The “Icing” on the DNA

XUEHUA ZHONG, an assistant professor of genetics, studies epigenetics, a growing area of research focused on how chemical tags on DNA can change the expression of genes. She and her team at the Zhong Lab of Epigenetic Regulation, located at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, are especially interested in the modification of genes involved in growth and development, and how epigenetics can be affected by the changing environment.

As evidence for a link between environmental factors and epigenetics grows, so does public interest in the topic as people consider the impact of their lifestyles and diets not only on themselves but also on the next generation. Zhong and her team hold talks for the public about their work and conduct a number of hands-on programs about epigenetics for undergraduate and K-12 students, including a summer science camp for local high school students, a field trip for middle-schoolers, a youth apprenticeship program in her lab and a “tabletop exploration station” about how lifestyle choices can affect gene expression. Zhong hopes opportunities such as these will raise interest in and encourage the next generation to study this rapidly growing field.

What is epigenetics?

It’s a very interesting question, I would say. The definition of epigenetics has been really challenging over the years because there are different concepts of epigenetics. Most people accept the definition that epigenetics is modifications on the genetic material, the DNA, that changes expression of the underlying genes. I like to say that epigenetics is like a Christmas decoration. You decorate the DNA in a different way, and then the expression of genes is different.

I would also use another comparison: If you think about a cake, the base of the cake is the DNA, the genes. Then the epigenetics is the frosting, the decoration on the cake. And the nice thing about that is if you don’t like the frosting, you can remove it. You can redecorate it differently, and it looks like a different cake.

Can epigenetics be passed on from one generation to the next?

This is another reason why epigenetics is so debatable—the question of inheritance. The modification on top of DNA has been well accepted, but whether it’s heritable is still being debated. Some modifications are very transient and unstable. But some of the modification, for example, methylation—the process of adding methyl groups to the DNA molecule—is fairly stable and can be inherited by the next generation. That is called transgenerational inheritance.

We talk a lot about how your diet, your exercise and your environment have a huge impact on you, obviously, but can also impact your children and even grandchildren through transgenerational inheritance. There are cases from World War II of women who lived through famine, and even 20 years later when they were leading a healthier life, those women tended to have children with more diseases and stress through- out life.

How is this inheritance being studied?

It’s very challenging to study transgenerational inheritance in humans. We’re talking about 60, 70 or 80 years for each generation. But in plants, it’s been very clear that certain epigenetic patterns can be transgenerationally inherited. For example, the Wisconsin cold can induce modifications of genes that can then be inherited. This is an area we are very interested in—environmentally induced epigenetic modifications and to what extent these modifications are transmitted to the next generation.

What plant do you use to study inherited epigenetics?

Currently we are primarily utilizing a flowering plant called Arabidopsis thaliana, or thale cress. It’s a model system that is widely used. We use it because it has a small genome, and because most of our studies are done at the whole genome scale, it’s cheaper than other model systems. Also, the generations are very short, only eight weeks. You can look at six generations in just a year. We’ve also started to extend our work to rice and maize through other collaborations on campus.

Can you explain what you’ve learned about plant aging in your work?

We have been finding that one epigenetic complex in particular is very important to make sure that a plant senesces, or ages, at the right time. Early senescence can reduce yields, so if we can find a way to delay senescence we can hopefully increase productivity. And that’s exactly what we see. If we get rid of the complex we’ve found, senescence is significantly delayed.

While we often talk about how delaying aging is good, the opposite can be true, too. Here in Wisconsin, we have relatively short windows for growing plants. If we can promote senescence, we can maybe shorten the plants’ growing season to better fit our weather patterns.

Now we are trying to understand the mechanism behind these changes because only when we know the mechanism can we really manipulate the system. Ideally, we will be able to manipulate things both ways by fine-tuning the epigenetics to different levels. It’s not all or nothing—it’s kind of an art.

How can your work help address concerns about climate change?

Heat and drought will make the areas that can grow plants limited and challenging in the future. This is a big motivation for us. We want to know what kind of epigenetic modifications happen in response to heat and drought—how strongly, uniformly, stably and rapidly do these modifications happen? Also, is this inheritable? If we treat a plant with heat and collect its seeds, will the next generation “remember” that past experience? Can that memory help the plant?

Why is it difficult to study the influence of environmental factors on epigenetics?

In the lab, it’s simple because we can control each factor and use one kind of stress. But in the real world, you are going to have multiple factors, and how they crosstalk is very complicated. Heat is associated with drought, and there may be long, dark nights and short days as well. I am interested in finding the epigenetic complexes responding to all of these factors. Ideally I want to combine all this information to establish an environmental epigenetic regulatory network. And if there is one key complex responding to all kinds of factors, that can be our target.

Is there a way to do very targeted epigenetic work?

One area we are getting into is epigenome editing (also named epigenome engineering) using a modified CRISPR–dCas9 system that others are using for genomic editing. This lets us target the genes involved in aging, let’s say, and then change only those few genes we have identified to be important. We can put a modification only in that place or on those genes. It’s more efficient.

Using CRISPR–dCas9, the epigenetic changes hopefully will be stable. That’s a question right now because we haven’t gotten to that step yet, but I hope that’s true. Ideally once we have the modification on there, it should stay and do its job.

How are epigenetic studies being used beyond the lab?

I am most interested in how epigenetics can be applied to horticulture and agriculture, but many people are interested in epigenetics for drug discovery. In human medicine, there is already a drug used clinically called azacitidine, which is used to treat a bone marrow disorder called myelodysplastic syndrome and works by blocking the methylation of DNA. This is still a huge, growing area, and whether lab findings can be used in the field or in practice is a million-dollar question. We need efforts to take the discovery from the lab into the field. Making that connection is important and challenging work in all areas of research.

Xuehua Zhong uses plants to study epigenetics, an exciting new field that is broadening our understanding of how some traits might be passed down from one generation to the next. Photo credit: Sevie Kenyon BS’80 MS’06

Gut Reactions

GARRET SUEN, an assistant professor in the Department of Bacteriology and an Alfred Toepfer Faculty Fellow, focuses on microbiomes and how microbes convert biomass into nutrients. “Microbiome” has become a more common word in the public consciousness in recent years. While the definition of microbiome remains somewhat up for debate, Suen defines it as the totality of the microbes that make up a community living within a particular environment— whether that’s an ocean, the tip of a pinky finger or—in Suen’s case—a cow rumen.

Through his studies of the microbiome of the cow rumen, Suen is working to understand the evolution and ecology of microbial communities and how those communities change in response to the host, the animal’s diet and other influences. He wants to use the microbes and their activities to improve the health of the animals, benefit farmers and even produce biofuels. Suen’s research has also led him to the microbiomes of other herbivores, including sloths and pandas.

Why are you looking at the microbiome of the cow rumen?

I’m very interested in helping Wisconsin farmers improve milk production in their cows. I’m trying to understand the interaction between the host cow and the microbes it has inside its rumen, and I want to know how we might go about altering that interaction so that we can improve milk production efficiency. There are a lot of farms in Wisconsin with small herds—100 or 200 head. Especially for these farmers, milk production efficiency is really important.

What role do microbes play in milk production?

Well, cows are strict herbivores. They only eat plant biomass, and without microbes they would not be able to digest that biomass. The microbes break down the plant polysaccharides found in the plant cell wall—things like cellulose—and they convert that into simple sugars like glucose, which is then fermented into fatty acids that the animal uses as its source of energy. It is those fatty acids that are also the building blocks of milk fat. So if we can better understand that process and which microbes do it best, we can improve milk production and make the animals more efficient in how they use the biomass they consume.

Why is understanding the relationship between microbes and milk production important?

Beyond the benefits to cows and farmers, making milk production more efficient will help feed the expanding population. It’s a better option than increasing the number of farms and land usage. Also, if we can use microbes to change milk composition, we could help cows produce milk with different fats or sugars. Studies have shown that human breast milk is healthier for babies in terms of promoting immune development, and we know that the types of sugars found in human milk are different from those in cow’s milk. So can we learn from that? Could we find ways to use microbes to make cow’s milk more like human breast milk? Changing milk composition could also affect the quality of downstream products such as yogurts and cheese.

