February 1, 2012
- New company leverages MSU AgBioResearch innovation to develop portable biohazard detection test
- MSU researchers show how new viruses evolve and, in some cases, become deadly
- Study first of its kind to look at the collateral effects of in-feed antibiotic use in farm animals
- Bringing passito to America
- AgBioResearch biofuels expert makes list of Top 100 people in Bioenergy
- AgBioResearch scientist heads response team to help Michigan growers manage spotted wing drosophila
New company leverages MSU AgBioResearch innovation to develop
portable biohazard detection test
Capitalizing on the innovative work of MSU AgBioResearch scientist Evangelyn Alocilja, an MSU technology spin-out company promises to move speedy detection of deadly pathogens and toxins from the laboratory directly to the field.
Food contamination and other biohazards present a growing public health concern, but laboratory analysis consumes precious time. The company, nanoRETE, will develop and commercialize an inexpensive test for hand-held biosensors that can be used in the field to detect a broad range of threats such as E. coli, Salmonella, anthrax and tuberculosis. This leap forward in detection and diagnostic technology utilizes novel nanoparticles with magnetic, polymeric and electrical properties developed by Alocilja.
“Our unique preparation, extraction and detection protocol enables the entire process to be conducted in the field by someone without significant training,” said Alocilja, an MSU professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering and chief scientific officer for nanoRETE. “Results are generated in about an hour from receipt of sample to final readout and quickly identify contaminants so that proper and prompt actions can be taken.”
The mobile technology comes at only a fraction of the cost of the closest currently available competing technology, company officials said.
NanoRETE is backed by Michigan Accelerator Fund 1, a Grand Rapids, Mich., investment partnership focused on Michigan-based early-stage life science and technology companies.
MSU Technologies, the office that manages technology transfer at MSU, was actively involved in licensing the technology to nanoRETE. In addition to funding from AgBioResearch and other grants, the technology earned funding from the MSU Foundation to continue development across the financial “valley of death” between research and commercialization.
“We have had great faith that Dr. Alocilja’s work in nano-scale detection would be a very successful platform on which to start a new company,” said Charles Hasemann, executive director of MSU Technologies. “MAF-1 has been a great partner in building nanoRETE. With its partnership and investment, we expect to move rapidly to a marketable product.”
MSU researchers show how new viruses evolve and, in some cases, become deadly
Researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) have demonstrated how a new virus evolves and sheds light on how easy it can be for diseases to undergo dangerous mutations.
The scientists showed for the first time how the virus, Lambda, evolved to find a new way to attack host cells, an innovation that took only four mutations to accomplish. This virus infects bacteria -- in particular, the common E. coli bacterium. Lambda isn’t dangerous to humans, but this research demonstrated how viruses evolve complex and potentially deadly new traits, said Justin Meyer, MSU graduate student, who co-authored a paper with Richard Lenski, MSU AgBioResearch scientist and MSU Hannah distinguished professor of microbiology and molecular genetics. The paper appeared In the January 27, 2012, issue of Science.
"The viruses and bacteria reproduce so quickly that we can watch evolution in action,” Lenski said. “We can even study evolutionary changes that require several mutations and involve the interaction between different species."
This paper follows recent news that scientists in the United States and the Netherlands produced a deadly version of bird flu. Even though bird flu is a mere five mutations away from becoming transmissible between humans, it’s highly unlikely that the virus could naturally obtain all of the beneficial mutations at once. However, it might evolve sequentially, gaining benefits one by one if conditions are favorable at each step, he added.
Meyer and his colleagues’ ability to duplicate the results of their research -- conducted at BEACON, MSU’s National Science Foundation Center for the Study of Evolution in Action -- implied that adaptation by natural selection, or survival of the fittest, had an important role in the viruses’ evolution.
When the genomes of the adapted virus were sequenced, they always had four mutations in common. The viruses that didn’t evolve the new way of entering cells had some of the four mutations but never all four together, said Meyer, who holds the Barnett Rosenberg Fellowship in the MSU College of Natural Science.
“In other words, natural selection promoted the viruses’ evolution because the mutations helped them use both their old and new attacks,” Meyer said. “The finding raises questions of whether the five bird flu mutations may also have multiple functions, and could they evolve naturally?”
Additional authors of the paper are Devin Dobias, former MSU undergraduate (now a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis); Ryan Quick, MSU undergraduate; Jeff Barrick, a former Lenski lab researcher now on the faculty at the University of Texas; and Joshua Weitz on the faculty at Georgia Tech.
