the Lookout Mountain Club in Georgia.
Up next for the seed that is known for its perseverance in the face of adversity—Auburn and MVS hope to see it featured nationally and internationally at the most prominent golf courses.
“Of course, our goal has to include placing AU Victory at the best golf courses in the nation,” Russell said. “But really, the sky is the limit with such a durable, heat-tolerant grass that has been rated as a superior surface by golfers around the world.”
AU Victory is seen by many as the perfect solution for golf course superintendents looking for a putting surface that will thrive in the high humidity and heat.
“AU Victory was more than a decade in the making,” he said. “Research and development just take that long, and then when it finally was released, people heard about it—and wanted it—but there was never enough supply to satisfy demand. It became almost an urban legend. And that’s what got us hooked on it.”
Innovative research, rooted in a commitment to fuel industry growth, has been a driving force in Auburn’s College of Agriculture. The development of AU Victory wasn’t just a win for Auburn, it was a win for seed growers and golf course superintendents throughout the world.
“Auburn scientists always need to keep the needs of a specific industry in mind when conducting research,” said John Beasley, professor and head of the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences. “Dr. van Santen realized the need for an improved creeping bentgrass cultivar for golf courses, especially one that responds well to stressful climates. If AU Victory continues to perform as we have initially seen, we expect it to become a turf cultivar that will be widely used on golf courses around the globe.”
With one of the largest research facilities in the nation, MVS has established relationships with universities including Rutgers University and North Carolina State University. AU Victory is creating a natural partnership with Auburn that researchers hope will lead to further collaborations.
“In the past, we had a plant breeding program in turfgrass cultivar development, and that is the program from which AU Victory evolved,” Beasley said. “Mountain View Seeds could certainly be a very important partner for commercializing cultivar releases from our forage and grass breeding program.”
BY SHERYL CALDWELL
Consistently rated as one of the best finishing holes in golf, McLemore’s 18th hole features a dramatic landscape with an awe-inspiring rocky ledge, surrounded by beautiful hillside and a breathtaking view of the horizon and Lookout Mountain. The luxury resort’s northwest Georgia course also features AU Victory, the revolutionary bentgrass developed at Auburn, with a beautiful, durable and exceptional putting surface. (Photo by Dave Sansom)
Auburn University is part of a $20 million collaboration among nine Alabama universities and one private firm to develop transformative technologies in plasma science and engineering, or PSE.
The five-year effort—which is being led by the University of Alabama in Huntsville, or UAH—is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, or NSF, Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR. The goals of the Future Technologies enabled by Plasma Processes, or FTPP, initiative are to develop new technologies using plasma—the most abundant form of matter in the observable universe—in hard and soft biomaterials, food safety and sterilization and space weather prediction.
“This research directly impacts two of the largest industries in the state of Alabama, space and agriculture,” said Ed Thomas Jr., interim dean, Auburn College of Sciences and Mathematics and project lead. “For more than three decades, Auburn has been a leader in plasma research, and we have one of the highest ratios of plasma physicists in our faculty in the entire nation.”
Auburn’s team includes: Saikat Chakraborty Thakur, Uwe Konopka, Evdokiya (Eva) Kostadinova, Yu Lin, Stuart Loch, David Maurer, Joseph Perez from the Department of Physics, Mary Lou Ewald, director of COSAM Outreach, Virginia Davis from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Amit Morey from the Department of Poultry Science.
“The Alabama EPSCoR program continues to promote cutting-edge research and economic advancement in the state, and this funding presents a great opportunity for Auburn University and its collaborators,” said James Weyhenmeyer, Auburn’s vice president for research and economic development.
The alliance will build Alabama’s PSE research capacity, as well as the supporting workforce, while making the state a world-renowned PSE hub.
“The funding is the result of a team effort from the co-investigators in assembling the group, who generated the concepts and ideas underlying the proposal and executed the plan by writing a successful proposal,” said Gary Zank, FTPP’s principal investigator and director of UAH’s Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research, or CSPAR, and the Aerojet Rocketdyne chair of the Department of Space Science.
“The Alabama EPSCoR committee that oversees all the Alabama EPSCoR activities—especially Professor Chris Lawson and his team of Alabama university vice presidents of research—was instrumental in guiding and helping us develop the proposal.”
Alabama Sens. Richard Shelby and Tommy Tuberville, as well as former Sen. Doug Jones, have helped champion the collaboration.
“This grant will allow for ground-breaking plasma research to occur, accelerating new technologies for a variety of applications, and will further solidify Alabama as a leader in this field,” Shelby said. “I look forward to seeing the impact that this five-year initiative will have on the future utility of plasma science and engineering.”
Tuberville called the grant welcome news and said it is well-deserved for this innovative collaboration.
“Our state is home to many talented researchers and developers, and this funding will go a long way in making Alabama a leading pioneer in PSE research and stimulating meaningful advancements in plasma technologies,” Tuberville said.
Although different in intentions, research goals and scope from a previous $20 million NSF EPSCoR grant awarded in 2017, the new FTPP grant will continue to build plasma expertise, research and industrial capacity, as well as a highly trained and capable plasma science and engineering workforce, across Alabama.
Both plans prioritize advanced manufacturing, agricultural and food products, biosciences and biotechnology, chemical and petrochemical, energy, forestry products, information technology and cybersecurity, metal and advanced materials, nanotechnology, plasma science and transportation.
Partnered with Auburn and UAH are: the University of Alabama; (lead: R. Branam); the University of Alabama at Birmingham (lead: Y. Vohra); Tuskegee University (lead: V. Rangari); the University of South Alabama (lead: E. Spencer); Alabama A&M University (lead: R. Mentreddy); Alabama State University (lead: K. Vig); and Oakwood University (lead: A. Volkov); along with a commercial/industrial partner CFD Research Corporation (lead: V. Kolobov), that specializes in computational fluid dynamics software and is located in Cummings Research Park in Huntsville.
In addition, FTPP cooperatively partners with three national laboratories: Los Alamos National Lab, Sandia National Lab and Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. FTPP will harness and share cooperatively the project team’s collective expertise, resources and workforce.
FTTP will exploit low-temperature plasma, or LTP, physics to develop technologies for advanced materials, agriculture, food safety and health-related applications. It will use space plasma physics from the sun to the ionosphere to develop actionable space weather forecasting and nowcasting models to mitigate potentially damaging effects on spacecraft, humans and infrastructure.
Those are two of the six Grand Challenge problems identified in the Plasma 2020 decadal report. The National Academy of Sciences named Zank co-chair to produce that report in 2018, and Thomas was a member of the Plasma 2020 committee and one of the co-authors of that report.
“The FTPP project is the next step in Alabama’s and Auburn’s growing contributions in plasma science and engineering,” Thomas said. “We will use the FTPP project to continue to expand our collaborations in the state, nationally and internationally and create new educational, economic and scientific opportunities for our students and the people of Alabama.”
Proposed educational and outreach programs for college and K-12 students, collaboration with national and international partners, scientific exchange programs, workshops and internships between academic institutions and national labs and industry partners also will build PSE capacity. FTPP partnerships will work toward building a sustainable foundation from which further PSE ambitions can be realized, such as a hub for cutting edge PSE in Alabama.
The National Science Foundation Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR, is committing $20 million to a research collaboration among nine Alabama universities and one private firm to develop transformative technologies in plasma science and engineering.
Di Tian, an assistant professor in the Auburn University College of Agriculture’s Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences, has been named a recipient of the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, Award.
