Give: A Fitting Tribute

The late James F. Crow—an outstanding scientist, statesman, public servant and teacher—would surely have been happy with the solution arrived at by his colleagues and friends: a professorship named in his honor to ensure that great work in genetics continues.

The James F. Crow Professorship in Genetics will be made available to attract a world-class scientist to join the faculty in genetics. Endowment earnings will be made available to support the recipient’s research.

The professor who bears the title will build on the legacy of a giant. Crow was a pioneer in genetics. He measured the consequences of mutations—essentially, mistakes in DNA—for humans and other organisms, and he invented models that explain the pattern of DNA differences between individuals.

Crow’s discoveries made many of today’s genetic technologies possible, including commercial services that use DNA to reveal personal genealogy, the criminal justice system’s application of DNA evidence, and public health models that reveal why some diseases are common and others are rare. His work helped establish the University of Wisconsin–Madison as an international leader in genetics.

“Legions of the world’s most renowned geneticists trekked to Madison to visit Jim and meet with the broader community of geneticists on campus,” says John Doebley, genetics professor and chair of the UW–Madison Laboratory of Genetics.

Crow, an active member of the Laboratory of Genetics from 1948 to 2012, seamlessly integrated research with outstanding teaching and a passion for public service. One of his greatest gifts was his enthusiasm and ability to clearly explain genetic concepts to a wide range of audiences. He spoke to people he met in the community with the same admiration and excitement with which he greeted his scientific colleagues.

The professorship will honor Crow’s legacy by ensuring the continuation of discoveries with high societal relevance, notes Doebley. “Jim’s interests spanned the entire range of the field of genetics, but with a penchant for honing in on the most interesting and fundamental questions. As such, we can best honor his memory by following his instincts in this regard.”

You can make a gift to the James F. Crow Professorship in Genetics fund at http://supportuw.org/giveto/CrowProfessorship or contact Kate Bahr at the UW Foundation (tel. 608-308-5120, kate.bahr@supportuw.org).

A fundraising event for the named professorship will be held on Friday, September 23, 1–9 p.m. More info available soon at http://www.genetics.wisc.edu/CrowProfessorship.htm.

Keeping Us Safe

It’s hard to believe now, but when the Food Research Institute (FRI) was established in 1946—two years prior to the founding of the World Health Organization—botulism and salmonellosis were poorly understood, and staphylococcal food poisoning was just beginning to be elucidated. Many otherwise well-known diseases were only alleged to be food-borne, and the causes of many known foodborne illnesses had yet to be established.

Now the oldest U.S. academic program focused on food safety, FRI moved from the University of Chicago to the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1966 under the leadership of bacteriology professor Edwin “Mike” Foster.

And ever since, FRI has served as a portal to UW–Madison’s food safety expertise for food companies in Wisconsin, in the U.S. and around the world. Housed within CALS, the institute is an interdepartmental entity with faculty from bacteriology, animal sciences, food science, plant pathology, medical microbiology and immunology, and pathobiological sciences, drawing not only from CALS but also from the School of Medicine and Public Health and the School of Veterinary Medicine.

FRI offers a wealth of educational opportunities to both undergraduate and graduate students. Since 2011, FRI has coordinated its Undergraduate Research Program in Food Safety, which provides students with hands-on experience in basic science and applied investigations of food safety issues. FRI faculty and staff have trained hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students, post-docs, visiting scientists and research specialists throughout the years, and FRI alumni have gone on to hold positions in industry, government and academia across the country and abroad.

In keeping with the Wisconsin Idea, FRI’s reach extends well beyond campus boundaries through industry partnerships, especially with its 40 sponsor companies. The Applied Food Safety Lab and laboratories of FRI faculty collaborate with food processors to identify safe food formulations and processing techniques. The institute also provides outreach and training to both food companies and the greater scientific community through meetings, short courses, conferences and symposia.

“FRI is an outstanding example of how a public-private partnership can benefit the academic mission of UW–Madison and the needs of the Wisconsin food industry,” says FRI director Charles Czuprynski.