How does your work with cow microbiomes relate to biofuel production?

Let’s take corn as an example of a crop we can use to make biofuels. The corn kernel is just one small part of the plant. The rest of the plant, called stover, is usually either silaged or burned. But there’s a lot of carbon in the stover that’s being wasted. So we want to know if we could take that carbon, break it down into simple sugars and have microbes ferment them into new fuels like ethanol. Cows are highly optimized to do that first part because we domesticated cows. We pushed cows to be as efficient as possible to produce as much milk as possible, and optimized the microbes at the same time.

So we’re very interested in taking some of the individual microbes from the cow rumen, bringing them into the lab and seeing what types of products they can produce. One of the microbes we study actually produces ethanol directly from cellulose. We view the rumen as a place where we might be able to identify novel enzymes that could be part of a larger industrial production facility producing next generation biofuels. We’re learning from nature, as I like to call it.

Another animal you study is the panda. Why are you interested in the gut microbiomes of panda bears?

In captivity, giant pandas get very painful episodes, called mucoidal episodes, during which they produce abnormal poop known as mucoids. Normally panda poop looks like chewed bamboo. Their system is inefficient at extracting energy from the food that they’re consuming, so bamboo moves very quickly through the gastrointestinal tract. But once or twice a year, they stop eating completely and produce these mucoids, poop that looks like their gut lining—the gooey, mucosal layer of the gastrointestinal tract.

But why would pandas shed their gastrointestinal tract lining? To answer that question, we worked with Ashli Brown Johnson, an associate professor at Mississippi State University, to look at the microbiota in the mucoids and compare them to regular poop of two giant pandas at the Memphis Zoo. We found that they’re very different from each other. So we came up with the hypothesis that maybe what’s happening is that pandas are eating these rough pieces of bamboo, which are actually causing physical abrasions to the gastrointestinal tract. The pandas then have an inflammatory response to the abrasions that results in the sloughing off of the internal gastrointestinal tract layer, producing mucoids.

Why is helping these pandas important?

The key thing is that these mucoidal episodes usually coincide with the gestation period of a panda. If the pandas are trying to get pregnant but not eating, how hard will it be to get pregnant? How hard will it be to carry a fetus to term—especially when you should be eating more to support the developing fetus? We don’t know why these episodes coincide with gestation, but anything to help pandas breed is important. Successful breeding of pandas is difficult and a big problem.

Are you studying other animals with interesting gut microbiomes?

We’re working with Hannah Carrey in the School of Veterinary Medicine to study what happens to microbes in ground squirrels during hibernation. When animals prepare to hibernate, they pack on weight, and while hibernating, they drop their internal core body temperature to around the temperature inside your refrigerator. We’d like to know what’s happening in that system. Understanding the activity of the microbiomes before and during hibernation can give us insight into host metabolism and diseases such as diabetes and obesity.

We also recently published a paper on sloths, which are on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from pandas. Pandas are eating all the time and are inefficient at getting energy from their food. Sloths eat much less than what you would predict for their body size. Physiologically it makes sense because they have much fewer energetic needs, but the three-toed sloth poops only once a week. That made me wonder what is going on from a digestive perspective! What we’ve found in sloths is completely different from anything we’ve seen in terms of microbial composition, so we want to figure out what’s so different about them. Animals that eat too much or too little for their body size are very interesting in terms of their gut microbiomes.

Garret Suen using an anaerobic chamber to study ruminal bacteria.
Photo by Matt Wisniewski/UW–Madison WEI

Upping Our Global Game

SUNDARAM GUNASEKARAN, a professor of biological systems engineering, was recently selected to serve as faculty director of CALS International Programs.

Gunasekaran—or Guna, as he is widely known—has made his mark as a food engineer. His research focuses on the rheology of food, especially cheese. More recently, he has focused on applying nanotechnology and other methodologies as tools for pathogen detection and processing validation in foods.

But it’s his life experiences, along with his research prowess, that distinguish him as ideal for his new position. Guna’s international experience is geographically diverse. He received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore, India, his master’s degree in food process engineering from the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok, Thailand, and his Ph.D. in agricultural and biological engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He’s been a visiting professor in South Korea, a Fulbright Fellow in Denmark, a USAID Farmer-to-Farmer consultant in Bangladesh and a mentor for a Syrian scientist under the Scholar Rescue Fund.

“I have also traveled widely and enjoy working with individuals and groups from different walks of life and interests,” he says.

As leader of CALS International Programs, Guna will identify and pursue international activities consistent with the college’s strategic goals. He will lead efforts to identify new resources for international activities and oversee the distribution of seed funding for new projects.

Why are international programs so important for CALS? 

The world has become very interdependent, and so have the problems we face. Many of today’s scientific challenges and practical problems can be solved not through isolated islands of intellectual pursuits, but rather by seeking out and incorporating ideas and approaches from different disciplines and across state and national boundaries.

Indeed, the scope of research and outreach performed by CALS faculty and staff extends far beyond the boundaries of the state and the nation. In a recent survey we found that more than 200 people in CALS have been working in about 80 countries around the world in various projects at one time or another. We are very engaged internationally.

International Programs can help elevate our international engagement from an “individual project” level to a more cohesive programmatic effort focusing on key areas of expertise in the college and implement a strategic framework for sustaining this activity in the long term.

What is your vision for CALS International Programs? 

My vision is for CALS to become one of the leaders among the nation’s land-grant colleges in international engagement, and for it to effect positive change in global agricultural, natural resource, energy, environmental and life science enterprises through research, education and outreach. We are a world-class institution, and CALS is among the very best land-grant colleges in the nation. Thus it is very appropriate that we envision an international program of similar stature.

How do we currently compare to other institutions? 

Other institutions have much larger international program activities. That’s something we want to see happen at UW– Madison.

Most major international collaborations deal with USDA and USAID projects. The United States government has resources to help developing nations solve their problems in securing a food supply, growing more food and developing infrastructure for storage, handling and distribution of food.

For example, the U.S. government has a large grant program called Feed the Future. We are one of the largest agricultural research schools that is not involved with that type of program. We are a player, but we are not considered to be a leader. That’s what I would like to help change.

How else is this work funded? 

In addition to funding from international agencies, there are local governments and private entities like the Gates Foundation. We also have support from alumni donors and alumni groups.

How has international research been changing over time? 

The United States is still a major intellectual and knowledge base—but now, as other countries and regions in the world are also growing their expertise, we can join hands and solve problems together rather than just being the problem solvers ourselves.

What are the hurdles to developing international research? 

Building relationships takes time. Normally if somebody is familiar with your institution or you as a person, that is the first point of contact. And then we get to know their strengths and needs, and then figure out how we can plug in our strengths and capacities. This kind of “feeling-out” process takes time.

We have to take time to travel and meet people and learn about their region and identify the problems they face there, and then identify researchers in Madison who have the capacity and the intellectual base to help solve some of those problems.

Does this process take resources away from our research endeavor here? 

On the contrary, it actually helps add to our research capacity and resources. Sometimes we develop a solution and international program activities provide additional resources to put that research output into action where it is needed. It takes some effort and capacity from our researchers to be able to focus their attention on international problems, but I don’t think it takes substantial resources away from what we are doing here.

How does international research enterprise affect students? 

We, as an institution, are responsible for developing future generations of citizens, and a student who is knowledgeable and well-versed in global issues and is sympathetic to different languages and cultures is a student who is able to solve the problems of the future. In that respect we believe that international engagement for students is critical for them to become future leaders and citizens of the world.

You held a number of listening sessions with faculty and staff from across the college to hear about their international work and their needs. What did you learn? 

The general consensus is: 1) they value international engagement; 2) they’re very active in it already; and 3) they’d like international programs to support their cause so they can do it more and better.

For example, they’d like us to help with their administrative needs so that they can focus on the technical and scientific aspects. Our office can help with budgetary issues, signing MOUs, and dealing with interinstitutional or intergovernmental issues. They also want to be more actively involved in large projects. So we are in the process of identifying opportunities where we can have multiinstitutional, multiinvestigator-based projects. It is something that individual investigators are not able to do, but that CALS International Programs can facilitate.