The CAREER program is a foundation-wide activity that offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. Activities pursued by early-career faculty should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.
Tian’s award is for his integrated project titled “Analytical methods for understanding and predicting agricultural flash droughts in a changing climate.” The total award is $574,706 over five years, co-funded by the NSF Hydrologic Sciences and NSF Climate and Large-Scale Dynamics programs.
The research, Tian said, will investigate underlying drivers of agricultural flash droughts using machine learning-based causal inference analysis, develop and evaluate sub-seasonal agricultural flash drought forecasts using deep learning approaches and assess changes in agricultural flash drought under contemporary and future climate based on coupled general circulation models large ensembles.
“These research objectives will be integrated with an education and outreach plan focusing on developing and implementing innovative lessons on drought through the 4-H ‘head, heart, hands and health’ program, conducting workshops on sub-seasonal forecasts and decision making with stakeholders through a climate learning network and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students,” Tian said.
Deliverables from this project will contribute to an improved understanding and predictions of flash droughts at the regional scale and will provide a framework for analyzing a broader class of extreme climate events, which will be transferrable to different locations around the world, he added.
Flash drought, Tian said, is an extreme hydro-climate event characterized by sudden onset, rapid intensification and devastating impact on communities. A notable example is the U.S. Southeast flash drought in September 2019.
“It rapidly depletes soil moisture, posing significant water and heat stresses for agriculture and ecosystems and potentially driving water demand and irrigation expansions to traditionally rainfed regions,” he said. “Flash drought is challenging to predict because of its fast onset and development and complex land-ocean-atmosphere factors that contribute to or affect their formation. The NSF CAREER Award allows me to probe into the immediate goal to understand and predict flash droughts, which can potentially accelerate strategies for climate change adaptation.
“It also encourages me to continuously pursue my long-term research goal to integrate terrestrial hydrology, climatology and data science to address gaps and needs for better understanding and predicting hydro-climate impacts and risks in water and food sustainability, and my educational goal to integrate research and real-world applications to enhance learning and climate-aware decision making.”
Tian’s lab, Climate Analytics Group, focuses on understanding and predicting primary climate and hydrologic indicators, extreme events and impacts on water resources, ecosystem and food and agriculture using data science and artificial intelligence techniques, process-based modeling, high-performance computing and emerging earth system data generated from numerical simulations, sensors and satellites.
BY PAUL HOLLIS
Auburn University recently participated in the BIO Alabama conference at the Grand Bohemian Hotel in Mountain Brook, showcasing seven of its biotechnology research developments.
BIO Alabama is the trade organization for the state’s biosciences industry. This year’s event—the first meeting following a six-year hiatus due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic—featured approximately 200 scientists and their research developments April 25-26.
Melinda Richter, global head of Innovation at Johnson & Johnson, served as keynote speaker under this year’s theme, “Building Alabama’s Biohorizons,” focusing on the future of the industry’s participation in Alabama’s innovation economy.
Auburn’s presentations included:
Vivosphere cell encapsulation technology platform for drug development and discovery (Elizabeth Lipke; presented by co-inventor Yuan Tian) – This is a 3D cell encapsulation method and device for more accurate and cost-effective drug screening, bioinks and regenerative medicine.
Anti-cancer immunotherapy targeting CD47 (James Gillespie, joint project with VCOM) – Development of an anticancer treatment that could replace immunomodulatory therapies targeting CD47.
Computational tool for speeding discovery of natural beneficial compounds (Angela Calderon and Cheryl Seals; presented by Kabre Heck and Muhammad Gulfam) – A collaborative project about an automated method to analyze mass spectrometry data to identify potential bioactive compounds in complex mixtures.
Engineered bacteria for producing biofuels and other compounds (Yi Wang) – Engineering of bacteria to express record levels of butanol for biofuel or other industrial applications or to express record levels of butyl acetate for use in foods, consumer goods or industrial processes.
Computationally designed compounds for treating Alzheimer’s disease (Raj Amin; presented by Ian Steinke and Fajar Wibowo) – A custom-designed therapeutic compound for treating Alzheimer’s without the side effects seen with other drugs in this class.
Gene therapy vectors for therapeutic treatment of neurological disease (Doug Martin) – Engineered AAV vectors for treating neurological diseases such as rabies.
Medical device for improving diagnosis and monitoring of neuropathy in diabetic patients (Michael Zabala and Thomas Burch; presented by co-inventor Kenny Brock, VCOM) – A medical device for accurately monitoring and measuring loss of feeling in diabetic patients. (Jon Commander is also a co-inventor and is with VCOM.)
BIO Alabama is the leading advocate for Alabama's bioeconomy. The organization represents the state on a national and international stage, promoting the intellectual and innovative capital to make Alabama a premier place to invest, start and grow in bioscience.
Alabama’s bioscience industry provides a $7.3 billion impact on the state’s economy, according to BIO Alabama data. Auburn has participated in BIO Alabama events for a number of years.
"As presenting sponsor for this year’s BIO Alabama conference, Auburn University had an important opportunity to showcase some of our latest technologies during a reverse-pitch session to industry,” said Bill Dean, executive director of the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation.
“Auburn’s participation in events like the BIO Alabama conference speaks to our role in growing the region’s bioeconomy and demonstrates our commitment to the bio-sector in the form of industry collaboration and partnerships that will advance research and impact quality of life throughout the state.”
BY MITCH EMMONS
Liz Smith, College of Agriculture academic advisor, works at Auburn’s booth during the BIO Alabama conference. She talked with companies about opportunities for applied biotechnology graduates.
So, imagine you’re a female mosquito.
You’re patiently circling, waiting to pounce, while your unsuspecting victim enjoys a picnic with no idea they have unknowingly been placed on your menu. Your multi-lensed eyes have confirmed what your carbon dioxide-detecting and thermal-imaging sensory organs first alerted you to—a likely meal—and although your intended entree is wearing long sleeves, your proboscis, or mouth parts, include six razor-sharp, needle-like appendages that can easily penetrate the tiny spaces in the shirt’s weave.
A perfectly designed biting machine, you close in and stealthily alight on your target’s shoulder, plunging those bloodsucking daggers downward like you’ve done so many times before. But this time they bounce off the sleeve harmlessly. You try and try again, more frantically each time, but the unique weave of the fabric foils your bite and ruins your evening dinner plans. Frustrated, slightly bewildered, and with a noticeably bent proboscis, you drunkenly take flight to look for an easier meal. This time, man beats mosquito.
That’s the kind of “Bug’s Life” scenario that a team led by John Beckmann, assistant professor of entomology and plant pathology in Auburn University’s College of Agriculture, hopes to make an everyday occurrence through the development of a lightweight fabric that blocks mosquito bites while also being cool enough to wear during hot and humid weather.
Beckmann’s team includes students Alexa England, Kyle Oswalt, Natalie Wong, Richard Murphy and Bryan Holt, along with collaborator Jim McCann at Carnegie Mellon University. Their work was recently awarded an $868,145 grant from the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, or ADECA, one of three grants made to Auburn professors totaling $1.31 million overall.
Beckmann first came up with the idea of bite-proof clothing while brainstorming possible research projects in his back yard, although he swears it wasn’t a mosquito bite that inspired him. He did recall, however, an earlier Minnesota camping trip where deer flies bit him repeatedly through a heavyweight, long-sleeved shirt. That convinced him his idea was potentially useful, but the first step for him and his team was making sure that available “mosquito-proof” clothing wasn’t already doing the job.
