“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.

Safer Native Foods

At the edge of a remote Alaskan peninsula, 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle, lies the city of Kotzebue. Snow-covered in winter and starless for weeks in sum- mer, Kotzebue is home to roughly 3,300 people, most of whom are native Iñupiat Eskimos.

People there consume a diet rich in animals found in the region, including caribou, seal and whale. Following Native tradition, foods often are fermented or consumed raw.

But they sometimes are contaminated with one of the most poisonous known toxins: botulinum toxin, produced by a bacterium called Clostridium botuli- num. In fact, Alaska has one of the highest rates of food-borne botulism in the U.S., most likely because of those traditional foods. Botulism can cause paraly- sis, respiratory failure and death, so traditional foods are not allowed to be served in state-run facilities like nursing homes.

A group called the Seal Oil Task Force, comprising Native organizations like the Maniilaq Association along with state government partners, has formed to try to change that. They want Native elders to continue enjoying foods they have known their whole lives.

Which is how CALS bacteriology professor Eric Johnson, one of the world’s foremost experts on Clostridium, came to find himself on a boat in Kotzebue last summer, traveling to a Native process- ing facility where seal oil is produced.

Seal oil is to many Alaska Natives what soy sauce is to some Asian cultures: a staple of their diets, Johnson explains. It is also especially prone to botulinum contamination. The task force contacted Johnson in 2015 to see if he could help.

“Many of the foods they absolutely cherish can result in botulism,” Johnson says. “They want to inte- grate food safety into traditional Native foods.”

The catch is that any new processing methods can- not alter the final product or significantly stray from traditional production. For instance, heating the oil would kill the bacteria, but it also changes the taste.

Johnson is working with the task force to deter- mine how the bacteria are contaminating traditional food products. This has involved rendering seal oil back in his campus lab, testing for toxin as the blubber stripped from hunted seals emulsifies at ambient tem- perature into the nutrient-rich, yellow-hued delicacy.

In Kotzebue, seal oil is produced by cutting fresh blubber into pieces, placing it in a covered vat, and stirring—twice a day—until the fat eventually gives way to oil.

Johnson has a theory that Clostridium, found naturally in soil, may colonize minuscule pockets of water present in the fat as it breaks down. He wants to develop a method to prevent the bacteria from contaminating the oil, or a method to neutralize the toxin.

In the process, Johnson is learning more about Alaska Native culture and believes his work could have even greater reach. “It could have an impact on cultures elsewhere,” Johnson says.

Partnering for safety: Bacteriologist Eric Johnson (right) chatting with a colleague in Kotzebue.
Photo credit: Eric Johnson

A CALS “Bridge to Business” Turns 20

Each January, the Renk Agribusiness Institute hosts the Wisconsin Ag Outlook Forum and releases the Status of Wisconsin Agriculture report—a sure sign for the agricultural business community that the new year is here. And each fall sees the arrival of a new cohort of Renk Scholars, undergraduates selected

for a scholarship program emphasizing leadership in contemporary agricultural issues and agribusiness.

The Renk Agribusiness Institute was founded 20 years ago to coordinate the university’s agribusiness teaching, research and outreach activities, provide financial assistance to students pursuing agribusiness degrees and offer professional development programs for agribusiness executives. The institute originated with a gift from the Renk family of Sun Prairie, founders of the Renk Seed Company. The institute is housed in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics (AAE) and draws on the expertise of faculty from across campus.

This year the institute has a new director: AAE professor Paul Mitchell, who is eager to increase the visibility and reputation of agriculture and agribusiness in CALS and UW and build more connections between the campus and agribusinesses in the state and region.

“Whether by offering educational and training opportunities for agribusiness professionals,
or exploring new options to facilitate connections between campus and the state’s ag industry, the institute can play an important role to help maintain and enhance the innovation capacity of Wisconsin agribusiness,” Mitchell says.

The Renk Scholars program offers a great way to help fuel growth, notes Mitchell.

“I inherited a solid student program from my predecessors, with a thriving agribusiness management club and a number of undergraduates participating in national student competitions,” says Mitchell. “Through the high-caliber work of the students, I hope to build the program’s reputation and visibility on campus and especially in the private sector as the number of Renk alums continues to grow. Through these experiences, we’re establishing cohorts among the students that generate synergies—and lifelong connections for both students and campus to capitalize on.”