Study first of its kind to look at the collateral effects of in-feed antibiotic
use in farm animals
Antibiotics in pig feed increased the number of antibiotic -resistant genes in gastrointestinal microbes in pigs, according to a study conducted by Michigan State University (MSU) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS).
Published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the comprehensive study, co-authored by MSU AgBioResearch scientist James M. Tiedje, focused on understanding the effects of conventional in-feed antibiotics use on U.S. farms.
For decades, many producers of pigs, chickens and other farm animals have used antibiotics not only to protect their livestock from disease but also to boost growth rates and enhance feed efficiency, a measure of how well animals convert feed into weight gains.
“Scientists don’t know precisely how antibiotics enhance growth rates and feed efficiency, but they are concerned that on-farm use of these medications may contribute to the development of strains of microbes resistant to conventional antibiotics, strains that are potentially harmful to humans and animals,” said Tiedje, an MSU university distinguished professor of microbiology and molecular genetics and crop and soil sciences.
“The growth of antibiotic resistance in pathogens is a huge challenge for society around the world,” Tiedje said. “Studies to understand what contributes to the spread and what interventions can help control the problem are vital.”
Additional findings include:
- Both diversity and abundance of antibiotic-resistant genes increased in the intestinal microbial communities of the pigs treated with antibiotics. Longer term studies are needed.
- Some of the genes found in the treated pigs were unexpected and usually linked to antibiotics not used in the study.
- Microbial genes associated with production and use of energy by microbes increased in abundance in the antibiotic-fed pigs. This finding may shed light on how antibiotics increase livestock growth and feed efficiency.
- E. coli populations increased in the intestines of the treated pigs. Further study is needed to clarify this observation.
According to the USDA, this study is the first of its kind to look at the collateral impacts of in-feed antibiotic use in farm animals using a comprehensive approach to detect shifts in the function and the makeup or membership of the microbial community in the model animal’s gastrointestinal tract.
Other MSU researchers involved in the project are: Tim Johnson, crop and soil sciences doctoral student; Robert Stedtfeld, civil and environmental engineering research associate; Woo Jun Sul, crop and soil sciences doctoral student; Tiffany Stedtfeld, civil and environmental engineering technical aide; Benli Chai, information technologist, Center for Microbial Ecology; James Cole, assistant professor at the Center for Microbial Ecology; and Syed Hashsham, professor of civil and environmental engineering.
Funding was provided by the MSU Environmental Science and Policy Program Initiative on Pharmaceuticals in the Environment, the ARS and the National Institutes of Health, and through the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics Program on Reservoirs of Antibiotic Resistance.
Bringing passito to America
Passito, traced to 800 B.C. in Italy, is also known as straw wine. The grapes for passito are typically hand-picked and allowed to dry on cellar racks or, more traditionally, on mats of straw.
Many industry experts believe that ice wine – dessert wine pressed from frozen grapes at the peak of ripeness that can sell for around $90 per bottle – could be the signature wine for the northern United States. Passito, however, could be just as distinct but also a lower risk option for wine producers, according to Sabbatini, an MSU viticulturist and a native Italian.
“No one is making passito commercially in America, and this old Italian technique can be pivotal in cool/cold-climate viticulture,” Sabbatini said. “It can save unripe grapes from being wasted in a challenging year as well as produce a high-quality, high-value product distinctive to the northern United States.”
Typically, growers of ice wine grapes need the perfect winter storm – the arrival of temperatures in the teens to freeze ripe grapes while they are on the vine. This year’s fickle winter, however, has put the entire North American ice wine crop on hold. An article in the industry publication Wines & Vines noted that, in the past two months, weather has been up and down, switching from snow to rain and not delivering the successive string of cold days needed to harvest frozen grapes.
It isn’t necessary to harvest grapes used for passito during a perfectly timed freeze, so this age-old process can become a reliable source of income for the industry, he added. These grapes are dehydrated safely indoors and are pressed once they meet the chemical specifications of the winemaker.
“The percentage of market share for dessert wines is growing,” Sabbatini said. “In the northern United States, producers could capitalize on the growing market and look forward to having passito every year.”
For more details on how MSU is helping Michigan's wine industry, click here.
AgBioResearch biofuels expert makes list of Top 100 people in Bioenergy
Michigan State University (MSU) AgBioResearch scientist Bruce Dale was recently ranked 27th on BioFuels Digest's list of the Top 100 People in Bioenergy. The list was determined by votes from readers of BioFuels Digest and the Digest's editorial board.
"Having worked my entire career to develop sustainable biofuels, I am honored to be placed among a group of very fine people," Dale said. "I am particularly grateful to be here at Michigan State University, where we have such a strong commitment to the bioeconomy."