Most bite-resistant clothing currently on the market is either impregnated with pesticide or made with thick, non-breathable fabrics that are both hot to wear, yet still easy for the insects to overcome. Another alternative is to cover oneself from head to toe in regular clothing, but even that gives a false sense of security.
“People say, ‘wear long sleeves’ a lot,” Beckmann explained. “But long sleeves don’t block mosquitos. There are also several companies out there that claim their fabrics resist bites, but we tested them and they really don’t. They’ve never solved the issue of the holes in the makeup of their fabrics, which allow the mosquitos to penetrate them.”
Beckmann says the vulnerability of current textiles lies in the weaving method, which leaves gaps the mosquitos can easily exploit.
“Clothing is constructed by taking a linear fiber and essentially weaving it over another fiber, or by looping loops, as in knitting,” he said. “Both these processes leave microscopic holes. It’s hard to see them with the naked eye, but if you hold your clothes up to the sun, you’ll see how much light shines through. Every one of those holes is far larger than the mosquito’s proboscis. So it’s actually very easy for them to bite through even supposedly mosquito-resistant clothing.”
Since they tested various shirts currently advertised as mosquito-proof by wearing them and sticking their arms into a tank full of the hungry mosquitos, Beckmann and his team know more than they want to about bites. Research can sometimes itch. But while the solution to the problem seems simple—find a way to eliminate the holes, or at least make them smaller than a mosquito’s proboscis—that’s easier said than done. Because not only is the Auburn group trying to design clothing that will resist bites, they are also trying to make that clothing cool and comfortable, which traditionally has meant using a breathable material that will allow air to circulate. And fabric breathability has always required holes.
“That is the precise reason why this project is not as easy as people think,” Beckmann noted. “You obviously need your clothes to be breathable. Paradoxically, that usually comes at the cost of letting mosquitos bite through them. So the basic problem is keeping the holes there while simultaneously sealing them off from microscopic mosquito mouth parts.”
A key to solving this paradox is the team’s acquisition of a CNC, or computer numerical control, knitting machine—thanks in part to the ADECA grant—that provides the ability to produce textiles at a very fine level of resolution. In comparison to traditional weaving, these so-called “weft-knitting” machines build textiles by interconnecting loops of yarn in a horizontal fashion. The result is multiple interconnected layers within a single seamless fabric, and the process is often referred to as “3D knitting.” With the added ability to use multiple types of yarn, CNC machines allow the fabrication of a much greater range of textile types and provide many more options of structural geometry.
“Alabama used to be a big source of textile manufacturing and research, and Auburn was a major part of that.” Beckmann said, “But over the last few decades, much of that manufacturing went overseas, and Alabama lost its place in the textile industry. The ADECA grant is to some degree attempting to help restore that place by establishing this knitting laboratory in Auburn. We want to do more with what we were given and bring Alabama back as a textile innovator and manufacturer.
“Another important thing to emphasize about the knitting lab,” he added, “is that we are looking for collaborations. There are applications in engineering, aerospace, fashion, art, entomology, agriculture and many other areas. With this CNC machine knitting and the ability to twist our own fibers, we are certainly capable of more than just mosquito-resistant textiles. We can potentially help with any textile research or with trying to make new textiles from novel inputs. So we are open for business, and anyone who wants to collaborate should directly contact me.”
For now, however, the first challenge for the new lab is mosquito-defeating apparel. While other researchers are working on that same problem, Beckmann says there is room for many potential solutions.
“Textiles are very complex and there are many variables that go into constructing them,” he said. “You can generate almost infinite iterations, and in that search space of theoretical textiles, some of those iterations will block mosquito bites and some won’t. And some of those materials will be comfortable and others won’t.
“It’s all about finding the best combinations,” he added. “Obviously, there are different brands of shoes, cars, etc. So there is room for more innovation. We hope to contribute to the field and generate the best product. With a few good minds contributing independently, the problem should get solved one way or another. That’s how science works.”
Beckmann and his team are also testing their results against a variety of mosquito species—hoping for a “one size fits all” approach than can resist multiple types. In the U.S. alone that means 176 different known species, while there are more than 3,000 species worldwide.
“What we hope to do is generate a product that blocks multiple mosquitos, not only the most common Aedes, Culex and Anopheles species,” Beckmann said. “But this has to be tested, and it’s one area that has not been tested enough. It is one definitive reason why what we are doing is different from other researchers. We are trying to explore all the worst mosquitos, and not just the easiest ones to culture.”
After a year of testing and gathering data, Beckmann and his team have developed a fabric that foils mosquitos with help from roboticist McCann at Carnegie Mellon, a researcher who programs knitting robots. But it is not yet as comfortable as they would like. The next step is to make it more breathable and cooler to wear.
“Think of it as athletic apparel that blocks mosquito bites,” Beckmann said. “The knitting machine lab is what allows us to try different methods of manufacturing. In the end, clothes have to be mass-manufactured. So you have to find a solution to the problem that is scalable. And that is what the knitting machines allow us to explore.”
Eventually, Beckmann hopes to repay ADECA’s investment in the idea many times over by developing a product that can be made in Alabama, bringing new industry and jobs to the state.
“We hope to manufacture our product in state,” he said, “and we are already talking to business collaborators within Alabama to begin setting up that process. But we have a long road still ahead.”
But if Beckmann and his Auburn team succeed, it will be a sweet—and notably bloodless—victory in the long, ongoing war between people and mosquitos. Enjoying the outdoors without fighting off hordes of the hungry, biting insects will be as easy as slipping on the right clothing, and that clothing will hopefully be made in Alabama.
The only real losers will be the mosquitos. For once, being a mosquito will bite in a whole new way.
BY MIKE JERNIGAN
John Beckmann, Auburn University assistant professor of entomology and plant pathology, examines mosquitos as part of his research on material to block mosquito bites.
Auburn University’s ‘AI-driven Innovations in Agriculture’ conference to feature some of Southeast’s top agricultural experts
The Auburn University College of Agriculture and its fellow land-grant universities throughout the Southeast are jointly hosting a conference next month to address the potential of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation in agriculture.
Titled “Envisioning 2050 in the Southeast: AI-driven Innovations in Agriculture,” the conference will be held March 9-11 at The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center thanks to funding from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
“The Envisioning 2050 in the Southeast: AI-Driven Innovations in Agriculture conference will bring together academics, industry and stakeholders to share their expertise and develop a vision for the future,” said Arthur Appel, interim associate dean of research for the College of Agriculture. “Conference speakers include AI leaders from IBM, NIVIDIA and John Deere, as well as academics from across the country. Attendees will be able to learn about the depth and breadth of AI in agriculture from the experts who are making the promise of AI a reality.”
The caliber of speakers scheduled to attend is one of the highlights of this conference, according to co-organizer Brenda Ortiz, professor and Alabama Extension specialist in the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences at Auburn.
Speakers include Hendrik Hamann, a Distinguished Research Staff Member and Chief Scientist for the Future of Climate in IBM Research; Mark Chaney, engineering manager of the automation delivery teams at Intelligent Solutions Group at John Deere; Steven Thomson, a national program leader with the USDA National Institute Food and Agriculture; and dozens more.
Auburn President-elect Christopher Roberts, currently dean of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, will give the opening remarks.
Ortiz said the invited speakers from academia, the federal government and the industry will share their work in areas such as crop production, plant and animal breeding, climate, agricultural extension, pedagogy, food processing and supply chain, livestock management and more.