Beyond funding, are there other ways for alumni to assist in this effort? 

Certainly our alumni can be the spokespeople, our ambassadors. Especially our alumni who are internationally inclined, who have gone on a study abroad, or people from different countries who studied here and went back home—or even if they stayed here but still have strong connections back home. They identify with UW–Madison, and this is the institution they think of first when they think of collaborating, and so we become the first point of contact for them.

And when we go to another country, we look for someone who has been here, and they become our first point of contact—a resource center, so to speak, to help us navigate the local bureaucracy or culture. They become very valuable partners in this process. We have a number of examples of alumni we work with in engaging with different countries.

CRISPR: The Promise and the Peril

DIETRAM SCHEUFELE, a CALS professor of life sciences communication, serves on a national panel examining the implications of human genome editing.

The committee, appointed late last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, is examining the clinical, ethical, legal and social implications of the emerging technology. Genome editing holds great medical promise but also poses risks of off-target genetic alterations and raises fears it could irrevocably alter the human germline.

Led by UW–Madison law professor Alta Charo and MIT biologist Richard Hynes, the committee will specifically advise on questions about how risks should be quantified and whether some aspects of the technology should or should not go forward.

The ability to “edit” genes to target genetic defects became a much more plausible process with the advent of a technology called CRISPR (an acronym for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), which can be used to precisely target and cut portions of a DNA sequence.

Controversy arose last year when a Chinese scientific team used CRISPR genome editing on non-viable human embryos. The experiment produced a number of “off-target events” that altered unintended parts of the genome.

Scheufele has published extensively in the areas of public opinion, political communication and public attitudes toward emerging technologies, including nanotechnology, synthetic biology, stem cell research, nuclear energy, and genetically modified organisms. Web of Science lists Scheufele’s publications among the 1 percent most-cited articles in the fields of general social science and plant and animal science. Scheufele also serves on two other committees for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine: a committee on “The Science of Science Communication: A Research Agenda,” and the Division on Earth and Life Studies (DELS) Advisory Committee.

What’s the focus of your panel?

The committee that I serve on deals with human gene editing research and its potential applications. That includes potential future uses that could alter the human germline, which means that edited genes would be passed on to subsequent generations as part of the human gene pool.

But of course there are a lot of applications of gene editing techniques in agriculture and the life sciences, with the attempts to use genetically modified male mosquitoes to combat the spread of the Zika virus being just one recent example.

What are the potential dangers?

Identifying potential problems or concerns is part of the committee’s charge, and our report will work very carefully through both the scientific complexities of the technology as well as ethical, regulatory or political challenges that might emerge. Many of these challenges are focused on specific applications, such as germline editing. Once germline alterations are introduced into the human population, some have argued, they might be difficult to reverse and to contain within a single community or even country.

In many ways, the benefits are much more clear-cut, especially when it comes to helping parents whose genome puts their biological children at risk of inheriting certain diseases. Many patient advocacy groups are especially excited about the potential for medical breakthroughs in this arena.

What is the charge of your study committee? Are there specific deliverables, and what is the timeline?

The National Academies gave the committee a fairly detailed Statement of Task that can be found on our committee’s web page [link provided below]. In short, we will examine the state of the science of human gene editing as well as the ethical, legal and social implications of its applications in biomedical research and medicine.

Our work actually follows a pretty tight timeline that includes a number of additional meetings and informationgathering sessions. Most of the committee deliberations are open to the public and webcast by the National Academies. Once complete, the draft report will be vetted in a very stringent review procedure. There also have been and will continue to be numerous opportunities for formal public input, including on the draft report. If everything goes according to plan, the report will be released in fall 2016.

What role will you play on it as a communication scientist? What expertise do you bring to the table?

Human gene editing shares a number of characteristics with other recent scientific breakthroughs. One of them is an extremely fast bench-to-bedside transition. In other words, the time it takes to translate basic research into clinical or even market applications is shorter than it has been in the past. New gene editing technologies such as CRISPR provide us with faster, cheaper and more accurate tools for gene editing. But that also means that we as a society must have many of the ethical, legal and social debates surrounding gene editing at the same time that we are developing potential applications.

That is why more and more scientists are calling for what Alan Leshner, former CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has described as an “honest, bidirectional dialogue” between the scientific community and the public. Interestingly, the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 legislatively mandated public engagement through “regular and ongoing public discussions.” So the idea is not new, and researchers in the Department of Life Science Communication (LSC) at CALS were in fact involved in two long-term NSF center grants examining the societal impacts of nanotechnology and ways of building a better public dialogue. As a result, much of the research teaching we are doing here in the department focuses on how to best facilitate communication about emerging science among all relevant stakeholders in society.

What experiences from past science communication efforts inform your thinking about how best to communicate about gene editing?

Much of our work in LSC over the last few years has examined emerging areas of science that are surrounded by public opinion dynamics similar to what we might see for gene editing. This research has included work on public opinion on embryonic stem cell research, and also research on how non-expert audiences make sense of the risks and benefits of genetically modified organisms. Our research program has also led to regular engagements with policy communities in Wisconsin and in Washington, DC. When I co-chaired the National Academies’ Roundtable on Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences, for instance, I worked with bench scientists, social scientists and practitioners to build a better dialogue about emerging technologies between scientists and the public. g What aspects of gene editing seem to confuse or frighten people the most? We just collected two representative national surveys, tapping people’s views on synthetic biology, gene editing and other scientific breakthroughs. And our findings show that concerns about overstepping moral boundaries with potential applications of gene editing in humans and “blurring lines between God and man,” as the question was phrased, are definitely on people’s minds when thinking about this new technology. In LSC, we will continue to track public attitudes, especially surrounding the societal, ethical and regulatory questions that arise from applications of gene editing.

Obviously people are already reporting, writing, thinking and talking about CRISPR. Do you have any immediate recommendations for how to communicate about this subject?

It will be particularly important to keep two things in mind. First, this is an exciting area for science, but many of the questions and debates surrounding human gene editing will focus on ethical, moral or political rather than scientific questions. And we as scientists should be prepared to engage in those discussions, making sure that they are based on the best available science.

Second, having an honest dialogue among different stakeholders will require a conversation that is—at least in part—about values. And scientists will have to resist the intuitive urge to try and convince others by offering more scientific facts. Our own research and that of many colleagues has shown that the same scientific information will be interpreted very differently by audiences with different value systems. The same science, in other words, means different things to different people. And public reactions to many potential applications of gene editing will be no exception. g

PHOTO – Dietram Scheufele, professor of life sciences communication.

Photo by Sevie Kenyon

Bees and Beyond

Over the past 10 years or so, massive die-offs of the European honeybee—a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD)—have sparked increasing concern about the fate of agricultural crops with the loss of these important pollinators. At the federal level, a White House Pollinator Health Task Force was formed and in May 2015 released a national strategy for pollinator protection.

In support of that effort, a number of states are following up with plans of their own. In Wisconsin, professor Claudio Gratton and postdoctoral research associate Christina Locke PhD’14 from the CALS Department of Entomology were invited to partner with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) in leading a broad array of stakeholders to create a state pollinator protection plan.

The goal of the plan is to provide best management practice recommendations and educational materials for beekeepers, growers, pesticide users, homeowners and landowners who want to improve the health and habitat of managed and wild pollinators. A draft of the plan was open for public review as of this publication’s press time in early 2016, with the final report expected soon thereafter.

How bad is the bee situation in our state?

Locke: We have had very few reports in Wisconsin of colony collapse disorder, a phrase I don’t like to use because it refers to a collection of symptoms rather than a specific disease. One identifying characteristic of CCD is the disappearance of worker bees. Beekeepers go out to their hives and have a healthy queen and healthy brood cells, but the worker bees have somehow disappeared. That is not happening much in Wisconsin as far as we know.