Mitchell, along with colleagues on campus and partners around the state, a committed board of advisors and new associate director Jeremy Beach, is taking time this year to consider exactly how the institute should grow.

“There’s plenty of work to do and we are still in the visioning stages,” says Mitchell. “I’ve been looking more carefully at data analytics or ‘big data’ as a possible focus for the institute as it builds on the strengths of the department and college, but we have many other ideas on the table as well.”

Click here for more information on the Renk Agribusiness Institute and the Renk Scholars Program

Paul Mitchell, Agricultural and Applied Economics, takes the helm at the Renk Agribusiness Institute.
Photo by Ben Vincent, UW-Madison CALS

Class Act: Sam Schmitz – Big discoveries in little worlds

There are still some mysteries left in the world—even if, as Sam Schmitz has learned, you sometimes have to dive pretty deep to find them.

One place abounding with mystery is Africa’s Lake Tanganyika. Divided among four countries, it is the world’s second-largest, second-deepest freshwater lake. Its depth (4,820 feet) and relative calmness discourage water layers from mixing, and oxygen is scarce. But life perseveres, even thrives, in these conditions.

Schmitz, a senior majoring in microbiology and French (with an honors in research), has had the oppor- tunity to study this remarkable body of water without actually going there. As the recipient of an Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program grant from the American Society of Microbiology, Schmitz is analyzing water samples collected at Lake Tanganyika by UW–Madison limnologist Peter McIntyre and his team.

Using DNA sequencing, Schmitz has found that the deepest depths of the lake are home to incredibly diverse microbial communities. He and his fellow researchers have already identified numerous unclassified bacteria.

“The microbiome of the lake has not yet been thoroughly studied, so the lake may hold many more unique, undiscovered bacteria,” says Schmitz—a revelation that amazes him, given how much is known about other ecosystems. These same microbes, he says, may drive the processes that sustain life in the lake’s depths.

As his research project, Schmitz hopes to build on existing knowledge of the dynamics between microbial communities and their ecosystems. “I have always been interested in microbial communities and their interactions with the environment,” Schmitz says.

Such research comes at a time when the lake’s fragile ecosystems are most vulnerable, Schmitz notes. Climate change threatens to disrupt a natural order eons in the making. Better understanding the role of microbes in the cycling of lake nutrients could help us understand how Lake Tanganyika currently supports such abundant life, Schmitz says.

As a fresh graduate this summer, Schmitz plans to work in industry for a few years before returning to school—and his passion for research—to pursue a Ph.D.

Using DNA sequencing, Schmitz has found that the deepest depths of the lake are home to incredibly diverse microbial communities.
Photo credit: Sam Schmitz

Experts in “Smart Energy”

For decades, American energy companies have tried to persuade customers to use less energy. Using giveaways and various other financial incentives, utilities have promoted new light bulbs, miserly shower heads and smart thermostats.

Part of the goal has been to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. But another incentive hits utilities on the bottom line. Electric utilities must buy enough generation capacity to meet peak demand, which explains their interest in programs, for example, to taper the use of air-conditioning on hot summer afternoons.

The programs sound good, but do they work? That difficult analysis has been neglected, and the answers won’t come solely from classical supply-and-demand economics, says Bill Provencher, a CALS professor of agricultural and applied economics. To fill that gap, Provencher last year founded the Resource and Energy Demand Analysis (REDA) program, a rigorous one-year course of study and training leading to a master’s degree.

“Understanding why people do or don’t sign up and carry through with these programs involves new economic theory and methods, such as behavioral economics,” says Provencher. “Good intentions are not enough; results depend on whether energy is actually saved.”

No matter what happens in Washington, energy analysis will remain a growing field, notes Provencher. Graduates are also prepared for jobs forecasting the demand for energy, and there will always be a need for that, he says.

“In terms of moving toward renewables, the horse is out of the barn,” says Provencher. “For some states, federal changes may make a difference, but for others, not much.”

Last year’s REDA graduates readily found jobs in the energy industry. Graduate Emily Morris MA’16 works at New York City utility company Con Ed.

“One of my responsibilities is benefit-cost analysis of the Brooklyn-Queens demand management program, which has been able to postpone a $1 billion substation construction project for 10 years,” Morris says. “Con Ed has to invest in providing the energy in other ways, or encouraging enough customers to cut back on their usage. I look at whether the program is cost-effective.”

Did the CALS program help her land and perform the job? Says Morris: “I would not be here without REDA.”

