Candid Camera

At first there is nothing—windblown leaves maybe, or the quicksilver skitter of a squirrel. I can’t identify the source of the movement, and settle back expectantly because soon, I know, there will be more chances.

Huddled in the twilit hour I am hunting, expecting the common whitetail deer—but hopeful for more elusive game. Where there are deer there could be a wolf, right? A bear? Either would make the wait worthwhile. Or perhaps something I’ve never seen, like the elusive fisher?

Some time passes before I see the princely buck, so hale and burnished brown that my gaze lingers long in pure appreciation. His neck and shoulders are heftier than even the regal eight-point crown suggests. I’ve seen a lot of deer already, but he has presented broadside, at perfect range. My finger hesitates as I savor the action. And finally I decide, yes, this is a keeper.

I shift in my perch and refocus. Yes, there is the heart. My finger flexes. And I click on the heart icon. Subject 4988060, a Dane County buck snapped last November, is now in my favorites folder.

My hunting perch, you may now realize, is my customary recliner, and I’m using my laptop to spy on the wildlife of Wisconsin while dinner warms. In 20 minutes I’ll go through a few hundred of the millions of photos already collected by Snapshot Wisconsin, a growing net- work of trail cameras.

By now everybody’s seen trail cam photos. Maybe you or someone you know already uses them to scout deer, or just to see what’s on your land when you’re not looking.

Certainly someone’s emailed you a photo or short video, or they’ve shown up in your social media feeds. Those are the special shots, curated, viral. Snapshot Wisconsin is the raw feed, and therein lies the fun. Because here you can get your wildlife fix and be a scientist, too. Identifying these animals contributes to a cutting-edge effort that may fundamentally change the way we study wildlife.

“It’s like having 350 people out there in the woods day and night recording everything they see,” says Jennifer Stenglein MS’13 PhD’14, a research scientist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) who directs Snapshot Wisconsin. “That’s amazing data that we’ve never really had before.”

And 350 is just for starters. The goal is four cameras in every township in Wisconsin. Stenglein will be happy if they can reach at least 3,000 cameras. “We are, I believe, going to have one of the best data sets in the world,” she says.

At 10:40 every morning a NASA satellite flies over Wisconsin and snaps a series of pictures. The photographs measure many things, including a day-by-day record of how green the landscape is, which in turn gives us an idea of how well the plants are doing. The data has been collected for years—one of the satellites, Terra, has been in orbit since 1999—and offers an ever-lengthening perspective on the American landscape.

Satellite photos are now commonplace, but for most people remote sensing data is an abstraction. Woody Turner, program manager for NASA’s Ecological Forecasting, is always working to make that data matter to as many Americans as possible. “It’s really important to be able not only to understand what’s happening in your backyard or your woodlot but also to put it in the broader context,” he says. “The satellite brings in the broader context.”

In 2012 NASA announced it wanted to fund a project connecting its data with state agencies and university researchers. These are regular customers, but now there was a twist: NASA wanted a project that also used trail cameras and citizen scientists.

Phil Townsend, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology at CALS, had wanted to connect trail cams and remote sensing data for years, and he quickly called his professor colleague Ben Zuckerberg to brainstorm the citizen science angle. Then they reached out to Karl Martin BS’91, then the DNR’s forestry and wildlife research chief,
who knew camera prices were dropping and was also thinking about how to use them to improve research techniques. Martin also had access to a rich store of potential volunteers.

With all the ingredients NASA was looking for, the Wisconsin team won a pilot grant to install 80 cameras. It was an opportunity to improve wildlife research and put big data to work in the natural world. It even seemed like a promising tool for youth engagement—a partial antidote to nature deficit disorder. “It’s a very good example of cross-disciplinary, cross-agency teamwork,” says Martin, now the interim dean and director for UW–Extension Cooperative Extension. “This is how you leverage the Wisconsin Idea.”

Almost as soon as it began, state budget woes put the project on ice. In a curious twist, a raging national debate over gun control led to record sales of guns and ammunition. These sales are federally taxed, and a portion is returned to the states via the Pittman–Robertson Act for natural resource projects. With a secure funding stream, Snapshot Wisconsin began in earnest.

While the technology has been available for years, the ambitious scale remains a challenge. Educators and tribes can install cameras throughout the state, but cameras for private land are being rolled out gradually. Racine, Vernon and Dodge counties recently joined Iowa, Iron, Jackson, Manitowoc, Sawyer and Waupaca. At last count 417 volunteers were operating 607 cameras that have taken more than 8 million photos.

“The logistics are a big part of it,” says Townsend. “The scale that we’re doing this at has never been done before.” But scale is also the payback. Townsend is interested in phenology—the cycling of the landscape from brown to green and back again. Factors ranging from climate change to land use change can influence phenology. The Snapshot cameras are programmed to take an image at 10:40 a.m. every day, in sync with the satellite, providing a much richer data profile for that precise location.