"We are very pleased to see Bruce recognized for his outstanding research and leadership," said Steve Pueppke, AgBioResearch director and MSU associate vice president for research and graduate studies. "He is a testament to the high caliber of researchers with whom we are privileged to work."
Dale, a professor in the MSU Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, is recognized for, among other accomplishments, his pioneering work in cellulosic ethanol. Dale is using a $4.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to scale up his method of turning agricultural waste and nonfood plants into material easily processed into biofuel and chemicals.
Biofuels Digest comprises the BiofuelsDigest.com news Web site, Biofuels Digest Asia, the daily Biofuels Digest e-newsletter and the Biofuels Digest Newswire. Decision makers at more than 7,000 organizations read these publications to find products, services and partners. Digest publications have a combined readership of more than 75,000.
AgBioResearch scientist heads response team to help Michigan growers
manage spotted wing drosophila
Spotted wing drosophila (SWD), an exotic vinegar fly of East Asian origin, was first found in southwestern Michigan in late fall 2010. In the western United States, it has already infested numerous fruit crops and caused economic losses to growers.
Unlike the native vinegar fly, which is more of an annoyance than a problem, SWD (Drosophila suzukii)is able to lay eggs in ripe fruit still on the plant, rather than in just overripe or rotting fruit. Populations of SWD can build quickly because there can be multiple generations per year and female flies (which live 20 to 30 days) can lay hundreds of eggs during their life spans. Michigan growers are prepared for this new pest because of the actions of the SWD Response Team, headed by MSU AgBioResearch scientist Rufus Isaacs.
“In the fall of 2009, I attended a workshop in Oregon presented by research and Extension entomologists who talked about the pest, describing how bad it was for them to deal with,” said Isaacs, a small fruit entomologist. “From their presentations, it was clear that much of the eastern United States was at risk, and although Michigan’s cold winters might limit the pest, our summer climate and its host range looked appropriate enough to be concerned.”
Isaacs discussed what he’d learned about SWD with fellow MSU fruit entomologists and Extension specialists, highlighting the need for immediate attention. They decided to form the SWD Response Team and get stakeholders – including the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), MSU Extension, industry representatives and others – involved. This group got together to decide how and where to monitor for SWD in 2010.
Twenty-eight counties were monitored for SWD in 2010, and none were found until the third week in September, after fruit harvest. SWD continued to be found in traps until late November.
“SWD was found in 13 of the counties monitored for the pest in 2010,” Isaacs said. “It was a warm fall season, which accounted for the finds so late in the year because SWD activity is predicated on the weather. But there was no economic impact on fruit.”
Once SWD was found, the SWD Response Team put out the word through the newly created SWD website and informational materials for Michigan growers, and presented SWD information at grower meetings during the winter.
In 2011, the survey was widened, and, as of early December, SWD had been found in nine more Michigan counties. During the year, the team studied trap designs and baits; examined the timing and activity of SWD; created an SWD detection survey database; conducted chemical control studies; held SWD workshops for growers, crop scouts, consultants and Extension staff members; presented information at grower meetings; published information in grower publications; and created Extension bulletins and a North Central Integrated Pest Management (NC-IPM) Center pest alert.
Though this pest has great potential to create economic losses, being forewarned helps Michigan fruit growers be prepared to deal with it.
“I’m optimistic,” Isaacs said. “Last year, we were facing a pest that we didn’t know much about. This year, growers have been learning more about it and now know that it is another pest they will need to add to their IPM [integrated pest management] programs. There are pesticides that can be used to control it in the short term, and we will be exploring alternative control tactics. We now have a strategy to manage SWD that will improve as we learn more.
“The downside is that this pest is likely to make fruit farming more expensive for some growers because of the increased costs of production,” he noted.
The SWD Response Team has been “a fantastic example of what can be achieved when people come together to address a problem like this,” Isaacs added. “Researchers from multiple campus labs are linked with the Extension programs in the counties with tree fruit and small fruit growers. Increasing awareness and explaining the solutions have been really great aspects of this team.”
Isaacs said that Extension educators are actively monitoring for SWD in their areas around the state. Work on SWD in Michigan has led to collaboration with research colleagues in other eastern U.S. states to develop strategies that can benefit the entire region, he noted.
“There is much we can learn from other regions, although we have some specific challenges here that MSU scientists are addressing as part of the response team,” he said.
For more information on SWD and Michigan’s SWD Response Team, go to http://www.ipm.msu.edu/SWD.htm. In addition to funding from AgBioResearch, Project GREEEN, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant through MDARD, Michigan grower groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provide funding for the SWD Response Team and its activities.