During the past 70 years, FRI has made many insights into the causes and transmission of foodborne diseases. Early on, FRI research established methods to identify and detect staphylococcal enterotoxins. Work conducted by FRI scientists pioneered understanding of the molecular mechanisms of botulinum toxin production and led to the harness of the toxin for biomedical uses. FRI faculty are leaders in mycotoxin research and have made important contributions to understanding the shedding of E. coli O157 by cattle, survival of Salmonella in stressful conditions and the role of Listeria in foodborne disease. FRI research also identified the health benefits of conjugated linoleic acid in foods of animal origin and conditions that might result in formation of undesirable components in processed foods.

Looking to the future, FRI research is investigating novel mechanisms to prevent food-borne pathogen growth in meat and dairy products, interaction of plant pathogens and pests with human food-borne pathogens, food-animal antibiotic alternatives, and the role of the microbiome in health and disease.

FRI will celebrate its 70th anniversary at its 2016 Spring Meeting May 18–19 at the Fluno Center on the UW–Madison campus. There’s also a reception on May 17 at Dejope Hall, near the grounds of the original FRI building. For more information about FRI and anniversary events, visit fri.wisc.edu.

Cows for Kids

Ruth McNair, a senior editor at the CALS-based Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, recently published a charming children’s book titled Which Moo Are You?

The picture book, illustrated by McNair’s daughter Molly McNair, introduces young readers to a variety of calves, each one distinguished by a key personality trait, as they explore, play, eat and sleep on a farm. Characters include a shy calf, a curious one, a friendly calf and many others. The story ends with a positive message about how we are much more than the labels that others assign to us.

The book, appropriate for ages 2–6, is full of fun rhymes and engaging pencil and watercolor illustrations.

Ruth McNair lives on a farm that hosts grazing dairy heifers during the growing season, and has also been the home of sheep, goats, donkeys, chickens, rabbits and even a llama. Seeing animal-loving kids at farm events inspired her to write the book, she says.

Molly McNair is a costume designer and maker, with a special interest in historical costume. She has a variety of artistic interests and a love of animals.

The book is available for $16.99 from No Bull Press at nobullpressonline.com.

Milk, Motherhood and the Dairy Cow

In the 1990s, dairy farmers were seeing a troubling trend in their herds. As cows produced more milk, their reproductive performance declined. This downward slope in reproduction, related to changes in the hormone metabolism of high-producing cows, spurred researchers into action. And CALS scientists found a solution—a reproductive synchronization system that could save Wisconsin dairy farmers more than $50 million each year.

“The development of these systems has been one of the greatest technological advances in dairy cattle reproduction since artificial insemination,” says Paul Fricke, a CALS professor of dairy science and a UW–Extension specialist. “It is highly, highly significant.”

For the past 20 years, Fricke has been working on the synchronization systems with fellow dairy science professor Milo Wiltbank. The systems, called Ovsynch, consist of treatments with naturally occurring hormones and are based on Wiltbank’s research into the basic biology of the cow reproductive cycle. The hormonal treatments synchronize the cycles so that farmers know when their cows are most likely to become pregnant.

Pregnancy rates in a herd are a product of two numbers: the service rate (the percentage of eligible cows that are inseminated) and the conception rate (the number of inseminated cows that become pregnant). Historically, farmers relied on visually recognizing when cows were in heat in order to time insemination—a tricky feat that often resulted in missed opportunities and low service rates.
“One of the biggest problems in dairy cattle reproduction is seeing the cows in heat,” says Fricke. “If you can proactively control the reproductive cycle, you can inseminate cows without waiting for them to show heat.”

Synchronization systems take the guesswork out of insemination, increasing service rates and pregnancy rates. Since the technology was first published in the mid-1990s, Fricke, Wiltbank and their colleagues have worked to optimize the systems. Researchers now see conception rates of more than 50 percent, and pregnancy rates of 30 percent or higher. Just 15 years ago, average conception and pregnancy rates were around 35 and 15 percent, respectively. A 30 percent pregnancy rate in herds producing high volumes of milk was unimaginable.

With impressive pregnancy rates and the safety of the system—the natural hormones used are short-lived and do not end up in food products—researchers and farmers alike are excited about further adoption of the technology. The payoff is substantial, considering the costs and benefits of breeding dairy cows, says Kent Weigel, professor and chair of the Department of Dairy Science.