What we do have are elevated annual losses and over-wintering losses in honeybee colonies. Wisconsin beekeepers averaged around a 60 percent colony loss for 2014–15, which is very high. Beekeepers will tell you that a sustainable loss is between 10 and 20 percent every year. These high losses are due to a combination of things. We’ve had a couple of really hard winters, and the honeybees aren’t necessarily adapted to our Wisconsin winters. So there are some efforts to breed queens that are cold-adapted.

The biggest thing that correlates with colony loss in the U.S. overall is the introduction of the Varroa mite in the 1980s. That correlates with steeper declines more than any other single factor we know of. The Varroa mite doesn’t just weaken honeybees, it also spreads pathogens that cause diseases. Those pathogens can spread from managed honeybees to wild bees, too, so it’s something we’re concerned about.

How are our wild pollinators faring?

Gratton: It’s really hard to track populations of our wild pollinators. We manage honeybees. We move them around, we keep track of numbers, we can open up the hive and see what’s going on. With the native bees, there are more than 500 species in Wisconsin. In any one system like apples or cranberries, we may have 100-plus different species that visit them. But many of them are solitary and sometimes rare. We haven’t really been tracking their populations very well. So to know if they are declining, we need a reference point and we don’t have one. As a consequence, we actually don’t know that much about how populations of the native bees are doing.

The few studies that do exist have looked at historical data and suggest that for the most part, most native bees probably haven’t changed that much over time. The few native species that we do have better data on are the bigger, more iconic pollinators like bumble bees. There is some good evidence that these species are declining in North America. And you can point to a couple of species that really have shown dramatic declines compared to midcentury distributions. There may be reasons for those declines—again, having to do with pathogen spread, competitors and declines in flowers in the landscape.

So, is this a crisis for wild pollinators? I think the jury is still out on that. I think there are lots of reasons to be concerned. But I’m not seeing the data out there saying that there is a massive die-off of native bees that we need to be immediately guarding against. This means we may have some time to start helping them out.

We think the way we have approached the plan is helpful because all of the things we talk about in terms of making life better for honeybees are also going to make life better for the native bees. As one example, reduction and judicious use of pesticides.

Also, when you talk to beekeepers and they say, “My bees back in the ’50s and ’60s used to give me 60 pounds of honey per hive every summer. Now I’m only getting 30”—there is not enough food in the landscape out there for honeybees. Food for honeybees—that is, flowers—is the same as food for the native bees. So all of our discussion about habitat management—getting more flowers out on the landscape, making sure those flowers are blooming throughout the entire summer—those are all things that are going to help native bees as well. I think the plan is going to be able to help a lot of other pollinators that can ride on the coattails of honeybees: bumblebees, butterflies and many of the solitary species that we never pay attention to.

What are some of the more surprising or important points in the plan thus far?

Gratton: You can do some relatively simple things and potentially have a big impact. It’s not like you need to transform the world in order to have an effect. Some really common-sense, small things can go a long way.

Locke: For example, in the agricultural recommendations there is a range of simple to more difficult practices. You can reconfigure your entire farm and make sure everything is really diverse and use blooming cover crops and all of that—and then at the other end of the spectrum, there are suggestions like leaving woody debris if a tree falls. Leave some wood so that bees can nest. That’s an example of a beneficial practice that only requires not doing something.

Based on your scientific expertise, what things would help the most?

Locke: For me, it’s habitat. We used to have a landscape in the Upper Midwest that was dominated by oak savanna and prairie. Now it’s not. That’s a lot of acres of habitat to compensate for.

Gratton: And second, as a home gardener or as a farmer, being judicious about killing bees through insecticides. I have to say that most of the farmers that we work with, cranberry and apple farmers, know this. They don’t want to kill off their bees. They are very sensitive to that, so they know the things to do to maintain their bee populations. Also, the beekeepers that they’ve rented bees from would get very mad if you sprayed insecticides during bloom. The farmers, especially of pollinator-dependent crops, know this. They are not necessarily the ones for whom we have to emphasize the importance of not spraying insecticides at especially sensitive times for bees.

What’s the overall hope in doing this work?

Gratton: I hope that people will read this and recognize that insects—in particular bees, but insects in general—play really important roles in our lives. And that, rather than follow our first instinct to squish them or want them to go away, we appreciate them and try to do things that encourage the beneficial ones in the environment. I hope even in a general sense that anyone can read the plan and say, “Wow, I didn’t realize that these little insects, these joint-legged things that fly around, do so much for us that we benefit from. And here are a couple of easy and practical things that I can do to make their lives a little better.” That’s my immediate goal for the plan.

You can view the protection plan at http://go.wisc.edu/pollinator

PHOTO—Entomologist Claudio Gratton and research associate Christina Locke in Gratton’s lab, examining part of a vast collection of pollinators. A new state plan they helped create is aimed at better protecting them.

Photo by James Runde/UW-Madison Wisconsin Energy Institute

Even Cows are “Texting”

Douglas J. Reinemann is a professor and chair of the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at UW–Madison and a milking equipment/energy specialist with UW–Extension. His research focuses on machine milking, energy use and energy production in agricultural systems. He is a member of the sustainability group of the UW–Madison-based Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, where he examines environmental impacts of biofuels production systems. He also leads UW–Madison’s “green cheese” team, which investigates synergies between dairy and biofuels production systems in Wisconsin. Reinemann has directed activities of the UW Milking Research and Instruction Lab since 1990. His extensive work with machine milking includes serving as the U.S. representative and chair of the International Dairy Federation’s working group on machine milking as well as the U.S. representative on machine milking committees with the International Standards Organization. He also has chaired machine milking committees with the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers and the National Mastitis Council.

What kinds of things are cows texting their owners?
This is a development that’s come about through the implementation of robotic milking systems. A robotic milking system has a computer for a brain, and, of course, computers can communicate with us, so dairy farmers have the option of selecting what sorts of information they’d like to get from the dairy herd and how often and when they’d like to get that information.

For example, earlier this year I was at the National Mastitis Council meeting and some dairy farmers there were frequently checking their cell phones to monitor what was going on back home—how’s the robot doing, are the cows showing up to be milked, is the machine working—and even tracking individual cows’ health status and milk production. How’s this cow doing today?

What kind of information is texted to a cell phone?
There are several levels of alert. There are more important things such as, for example, if the machine breaks down and it’s not working—that’s a very high level of alert. And the computer will call you up on your phone and say, “We have a problem with unit No. 2, it doesn’t seem to be operating. Come out and have a look at it or send someone to have a look at it.”

What other kinds of information are dairy farmers collecting from their herds?
With robotic milking in particular, but also in conventional parlors, we can collect the most basic information—milk yield, for example, so that we know how much the cow is giving at each milking. With that information you can determine that if today’s yield is down by a certain percentage, you might want to have a look at that cow. That’s a text message you might receive: “Cow No. 3765, Elsie, is down to half of what we should expect, and you might want to have a look at her today.”

What are some advantages of this kind of technology on the dairy farm?
It falls into the general category of precision agriculture. This kind of information allows a dairy manager to track individual cow information, as opposed to the more general trend in the industry toward group management in the last decade or so. This is a move back toward more individual cow management, which allows the farm to be more efficient.

You mentioned that this is “too much information’ for some farmers. . .
[Laughs] The game changer with robots is that when a robot is milking the cow, there’s not a person standing there. That really created the need for some kind of automated communication system. The robot has to be able to communicate with a human being in the event that something goes wrong. When you install a robot, one of the big questions is, “Who gets the call?”

Some farmers think that this is just fantastic. They say, “I don’t have to worry about the robot, I can just let it run,
and if something goes wrong, it will give me a call and then I’ll go look at it, but otherwise I don’t have to worry about it.”

On the other hand, you have people who hate it because they say, “I’m always on call and I’m always nervous about
getting the call, and it’s driving me crazy!”

So that’s a really interesting dynamic, I think. And it raises all kinds of questions. Do we trust this technology? Do we want the information? We certainly want to know when something’s going wrong—but on the other hand, sometimes we really don’t.

What other information can be collected on a dairy cow?
Right after milk yield, mastitis detection is near the top of the list. Even in conventional parlors we have ways of detecting whether a cow might be developing a mastitis infection. But in a robotic milking system, that detection technology is more sophisticated.