Meanwhile the motion trap captures the phenological patterns of the animals. “Animals respond differently to their environment,” says Townsend. When they give birth, when and where they feed, when they’re out and about and when they’re in hiding all change, and we understand only a fraction of the whys. Bringing landscape data together with animal data may answer a lot of outstanding questions.

“Wildlife research every now and then gets transformed by technology,” notes Tim Van Deelen, a professor of forest and wildlife ecology. Radio telemetry revolutionized wildlife study in the ’70s, but it also took a while before researchers were able to put that information to use.

“That’s where we are with camera data,” Van Deelen says. “We’re in that lag phase where we are figuring out how to be efficient with the use of that data. I’m betting that as cool as things are right now, they’re going to get cooler as analytic techniques develop. I think there is a lot of basic biology that is going to come clear because underlying Snapshot Wisconsin is a very robust sampling scheme.”

There are two kinds of Snapshot Wisconsin volunteers. One group maintains cameras—either on their own land or special project cameras on public lands. Sited away from human activity and preferably on a game trail, the cameras operate day and night, snapping three photos in quick succession via a motion trigger. Memory cards and batteries need to be changed at least every three months, and the card uploaded back to Snapshot Wisconsin. Here technology takes over. To avoid any possibility of surveillance, the images on the card are encrypted. After decoding they are uploaded to Microsoft Cognitive Services, where special software removes images that contain humans. Then the image batches are sent back to each camera volunteer, who removes any people pictures the software may have missed.

After this double-check, the images move to me in my armchair via Zooniverse, a citizen science web platform designed by the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. Its goal is to harness our digital enthusiasm for something more than selfies and cat videos. On Zooniverse you can help with research projects that range from finding evidence of water on Mars to transcribing Civil War telegrams.

Why not just let a computer do it? Even in this age of the Watson cognitive computing platform and pervasive facial recognition, the human mind is still the most agile tool available for subtle pattern recognition. “There is no machine that’s as good as the human brain when it comes to being able to capture these kinds of images and classify them appropriately,” explains Zuckerberg.

Log on to Zooniverse and you’ll soon begin to appreciate both the challenge and your gift. The three-photo sequence captures movement. Some images are empty, and if the frame sways, you can tell that wind triggered the snap. But then you find an empty image where just a tiny bit of vegetation moves, and you realize that something has just passed by. Sometimes there’s just a blur of color, or—at night—eye gleam. After a while, you begin to recognize places and patterns, to appreciate the different ways that animals use and move across the landscape. Even the boring photos can surprise you. There is one squirrel in Sawyer County who loves to run a steeplechase along a few fallen birch logs. Occasionally this camera catches a deer. But just as I was getting frustrated with what felt like the 99th photo of the same squirrel, I realized the field beyond was crowded with 14 young turkeys.

Citizen science dates back at least as far as the then-nascent Audubon Society’s first Christmas bird count in 1900. (Plain folk have been collecting astronomical and meteorological observations for far longer.) In Wisconsin, thousands participate in all kinds of projects, monitoring everything from water quality to bat populations.

Zuckerberg hopes that through Snapshot Wisconsin, biology can join the ranks of such disciplines as meteo- rology that collect data continuously. “Collecting biological data tends to be very difficult,” he explains. State-of-the- art radio tracking can follow only a few individuals. Ecologists want to see how species respond across broad stretches of space and time.

“To me the real value of this is being able to think about animal communities over the course of an entire year,” Zuckerberg says. “It’s thinking about big-pattern ecology.”

Snapshot Wisconsin is in what you might call its giddy start- up phase. There isn’t an end product yet, but as the project ramps up, the anecdotal excitement grows. Director Jennifer Stenglein can tell you that there are quite a few porcupines, not so many striped skunks and a fair number of fly- ing squirrels. Also, that we don’t capture as many wolves as you might think, and that it can be very hard to tell coyotes from wolves. And, to no one’s surprise, there are lots and lots of deer. In fact, 60 percent of the animal photos from Sawyer and Iowa counties have deer. Which leads to an obvious question: Can Snapshot Wisconsin close the persistent (and politically sticky) gap between hunters and the DNR about deer populations? Nobody is taking bets on that, but the project should upgrade research techniques overall. “The way that the DNR tallies wildlife is highly sporadic,” says Townsend. “It’s not systematic, it’s different among different wildlife species, it’s difficult to do and it’s expensive to do well.”

Stenglein’s other major DNR responsibility is care and feeding of the state deer population model, and she sees Snapshot Wisconsin as a dual-use tool. On the one hand, it can contribute to the modeling currently in place, providing an index for population size, some idea of overwinter survival, and the fawn-doe ratio. “Cameras can be the best way to get a couple of those deer metrics, we think,” she says.

“It might also lead to an entirely different way of understanding the deer population,” Stenglein notes. The current model uses data from two observation windows: an August/September survey conducted by the DNR and the public, and the nine-day gun season harvest data. Snapshot would provide many more data points in time.