Another graduate, Michael Francis MA’16, works for the U.S. Energy Information Administration. He, too, credits the REDA program with exceptionally good career preparation. His REDA experience included attending as many as 20 seminars led by experts in the field. “Today I was reading a report at DOE and realized that I had personally met some of the authors during REDA,” Francis says. “After the program, you will find connections in whatever city you end up working in, no matter what specific segment of the energy industry you are in.”

Provencher came up with the idea for REDA in part, he says, because in his previous work for a large energy consulting firm, he was surprised at the difficulty of finding qualified applicants for analyst positions.

The analytical tasks are complex, Provencher notes. Imagine that a utility with 50,000 residential customers starts a demand reduction program—perhaps it will give four high-efficiency LED light bulbs to any customer on request. To prove whether that significantly reduces energy demand in the next year, the utility must consider a wide range of fac- tors, including how many customers get the bulbs; changes in economic activity (people may use more electricity when they feel prosperous); and feedback to the customer (does the utility measure consumption and congratulate them for acting “green”?). And those are just a few questions.

Crunching those numbers and reaching sup- portable conclusions is no easy matter, Provencher says—but it’s exactly what the REDA program is designed to do. In one year, graduates get grounding in econometrics—think of it as the meshing of economics with statistics—and the energy industry. They meet analysts, consultants, executives and economists in the field, and complete a “capstone” project with a local or distant utility or firm, where they must base conclusions on real customer data.

A major part of the class is learning rigorous statistical analysis, using an open-source program called R. “R is a statistical program language that I had never heard of before, but now I use it daily,” says Morris, over at Con Ed. “It’s been a huge tool for me.”

REDA is a “terminal” master’s degree, which is meant to prepare students for their careers rather than serve as a stepping-stone for a Ph.D. That limitation doesn’t seem to bother grads.

“I was looking to go down the public policy route, but I was not convinced of the value of spending two years on the degree,” says Justin Margolies MA’16, now an analyst at Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corp. in Madison. “I realized that REDA would be a better, more focused route.”

The one-year master’s program is particularly attractive to people with “green” values, says program coordinator Bethany Glinsmann MS’11: “Some states and utilities are starting to pay attention to climate change and reducing their carbon footprint, but they need to make hard choices: ‘Given our limited set of resources, we want to be sure we are spending money in the most efficient manner.’ And that’s where program evaluation comes in. Did it work? Or could they find a way to spend those dollars in a more effective way?”

By applying statistical analysis of human behavior to energy—a field previously dominated by engineers and technology—REDA offers a more realistic and insightful way to assess the success or failure of demand reduction programs, says Margolies.

“The energy industry was historically built by engineers, and they used engineering algorithms to estimate the available savings from technology—say, installing an LED or a new air-conditioning unit— but were a little weak on verifying the savings,” says Margolies. “They did not take into account the behavioral element. People may not use the technology, or it may not be installed correctly. Those are the questions we are now equipped to answer.”

In Vivo: Passing the Torch

It was baptism by manure.

My first story for Grow, as the new editor, was talking with students in John Parrish’s reproductive physiology class over in the Old Dairy Barn during their first attempts to artificially inseminate a cow.

Grow editor Joan Fischer retires after more than six years with CALS.

This was only one of many hands-on tasks students performed as they learned the fundamentals of modern cattle breeding, including syncing a cow’s reproductive system and using ultrasound to determine pregnancy. But as students prepped for the procedure with gloved hands and arms, one could see it was the most daunting.

“The students are nervous,” I observed. “The cows, not so much. But only because they don’t know what’s coming.”

It was a great introduction to CALS. The openness and patience of the instructor, the enthusiasm and good humor of the students, the pursuit of knowledge that promises tangible improvements to our world: those were all qualities I came to recognize and value as the CALS signature, and I had the good fortune to see them again and again over the course of six-plus years and 20 magazines in stories that I wrote and edited.

As you may have surmised, I am moving on—heading off to retirement in California, where I grew up. In departing I am joined by two other retirees: Diane Doering, a graphic designer with CALS for 38 years—she designed Grow when it launched in 2007, and she’s designed every issue since—and Sevie Kenyon, whose superb photographs have graced so many issues (see the beautiful sunflower on page 2), in addition to his other communications and audiovisual work with CALS over the past 15 years.