How about feed management, walking activity. . .
There’s a whole variety of sensors that tell us about different aspects of cow activity. The one we’ve been using the longest would be a simple pedometer to tell us how many steps the cow is taking. I recently got a Fitbit myself, so now I’m counting my steps as well.

Activity monitoring is used for a number of things, primarily reproduction—it’s used for heat detection—but it also can be used for lameness detection. And more sophisticated systems can actually locate the cow in the barn, so we know whether the cow is in the feed bunk or whether she’s lying down. That allows us to look at time budgets, the percentage of time spent resting or eating. An even more sophisticated technology detects the rumination activity of a cow. Rumination monitors can be put in the rumen, like a large pill, and they transmit information wirelessly.

How does such up-close information about the rumen help a dairy farmer?
It’s used to manage nutrition. Cows are ruminants, and rumination is what drives milk production, so a decrease in rumination activity is an indication that there is something wrong either with animal health or potentially something wrong with the dairy ration.

What resources are available to help farmers adopt these new technologies?
I actually ran a series of user groups for managers of milking parlors, which we established through UW–Extension agents. We got milking parlor managers together and talked about what technologies they were using and how they were using it. It was a very effective way to break the chicken-or-egg syndrome. You don’t really know what the technology can do for you until you actually start using it. And you don’t even know how to go about using it unless you know what it can do for you. The user groups are farmers saying, “I tried this and it really helped.”

One of the challenges is, salespeople sometimes make big promises about what their technology can do, and it can’t really do it. So people become hesitant. Once you’ve had a few experiences with some technology that promises you the world and then it doesn’t work, it sours you on technology in general. User groups are a way to get feedback from someone who’s tried it and can confirm that it’s helpful in managing dairy operation.

There are also user groups organized by companies that produce a particular technology, including robotic milking. These companies seem to be doing a good job facilitating
user groups.

Look into your crystal ball. Where can this go from here?
The move toward automation in dairy farming has been steadily progressing over the last 100 years. So this progression is really just a continuation of more automation in the dairy industry. What that means for dairy producers is economic efficiency, better animal welfare and better quality of life for the cow and the farmers.

For the Love of Plants

Irwin Goldman PhD’91, professor and chair of the Department of Horticulture, is an eminent researcher in vegetable breeding and genetics, with a particular interest in carrot, onion and table beet. His lab has bred numerous cultivars that have been used to make commercial hybrids grown by farmers all around the world. He and his laboratory currently hold more than 75 active germplasm licenses, some of which are handled through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

But in spite of Goldman’s prowess in both research and administration—he has served CALS as an associate dean and a vice dean, and as interim dean some five years ago—teaching remains one of his greatest passions. “Our most important job in serving the public is to make sure our students can obtain what they came to the university to get: a top-notch education,” says Goldman. “I see this as one of the primary reasons for being placed here by the people of Wisconsin.” He brings that devotion to the many kinds of students he teaches: from the graduate students under his research wing and the horticulture majors he advises to undergraduates and other learners who may not be science majors at all.

And students clearly benefit from his dedication. Claudia Roen BS’15, until recently a student assistant in the CALS communication office, was a senior biology major last fall when she took Goldman’s class, “Plants and Human Wellbeing.” She found it so enlightening that she was moved to conduct the following interview to learn more about both a fascinating subject—and what excites Goldman about teaching it.

What inspired you to teach Plants and Human Wellbeing?

I have been desperate to teach this class for probably 10 years, and I love this material, but it hadn’t previously fit into any of the courses I was teaching. I remember very clearly one January day over winter break sitting at my
dining room table reading about the spice trade—and thinking, if I don’t just say I’m going to do this and put
this class together, it won’t happen.

At that moment I began to write a syllabus and presented it to the department with the hope of teaching it the following fall. That was a few Januarys ago.

What do you hope students will take away from this course?

The whole point is connecting to plants and plant-derived materials and asking, where does this come from? How does it serve us? It’s a way of thinking about the world. If you approach the world that way, it’s part of being an educated person.

For example, one topic covered in the course is aspirin. There are natural compounds in plants that serendipitously have these health-improving effects on humans. What did we do with that information? There’s an industry created around it, and what does that look like? We can apply these questions to a number of plants used in pharmaceuticals.

Or in another lecture we discussed the tale of Johnny Appleseed and the history of the apple in America. Afterward we sampled more than a dozen apple varieties. Partly it’s a gimmick, but for people who have only ever eaten a Red Delicious, it may be surprising to try something very different.

When I was 18 or 19 I lacked exposure to a lot of things. One of my professors brought in mate. In Argentina it’s like drinking coffee, but to me at the time, it was so exotic. I feel that if I can supplement the lessons with things to eat, things to try and taste, I can provide some exposure to the diversity of what’s out there.

Have you found that there is one topic in particular that seems to excite or engage the students?

The treatment of human beings in the production of food that we consider to be delicacies is probably the most important to them, and it’s the single most recurring topic that students write about in their reflection papers. And that’s a good sign—the fact that they have begun to think critically about food production in ways that may change their behavior or make them think differently about the world.

A good example is the lecture on chocolate, which I think for many students is the first time they had heard about chocolate production and the negative working conditions, essentially slavery, associated with it. It is remarkable to listen to a worker from the cacao plantations who toils all day to produce chocolate for the Western world but who has never tasted chocolate. We discussed chocolate cultivation and its importance in our society, sampled several varieties of chocolate, and watched a video that featured cocoa farmers in the Ivory Coast—which produces more cocoa than any country in the world—tasting chocolate for the first time after a lifetime of harvesting the crop.

Has teaching the class provided any surprising or unexpected lessons?

Regarding students, probably the most surprising thing for me is the tenderness—and I have to use that word—that people feel for plant materials. When you get them alone or uninhibited, it brings them to tears. At the end of the semester students are asked to present to the class something they’ve made from plant materials. Students have presented food, musical instruments, body lotions and more. They are deeply connected to certain things, and that comes across when they’re talking about something that is important to them, some dish that their mother makes. There’s something there that is very profound.

What kinds of students take the course?

I’ve had students from a wide range of backgrounds. People from Letters and Science, people from all over campus and beyond. I’ve had a handful of returning adult students, and I also had some senior auditors who were taking it because they thought it was an interesting subject that they could sit in on. It was a much wider array of students than I would typically have in a normal horticulture class.

People connect to this subject in different ways. Some people are interested in aromatherapy, or they’re interested in gardens—it’s a catch-all for all things that connect to plant materials.

How do you see this course as a reflection of the goals and the values of CALS?

A big part of our college’s mission has always been to make science and scientific knowledge accessible to a broad audience, and this course certainly accomplishes that. No prerequisites are required; it’s open to anyone who wants to explore the topic. Obviously a deeper understanding of how food is made and where it comes from is an integral part of CALS. CALS contains the whole spectrum, from the soil that we grow things in all the way to policy and legislation around food and everything in between—the genetics and the biochemistry involved in breeding and growing. I love that about CALS.

And the connection between plants and human wellbeing is a recurring theme across that spectrum.

What we study and teach in CALS often connects to outcomes that impact humans, and one of the most fundamental impacts we should consider is their wellbeing. In fact, I find that it may often guide some of our most important projects.

What are your hopes for the course, and where do you see it headed?

Up to now the course has been listed as a 375, meaning it’s an experimental course. When I presented the idea to the Department of Horticulture, I pledged to teach it for two years as an experimental course and if it worked out, I’d ask to make it a permanent number. Now I’m pleased to say that this course has been given the permanent number Horticulture 350, and it will be taught every fall semester.

Ultimately, I would like to make it available online or through some other medium—as a MOOC, perhaps—because I do think students and a wide range of other learners could get something out of this even if they weren’t in the room. I want to make it available to as many people as possible.

More Milk for China

Pamela Ruegg

Pamela Ruegg

Tell us what you are doing in China.
I’m leading an interdisciplinary team from UW– Madison in working with the Nestle company to help develop a $400 million Dairy Farming Institute (DFI) in northeastern China. Our role in this, through a three-year, $1.7 million agreement, is to develop a teaching curriculum for farmers, consultants, veterinarians and others throughout China.