Two important research projects will help determine the ultimate value of the cameras. Elk reintroduction in Sawyer, Ashland, Bayfield and Jackson counties includes a much higher density of cameras. This will allow scientists to check the validity of the lower-density Snapshot data. And because many of the elk are also collared, traditional telemetry data can also be compared with the camera data. Similar comparisons can be made on another project in Dane, Iowa and Grant counties studying the survival impact of chronic wasting disease. Deer and their predators (coyote and bobcat) are both being collared, and cameras are also planned.

Current deer population models have a strong grasp of general population dynamics, but they are missing crucial landscape factors that we know influence deer. That, says Townsend, is where Snapshot Wisconsin will make the difference. “You are not going to get any one township perfectly, but by sampling enough townships you are going to sample the diversity of land cover and land uses,” he explains.

When all of those cameras meet all of that diversity, patterns will emerge. Find a relationship between deer density and vegetation and you can begin to make predictions. “The strength is in numbers,” Townsend says. “The remote-sensing data is everywhere. Can we harvest all that information to help make the models better?”

Charged with predicting deer populations, Stenglein usually thinks about lots of deer all at once. But as she’s built up Snapshot Wisconsin, a different window on wildlife has opened.

It began when she saw the work of an artist who was using her own trail cam photos for inspiration. Stenglein realized the artist was not painting a generic raccoon, but a very particular raccoon. The artist didn’t “know” the raccoon, and was just looking at photos. Yet there was a kind of individual relationship on view. “I realized that so much of this project is actually about the individuals in these photos,” Stenglein says. “That’s what draws people to this project.”

It was easy to imagine the connection landowners might feel for a camera they install and maintain on their property, or even one on public lands that they use. Stenglein gets lots of email from volunteers thrilled the first time they get a fisher or black bear they didn’t know they had on their property. Sue Steinmann MS’83 volunteered to place a camera on her scrub oak barrens near Arena “to see if we have bear or bobcats,” she says. “I really think we had a wolf come through last winter.” Now she’ll have more than footprints for proof.

Steinmann and her husband are active in ecological restoration, so they are probably more engaged in natural resource issues than most people in Wisconsin. But one of the things being studied by Snapshot Wisconsin is how citizen science can lead to better communication between scientists, resource managers and the public—and how this might lead to better resource management overall.

“When you have folks who are engaged in the process in more depth, and maybe helping to drive some of the questions, or helping to partici- pate in the interpretation of the data, that’s where you’re starting to see some of these community-level outcomes,” says Christine Anhalt-Depies, who is currently pursuing a PhD in wildlife ecology.

Anhalt-Depies is watching the online dynamic among the volunteers— some of whom come from all over the world—and how that evolves. Members of the research team are identified in Zooniverse, and the project also includes a few moderators (you can think of them almost as docents)—volunteers who help new users navigate the learning curve. The chatter is informed and supportive, and while the task might seem rote, it quickly becomes fun.

“I get addicted to doing that and have to stop after a while,” admits Sue Johansen BS’94. As a naturalist at Devil’s Lake State Park, she monitors three cameras for the park and one Snapshot Wisconsin camera in the West Bluff area. While the cameras began as a new way to engage visitors, they’ve also found animals—flying squirrels and short-tailed weasels—that no one knew were in the park. “What happens when you’re not around?” she says. “It’s a different way to connect to the outdoors.”

Then there are the “super users.” Zooniverse projects tend to develop their own core volunteers, people who process fantastically more images than most people. Some of these people are fully vested in the community aspect, engaging in conversation through message boards. Others remain silent. What are they getting from it, Anhalt-Depies wants to know. Will it translate to engagement in the real world?

“These are not cyborgs out there,” Zuckerberg says. “These are people very invested in the research.”

It’s these modern times that make Snapshot Wisconsin so fascinating.

We are becoming so acclimated to screens, to surveillance, to the omnipresence of cameras. Social networks have always mattered, but they are more visible than ever as we attempt to reap their bumper crops and avoid their vicious undertow. Selfies may be changing our very sense of our place in the world. Science and business are being rapidly remade by our ability to collect big data, and by our struggle to understand it.

Snapshot Wisconsin rides the rebounding ripple effects of all of these phenomena. And yet somehow nature remains at the center of the experience.

I admit: I had my doubts. But I threw both hands up in delight when I scored my first black bear. I was tickled to learn the blob that I had thought might be a wounded turkey turned out to be, literally, a happy family pileup of otters. I laughed longer than I should have when the camera caught a coyote leaving a fecal sample. (Photo bomb.)

In nature there is no substitute for observation. And while the parade of images in Snapshot Wisconsin should not be mistaken for being out there, it’s a legitimate supplement, a booster shot against nature deficit disorder.