“This conference is multipurpose,” Ortiz said. “The primary purpose is to share knowledge, expertise and resources among Southeastern universities, stakeholders and industries on artificial intelligence-driven innovations that can be applied to agriculture.”
This two-and-a-half-day conference will include a combination of invited plenary presentations, two-panel sessions and breakout sessions that include invited oral presentations, facilitated working sessions, a poster session and a pre-conference workshop on current and advanced AI-driven data analysis.
Kati Migliaccio, co-organizer of the conference and professor and chair of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the University of Florida, said the timing of the conference is perfect.
“This is an opportune time to host this conference focusing on AI in agriculture in the Southeast because of the resources invested in AI, the state of innovation of AI in agriculture and the critical need to adapt agriculture for current world challenges, including labor, nutrition, energy and climate,” she said.
“It brings together expertise from all sectors—industry, academics, government and stakeholders—to focus on agriculture innovation with AI, particularly for the Southeast. The format of this conference was created to allow for knowledge sharing, as well as networking and greater exploration for future endeavors. Attending this event will provide the ‘spark’ for further innovation and collaboration among those with AI and agricultural interests across professions and across disciplines.”
Ortiz said in-person participation will allow networking, discussions for future collaboration and first-hand knowledge exchange. For those who cannot attend in person, a limited, virtual option will be available that will include access to plenary and breakout sessions.
More details and registration information are available on the conference website.
BY KRISTEN BOWMAN
Auburn University will host the conference, “Envisioning 2050 in the Southeast: AI-driven Innovations in Agriculture,” March 9-11 at The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center. Pictured are doctoral student Rafael Bidese Puhl, left, and Assistant Professor of Biosystems Engineering Yin Bao.
Auburn University is ranked in the top 11% of U.S. research institutions, coming in at No. 100 among 915 universities, according to the National Science Foundation’s recent Higher Education Research and Development, or HERD, Survey. Among public universities, Auburn is ranked No. 67 out of 415 institutions.
“Auburn’s ranking among the nation’s top 100 research institutions is a significant accomplishment,” said James Weyhenmeyer, Auburn vice president for Research and Economic Development. “Our innovative researchers have remained committed to engaging in impactful research even during the challenges of a global pandemic. Their dedication and ingenuity are reflected in Auburn’s rise in the rankings.”
The annual survey, compiled from fiscal year 2020 research expenditures, saw Auburn climb five spots from the previous year.
During the five-year period of 2016-20, Auburn’s annual research expenditures increased from $152.4 million to $255.3 million, resulting in a rankings jump of 26 places. Among Southeastern Conference universities, Auburn had the highest percentage increase in research expenditures over that time period: a jump of 67.5%.
For universities without a medical school, Auburn ranked No. 61 nationally and No. 1 in the state. Auburn also was highly ranked nationally in a number of specific fields of research, including No. 54 in engineering, No. 54 in mathematics and statistics and No. 93 in physical sciences, all tops in the state.
A hallmark of Auburn’s research is the diversity of its funded projects. Highlights include:
- The Samuel Ginn College of Engineering’s National Center for Additive Manufacturing Excellence is working with NASA under a $14.6 million contract to develop additive manufacturing processes for improving the performance of liquid rocket engines. The center also is using $6 million from the Federal Aviation Administration to advance the use of additive manufacturing in commercial aviation.
- The state of Alabama recently awarded Auburn $1.6 million for four sustainability projects: advanced jet and diesel fuels from woody biomass grown in the state and from waste plastics; biotechnology that enables conversion of organic wastes into bioplastics; 3D printable polymer smart machines, such as actuators, sensors and energy harvesters; and a new, high-value aquaculture feed binder made from soybean hulls.
- The National Institutes of Health recently awarded Auburn a $1.5 million Research Training Initiative for Student Enhancement grant to broaden participation in the sciences for traditionally underrepresented students.
In addition to the high ranking in the NSF HERD Survey, Auburn is recognized by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education as a top-level, or R1, university with “very high research activity.”
Auburn University is ranked in the top 11% of U.S. research institutions, coming in at No. 100 among 915 universities, according to the National Science Foundation’s recent Higher Education Research and Development, or HERD, Survey. Pictured, scientists in Auburn’s National Center for Additive Manufacturing Excellence conduct fatigue testing on an additively manufactured part.
Chemical engineering professor becomes Auburn’s first senior member of National Academy of Inventors
The Walt and Virginia Woltosz Professor in Auburn’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering is also Auburn’s first female faculty member to be named a senior member or a fellow of NAI. Since starting its fellows program in 2013, NAI has named seven Auburn faculty members to its esteemed list; all seven are male. Fa Foster Dai, the Godbold Endowed Chair Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, joined the 2021 fellows’ class.
“It’s wonderful to be recognized as an inventor and, in particular, a female inventor,” said Wang, who has been a part of the Department of Chemical Engineering since 2006. “I hope this will encourage female students to pursue technology innovation.”
Wang joins 82 other academic inventors from 41 research universities as part of the 2022 senior membership class. They are named inventors on more than 1,093 issued U.S. patents. Wang is also one of 40 female and/or minority inventors in the class.
Wang’s research innovations center around effectively converting waste into value-added products. In particular, she focuses on using a novel microbial coculture to convert agriculture waste-derived biogas into bioplastic feedstock. This method has shown great potential to reduce greenhouse gas emission and water and land pollution.
Throughout her academic career, Wang’s expertise in biogas conversion and sustainable food production have earned her national and international recognition, and her technological innovations have resulted in numerous patents granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
“I hope and believe that our research will open new doors to greatly improve the sustainability of U.S. food production and help promote the transition of the current linear food production model (take-make-dispose) into a sustainable, circular and bio-based economy that minimizes, or even eliminates, waste generation,” she said.
NAI senior members are active faculty, scientists and administrators from NAI member institutions who have demonstrated remarkable innovation producing technologies that have brought, or aspire to bring, real impact on the welfare of society.
BY CASSIE MONTGOMERY
Jin Wang, the Walt and Virginia Woltosz Professor in Auburn’s Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, is the first Auburn faculty member to be named a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors.
The negative impact humans can have on their own environment is constantly on full display, with climate change, land alterations and harmful algal blooms impacting people’s lives daily.
But this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, according to a recent study published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,” or PNAS, by Auburn University paleolimnologist Matthew Waters. PNAS is the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences and one of the world’s most cited and comprehensive multidisciplinary scientific journals.
The research leading to the study was a jointly funded project between the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation, which took Waters and his team to Lake Amatitlán in the highlands of Guatemala. The research also has been highlighted in the magazines “Popular Science” and “Scientific American.”
“Human-induced deforestation and soil erosion were environmental stressors for the ancient Maya of Mesoamerica,” said Waters, an associate professor of environmental science in the College of Agriculture’s Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences. “My study adds water quality/harmful algal blooms to the list of stressors, which was not addressed by the scientists previously studying the Maya.”
Waters also is a National Geographic Explorer and leads the Auburn PaleoEnvironmental Lab, where he and his team of researchers reconstruct historic data recorded in lake sediments and cave environments to document ecological change throughout time.
“Today, lakes worldwide that are surrounded by dense human settlement and intense riparian land use often develop algae/cyanobacteria blooms that can compromise water quality by depleting oxygen and producing toxins,” Waters said. “Such environmental impacts have rarely been explored in the context of an ancient Maya settlement.”