“If we say that this technology will result in a 6 percent improvement in pregnancy rates, and we assume that it costs about $4 for each extra day that a cow is not pregnant, the technology could save Wisconsin dairy farmers about $58 million per year with just 50 percent of farmers using it,” explains Weigel. “This is a prime example of basic biology that turned out to have a practical application with huge economic benefits.”

PHOTO—Dairy scientist Paul Fricke has developed a way to inseminate cows before they show signs of being in heat.

Photo by Sevie Kenyon BS’80 MS’06

Five Things About Daylight Saving Time

1. A Founding Father was an early advocate. In 1784 Benjamin Franklin observed that during summer months, people slept during the daylight hours of morning and then burned candles at night for illumination. Thus adjusting schedules to begin earlier in the day during summer months would substitute free sunlight for costly wax. Though Franklin advocated changing schedules, he did not propose changing the clock. This idea was first suggested in Britain in 1907, and it was implemented in warring nations in 1916 as an energy-saving measure.

2. Farmers were not. The notion that farmers pushed for daylight saving time to give them more time in the field is a myth. In fact, farmers consistently came out against a peacetime daylight saving time, which was not implemented in the U.S. until 1966. Losing an hour of morning light meant an early rush to get crops to market. And dairy farmers noted that cows respond poorly to changes in their schedule.

3. The health effects of DST are a mixed bag. More time spent pursuing outdoor activities and increased exposure to vitamin D can be beneficial. However, studies have found increases in such maladies as workplace accidents, heart attacks, headaches and even suicides at the start and end of daylight saving time, attributable to the negative effects of disrupted sleep rhythms. This is particularly so for people with mental health problems.

4. It’s good for business—except when it’s not. Outdoor sports facilities (think golf courses), the grill and charcoal industries and retail groups have long argued that DST is good for business—and for theirs, it is. Less fortunate: airlines that have to scramble to keep international flights running smoothly during the time changes, and television networks that lose prime-time viewers to the extended daylight.

5. The biggest argument for DST is questionable. The idea that daylight saving time saves energy has been the most formidable argument for its implementation and extension. Most recently, the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005 extended DST in 2007 by three weeks in the spring and one week in the fall. But studies by economists in 2008 and 2011 suggest that DST leads to the same amount of electricity use, but shifts it to different parts of the day, or even increases energy use slightly if people engage in additional energy-intensive activities (examples: driving and using air-conditioning).

Daniel Phaneuf is a CALS professor of agricultural and applied economics.

Catch Up With … Gary Brown BS’84

Gary Brown BS'84 Landscape Architecture

Gary Brown BS’84 Landscape Architecture

As director of Campus Planning & Landscape Architecture at UW–Madison, Gary Brown BS’84 is in charge of places that hold cherished memories for just about every Badger alum. In addition to overseeing campus master planning activities on the 936-acre campus, Brown serves as director of the 300-acre Lakeshore Nature Preserve. Brown, a Fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects, also serves as the chair of the UW–Madison Landscape Architecture Alumni Advisory Board.

Currently Brown is spearheading the latest Campus Master Plan, a vision for the physical campus that is updated every 10 years.

• Is there an overarching goal you’re aiming for in this iteration of the Campus Master Plan?

This time around, rather than focus on the building capacity of the land, we are specifically looking at the spaces in between our buildings—the campus landscape. As a landscape architect, I find these spaces as important to me as the buildings, and in some cases, more so.

When we ask alumni about their favorite places on campus, they often mention Bascom Hill, the view from Observatory Hill out over Lake Mendota (and “traying” down that hill in the winter!), or the Memorial Union Terrace, some of our most iconic landscapes. We want to make sure all of our campus landscapes support the mission of the university and provide respite, rejuvenation and places for faculty, staff and students to gather outside in the warmer months. In winter, views out to great landscapes can help promote the wellness of our staff and the learning potential of our students. Landscapes and views to them are inherently important for our long-term health and well-being.

• Can you offer any specifics yet?

The plan includes adding new courtyards and open spaces as redevelopment occurs in the south campus, south of University Avenue. We are also looking at significant changes to the area between North Charter Street and Henry Mall, north of University Avenue, as that area redevelops over time.

• Where do you find inspiration for a task like this?