“If you are going to maintain nature or wild places on this earth as our own numbers grow, I think it’s going to be because we care about it,” says NASA’s Woody Turner. “And to care about something you have to be at least somewhat familiar with it.”

Zuckerberg worries that we are increasingly detached from nature— that some children actually view nature as something to fear. Sometimes he listens to his children, ages 9 and 14, on Zooniverse in the next room. They love all the deer pictures but get totally jazzed by the occasional bear.

“I think using technology to allow another experience is what makes this project fun,” he says. “This offers a window for kids to become interested and engaged in natural history. I think any way you can do that is going to be a positive experience.”

Caitlyn Busche

BS’14 • Caitlyn Busche was drawn to dietetics because of its “relatable nature,” she says; she enjoys working in a rare branch of health care where patients can see, feel and understand both the processes and results of treatment plans. At Chicago’s Northwestern Medicine, she is able to do just that. There Busche works with oncology patients to improve chemotherapy and radiation-related side effects through dietary modifications. As an undergraduate at CALS, Busche worked as a lab research assistant, which taught her how fascinating and exciting nutrition research could be. These early experiences gave her the foundation in research that has been instrumental in providing evidence-based medical nutrition therapy to her patients in the ever-changing field of oncology nutrition.

Amy Giffin

BS’09 • Coming from a family of cheesemakers, it was no surprise that Amy Giffin began her college career in food science. She planned to follow in her family’s footsteps, but after a guest dietitian spoke at her freshman-year nutrition class, she had a change of heart. “I realized that I also wanted to apply the science of food and nutrition to help others,” says Giffin. Now she manages the menus of students in the Sheboygan Area School District as the school nutrition supervisor. There she has the opportunity to work with students to develop meals that are nutritious and tasty. In her free time Giffin is on a quest to make cooking “fun and fearless” through her nutritional food blog, Eat Right Cook Tonight (eatrightcooktonight. com). Giffin is thankful for the inspiration and education she received at CALS and for the lifelong Badger community that comes with any UW–Madison degree, she says.

Ellya Hillebrand

BS’10 • Elya Hillebrand’s path through dietetics led her to a successful career in the military. After earning a bachelor’s degree in dietetics from CALS, Elya Hillebrand joined the U.S. Army. During her six years of service, she earned a master’s degree in dietetics from Baylor University and held many nutrition-related positions, including, most recently, director of food and nutritional services. In that position Hillebrand discovered her knack for management, and she recently decided to leave the military to pursue a career in food service management.

Bridget Reineking

BS’04 • As the global associate director for training and development at BioMarin Pharmaceutical Inc., a California-based biotech company specializing in drugs treating genetically based diseases, Bridget Reineking is responsible for educating the company’s global medical affairs team. In this position she ensures that employees are trained as experts in BioMarin’s many projects and are able to accurately communicate the company’s scientific advancements to the public. During her time at CALS, Reineking gravitated toward positions involving education and development. “It is a beautiful thing to travel down the path of knowledge with an individual,” says Reineking. In the midst of a successful career, Reineking looks back and attributes her strong communication and organizational foundation to her time spent at CALS.

Samantha Schmaelzle

BS’10 MS’13 • After spending seven years completing both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in dietetics and human nutrition at CALS, Samantha Schmaelzle couldn’t imagine starting her career anywhere else. Numerous internships and research opportunities, including fieldwork in Zambia, opened up countless job opportunities for Schmaelzle after graduation, and ultimately landed her a job with UW Health. As an outpatient clinical dietitian with UW Health’s Surgical Weight Management Clinic, Schmaelzle works to educate morbidly obese patients on nutritional needs and lifestyle changes in preparation for bariatric surgery. The long-term, personal work with patients makes their progress and recovery very rewarding, says Schmaelzle. “My patients are my favorite part of my job,” she says. “Their motivation, energy, successes and positive changes keep me going every day.”

Patrick Solverson

BS’09 MS’12 • Could blackberries help cure obesity? Patrick Solverson is on the path to find out. As a researcher with the USDA’s Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center in Maryland, Solverson studies various diets and their effects on human health. Currently his focus is on anthocyanins, compounds found in blue and purple fruits and vegetables, and their potential to curb the effects of high-fat diets. Solverson’s passion for dietetics stems from his own struggle with weight as a child. He learned the benefits of nutrition and exercise early on, which changed his life and sparked his interest in this field. “Nutrition is the staple of life every single one of us must address multiple times a day,” notes Solverson. “It’s unavoidable, powerful, and if harnessed correctly, can be so rewarding.” In his free time Solverson enjoys staying fit through sports and weight lifting, and staying current in research by reading science articles with his cat, Allister.