Can you describe what the Chinese are trying to address with these dairy initiatives?
There is an enormous demand for animal proteins, specifically milk protein, in China. People want to feed their children high-quality proteins, just like we want to feed our children high-quality proteins. And one of the best ways to do that is with our very nutritious product, milk. This growing demand in China is so large that they’re estimating that, by 2020, meeting that need would require an additional volume of milk equal to the entire output of the dairy industries in Australia and New Zealand combined. And that need can’t bemet entirely by imports. So there’s a need to develop the Chinese dairy industry. The U.S. dairy industry and Wisconsin dairy suppliers are engaged in that work, and we are as well.

What can we here at CALS and in Wisconsin offer this new initiative?
Our role is a unique example of how the status of the Wisconsin dairy industry is recognized globally. We’re recognized here in Wisconsin as being leaders in the dairy industry, and they came to us because of that. The Chinese industry is seeking that knowledge base that we have here, they’re seeking the technology, and, specifically, the education we have here. They came to us and asked, “Could you help us develop a curriculum to help raise the overall level of our science knowledge base in a way that will result in safer and higher-quality food products?”

Please describe the project—how long is it going to last, how many people does it involve?
It will ultimately involve most people in the Department of Dairy Science and many people outside of it—for example, from the School of Veterinary Medicine and the CALS departments of biological systems engineering and agricultural economics. We’ve also got some curriculum designers from other colleges involved. As noted, our initial contract is for three years. The first courses took place this past fall—a threeday, introductory-level feeding course and a more advanced course about reproductive management of dairy cows. It is very likely that the project will go well beyond the three-year initial course development period. The institute itself is meant to be permanent.

How did the first courses go? Who taught them and what did they report back?
Both initial courses were fully subscribed, and all indications are that they were very well received. The learners especially liked the practical, on-farm training and case studies that reinforced the scientific principles that made up the lecture portions. For the first offering of these courses, several ofour faculty and staff from dairy science—professors Dave Combs and Milo Wiltbank, along with outreach program manager Karen Nielsen—flew to China to participate in the opening ceremony for the DFI and to work alongside industry partners and Chinese DFI trainers in delivering the classes. Ultimately, after the trainers are fully competent with the course material, level 1 and 2 courses will be offered without direct teaching by UW faculty. We will continue to develop and revise curriculum for these levels and provide oversight and quality control. Higher-level courses for veterinarians and top managers will continue to be taught by UW faculty.

Describe the partnership with Nestle.
Nestle is the leader and the primary initial investor in the Dairy Farming Institute, but there are partners from all around the world, including our own dairy farmers here in Wisconsin. Land O’Lakes, which is, of course, a cooperative, is the feed partner at the Dairy Farming Institute. And there are other companies in Wisconsin as well who have invested in the Dairy Farming Institute. Our participation is also meant to support their success.

How may this benefit the state of Wisconsin?
It will certainly lead to additional opportunities for our students here. We’re hoping that as this institute gets off the ground, we’ll be able to offer internships and have student exchanges. We also, through our participation, are supporting the Wisconsin businesses.

“We’re hoping our participation will enhance the markets for Wisconsin agribusinesses.”

Can you please look into your crystal ball for a moment and imagine what the Chinese dairy business might look like five years, 10 years, 20 years from now?
The first time I went to China was 10 years ago, and in that 10 years it’s just been remarkable, the transformation of that industry. The industry is rapidly growing. There’s a lot of investment in it. This particular project is meant to stimulate the development of Wisconsin-style farms—midsize dairies, for the most part, that are owned by private entrepreneurs, private farmers just like here. The goal of Nestle is to kind of replicate what we’ve got here that’s so beneficial for our state and our industry, where we have a lot of independent producers producing milk in a very sustainable fashion.


 

Pamela Ruegg , DVM, is a CALS/UW–Extension dairy science professor and milk quality specialist whose expertise has taken her around the world. She has done international consulting work on milk quality and safety as well as enhancing on-farm implementation of best management practices to improve herd health. Her latest work has taken her to the northeast province of Heilongjiang, China, where the Nestle company is establishing a dairy training facility. The Dairy Farming Institute is a key element of Nestle’s effort to establish a larger, more reliable source of high-quality milk to supply its processing facilities in China. The institute will include a training center and three demonstration farms to teach farmers and dairy industry professionals the skills needed to manage larger, more sophisticated dairy operations. We sat down with Ruegg to discuss the university’s role in it.

Keeping Track of Wolf Deaths

Tim Van Deelen, a CALS professor of wildlife ecology, specializes in the management of large mammals, including population estimation and dynamics, hunting, interaction of deer life history and chronic wasting disease—and, not least, the growth of Wisconsin’s wolf population and its effects on white-tailed deer.

As this year’s wolf hunt season opens in Wisconsin, we talked with him about a hidden and disturbing topic: illegal killing, which Van Deelen says may have increased in recent years. Much of the data on this subject, he says, comes from work by his former doctoral student Jennifer Stenglein MS’13 PhD’14, who is now a wildlife researcher with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Can you give us an idea of how wolves die?
As we know from radio collaring data, wolves die for a variety of reasons. Wolves in Wisconsin have relatively high mortality rates, and that probably has to do with the fact that they’re living on a landscape that’s much more highly impacted by humans than, say, northern Canada or Alaska. We have higher levels of wolves getting hit by cars, especially as they begin encroaching parts of central and southern Wisconsin where we have higher road densities.

Wolves are also territorial, so on the margins of their pack territories or where there are territorial disputes between packs, wolves will kill each other.

Wolves die of disease. We’ve had deaths due to parvovirus and mange. Wolves sometimes starve to death if they can’t get enough prey or if they’re old or injured and otherwise inefficient as hunters.

There’s also a fair amount of unexplained mortalities that we have from radio tracking data.

Can you elaborate on that?
We have radio-collared wolves that outlive the radio collars—that is, they outlive the battery that powers the collar—so you have a record that starts when the animal is radio-collared and ends when you stop getting signals. Understanding mortality rates at the population level requires you to make some decisions about how you’re going to treat those animals once the record stops.

Research that my graduate student has been doing suggests that a fair number of those animals are dying.

Do you suspect illegal killing?
Well, the problem with illegal killing is you don’t observe it. You can’t point to something and say, “That wolf died from illegal killing,” but you need extra mortality in the system once you explain everything else in order to reconcile the mortality rates that we’re seeing with the reproductive rates that we get from the pup counts and the growth rate that we see from the annual population counts.

So there’s a missing gap in the data of why some animals disappear.
Right. The basic population dynamics equation is very simple. It says that the number of animals born minus the number of animals dying is the net addition or subtraction from the population. If we have a population that we can count every year like we do with wolves—we count them every winter—then we can mathematically fit an equation to that growth using things like observed deaths and estimated reproduction.

When we can’t get that to reconcile, then we need some additional deaths that are unobserved to make the growth rate that we see agree with the mortality and the reproductive rates that we’re measuring.

The suspicion is that many or some of those unobserved deaths are due to illegal killing. Because from our radio tracking data we do have good estimates on the relative amounts of deaths that are due to other things, like being killed by other wolves or dying of disease or being hit on the road.

What would prompt illegal killing?
Human dimensions research done at the Nelson Institute suggests that people living in wolf range have a sense of frustration that many people think traces back to this on-again, off-again listing of wolves under the Endangered Species Act.

We went through a period where the wolves would be de-listed, or there would be movement toward de-listing, and then somebody would step in, the courts would intervene, and the wolves would become listed again.

There’s good human dimensions research in wildlife that says that attitudes toward wildlife tend to degrade when people feel like they have no options for dealing with the problems that those wild animals are causing.

When wolves are put “off limits” because of the Endangered Species Act, then people who are experiencing problems with wolves, real or imagined— their attitudes toward wolf conservation begin to degrade.

That aligns with some of the research that’s been done on this campus suggesting, among other things, that people who are interviewed in the
north say they’d be more willing to illegally kill a wolf if the opportunity presented itself. More people are saying that now than in the early 2000s. That time period aligns with the growing frustration people have experienced over de-listing.