I rely on my landscape architecture colleagues around the country who provide inspiration in their work on campus landscapes. Some say the physical campus soon won’t be needed, with the expansion of online learning. I disagree. The physical campus and all that it stands for—the life of the campus, the heart and soul of the great universities—are in their campus landscapes. It’s what makes each university unique, offering a “sense of place” created by the university’s own history and its part of the world.

• What’s the hardest thing about your job?

Getting people involved and excited. Facilities planning can be pretty dull for some people. I want people to feel free to share their ideas and concepts about how the campus should look, feel and function in 20 years. It’s nice to stop and gaze into the crystal ball every now and then to predict the future. You never know what actually can come true. Look at Alumni Park, the East Campus Mall, a reinvigorated Memorial Union Terrace and the new State Street Mall—all great examples of amazing ideas and visions for our campus landscape that have been, and will prove to be, iconic for years to come.

For more information and to share your ideas, please visit www.masterplan.wisc.edu

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

Addressing Our Food Future

Kate VandenBosch, dean of UW–Madison CALS

Kate VandenBosch, dean of UW–Madison CALS

In December, I was invited to attend a meeting hosted by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy focused on “Raising the Profile of Agriculture.” Leaders from across industry, education and government gathered to consider the increased demand for food as earth’s changing climate exacerbates constraints imposed by soil loss, pest and pathogen damage, and land and water availability. These are big issues that tax the imagination. It is one thing to say the oft-repeated phrase “feeding nine billion people,” but it is another to fully comprehend the many hurdles related to that challenge.

The leaders I spoke with in Washington agreed that meeting this challenge will require creative, environmentally mindful solutions and new agricultural technologies. It is clear that our ability to develop these innovations relies on agricultural research and education and also our ability to recruit science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates into the agricultural workforce.

Pair this with results of a recent public opinion survey conducted by Dominique Brossard and Dietram Scheufele in the Department of Life Sciences Communication that showed Wisconsin residents discuss food and related topics with others more frequently than they discuss public affairs or science topics, and we have an enormous opportunity. If we can leverage public interest in our food future to strengthen emerging collaborations between industry, government agencies and universities, we can develop novel solutions necessary to meet these demands.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison, and our college in particular, are perfectly suited to advance this issue. I am proud to report that a number of UW–Madison colleagues also participated in the White House meeting—Bill Tracy, professor and chair of agronomy, Julie Dawson, assistant professor of horticulture, Ben Miller, director of federal relations, and Heidi Zoerb, associate dean for external relations in CALS. Our alumni also hold significant positions of influence throughout industry and government, including the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

This year, thanks to the generosity of donors to the college’s annual fund, we are expanding efforts to interest pre-college students in agriculture-related studies and launching a three-course series for undergraduates on food systems. These are only two of many ways we are working to address these important issues.

The challenges are daunting, but the opportunities are significant. I am excited to see the solutions our students, faculty, staff and graduates develop to meet these demands.

Middle East: Improving water policy in an arid region

Political conflict in the Middle East is a constant source of media attention, but Samer Alatout, a CALS professor of community and environmental sociology, focuses his efforts on a serious but less heralded struggle: how to best manage fresh water in a region that has so little.

Alatout, an expert on environmental policy in the Middle East, received Fulbright funding last year to advance his research on water policy—work that took him back to his hometown of Nablus, in the northern West Bank.

There he taught at An-Najah National University and established a number of research partnerships with Palestinian colleagues. He gathered valuable information about water policy in the region for these new collaborative projects, for his broader research program and for his forthcoming book, Water History and Politics in Historic Palestine: From Empire to Globalization, 1750–2009.

In one of those projects, Alatout is assessing the interplay of administrative units that have jurisdiction over water resources in the Palestinian territories—but that don’t always work together “in the most efficient or equitable way,” notes Alatout. He and his collaborator will analyze conditions on the ground and propose recommendations. “This project is about building better institutional mechanisms to solve administrative overlap among agencies,” Alatout explains.

In another project he looks at policies governing how Palestine and Israel share water resources, including the large mountain aquifer that sits beneath them. The goal is to find alternative ways for sharing the water that are more equitable—and work for all parties.