Bridget Stroup

BS’11 • Bridget Stroup chose a career in dietetics because of her passion for learning and improving lives. Stroup currently is a registered dietitian earning her Ph.D. in nutritional sciences at CALS while working in the lab of professor Denise Ney. There Stroup’s research concerns phenylketonuria, or PKU, a disease that restricts processing of the common amino acid phenylalanine, which is found in protein-rich foods such as meat, dairy and grains. Individuals with PKU have limited food choices and must receive key nutrients from unpleasant-tasting amino acid medical foods that often come with equally unpleasant side effects. Stroup is working to develop and promote an alternative, known as glycomacropeptide (GMP) medical foods. GMP medical foods, made from whey protein, offer a low- phenylalanine, whole protein medical food option that is effective and more palatable. Stroup loves the collaboration and constant educational journey that her research at CALS provides.

Catch up with … Molly Sloan BS’06 Dairy Science/Life Sciences Communication

As a child, Molly Sloan dreamed of one day stepping onto the colorful shavings that cover the floor of the Dane County Coliseum in order to judge dairy cattle at the World Dairy Expo. Her inspiration came from growing up on a small dairy farm in northern Illinois, taking in everything about the business and the animals. From the farm, Sloan took the steps necessary to reach the Expo and make her dreams come true.

After coming to UW–Madison, Sloan quickly got involved in dairy on campus, establishing a network of dairy professionals at CALS. While completing degrees in dairy science and life sciences communication, she was active in such organizations as the Association of Women in Agriculture and the National AgriMarketing Association. Through dairy judging with her team in the Badger Dairy Club, Sloan refined her judging skills and sharpened her eye for prize cattle.

Sloan’s experiences and determination spurred success in both dairy genetics and cattle judging. Judging Ayrshires at the 2016 World Dairy Expo was her second time on the colored shavings she dreamed about as a kid—and it’s not likely to be her last.

How did your time and experiences at CALS help you get to where you are now?

I grew up in northern Illinois, and I knew all along that I wanted to study dairy science. I realized quickly that there was really no other option than CALS, which is world renowned for its dairy science program. I added a second major with agricultural journalism early on and was very involved in extracurricular activities as well as internships with different dairy genetics and reproductive AI [artificial insemination] companies. Through that involvement I was able to meet the industry contacts that I needed to get internships and, ultimately, job opportunities. When I finished college I started with Alta Genetics, and now, as Alta’s global training program manager, I travel the world pretty extensively.

What’s it like to judge cattle at the World Dairy Expo?

This has always been a dream of mine. When I came to the University of Wisconsin I knew right away that I wanted to be involved in the dairy judging team. Through intense workouts and practices I was fortunate enough to be part of a very competitive team with exceptional coaching from Dr. Dave Dickson and Ted Halbach. After that, I knew that I wanted to continue this experience if the opportunity arose.

The World Dairy Expo is considered a bit of a pinnacle for cattle judging. Where do you go from here?

I think you said it best; it really is the pinnacle in this field. I want to keep doing it as long as it’s fun. For me, every new show is a great opportunity and experience. I would love to have the opportunity to come back and do another show here on the colored shavings.

Molly Sloan, BS’06 Dairy Science/Life Sciences Communication, serves as an Arshire judge at the 2016 World Dairy Expo. 
Photo credit: Sevie Kenyon BS’80 MS’06

Shaping the Future of Farming

Thirty-five years ago, when CALS bacteriologist Winston Brill and his colleagues set out to exploit science’s newfound ability to manipulate genes to confer new traits on crop plants, the technology was, literally, a shot in the dark.

Working in a facility in Middleton, just west of Madison, Brill and his team blasted plant cells using a gene gun—a device that fired microscopic gold beads laden with DNA.

The idea was to introduce foreign genes that could confer new abilities on the plants that would ultimately be grown from the altered cells. First as Cetus of Madison, Inc., later as Agracetus and still later as a research and development outpost of Monsanto Company, the Middleton lab was, by all accounts, a hub of plant biotechnology innovation.

“Agracetus was the first in the world to engineer soybean, first in the world to engineer cotton, first in the world to field-test a genetically engineered plant,” recalls Brill, who was recruited by Cetus to establish the lab in the early 1980s. “Thus, the Madison area and the UW influence led to historically important events.”

In December 2016, the $10 million,100,000-square-foot facility—a warren of labs, greenhouses and growth chambers—was donated to UW–Madison by Monsanto to become the Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center (WCIC).

The hope, according to agronomy professor Shawn Kaeppler BS’87—now WCIC’s director—is that the center will add to its string of plant biotechnology achievements as one of just a few public facilities in the country dedicated to plant transformation, where genetically modified plant cells are taken from tissue culture and regenerated into large numbers of complete fertile plants.

The advent of the WCIC “is an unprecedented opportunity to add capabilities and capacity we couldn’t afford otherwise,” says Kaeppler, an expert on corn. Its acquisition by UW–Madison, he and others note, comes at an opportune time as powerful new techniques in synthetic biology are poised to make the development of plants with new or improved traits much more than a shot in the dark with a gene gun.