Blooms of algae and cyanobacteria can reduce oxygen in the water column and produce toxins. Such harmful algal blooms are typically caused by nutrient-dense runoff from human activities.
Waters and his colleagues from the University of Florida and the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala examined sediment from Lake Amatitlán in Guatemala to determine whether ancient Maya societies, which reached dense populations within the lake’s watershed, contributed to or were affected by algal blooms.
The study’s authors report that more than 1,000 years ago, harmful algal blooms rivaled eutrophic conditions currently found in the highland lake. The authors measured biomarkers for nutrients, algae, cyanobacteria and cyanotoxins in a sediment core representing approximately 2,100 years, from 110 BCE to present times.
The analyses revealed moderate nutrient and low cyanobacteria levels until 550 CE and a rise in cyanobacteria from 550 to 1200 CE, coinciding with the highest ancient population levels and human disturbance within the watershed.
Cyanobacteria declined in 1380 and remained low until around 1800, when current eutrophic conditions began. According to the authors, harmful algal blooms are not a modern phenomenon and should be considered among the factors that affected the ancient Maya population.
“Human-associated harmful algal blooms have affected both modern and ancient societies and deserve attention when exploring past human-environment interactions,” Waters said.
The study suggests that pre-Columbian Maya occupation of the Lake Amatitlán watershed negatively impacted water potability.
“Prehistoric cultural eutrophication indicates that human-driven nutrient enrichment of water bodies is not an exclusively modern phenomenon and may well have been a stressor for the ancient Maya,” Waters said.
BY PAUL HOLLIS
An Auburn University-led study examined sediment from Lake Amatitlán in Guatemala to determine whether ancient Maya societies, which reached dense populations within the lake’s watershed, contributed to or were affected by algal blooms. Pictured, from left, are Alehandra Agular, undergraduate student at the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala; Jason Curtis, senior associate professor of geology at the University of Florida; Mark Brenner, professor of geology at the University of Florida; Matthew Waters, associate professor of paleolimnology and environmental science at Auburn; and Ninoshka Lopez, undergraduate student at the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala.
Auburn University has been awarded $1.6 million in research grants from the state of Alabama through the Alabama Research Development and Enhancement Fund.
The grants, administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, are earmarked for research and development of four different sustainability projects housed in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering.
Of the $1,590,470 total awarded to Auburn:
$727,677 goes to research for producing jet and diesel fuels from woody biomass and waste plastics;
$294,008 goes to researching and assessing the economic feasibility of converting organic wastes into bioplastics;
$268,353 goes to conducting research involving polymer smart machines; and
$300,432 goes to developing soybean hulls as a means to keep aquaculture feed pellets in mass, resulting in less waste and more intake by farm-raised fish and shellfish.
The researchers include principal investigator Sushil Adhikari, professor and director of the Center for Bioenergy and Bioproducts, Department of Biosystems Engineering; principal investigator Peter He, associate professor, and co-principal investigators Jin Wang and Mario Eden, Department of Chemical Engineering; principal investigator Jason Clark, assistant professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and principal investigator Zhihua Jiang, assistant professor and director of the Alabama Center for Paper and Bioresource Engineering Science, and co-principal investigator Burak Aksoy, Department of Chemical Engineering.
Summaries of the projects are as follows:
Title: Advanced Liquid Transportation Fuels from Co-Liquefaction of Forest Biomass and Waste Plastics
The goal is to advance economic development in the state and nationally through reinvigoration of natural resource-based industries and to establish new industries based on advanced liquid fuels from woody biomass grown in the state and the waste plastics collected from cities. Woody biomass prevalent in Alabama will be co-liquefied with waste plastics using a pyrolysis technology, which will then be subjected to hydrogen treatment to produce jet and diesel fuels.
Title: A Novel Biotechnology That Converts Agricultural and Municipal Waste into Bioplastics
Investigators: He, Wang and Eden
Alabama is one of the top agricultural producing states in the U.S., with annual agricultural exports exceeding $1 billion. As a result, there is a significant amount of organic wastes produced in the state, and Alabama ranks 14th among all states in terms of biogas generation potential from organic waste through anaerobic digestion, or AD. These organic wastes represent an underutilized renewable feedstock for biofuel and biochemical production. This project aims at researching and assessing the economic feasibility of converting organic wastes into bioplastics. Specifically, the project will develop and optimize a prototype of a patent-pending biotechnology that enables the conversion of organic wastes into bioplastics, and to assess its technical and economic feasibility at scale through techno-economic analysis, or TEA.
In the proposed technology, a microalgae-methanotroph coculture will be cultivated in a novel patent-pending circulation coculture biofilm photobioreactor, or CCBP, to convert biogas (both methane and carbon dioxide) derived from organic wastes into microbial biomass while simultaneously recover chemicals from AD effluent to produce treated clean water. The produced mixed microbial biomass can be economically processed to produce high-value bioplastics that is in rising demand. The project will advance the progress of the patent pending biotechnology towards commercialization, which has potential to create many new jobs in the state of Alabama.
Title: Polymer Smart Machines
This project aims to research and develop the foundational building blocks of “polymechatronics,” which will enable the realization of 3D printable polymer smart machines. The research includes designing, fabricating, modeling and characterizing piezopolymer versions of traditional active mechanical and electrical building blocks such as actuators, sensors, energy harvesters, energy storers and analog and digital circuit elements. Compared to traditional devices, polymer smart machines are expected to be less expensive, easier to manufacture, biocompatible, recyclable, use less energy, operate over a larger range of temperatures, offer new functionalities and be more environmentally friendly.
Title: A Novel and Sustainable Feed Binder from Soybean Hulls: Scale-Up Production and Evaluation
Investigators: Jiang and Aksoy
The goal is to establish a low-cost, high-value and novel compound feed binder from soybean hulls, a co-product of soybean processing for oil and meal production. The specific objectives of this project are: 1) to scale-up feed binder production to around 1.5 kg/hour and optimize process conditions for production; and 2) to scale-up shrimp feeding trials simulating shrimp farming operations at a commercial shrimp operation in west Alabama.
Successful completion of this project will establish a high-value and novel compound feed binder platform using 100% soy hulls that is ready for commercial scale productions and applications with significant economic and environmental benefits: It will significantly enhance competitive advantage of shrimp farmers in Alabama by reducing their feed costs. This will, in turn, improve employment opportunities in seafood farming and processing sector, making more local seafood and services available to the citizens of Alabama. In addition, it will also significantly improve water quality by reducing leached nutrients.
Auburn is among five Alabama universities and one research institution sharing in grants totaling $4.85 million, according to the announcement released recently by the Alabama governor’s office.
“Our universities and research institutions in Alabama truly impact the world, and I am proud to continue investing in the important work they are doing,” Gov. Kay Ivey said. “This $4.85 million is an investment in the future of Alabama and the future of research.”
BY MITCH EMMONS
Auburn University launched two new pilot internal awards programs in 2021 and has named the program’s first recipients.
The Research Support Program, or RSP, and the Creative Work and Social Impact Scholarship Funding Program, or CWSI, were established by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development. Both programs provide a competitive internal funding source to support faculty and to provide an opportunity for them to experience a small-scale pilot and refine their projects before competing for larger awards.
“This is a pilot version of a larger intramural award program,” said Bob Holm, associate director of Proposal Services and Faculty Support, the unit that administers the programs. “It enables faculty to participate in a competitive funding program and make improvements to their projects before a commitment to a long-term award program is made. The pilot provides a platform to test what works and what does not.”