But no worries, we will be succeeded by talented people who will keep Grow strong. I say this with certainty because we’ve already got a great new editor, starting with the next issue: Nik Hawkins (photo left), who comes to us from the UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, where he has been director of communications and public relations since 2012. His duties included serving as the chief editor, writer and photographer for the school’s flagship publication On Call, which Hawkins last fall transformed from a tabloid newsletter into a magazine.

Hawkins is excited about coming to CALS. “I’m a longtime admirer of Grow, and I’ve always been impressed by what it showcases within its pages,” he says. “CALS and its alumni seem to produce an endless supply of wonderful work that can improve the lives of people in Wisconsin and beyond. And so often this work engages the people it’s designed to help in the search for better solutions. Through Grow, I hope to continue telling compelling stories of these partnerships.”

It has been a genuine pleasure to highlight these compelling stories and share them with the wider world. Thank you, CALS community, for making my job so gratifying.

A Big-City Ag High School Blossoms

It’s just after lunch at Milwaukee Vincent, and students are settling into their two-hour Advanced Animal Science class. Using their fingers to write on an electronic whiteboard, they quickly assign themselves animal care tasks. There is much to keep them busy.

While some kids clean the rabbit and chinchilla cages, others try to hold the hedgehog without getting pricked or feed the 1,000 crickets purchased for conducting breeding experiments. (They eat fresh vegetables.) The classroom is abuzz—not with the beehives located a few hundred yards away outside—but with talk about the newest member of the menagerie, a goat named Susan. A half dozen students head out to the pole shed that now accommodates Susan’s pen. Water sloshes out of the five-gallon buckets students pull in a wagon toward the goat, the 26 chickens and the two ducks. The refrigerator is already full of eggs, but kids find seven more under one broody bird.

Forty-two buses bring students to the 70-acre North Side campus from all parts of Milwaukee. While the school was built in the late ’70s to focus on international studies, agribusiness and natural resources, it has strayed from that specialization over the past few decades.

But new life is being breathed into the school’s original mission, in part due to the infusion of funding through a USDA grant obtained by the University of Wisconsin–Madison to develop an agricultural curriculum at the high school. This, plus four new ag teachers and a principal who is dedicated to the school’s agricultural roots, are starting to turn things around.

“Agriculture may sound like an unusual choice for a big-city high school, but our expansive campus and, more importantly, significant career opportunities in the field, make for a strong match,” says principal Daryl Burns. “All the agricultural pathways help students build the skills needed for in-demand STEM careers and the skills needed for success in almost any career, as well as in college and in life.”

Each freshman is required to take a yearlong Introduction to Agricultural Sciences class. Students can then pursue four different pathways: Animal Science, Horticulture Science, Food Science and Environmental Science. A three-room greenhouse is back in use, and an enormous vegetable garden, chicken coop, animal room, apiary and aquaponics facility in which fish and plants are grown together have been added.

And the school has been renamed Vincent Agricultural High School. Gail Kraus, an agricultural outreach specialist, is helping the Milwaukee Public Schools initiative to see Vincent grow into its new name. Now in her fourth year there, she is funded through the CALS-based Dairy Coordinated Agricultural Project grant.

“This transformation will provide Vincent students the opportunity to engage in hands-on learning that builds the necessary knowledge and skills for one of Wisconsin’s largest industries,” says Kraus.

Much of the inspiration for bringing the school back to its roots comes from CALS agronomy professor Molly Jahn, who had visited and was impressed by the Chicago High School for Agricultural Science (CHSAS). There, students clamor for enrollment space because of its curriculum and reputation as a safe school that promotes academic excellence.

“We want Vincent to be as desirable to attend as CHSAS,” says Jahn. “Through the new ag curriculum, students may be prepared for jobs right out of high school or go on to college to study things they would not otherwise have been exposed to. I envision the day when the ag curriculum at Vincent will be used as a model for other urban high schools in Wisconsin and elsewhere.”

Some Vincent students have completed the college application process. Jeremy Shelly, a senior who is a member of the National Honor Society, wants to become a veterinarian. Dawson Yang is aiming for UW–Green Bay.

“I took the Intro to Environmental Sciences class here and loved it,” says Yang, who also likes to hunt, fish and camp. “I want to study environmental sciences and maybe one day work for the Department of Natural Resources.”

Class Act: Timothy Guthrie

Biochemistry senior Timothy Guthrie knows that science and success are about small steps. It’s those tiny strides that drive him to excel both in the lab and in the pole-vaulting pit.