WCIC will function very much like a core facility, providing cell culture, phenotyping and plant transformation services for researchers at UW– Madison and other universities. It is also coming online at a time when the need for such resources is acute.

“There is a recognized need nationally,” explains agronomy professor Heidi Kaeppler BS’87, an expert in plant transformation who is serving as WCIC’s transformation technology director. “There are just a few public facilities around the U.S. and demand is outpacing the abilities of those facilities. It is a bottleneck.”

For researchers like bacteriology and agronomy professor Jean-Michel Ané, a member of the WCIC scientific advisory board, the new center means he will be able to devote more time to exploring such things as the genetic interplay that occurs when plants and bacteria collude to draw nutrients from the air through the act of nitrogen fixation.

Nitrogen-fixing plants such as soybean, alfalfa and clover are staples of modern agriculture. They are essential to the crop rotation practices that prevent exhaustion of soil from crops such as corn. Ané and many other scientists have long dreamed of engineering the ability to fix nitrogen into plants like corn to transcend the need for expensive and environmentally harmful chemical fertilizers.

However, engineering complex traits such as nitrogen fixation in plants that don’t have that innate ability is a monumental scientific and technological undertaking. To begin with, there are two organisms—the plant and a bacterium—working cooperatively. Each has its own genome, and many different genes from each organism are in play to accommodate the act of drawing life-sustaining nutrients from the air.

To confer that trait on corn, for example, is an exercise far more complicated than tinkering with one or a few genes, notes Ané. “The goal is to create maize that has this association. However, modifying a single gene will not be sufficient,” he says. “We modify many genes at a time. There is a lot of trial and error. We need to try many combinations.”

Those combinations come about in the lab as scientists alter individual plant cells by adding or subtracting genes of interest. Today, scientists can harness new techniques such as CRISPR– Cas9—a fast, cheap and accurate genome editing tool—and potent new cloning technologies that allow scientists to easily assemble multiple DNA fragments and their assorted genes into novel sequences.

Even with potent new tools like CRISPR–Cas9, engineering plants is a big, difficult task. A gene needs to be dropped in the right place on the genome and be in association with the right “promoters,” segments of DNA that initiate gene transcription, the first step toward expressing a new gene in an organism. Once plant cells are genetically altered, they must be transformed into large numbers of actual plants for further testing in the lab and, ultimately, the field. It is essential to know, for example, that the new genetic construct is stable, that the new genes are passed from generation to generation, and what effects they may have on plant growth or yield.

The promise of WCIC, Ané believes, will be the opportunity to work through all of those steps more efficiently and cost-effectively, and carry projects from the lab to the field much faster.

“We can focus on really doing science instead of growing plants,” Ané says. “We can now make genetic constructs very quickly. Within a month we can make hundreds of constructs. The limiting aspect is plant transformation. However, the scale of transformation we can do at WCIC allows us to think seriously about applying synthetic biology to plants.”

To begin with, WCIC is providing plant transformation services for corn, soybean and sorghum, big commercially important crop species. But Shawn Kaeppler envisions WCIC playing a role, as well, with crop plants that have not yet risen to the top of commercial research agendas.

To date, commercial interest has focused primarily on just a handful of traits—insect and herbicide resistance—in a handful of widely planted crops. Uncharted territory, Kaeppler says, exists in the full range of crop plants and their many different traits.

A ready example is switchgrass, a native perennial that is under the microscope at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC), a U.S. Department of Energy- funded multi-institutional research center headquartered on the UW–Madison campus. The grass is seen as a potential feedstock for converting its biomass to liquid fuel. However, efficient conversion of plant materials to energy remains a challenge, and plant genetics will play a big role in refining the traits that will make that possible.

“WCIC will help lead us to the next generation of crop breeding and plant genetics,” explains Kate VandenBosch, the dean of CALS, referencing, broadly, the genetic makeup of the crop plants in play. “Scientific agencies at the federal level have invested a lot in understanding genomes, but we still have a lot of work to do to understand how those genes function.”

Indeed, genetic sequencing technologies have advanced to the point where new plant genomes are sequenced with increasing regularity. The genomes of crop plants like watermelon, cucumber, potato, soybean, wheat, corn and many others have been sequenced, but as VandenBosch notes, exploring those sequences to identify the genes that govern plant traits is an unexplored frontier.

Shawn Kaeppler’s own research, for example, is a window to both the complexity and opportunity that lurk in the genomes of plants. One of his interests is the complex of genes—involving anywhere from tens to hundreds of genes—that governs the root architecture of corn. Knowing more about the combination of genes that directs the plant to send shoots into the soil, it might one day be possible to engineer a plant that can send its roots deeper into the earth, providing farmers with a hedge against drought.

“Fifty to 70 percent of all maize genes are expressed in roots,” Kaeppler says. “Some control processes in all parts of a plant, and some specifically control root development and response to environmental stimuli.”