The RSP is intended to be an annual cycle funding program to foster the development and growth of innovative and transformational research activities. It builds on faculty expertise, stimulates interdisciplinary collaborations and strengthens seed research activities. It is a strategically focused Auburn investment that promotes promising and impactful new lines of research as well as the growth of collaborative and interdisciplinary teams to build the foundations of science, to overcome scientific and societal challenges and to promote and enhance the quality of life and wellbeing of individuals, groups and communities.
The CWSIS funding program fosters innovation and discovery and builds faculty reputation and competitiveness. Examples of prestigious recognition for CWSIS include: the McArthur Genius Award, the Gates Foundation Award, appointment to the National Council on the Humanities or the National Council on the Arts and an NSF Senior Advisor for Public Access. Disciplines associated with CWSIS include design and the arts, humanities and applicable areas within business, education, social sciences and health and well-being.
As a form of research, creative work poses questions and searches for the answers through iterative processes that demand intellectual rigor and hard work. Related scholarship narrates, analyzes and evaluates the production and products of creative work, or proposes new and innovative approaches to that work, including interdisciplinary collaborations and explorations. The goals of creative work and scholarship are ultimately tied to making significant contributions to a meaningful and dignified quality of life.
Social impact scholarship involves research that is specifically aimed at societal challenges and values both theoretical and applied domains to produce core knowledge and address persistent and complex issues to create a better world and improve the lives of all individuals. Research in this domain often engages a diversity of stakeholders with the goal of bringing beneficial effects and valuable changes to the economy, society, education, public policy, health and quality of life.
This year’s recipients are:
Research Support Program
Brian Albanese, College of Liberal Arts, $24,999.34; “Neurobehavioral sensitivity to negative reinforcement in suicide”;
Benjamin Bush, College of Architecture, Design and Construction, $24,987; “EX4C: Next Generation Blood and Vaccine Transport for Combat, Austere and Challenging Environments”; co-investigators: Lorenzo Cremaschi, Samuel Ginn College of Engineering; Joellen Sefton, College of Education; David Crumbley, School of Nursing;
Nathaniel Hardy, College of Agriculture, $25,000, “The Evolution of Virulence in Xylella fastidiosa”; co-investigator: Leonardo De La Fuente, College of Agriculture;
Amal Khalil Kaddoumi, Harrison School of Pharmacy, $25,000; “Amylin role in Alzheimer’s disease”; Co-Investigator: Ahmed Hamid, College of Sciences and Mathematics;
Peng Li, Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, $25,000, “Probing Novel Quantum Phases in van der Waals Magnet Fe5GeTe2”; co-investigators: Masoud Mahjouri-Samani, Samuel Ginn College of Engineering; Wencan Jin, College of Sciences and Mathematics;
Panagiotis Mistriotis, Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, $25,000; “Bioengineering tools to uncover the mechanisms of human mesenchymal stem cell migration”;
Kristina Neely, College of Education, $25,000; “Inhibitory Motor Control in Adults with ADHD,” co-investigator: William Murrah, College of Education;
Janna Willoughby, School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, $24,998; “How do environmental and genetic effects interact to determine individual fitness?”; co-investigators: Avril Harder, School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences; Lana Narine, School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences; Kelly Dunning, School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.
Creative Work and Social Impact Scholarship Funding Program
Junshan Liu, College of Architecture, Design and Construction, $20,000; “Digitally Preserving and Re-presenting Alabama’s Rosenwald Schools”; co-investigators: Gorham Bird, College of Architecture, Design and Construction; Richard Burt, College of Architecture, Design and Construction;
Alicia Powers, College of Human Sciences, $19,191.92; “A clinical-community pediatric wellness initiative to manage and prevent cardiometabolic diseases in children with limited resources in Alabama”; co-investigators: Jeanna Sewell, Harrison School of Pharmacy; Felicia Tuggle, College of Liberal Arts, Sarah Watts, School of Nursing.
More information about these and other funding support programs supported by the AU Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development can be found by clicking here.
BY MITCH EMMONS
Reduce, reuse, recycle. Especially if you can research cool, new ways to do it.
A team of Auburn faculty recently received a grant from the National Science Foundation to host a research experiences for undergraduates (REU) site, a program in which a university hosts 10 undergraduate students to do scientific research each summer. The project will focus on ways to convert waste into new and useful products through bioprocessing.
Led by Brendan Higgins, assistant professor of biosystems engineering and Sushil Adhikari, Alumni Professor of biosystems engineering and director of the Center for Bioenergy and Bioproducts, the 10-week program will be offered to a selection of students from a pool of undergraduate applicants studying at universities around the nation, who will each be paired to work directly with an Auburn University faculty member.
“The purpose of our site is to train them in research focused on converting waste materials and waste products back into products of value,” Higgins said. “So we have a team of faculty across the university who do research in this area, and we have four projects that the students will engage in.”
The program received $391,099 from NSF, with a focus on giving opportunities to underrepresented students. Students from around the country who go to universities that do not have research programs will have priority when it comes to this program, Higgins said.
“NSF’s goal when they created this program was to maximize the diversity of students that are able to experience research,” Higgins said. “We’re particularly targeting students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to do this.”
Students will do research either in a lab or in the field, depending on what kind of work is necessary for the individual project, Higgins said. Most of the 10-week period will be dedicated to research. A smaller amount of time, however, will be dedicated to professional development.
“The students are going to be learning how to become a researcher,” Higgins said. “Another theme of our site is teamwork. The communication aspect of science is also a big component.”
To do that, students will be encouraged to co-author a paper about their research with their faculty mentor, Higgins said.
“I kind of have this viewpoint that if you didn’t tell someone you did something, you didn’t do it,” Higgins said. “Also, publishing is really part of the scientific process. Telling people what you’ve discovered is really important.”
Some of the projects that the students will be working on include: making sensors for disease detection out of waste biomass, making adhesive out of discarded plant matter and upgrading agricultural waste water into protein. All of these projects will be significant in helping convert waste into useful products, which will help our planet long-term, Higgins said.
“The most impactful outcome we want from an REU site is a change in perception among the students,” Higgins said. “We want to know how the attitudes of our students changed throughout the program, and if they began to see themselves as a researcher during this program. Our hope is that this will reinforce and strengthen the desire in our students to continue their research career.”
The application for this REU site will open in September.
Media Contact: Cassie Montgomery, firstname.lastname@example.org, 334.844.3668
BY VIRGINIA SPEIRS
Sushil Adhikari and Brendan Higgins
Auburn University researcher developing management practices for problem algal blooms in aquaculture
Aquaculture is the fastest-growing sector of animal agriculture; however, sustainable expansion and intensification of aquaculture is severely hampered by issues related to aquatic animal health.
A researcher in Auburn University’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences is focused on developing programs to help the aquaculture industry better manage problematic algae growth in ponds and other water sources.
Alan Wilson, professor and assistant director for instruction in his school, is partnering with the Aquatic Animal Research Unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service, or USDA-ARS, to conduct research involving catfish growers in west Alabama.
“We are currently focused on projects involving 21 ponds across five catfish farms,” Wilson said. “We are monitoring algal growth and gathering environmental data to help those growers establish best management practices for water quality.”
Wilson says algal blooms can be a normal occurrence in ponds with elevated nutrients, but there is an urgent need to manage water quality in aquaculture ponds that favors beneficial algal communities versus those that can be harmful to the fish.