“It’s about how to negotiate productive solutions for managing trans-boundary water resources,” says Alatout. “In particular, how do you create win-win solutions, so that water access in Palestine can be increased without affecting Israeli communities in a negative way?”

Another big-picture goal arose from Alatout’s Fulbright trip: to help build the institutional relationship between UW–Madison and An-Najah National University, with the long-term objective of helping Palestinians tackle some of the tough environmental and agricultural challenges they face. These include arid climate, pollution and soil erosion.

“Any help that UW experts can provide in terms of research will make a huge difference on the ground in the daily lives of people,” says Alatout. At the same time, true to the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea and the push for internationalization, “Getting involved in an arid region like Palestine can be very productive for CALS researchers,” Alatout notes. “They will benefit greatly from facing fundamentally different issues surrounding agriculture and water policy making.”

PHOTO: Samer Alatout at a small reservoir linked to Al-Auja spring. The water is distributed to fisheries and a date farm in nearby Jericho.

The MBA of Dairy

The average age of a Wisconsin farmer is over 56 and rising, and the state has been losing around 500 dairy farms per year. It’s no surprise, then, that experts say it’s critical to prepare young people to step into farm roles in order to keep the state’s $88 billion agricultural economy strong into the future.

But making the transition into dairy farming is complicated, and aspiring farmers often don’t have the capital or the experience to take over an established operation.

Enter the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA) program, which is working to address the issue by providing support for young people interested in becoming dairy farmers. Started in 2010, the first-of-its-kind program is administered by the Wisconsin-based nonprofit GrassWorks, Inc., with CALS as a key partner.

Earlier this year, DGA received $750,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. The funding will enable organizers to improve and expand the program in Wisconsin, as well as explore the possibility of rolling it out to other dairy states.

“It’s a meat-and-potatoes program that really takes people up to the level where they can own and operate their own dairy,” says DGA director Joe Tomandl. “It’s the MBA of dairy.”

Program participants complete 4,000 hours of paid training over two years, most of it alongside experienced dairy farmers, and work their way up from apprentices to Journey Dairy Graziers and Master Dairy Graziers. Although most of that time is spent in on-the-job training, there’s also a significant requirement for related instruction. That’s where CALS comes in.

As part of the program, apprentices attend a seminar about pasture-based dairy and livestock through the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers (WSBDF), which is co-sponsored by the CALS-based Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and the Farm and Industry Short Course. The seminar involves a 32-hour commitment, which is generally fulfilled through distance education and includes instruction from CALS professors from dairy, animal and soil sciences.

“We believe in the Wisconsin Idea and want to make sure our classes are accessible to people who want more education, but preferably close to where they live and work,” says Nadia Alber, a WSBDF outreach coordinator who helps organize the seminar and also serves on the DGA board.

In 2009, GrassWorks, Inc. turned to WSBDF director Dick Cates PhD’83 for guidance and access to a well-respected educational curriculum to help get the DGA up and running—and the WSBDF team has been involved ever since.

“We were just this little nonprofit with a very small budget trying to compete for a big federal grant,” says Tomandl. “For us, it was important to have UW–Madison as a strategic partner.”

As part of the most recent round of funding, DGA’s partners at CALS will lead an effort to quantify the program’s broader impacts.
“They have already proven that participants are moving along to their own farms after the apprenticeship, so they have an established track record,” says Alber. “This new study will look at some of the program’s other impacts, including economic, environmental and social.”

Stealth Entry

Many human diseases—including cancer—are caused by protein malfunctions. Those malfunctions, in turn, are caused by damaged DNA that gets translated into the damaged proteins. While many clinicians and scientists are trying to treat those diseases by fixing the DNA, Ron Raines is taking a different approach—he’s looking to replace the proteins directly.

“Our strategy is to do gene therapy without the genes,” explains Raines, a professor of biochemistry. “We want to skip the genes and go right to the proteins.”

The strategy is intriguing, but there’s a problem. Proteins have a hard time getting into cells where they would do their work. The lipid bilayer of a cell membrane serves as a barrier that keeps the inside of the cell in and the outside out. That membrane stops potential intruders—including uninvited proteins—from entering.