A gene of interest for Kaeppler and his team is one that influences root angle. “Altering root angle even five to 10 degrees can dramatically increase the rate that roots get deep in the soil,” as well as how much root biomass a plant lays down at depth, he explains.

Identifying those candidate genes and mutations of those genes means they can be selected and manipulated in the laboratory to generate plants with different root structures. At WCIC, those plants can be grown in quantity, their new qualities studied and, if promising, tested in the field. The goal, of course, is to provide a practical outcome that is useful to growers.

In plant science, numbers matter. The more plants you can grow to test a new genetic combination, the better, as there are so many variables in play.

“In many aspects of science, doing things on a large scale is critical,” says biochemistry professor Rick Amasino, an expert on flowering in plants. “To have WCIC in our capability is great. Large-scale transformation opens up a lot of possibilities.”

Amasino, who is also a member of WCIC’s scientific advisory board, views the center as an important new national resource. Individual labs, he explains, do not have the same capacity.

“This has the potential to be on a scale greater than any other university’s,” Amasino says. “Individual labs can’t generate the hundreds or thousands of transgenic plants needed to fully test certain hypotheses. Labs around the country and, hopefully, around the world can now do experiments they couldn’t otherwise do. There are so many opportunities out there.”

A Facility With Deep CALS Roots

The name is new, but the Wisconsin Crop Innovation Center (WCIC) holds a prominent place in the young history of agricultural biotechnology. The facility also has long and deep ties to CALS researchers and alumni.

Originally known as Cetus of Madison, Inc., the Middleton facility—owned by
the Cetus Corporation of Emeryville, California—opened in 1981 under the direction of CALS bacteriology professor Winston Brill. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) played a key funding role in the early days of the company.

Cetus of Madison, Inc. initially focused on evaluating and testing a wide variety of natural rhizobia species to better understand their role in nitrogen fixation and nodulation in legumes, with the hope of someday enabling maize to have that capacity.

As interest in biotechnology grew in the early 1980s, the facility’s focus changed to inventing and innovating ways to introduce genes into plants. In 1984, Cetus Corp. sold half of its interest in Cetus of Madison, Inc. to the WR Grace Co.—and thus the company name “Agracetus” was born.

Great discoveries followed. An electric “gene gun” and transformation methods developed at Agracetus revolutionized the plant transformation process. Many plant species were subsequently transformed, including tobacco, peanut, sunflower, soybean, maize, cotton, cranberry, canola, poplar, wheat and rice. CALS researchers Kenneth Raffa, Brent McCown PhD’69 and Elden Stang, as well as WCIC associate director Michael Petersen BS’87 (then still an undergraduate) and Richard Heinzen MS’74, collaborated with Agracetus scientists during that period. But that wasn’t the only significant research taking place. Other studies critical to agricultural improvement focused on cotton fiber quality, transformation process improvements, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method development, insect and disease resistance and herbicide tolerance. A number of CALS faculty, including Michael Sussman, Richard Amasino and Andrew Bent, were highly involved in consulting with Agracetus in many of these areas.

In 1990, WR Grace Co. acquired full ownership of Agracetus. During the early 1990s, Agracetus ventured into research in DNA vaccines—using an improved “gene gun”—and contracted plant transformation services to others within the industry, including, most notably, the Monsanto Company. Collaborating with biological systems engineering professor Richard Straub PhD’80 (now CALS senior associate dean) and other CALS researchers, the company also worked on producing industrial enzymes in plants.

After successfully generating plants that eventually became commercial products
for Monsanto, including Roundup Ready Soybeans and Bollgard Cotton, the facility was acquired by Monsanto in 1996.

Over the next 20 years, Monsanto used the facility as its primary site for soybean and cotton transformation. Other R&D at the site included corn, canola, wheat, rice and alfalfa transformation, gene expression, molecular testing and seed chipping/genotyping.

The site was considered a “center of excellence” for Monsanto due to its highly innovative employees, high throughput transformation capabilities and ability to consistently perform above and beyond expectations.

In July of 2016, Monsanto relocated a number of remote functions back to its St. Louis headquarters in the interest of business consolidation. In the hope that the Middleton facility would continue to work toward the betterment of agriculture, Monsanto the following December donated it to longtime collaborator the University of Wisconsin– Madison, along with University Research Park.

Not surprisingly, given the long history of CALS involvement, agronomy professor Shawn Kaeppler BS’87 was chosen to serve as facility director.

“Legacy Phosphorus” and Our Waters

For decades, phosphorous has accumulated in Wisconsin soils. Though farmers have taken steps to reduce the quantity of the agricultural nutrient applied to and running off their fields, a new study reveals that a “legacy” of abundant soil phosphorus has a large, direct and long-lasting impact on water quality.

The study, published in the journal Ecosystems and focused on southern Wisconsin’s Yahara watershed, may be the first to provide quantifiable evidence that eliminating the overabundance of phosphorus will be critical for improving the quality of the state’s lakes and rivers.