“A ‘green pond’ can be a good thing in the healthy context,” Wilson said. “Algae are important, as they produce oxygen. But blooms can also become too abundant with harmful types of algae, creating conditions that kill the fish. This is what our control focus is on.
“We are developing new detection, prevention and control measures for harmful algae to reduce fish/shellfish mortality, safeguard animal performance and ensure product quality.”
Harmful algal blooms are occurring with increased regularity and severity in freshwater, estuarine and marine systems around the world, according to Wilson. These harmful algal blooms have brought about large-scale catastrophic losses of valuable catfish and shrimp, particularly in the summer months immediately prior to harvest.
In Alabama alone, since 2015, mortality levels attributed to harmful algal blooms have surged to nearly 1 million pounds of catfish annually, according to Wilson’s USDA-ARS collaborator Benjamin Beck.
Moreover, harmful algal blooms are thought to exert profound chronic effects, such as causing the fish to have less-than-normal feeding rates, thereby increasing the time to harvest, along with stress and immunosuppression that can potentially predispose fish to parasitic and bacterial disease.
Wilson conducts his research through his lab at Auburn, which includes a team of four graduate students, five undergraduate students, one high school student and one technician, in collaboration with scientists located at federal and state agencies, nonprofit environmental groups and universities around the world.
“We are starting our second year of this five-year project,” Wilson said. “We collect monthly water samples from each pond that allow us to monitor changes in water conditions with the objective of developing management tools to assist those aquaculture growers in managing their ponds more effectively and efficiently.”
While Wilson’s current USDA-ARS-funded project focuses largely on catfish growers, his lab is broadly interested in understanding the ecology of freshwater lakes, ponds and reservoirs.
“We study the abiotic and biotic mechanisms mediating the promotion or control of freshwater harmful algal blooms and taste-and-odor events in aquaculture ponds, recreational reservoirs and drinking water reservoirs,” Wilson said.
Wilson routinely helps homeowners understand factors associated with harmful algal blooms in their private ponds. He also conducts water quality analyses to determine the threat that algal toxins pose to a variety of aquatic food webs, livestock and zoo animals.
BY MITCH EMMONS
Alan Wilson, professor and assistant director for instruction in Auburn’s School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences, is partnering with the Aquatic Animal Research Unit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service, or USDA-ARS, to conduct research involving catfish growers in west Alabama.
An Auburn University professor and researcher is one of the founding members of an international group of scientists and industry professionals that has launched an ambitious new project aimed at improved understanding of the most intractable species of weeds in the world.
The International Weed Genomics Consortium, or IWGC, comprising 17 academic partners across seven countries, assembles a global community of experts who will develop genomic tools that fundamentally advance humanity’s approach to weeds and crops.
The $3 million consortium is supported by $1.5 million in industry sponsorships and matching funds from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, or FFAR, a research and funding organization established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Scott McElroy, Alumni Professor in the College of Agriculture’s Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences, is a founding member of the IWGC, serves on the IWGC’s executive committee and was the initial developer of the group’s website. His research focuses on weed genomics and identification of herbicide resistance mechanisms and the evaluation of herbicides for use in turfgrass management.
The goal of the consortium is to sequence genomes of weeds. Without this information, it is extremely difficult to study herbicide resistance, ecology and the evolution of weed species.
Large-scale weed control is usually accomplished by spraying herbicides, but weeds can adapt and evolve resistance to such treatments. Herbicides becoming less effective costs farmers billions of dollars, forcing increased use of unsustainable practices like soil tillage or even larger quantities of herbicides. In addition, there is a clear need to make herbicides more environmentally friendly and develop plants with fortified genetics that suffer less from emerging weed species.
By applying tools from genomics and molecular biology to advance weed science, that stress tolerance could possibly be applied to crops, and traditional management strategies could be reduced or retired. Genomic information also aids in investigation of herbicide resistance mechanisms.
The consortium is now finalizing a list of 10 weed species for which they will sequence complete genomes within three years. Among them are annual ryegrass (Lolium rigidum), which is especially problematic in Mediterranean climates like southern Australia, southern Europe and California; and tall fleabane (Conyza sumatrensis), which poses major issues in South America.
McElroy, along with his colleague Alex Harkess—assistant professor and faculty investigator, HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in Huntsville, Alabama—will be assembling the genomes of yellow (Cyperus esculentus) and purple nutsedge (Cyperus rotundus).
“Palmer amaranth, common ragweed, annual ryegrass and goosegrass have evolved resistance to Roundup [glyphosate] in Alabama, along with other herbicides,” McElroy said.
“Amaranth [pigweed] and ragweed [Ambrosia] species will be the species sequenced most relevant to Alabama,” he said. “These are some of the most common weed species in Alabama agriculture. From north to south, from east to west, they are a problem in the entire state.”
McElroy said the first full genomes will be finished by early 2022, but they will not be released publicly until late 2022 or 2023.
FFAR’s support will enable the sequencing of additional species beyond the industry-appointed 10, including perennial weeds and aquatic varieties, to drive even more fundamental knowledge of weed biology.
“FFAR is proud to support this new effort to tame the threat of weeds,” said FFAR Executive Director Sally Rockey. “From genome sequencing to training the next generation of agriculture research scientists, the IWGC shows that new research can be the solution to many agriculture challenges.”
In addition to the genomes, the team will create user-friendly genome analytical tools and training, particularly to serve early-career weed scientists.
As a key component of the partnership, agricultural biotechnology company KeyGene will develop a tool based on the company’s internationally renowned, interactive genomics data management and visualization system, called CropPedia. The cloud-based tool will enable analysis of multiple genomes and access to many users at once, giving all partners the latest information in one place.
“We are looking forward to working with the International Weed Genomics Consortium partners to maximize the use of translating genomes into science, innovation and products, therewith contributing to a more resilient agricultural ecosystem,” said Marcel van Verk, team leader of crop data science at KeyGene.
The planned whole-genome approach to advance knowledge of specific weed species is a long time coming, according to project director Todd Gaines, associate professor of molecular weed science in Colorado State University’s Department of Agricultural Biology.
“When you think about weeds, what makes them great is they are adapted to the harshest situations,” Gaines said. “They are the most cold-tolerant, the most salt-tolerant, the most heat-tolerant.”
Consortium project manager and CSU research scientist Sarah Morran called weeds the “wild west of genetics,” which is why weeds are such a respectable and fascinating opponent.
“Yes, we want to help growers deal with weeds, but to me it’s more about understanding them, and how we can target them by more integrated pest management strategies,” Morran said. “How can we set up these ecosystems where we can work with them a bit better, if we understand their genetics and understand how they are adapting and working?”
Another goal of the consortium is to facilitate collaboration and workforce development within the emerging field of molecular weed science. Some of that development will take place through relationships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including North Carolina A&T State University’s Small Farms Resource and Innovation Center. Consortium leaders are seeking to increase representation of traditionally underrepresented groups within the academic and industry pipeline of weed science.
The genomics consortium is working in close partnership with sponsoring company Corteva Agriscience, which will provide the expertise and resources for gold-standard genome assemblies. Corresponding annotations of these assemblies will be led by partners at Michigan State University.
“We’re proud to contribute our expertise in whole-genome sequencing to this important collaboration, which has the potential to yield industry-shifting insights to benefit farmers, consumers and the environment,” said Sam Eathington, chief technology officer at Corteva Agriscience. “Stubborn weeds are among the biggest challenges to farmer productivity. The outcomes of this collaboration will enable us to help farmers tackle those challenges in more precise and planet-friendly ways.”