How many unexplained wolf deaths are there?
About 20 to 30 per year, in our best estimate. That’s been from the period 1980 to 2013, where we fit the models. There’s evidence that it’s been increasing recently. By “recently,” I mean within the past five or 10 years.

Can you please elaborate?
During the early part of the growth phase of wolves in Wisconsin (1996– 2002) the wolf population averaged about 200 wolves during midwinter counts. We estimated that about 43 of these would die during the year, and unobserved deaths were likely not needed to reconcile observed popula- tion growth. During the latter part of the growth phase (2003–2012), Wisconsin’s wolves averaged about 600 wolves, and about 138 of these would be expected to die during the year. However, you would also need another 24 dead wolves to reconcile the rate of population growth observed. These 24 would include a mix of natural and human-caused subtractions, including an unknown level of illegal killing. The change from 1996–2002 to 2003–2012 suggest that illegal killing may have increased.

What kinds of conflicts do people have with wolves in Wisconsin?
Probably the most important right now are conflicts with livestock producers. We have a handful of areas in Wisconsin that are hot spots where there’s been sort of long-term chronic depredation by wolves on livestock.

That’s a real problem—and fortunately in Wisconsin, the Department of Natural Resources has a partnership with USDA Wildlife Services. They have professional USDA trappers who can go in, verify whether a calf or a cow was killed by wolves, and then help the landowners either by excluding the wolves from the territory or by trapping and euthanizing the wolves that are causing problems. They’re very professional, they’re very good at what they do, and they’re very successful.

Another problem in Wisconsin is wolves depredating hounds. These are mostly hounds used for hunting bears and smaller carnivores. If you’re running hounds late in the summer, that’s when the wolves are provisioning their pups at rendezvous sites.

The wolves probably interpret that incursion as an invading pack, so they would attack and kill those hounds. That happens, that’s an issue to deal with. DNR has been proactive with trying to identify those areas where depredations have occurred and might be more likely, and warn people to avoid those areas with their hounds if at all possible.

There’s a lot of talk about wolves having impacts on deer in the north. In some places, that’s probably a reality. In some places it might be more perception than reality. At a statewide scale using the harvest statistics, we just haven’t seen a real impact of wolves, but that’s sort of a coarse-filter approach.

We have two deer research projects going, one in eastern farmland and one in the northwest. We actually don’t find a whole lot of wolf predation on adult deer, which would be the mechanism by which wolves would have the most impact on the deer herd. Still, if you’re the unlucky individual whose hunting spot happens to be sitting right on top of a wolf rendezvous zone, you might not be seeing very many deer.

What would you like to see done with wolf management going forward?
One of the unique things about wolf management in Wisconsin is that we’re managing this population now at a pretty high exploitation rate—meaning that we’ve got heavy harvest seasons. Those are designed explicitly to reduce the wolf population.

Harvest management theory would suggest that there’s some danger of long-term instability. I think the most important thing that managers of Wisconsin’s wolf population need to do is keep putting efforts into monitoring the wolf population—tracking population trends, tracking the extent to which wolves live on the landscape. Those are the measurements you can use to identify some sort of instability and then be able to deal with it.

To be fair to the managers, they know that, they’re working on that. We’re collaborating with them to come up with more cost-effective ways to get the sort of information they need to track population trends.

 

Upping the Orange

Sherry Tanumihardjo is a CALS professor of nutritional sciences and director of the Undergraduate Certificate in Global Health, a popular new program that draws participants from majors all across campus. She has almost three decades of experience working with vitamin A, and her research team has conducted studies in the United States, Indonesia, South Africa, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Zambia. Tanumihardjo has acted as a consultant to many studies throughout the world to assist with study design and appropriate standardization. She is a strong advocate for the promotion of nutritionally enhanced staple foods, vegetables and fruits to enhance overall health and well-being.

Describe your work with orange vegetables.
I have worked for a number of years on carrots of many colors as well as on orange-flesh sweet potato and, more recently, orange maize. Basically we are trying to improve the vitamin A status of individuals by having them consume more orange fruits and vegetables in general.

Can you give us an idea of how you go about doing that?
For many years I have worked with carrot breeder Phil Simon in the Department of Horticulture. He was breeding carrots for more orange color. We did a series of studies in both an animal model and in humans, trying to look at the uptake and distribution of the carotenoids that give the vegetables their orange color—and the vitamin A that is made from the carotenoids. Then we moved on to orange vegetables in humans in Africa. I have worked with orange-flesh sweet potato in South Africa and with orange maize in Zambia.

Can you describe the connection between the color and the nutritional value?
There are three well-known precursors of vitamin A that are called pro-vitamin A carotenoids. Those are beta-cryptoxanthin, alpha-carotene and beta-carotene. Many of you may have heard of beta-carotene because it is one of the compounds found in many over-the-counter supplements. But those are also the compounds that give carrots and orange maize their bright orange color.

What happens if there is not enough vitamin A in the diet?
The most drastic thing that can happen is death. So we go around trying to get people to improve their vitamin A intake not only to prevent death—there are many steps before that happens, and one of them is blindness. Vitamin A is extremely important in vision and it also helps us ward off disease, so it’s a very important vitamin.

How did you get started in Africa?
It actually started very slowly. I used to be a consultant and I would fly back and forth to different countries to help them look at study design. The sweet potato study was funded by the International Potato Center. I helped them design the study, they did the school implementation—a feeding study—and then I helped them get the work published. My work with orange maize started in 2004 in collaboration with HarvestPlus, a project managed by the International Food Policy Research Institute. We started working with animal models and then progressed to full-fledged feeding trials, the latest of which we finished in 2012.

What were some of the challenges in your work in Africa?
The challenge is that feeding trials, if they’re going to show what we call efficacy, have to be highly controlled. So that means you have to keep the children for long periods of time and feed them all of the foods—and the foods need to be the same across the group except your test food. So in South Africa we fed orange-flesh sweet potato to half the children and white-flesh sweet potato to the other half. And then when we moved on to orange maize we did two studies. One study was similar to the sweet potato study where we fed white maize and orange maize. And then we did a second study where we had three groups, which got a little more complicated. We had white maize, orange maize and then white maize with a vitamin A supplement.

Another challenge is that all of the human work that I do involves blood—so we have to take blood from these children. Vitamin A in the human body is stored in the liver, and we use indirect markers of liver reserves of vitamin A that you can pick up from the blood.

Looking down the road what kind of goals do you have for your research?
We would like for people to have optimal health by having a diet that has not only all the nutrients you need but also some of the potential compounds that gear us toward optimal health. So it’s not just about fighting blindness anymore, but to see if we can get people into a new nutritional state where they are actually able to ward off diseases such as cancer.

What kind of progress have you made?
We have had significant progress with sweet potato. Most people in Africa used to eat white sweet potato, not the orange sweet potato we eat here in the United States. Many countries in Africa have now adapted the vines to be orange-flesh sweet potatoes. We think that’s a success story. Regarding orange maize, there are three lines of orange maize that have been released by the Zambian government. Currently orange maize is available to consumers. Right now it’s at a premium price, but hopefully with time the price will come down to the level of white maize.

How did you get interested in this line of work?
It chose me. It wasn’t something that I was looking for, but I was working with vitamin A and if you’re working with vitamin A and status assessment, it’s going to draw you to the countries that may have a history of vitamin A deficiency.

Can you talk a little more about the international nutritional programming you’ve been involved in?
Most of the work that I’ve done is to support biochemical labs. We have not done a lot of nutrition education on the ground, although that is a goal of mine, especially in Zambia. We have discovered that Zambians actually have really good sources of vitamin A in their daily diets, so we want to help them continue to eat the fruits and vegetables that are good sources of those phytonutrients and vitamins and minerals.

The other thing that I work on is isotope methods, which sounds a little scary!

What are isotope methods and what do they do?
We work with a compound called 13C. Typical carbon in the human body is 12C and radioactive carbon is 14C. We are working with the form of carbon that constitutes 1 percent of the human body. It’s perfectly safe to use, but it also has allowed me to work with the International Atomic Energy Agency. That’s the same agency that oversees radioactive bombs in different countries, so it’s kind of interesting that they have something called Atoms for Peace. And they actually received the Nobel Peace Prize one year based on the safe use of isotopes in nutrition.