Raines and his team have found a way around this in what amounts to a kind of biochemical calling card. They can attach “decorations,” using what is called an ester bond, to the protein to change its characteristics. The ester bonds link the protein to a “moiety,” a molecule that gives the protein a desired attribute or function.

“Moieties could encourage cell entry, which is one of our major goals,” says Raines. “But moieties could also enhance the movement of the protein in an animal body. Or they could be agents that target the protein, for example, to cancer cells specifically.”

Modifying proteins to give them these attributes has been done using other approaches, but those changes are permanent and can cause problems. The modified protein might not function normally, or the immune system might see the protein as foreign and mount an attack.

Raines’ strategy avoids these problems by using reversible modifications. Because the moieties are added using ester bonds, they are removed once inside a target cell. Naturally occurring enzymes in the cell—called esterases—sever the ester bonds and break off the moieties. What’s left is the normal protein without any decorations. That protein can then do its job.

“We don’t have the problem of damaging the function of the protein or of an immune response because what we ultimately deliver will be the wild-type protein, the protein as it’s naturally found in cells,” explains Raines.

The strategy is promising, and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) already has patent applications for it on file. Raines’ lab is now working to make adding the decorations as straightforward and user-friendly as possible. That way, scientists and clinicians could add a moiety of their choosing and get the protein to perform its desired function.

Raines sees innumerable possibilities.

“We’re very excited about this because it has a lot of potential,” he says. “We can now decorate proteins reversibly with pretty much any molecule you can imagine. We are exploring the possibilities to try to bring something closer to the clinic.”

Second Life for Phosphorus

Phosphorus, a nutrient required for growing crops, finds its way from farm fields to our food and eventually to our wastewater treatment plants. At the plants, the nutrient causes major problems, building up in pipes or going on to pollute surface waters.

Brushite bounty: Phil Barak displays brushite produced during trials at the Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District. Each jar contains brushite harvested from 30 gallons of anaerobic digest. Photo courtesy of Phil Barak

Brushite bounty: Phil Barak displays brushite produced during trials at the Nine Springs Wastewater Treatment Plant of the Madison Metropolitan Sewerage District. Each jar contains brushite harvested from 30 gallons of anaerobic digest.
Photo by Rick Wayne

But soil science professor Phil Barak has an idea about how to retrieve the nutrient from wastewater in a valuable form—and it started from a basic lab experiment. “I was doing some work on crystallizing phosphorus, just out of pure academic interest,” explains Barak. “That led me to crystallize a mineral called struvite. Then I realized it was forming in wastewater treatment plants as a nuisance.”

If he could form crystals in the lab, he reasoned, why couldn’t it be done in the wastewater treatment plants in a controlled way? It could. And, even better, if he collected the phosphorus early on in the treatment process in the form of a mineral called brushite, he could harvest even more of it.

Beyond removing phosphorus from wastewater, brushite can serve as a nutrient source for growers. While Barak will do further testing to prove its utility, brushite is a phosphate mineral that’s actually been found in agricultural fields for years.

“When conventional phosphorus fertilizers are added to soil, brushite forms. I maintain that we’ve been fertilizing with brushite for decades, but nobody’s been paying attention to it,” says Barak.

Being able to remove phosphorus from wastewater and supply it back to growers is a win-win situation, Barak notes. “We’re collecting phosphorus where it’s localized, at really high concentrations, which is the most economical place to collect it,” says Barak. “This works out in just about every dimension you can consider, from the treatment plants to the cost of recycling phosphorus as opposed to mining it new.”

Graduate students in Barak’s lab suggested that he commercialize the technology and start a company. After the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) passed on the patent, Barak and his students sought help from the UW Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic. They received two federal Small Business Innovative Research grants, and, with some additional funds from the state, including the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, their efforts have turned into a spinoff company: Nutrient Recovery & Upcycling, LLC (NRU).

The company’s next step was a big one. This summer, a phosphorus recovery pilot plant is being implemented in a wastewater treatment plant in Illinois. The pilot project will test the research ideas on a larger scale.

Additionally, the NRU team will participate in the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s granting system to determine if a pilot project would be a good fit in Milwaukee. They hope to start collecting and analyzing data from Illinois by September, using that pilot system to lay the groundwork for others in Milwaukee and beyond.