Results and information will be shared via annual conferences made possible by USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture funding. The first conference is slated for Sept. 22-24 in Kansas City, Missouri, with in-person and virtual options.
Founding industry sponsors of the International Weed Genomics Consortium are Bayer CropScience, BASF, Corteva Agriscience, Syngenta and CropLife International. In addition to Colorado State University and Auburn University, the academic partners include Clemson University, University of Illinois, Oregon State University, Michigan State University, University of California-Davis, North Carolina A&T, University of Adelaide, University of Western Australia, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, Zhejiang University, Kyoto University, Seoul National University, Agricultural Research Organization (Israel) and Rothamsted Research.
The consortium is seeking additional corporate partnerships. More information is available at www.weedgenomics.org.
BY PAUL HOLLIS
Auburn Professor Scott McElroy’s research focuses on weed genomics and identification of herbicide resistance mechanisms and the evaluation of herbicides for use in turfgrass management.
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.
Two Auburn University research projects have been awarded a share of $100,000 from the LAUNCH Fund for Research and Innovation, a university program designed to bridge the gap between innovative research and the marketplace. The winners were selected from among five faculty teams that competed in a recent multistage competition.
A team of veterinary and public health researchers received $70,000 to study the reliability of a breath test it developed for the noninvasive diagnosis of heartworm disease in dogs.
“Our team greatly appreciates the support from the LAUNCH funding program, which will help us to robustly evaluate this novel technology in dogs for the diagnosis of heartworms,” said Assistant Professor Lindsay Starkey of the College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Pathobiology. “We also hope to look at the potential for this diagnostic to be used for other diseases in other species in the future.”
Fellow team members include Professor Byron Blagburn, also of the Department of Pathobiology; Associate Professor Sarah Zhody, a vector-borne disease expert from the School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences who recently transitioned from Auburn to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta; and Melissa Boersma, an analytical chemist and director of Auburn’s Mass Spectrometry Lab in the College of Sciences and Mathematics.
The test uses a chemical fingerprint found in a dog’s breath to determine if the dog is infected with heartworms. The researchers say initial results are encouraging and that LAUNCH funding will allow the team to fully establish the reliability of the test in dogs of different breeds, diets and backgrounds.
A final version of the technology could be similar to a breathalyzer for dogs, avoiding the need for drawing blood and possibly detecting the presence of heartworm earlier than current blood-based tests. This noninvasive approach to testing dogs could change the $1 billion heartworm testing market by expanding testing, as well as improving both safety and convenience for pets and veterinarians, according to the researchers.
Professor Kathy Lawrence and Research Associate John McInroy of the College of Agriculture’s Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology were awarded $30,000 to identify bacterial strains that could assist in expanding available farmland to include soils currently too salty and to increase drought tolerance of crops and grasses during changing climate.
Their project will expand Auburn’s probiotic libraries, isolate and study bacteria present in extreme conditions and identify microbes that will aid plant growth. It builds upon the successful commercialization of other libraries of bacterial strains assembled by Joseph Kloepper, professor emeritus of plant pathology, and Lawrence.
Established in 2015 by the Auburn University Research and Economic Development Advisory Board, the LAUNCH Fund was created with the support of the Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development as part of a commitment to advance entrepreneurship among Auburn’s research faculty.
Fund recipients have access to expert resources in Auburn Research Park’s New Venture Accelerator for startup advice and to the professional staff of the Office of Innovation Advancement and Commercialization for help in devising pathways to commercialization.
“The LAUNCH program is designed to be a catalyst to push forward promising technologies to the commercialization stage and provide critical solutions to global problems,” said Cary Chandler, director of the LAUNCH program and senior director of the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation. “The awardees this year are great examples of that in action.
“It is essential to our land-grant mission that we make investments in research and take it to market to provide real-world solutions and create jobs. Our goal is to find a way to increase the funding and frequency for this program to increase its success.”
More information about how Auburn supports experts through LAUNCH is available on the LAUNCH website.
BY LESLIE CHAPMAN
Auburn University agricultural economics researchers seek to aid new farmers in changing business climate
The challenges facing today’s small- and medium-sized farm operators are numerous, but perhaps the most daunting challenges are those faced by beginning farmers in a business climate that is currently in the midst of a generational turnover.
A three-year study by Auburn University’s Valentina Hartarska, Alumni Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, and a team of ag economists from Auburn and North Carolina State University seeks to help new producers in the Southeast.
Supported by a $500,000 award from the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, or USDA-NIFA, Hartarska and her team are developing an analytical framework to evaluate the efficiency and productivity of successful beginning farmers. The project would help these farmers make better business decisions based on such factors as market volatility and shocks, climate change and other variables.
“The main goal of our research is to help small- and medium-sized beginning farmers in the Southeast to sustain their farming activities and to prosper through improved efficiency and productivity, better access to health care and by lowering the hurdles in the initial states of their operation,” Hartarska said. “We also are interested in providing information that can help an emerging increase in women who are entering farming today.”
One of the most vexing problems in today’s farming industry is the generational turnover, according to Hartarska.
“Farming is experiencing a time when older farmers are leaving and younger farmers are entering the industry,” Hartarska said. “For every farmer under age 35, there are four farmers who are over the age of 65, and more than half of landowners are older than 65.
“This research is important because this new generation of farmers is different, they face different sets of challenges and they need business information and business tools that can help them to remain viable in the future of farming.”
Hartarska and her colleagues, Denis Nadolnyak, professor of agricultural economics at Auburn, and Ivan Kandilov, associate professor of agricultural economics at North Carolina State University, are utilizing data from the USDA’s Census of Agriculture that is collected every five years. Their study—which they hope to expand—is presently focused on small- and medium-sized farms in the Southeast.
“We have five objectives in our project,” Hartarska said.
Identify agricultural industries and niche markets in the Southeast attracting beginning farmers of small- and medium-size and identify factors affecting their survival;
Employ novel empirical models to identify how each industry group and subgroup of beginning farmers can improve their productivity and efficiency;
Evaluate to what extent state and federal governmental support programs improve survival and economic efficiency of each group of small- and medium-sized beginning farmers;
Identify how limited access to health insurance and affordable health care services affects sustainability, entry and retention of beginning farmers and their hired workers; and
Identify constraints and opportunities specific to female beginning farmers in the region.
Hartarska is especially enthusiastic about exploring the last objective and hopes that her research would be helpful to female farmers in the region.
In the Southeast, the share of beginning farmers increased by more than 20 percent between the last two Census of Agriculture rounds, Hartarska said. In each southeastern state, this share is higher than the national average of 27 percent.
“Beginning farmers and ranchers make an outsized contribution to important new categories of agriculture, and women producers are entering farming in larger proportions than men,” Hartarska said.
“Even though less than a third of new entrants survive, research identifying which producers survive and thrive and why is lacking. Therefore, understanding the challenges to and opportunities for these new farmers is timely and important. The results of our work will assist farmers, farmer groups, extension programs and policymakers in decision-making to develop strategies that enhance the economic efficiency, sustainability and competitiveness of small- and medium-sized beginning farmers.”
BY MITCH EMMONS
Faculty members in Auburn University's Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, Valentina Hartarska (left), Alumni Professor, and Denis Nadolnyak, professor, are collaborating on a USDA-funded project to help beginning farmers in the Southeast sustain their farming activities and improve efficiency and productivity.