For example, the results indicate that a 50 percent reduction in soil phosphorus in the Yahara watershed’s croplands would improve water quality by reducing the summertime concentration of phosphorus in Lake Mendota, the region’s flagship lake, by 25 percent.

“If we continue to apply phosphorus at a greater rate than we remove it, then phosphorus accumulates over time and that’s what’s been happening over many decades in the Yahara watershed,” says Melissa Motew, the study’s lead author. Motew, working with CALS agronomy professor and co-author Christopher Kucharik, is a doctoral candidate at the UW–Madison Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.

Phosphorus seeps into soils primarily by way of fertilizer and manure, and what crops and other plants don’t use to grow then leaks into waterways with rain and snowmelt runoff. Scientists have long believed that excess soil phosphorus is a culprit behind the murky waters and smelly algal blooms in some of Wisconsin’s lakes and rivers.

Conventional efforts, like no-till farming and cover crops, have tried to address nutrient runoff by slowing its movement from soils to waterways. However, the study shows that simply preventing runoff and erosion does not address the core problem of abundant soil phosphorus, and this overabundance could override conservation efforts.

“Solutions should be focused on stopping phosphorus from going onto the landscape or mining the excess amount that is already built up,” says Kucharik.

Using newly advanced computer models, the study shows the watershed has about four times more phosphorus in its soil than is recommended by UW–Extension, which writes the state’s nutrient management recommendations based on what crops need and a landscape’s potential for nutrient runoff.

Currently, the only method known to draw down soil phosphorus is harvesting crops, but Kucharik explains that plants take up only a small amount of the surplus each year.

“It is unlikely that any cropping system will quickly draw down the excess,” he says.

It will require working with farmers to practice better nutrient accounting and counter the tendency of some to apply more fertilizer, as an insurance measure, than is needed.

Food production need not be compromised by potential solutions, Kucharik says. There is enough excess phosphorus in our soils “to support plant nutrient needs for a long time.”

The research, funded by the National Science Foundation, is part of UW–Madison’s Water Sustainability and Climate project.

Early Excitement

Genetics professor Audrey Gasch BS’94 loves questions. It’s her job as a scientist to ask questions and then seek answers. She also has a passion for helping others ask questions, including some of Wisconsin’s youngest future scientists.

Science outreach and public service have always been important to Gasch. When she was setting up her lab in 2004, she began looking for ways to take her love of science beyond campus. She found the perfect partner in Dolly Ledin, program director of Adult Role Models in Science (ARMS), a program of the UW–Madison-based Wisconsin Institute for Science Education and Community Engagement.

ARMS works with campus partners and local elementary and middle schools to help teachers develop more robust science education and get students excited about science by connecting them with role models.

Within just one hour of her first call, Ledin connected Gasch to 10 different schools in Madison. Some dozen years later, Gasch remains as passionate as ever about enhancing science education for kids. Teachers, Gasch says, especially at the elementary level, don’t always have the capacity or training to teach a robust science curriculum.

“Public schools are under so much pressure on all fronts,” says Gasch. “It’s harder for teachers to be innovative in those areas if they are not a major point of focus.”

So Gasch and other campus scientists partner with teachers to help them build curriculum and bring new projects to classrooms.

The learning is a two-way street, notes entomology professor Sean Schoville, another ARMS participant.

“The teachers have incredible knowledge of how to get kids excited and to engage them in hands-on teaching,” he says. “So they have, in turn, taught me quite a bit about teaching.”

Melina Lozano, a teacher at Hawthorne Elementary in Madison, has partnered with ARMS for years and says working with UW scientists has made a big impact on her two-thirds bilingual classroom.

“My students need as many high-quality educational experiences with adults as possible,”
says Lozano. “And working with talented young scientists at UW–Madison has been an indispensable experience.”

An important part of the ARMS outreach team is the many undergraduates who work with the schools on a weekly basis. Students like senior biology major Hanna Peterson, who has been involved with school science outreach since she took a service learning course taught by Dolly Ledin.

Peterson, who also does science outreach at the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center, says that the most important thing is to create excitement.

“A lot of times, Dolly tells us we just want you to go get the kids excited,” Peterson says. “Do your best, get your science point across, try to teach them some things—but just get them engaged in science. Make them want to learn more. Which I think is a really cool approach!”

Building excitement and curiosity, Gasch says, is the trick to connecting young minds to science.

“The main goal isn’t to just learn facts,” Gasch says. “I care about kids being able to learn about a fact and then think about it critically. My main goal is to use science as a tool to teach critical thinking.”

Gasch is developing a new program called “Ask a Scientist.” The premise is simple: Get kids excited about science by encouraging them to continually ask questions, and then recruit UW scientists to help answer those questions. She piloted the program last year at Lowell Elementary and now is working to expand it.

“It’s like having a science pen pal,” says Gasch.