I have worked in several countries trying to help them understand isotope methods and to apply isotope methods at the population level to inform public health policy. It’s a very technical method, but it can answer questions of public health significance.

So it’s a research tool. And what kinds of questions does it answer?
It is the most sensitive marker of liver reserves of vitamin A. Basically what we do is we give a dose of vitamin A that has a slightly higher amount of 13C than what’s found naturally in the environment, and then we can follow the uptake and the clearance of that 13C in the human body. And from that we can calculate total body stores of vitamin A—how much is in the whole body.

To conclude here, there’s an interesting story about your office and a more recent career development of yours—serving as director of the Undergraduate Certificate in Global Health, a program you helped develop and launch in 2011.
Yes. The Nutritional Sciences Building was originally a children’s hospital, and this particular office that I sit in sat idle for many, many years, used only for small committee meetings and things like that. When we received funding for the Undergraduate Certificate in Global Health, I looked in this office again and realized that it now fits my purpose. Originally it was the viewing room for children who had died from a variety of diseases, and the parents would sit in this room and mourn their lost child. I decided that this room fit my new mantra at the university, which is to empower undergrads, to mobilize them, to try to change the world. And while I’m sure we won’t have 100 percent participation, we’ve already had about 1,000 students go through the program.

Everyone around the table

MONICA WHITE arrived at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2012 as a professor of environmental justice, with a joint appointment between CALS (community and environmental sociology) and the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Previously she was a professor of sociology at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Her research engages communities of color and grassroots organizations that are involved in developing sustainable community food systems. She is working on her first book, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement. Other projects include a multiyear, multimillion-dollar USDA research grant to study food security in Michigan.

You’re a fairly recent arrival at CALS and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. What goals do you have for your work here?
I am really excited because it is a position that allows me to talk about how communities are responding to food insecurity, how communities are engaged in local food and urban agriculture, and I can bring that into the classroom. I also bring activists to Madison and take students to Detroit. Madison has been a very welcoming place to integrate all of those pieces of who I am as an academic, as an educator and as a researcher. So there’s a nice way that these pieces operate, and my departments are extremely excited about the work that we’re doing.

Do you have a specific project you’re focusing on?
One example is for the capstone course in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology. I took students to Pleasant Ridge, Wisconsin, where students were able to look at a rural community that had a pre–Civil War black settlement. Students were involved in the archives and then we met with folks who live there. Unearthing the history of black farmers in the state of Wisconsin is something that I’m moving toward as we investigate the relationship between communities and agriculture and all the benefits that come from that.

Is urban agriculture something new?
I would argue not. I would say that as long as we’ve had people in cities we’ve had folks engaged in growing. My dad moved from Alabama to Detroit and he always had a garden. Often the assumption is that the northern migration meant folks were leaving behind their agricultural past. But they brought seeds with them and they brought the knowledge with them to the north— to cities like Gary, Detroit and Chicago.

And if you look back to 1894, Hazen Pingree, then mayor of Detroit, passed an urban gardening ordinance where he encouraged those who owned land to allow that land to be used by those who were unemployed. If we go back to the 1890s, we can’t argue that urban agriculture is new.

It’s just new in terms of its current incarnation. More people are looking at it as a strategy to respond to food insecurity, and knowledge and news about it are more widely available through the Internet and many other forms of media.

What’s encouraging about the movement is that people see themselves as agents intervening in the food system for their own and their community’s best interests. So, for example, I see that I have a corner store selling mostly cigarettes, tobacco, alcohol and lottery tickets. And I see vacant land. And instead of saying, “Hey, give us a grocery store,” people are using the land to grow food in response to food insecurity. I think that part of it—the intentional political engagement in growing food as a way to respond to neglect on the market side—is probably a way people haven’t thought about urban agriculture before.

Will Dead Species Live Again?

Stanley A. Temple is the Beers-Bascom Professor Emeritus in Conservation in forest and wildlife ecology at CALS and a former chair of the conservation biology and sustainable development program at the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. For 32 years Temple occupied the faculty position once held by Aldo Leopold, and while in that position he received every University of Wisconsin teaching award for which he was eligible. Since his retirement from academia in 2008 he has been a Senior Fellow of the nonprofit Aldo Leopold Foundation. He and his 75 graduate students have worked on conservation problems in 21 different countries and have helped save some of the world’s rarest and most endangered species. Last spring Temple gave a TED talk at a special event devoted to de-extinction, a concept that has captured the imagination of scientists and the general public alike.

What is “de-extinction”?
De-extinction is a recent term that involves bringing back an extinct species using DNA that’s been recovered from preserved material. There are two ways that it can be accomplished: one would be cloning to produce a copy of an extinct individual’s genome. The second way is through genetic engineering to re-create a close approximation of what the extinct species’ genome might have once been. The reality is that it’s no longer science fiction. We’re getting close to being able to revive extinct species from recovered DNA.

This must make for some unusual scientific partnerships.
It’s an interesting synthetic endeavor that matches the biotechnologists in the laboratory with conservationists in the field. The biotech crowd will be responsible for recovering DNA from an extinct species and through either cloning or engineering turning that DNA into individuals. But once they’ve done that, the next step involves people like myself who know how to recover endangered species by taking a small number of individuals and turning them into a viable population and getting them back into the wild.

What opportunities might this technology present to conservation efforts?
On the plus side, obviously, it would be exciting to bring back a species that human beings drove to extinction. But even if we weren’t able to do that, the technology presents an appealing opportunity to recover DNA from preserved specimens of an endangered species and use it to enhance the genetic diversity of the surviving population.

Can you please elaborate on that?
Conservationists have recovered many endangered species from very low population levels and saved them from extinction. The problem is, they’re often genetically depauperate, or lacking in genetic diversity. If we can recover some of the lost genes from preserved specimens collected before the population crashed, we might greatly improve the species’ prospects for long-term survival.

How would a conservation biologist go about actually applying this?
De-extinction is still an unproven concept, but it’s likely that sometime in the coming decades it will happen. Once they have revived individuals of an extinct species in the lab, then conservation biologists could try to recover the species by captive breeding and reintroducing the species to the wild. But conservation biologists get concerned about some of the details: Which species are going to be revived? Are they the right species? Are they the species that have the best chances for long-term survival in the world today? Are they species that might actually enhance the ecological health of the ecosystem that they were once part of, like the wolves reintroduced to the Yellowstone ecosystem? These are all questions of setting priorities for which species to actually revive.

How would you recommend setting priorities?
As a conservation biologist I would certainly look first at recently extinct species that were affected by a threat we’ve now overcome. Not only are those the ones for which we’re likely to have good quality DNA, but their ecological niche in the wild hasn’t been vacant for very long. And as a result, the ecological community that they were once part of has not readjusted itself to their absence, and might once again easily accommodate the species in its midst. On the other hand, if you’re dealing with a species that’s been extinct for a very long period of time—centuries or even millennia—the ecosystem that they were part of has moved on, and a species like that, once back in the system, could essentially be the equivalent of an invasive species. It might disrupt the system and threaten extant species.

How would you like to see this development proceed?
Considering the timeline that we probably have years or even decades to do this right—I and other individuals and groups that are thoughtful and somewhat skeptical about this would like to see a very broad discussion of the implications. We would like to see a lot of input in deciding the priorities about which species to bring back. We would not like to see this done in secret, which, unfortunately, is where this seems to be heading. This very expensive work is not receiving government funding and doesn’t have any sort of public oversight. Hence, privately funded biotech labs seem to be focusing on reviving spectacular extinct species, like mammoths and other Ice Age animals, rather than species that have a real chance of surviving in today’s world.

What would be an important takeaway point for the general public?
De-extinction doesn’t mean we can ignore the significance of extinction—to think, “Oh well, we can let species go extinct because we can always save some DNA and bring them back later.” This would just be an open door for activities that have been constrained by concerns for biodiversity and basically give the green light to go ahead and precipitate extinctions of species that are already with us.