Last summer Guthrie, a student athlete, earned a summer Biochemistry Undergraduate Summer Research Scholarship and spent lots of time in the lab of biochemistry professor Judith Kimble. There he worked, and continues to work, on making different mutations in a protein important for stem cell renewal.

“When I finally get something right in the lab that I’ve been working on for a month or two, it’s a really satisfying feeling,” says Guthrie, who plans to apply to medical school this summer.

Guthrie’s work allows the lab to better understand the molecular mechanism behind stem cell renewal in a tiny roundworm species called Caenorhabditis elegans, used as a model because their stem cells are easier to study than those in humans. Stem cell renewal is essential for the organism to keep producing cells it needs to develop and reproduce. By making different mutations to a protein important to this process, researchers can work to determine the role of the protein.

“The ultimate goal of stem cells is for therapeutic use, but we’ve got to work to understand the stem cells first—and the only way to do that is piece by piece,” says Guthrie. “That’s what Professor Kimble’s lab is doing.”

Getting involved in undergraduate research has helped Guthrie gain critical lab experience and also helped build connections between what he learns about in class and the experiments he performs in the lab.

“Along with knowledge of lab techniques and research, I’ve gained a better appreciation for the scientific discoveries we’ve already made,” he says. “All of those big successes and drugs we’ve discovered were made up of small steps like the ones I get to be a part of in the lab.”

Timothy Guthrie, Biochemistry senior, works with data on stem cells research.
Photo by: Robin Davies/UW–Madison MediaLab at Biochemistry

Inspiring Young Farmers, Then and Now

One hundred years ago, two men introduced a piece of legislation to the U.S. Congress that would forever change the future of agricultural education. Senator Hoke Smith and Representative D.M. Hughes, both from Georgia, brought forth the National Vocational Education Act, now known as the Smith-Hughes Act.

The Smith-Hughes Act encouraged establishing vocational agriculture to train individuals “who have entered upon or who are preparing to enter upon the work of the farm.” As such, the legislation created one of the first federal grant-in-aid programs, offering federal aid to states for high school vocational education courses.

Agricultural educators embraced the curriculum and a few short years later, some schools began to form student organizations for male students enrolled in their agriculture classes. In 1928, with interest growing across the country, a group of students gathered in Kansas City and created the Future Farmers of America.

That group, known today as the National FFA Organization, has grown to nearly 650,000 members in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and encompasses ag-related areas such as communication, food science and genetics. Female students have joined and hold key leadership roles at all levels. No matter the student’s gender, religion or ethnicity, all members share a love of agriculture.

And over the decades, FFA members have been inspired by the words of a Wisconsin educator: Erwin Milton Tiffany, a CALS alumnus and professor of agricultural education. He expressed a love of and vision for agriculture in the form of a creed, adopted at the Third National FFA Convention, that nearly every member learns in his or her first year. The words are powerful, meaningful and passionate. They tell a story of pride and purpose. They are so impactful that many alumni, of all ages, can still recite them today:

“I believe in the future of agriculture, with a faith born not of words but of deeds—achievements won by the present and past generations of agriculturists; in the promise of better days through better ways, even as the better things we now enjoy have come to us from the struggles of former years.”

Tiffany not only wrote the creed, he lived by it and spread the word. As a CALS professor, he taught and mentored other educators who would continue introducing youth to the many opportunities offered in an organization whose mission is to make a “positive difference in the lives of students by developing their potential for premier leadership, personal growth and career success through agricultural education.”

Student members, alumni, agricultural educators and supporters alike all live by an oath penned by a Badger: “I believe that American agriculture can and will hold true to the best traditions of our national life and that I can exert an influence in my home and community which will stand solid for my part in that inspiring task.”

To read the complete FFA Creed, visit ffa.org/about/who-we-are/ffa-creed

Erwin Milton Tiffany, a CALS graduate and ag educator, has inspired millions with his FFA creed. Photo of EM Tiffany courtesy of IUPUI University Library Special Collections / Illustration by Diane Doering

A New Weapon Against Bacterial Disease

Bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics are one of the biggest problems facing public health today. About 800,000 children worldwide die before their fifth birthday from diarrheal diseases that evade treatment. The concentration of those diseases is highest in parts of Africa and Asia.

To address the problem, CALS biochemist Srivatsan (“Vatsan”) Raman hopes to harness the power of phages—viruses that infect bacteria but leave humans unscathed. With help from a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Raman’s team is designing phages to specifically target bacteria that are causing diseases in infants.

Raman describes antibiotics—how doctors usually fight infections—as hammers that take out many bacteria, both harmful and beneficial. This means they can affect the entire human microbiome, which is the community of microbes on, inside and around the human body.

“We do not yet have the tools to selectively edit the composition of a microbiome,” Raman explains. But that is one of the goals of his lab’s work with phages. Unlike antibiotics, phages are very specific. A phage only infects one type of bacterial host. It is this specificity that presents Raman and his researchers with opportunities—but also some challenges.

Phages, which resemble lunar landers, locate bacterial hosts by attaching to specific receptors on the cell’s surface. Once they have found their host, some phages, called obligate lytic phages, quickly infect the cell and replicate. Once replication is complete, the new phage progeny burst out of the cell, ready to infect and kill the next available host.

Raman’s goal is to be able to control many steps in this process. He is investigating a way to engineer a phage that can be programmed to target specific bacteria. By changing just the “legs” of the lunar lander, the designer phage can target and eliminate any bacteria the researchers wish.

However, while destruction of bacteria is the ultimate goal, the process also creates problems. Many bacteria contain toxins that are released if the bacteria die in large numbers. So Raman’s team is also trying to control the rate at which phages infect and kill cells inside the body. “We can keep the phage on a leash and determine when and where it can infect,” describes Kelly Schwartz, a postdoctoral fellow in Raman’s laboratory.

Raman believes “designer phages” have great promise for human health.

“I was drawn to this research because designer phages can provide a potential solution to the antibiotic resistance problem,” notes Raman. “These bacteria are resistant to anything you throw at them and are killers in developing countries.

“And the next question, if we are successful, is ‘How can we turn these phages into actual medications that can be delivered to these areas?’ That challenge awaits us further down the road,” Raman says.

Vatsan Raman in his lab: The biochemist is engineering viruses that can vanquish harmful bacteria. Photo by Robin Davies/UW–Madison MediaLab at Biochemistry

Antibiotics Off the Beaten Path

As more antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” emerge, it’s clear that we desperately need new antimicrobial drugs. Yet, over the past couple of decades, antibiotic discovery has largely been stagnant.

“The reality is there’s almost no new antibiotics that are developed. And that’s because pharmaceutical companies have decreased their investment—in part because of the rediscovery issue,” explains bacteriology professor Cameron Currie.

The “rediscovery issue” refers to the fact that soil has historically been the prime source of new antibiotics—but it seems to be tapped out. When scientists screen soil microbes for new antibiotics, they keep finding the same compounds over and over again.

Currie is part of a team that is looking elsewhere.

Currie and his colleagues have been focusing their efforts on microbes that are associated with insects, plants and marine life from all around the United States, funded by a $16 million grant from the National Institutes of Health that was awarded in 2014.

“One of the major hurdles is finding new compounds, and that’s where we’re really excelling,” says Currie, a co-principal investigator on the grant. His partner is David Andes in the UW–Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.

At the front end, the work involves some good old-fashioned bioprospecting. Currie’s group, which is in charge of the terrestrial sphere, has gathered more than 2,000 flies, aphids, caterpillars, bees, ants and other insects, as well as mushrooms and plants, from locales near and far, including Alaska, Hawaii and Wisconsin’s Devil’s Lake.

Back at the lab, things get high-tech pretty quickly. Microbes are isolated from the samples and tested for antimicrobial activity. Promising strains undergo genetic sequencing that allows Currie’s group to determine how likely they are to produce novel antibiotic compounds. From there, other scientists involved in the grant go on to test the most promising compounds in a mouse model of infection. This approach has already yielded some exciting drug candidates.

“We have 9,000 strains to screen, and we have already found some new compounds that are effective at combating infections in mice and have low toxicity,” says Currie.

With so many samples to process, Currie’s group adopted bar code technology to help them keep track. They have a bar code reader—like you’d find in a grocery store— connected to a lab computer that they use to scan petri dishes, look up samples and add new data. For each microbial strain they’ve isolated, the database has photos of the “host” insect or plant, GPS coordinates for the collection site, assay results, genetic sequence and much more.

At this point, Currie feels confident that the project will pay off, and he’s eager to see one of the group’s compounds go into human clinical trials.

“If you find one new antibiotic that gets used in treatment, it’s a major success. You’re saving people’s lives,” Currie says.