Saving an American Icon in England

On a mild spring day in 1980, a handful of men gathered on the sprawling lawn of England’s Windsor Castle, there to do a little landscaping. But these chaps wore suits, and one of them brought a silver-plated shovel.

The ornate spade cleared a hole for a new tree as any other would, but the laborer just happened to be Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II. And the tree that would take root in British soil just happened to be a hybrid elm from America. This simple act was part of a broader campaign to save the species from widespread annihilation.

Accompanying Prince Philip that day was Eugene Smalley, a professor of plant pathology at UW–Madison who had been tasked with fighting the spread of Dutch elm disease (DED) more than two decades earlier. First identified in the Netherlands in 1919, DED quickly spread through Europe via elm bark beetles before arriving in the United States in 1930. Since then, more than 50 million American elm trees have been felled. The towering Ulmus americana once stood as an elegant staple in communities across much of the United States.

“The American elm tree has had a unique niche in American life,” Smalley told The New York Times in 1989. “Before the disease, you could find streets lined with elms in almost every American town.”

Ray Guries, a professor emeritus in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology and a former associate of Smalley’s, called the rapid decline of the American elm a “traumatic experience” for residents of urban areas. “When they disappeared, it was as though an icon had been lost.”

Early efforts to halt the spread of Dutch elm disease were ineffective. Smalley was hired in 1957 as part of a state initiative, and he immediately went to work planting elm seedlings at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station north of Madison. This stand became known as “Smalley’s Elms,” and many can still be seen today as one drives north- bound on State Highway 51.

Smalley theorized that hybrid species with natural pest resistance — not pesticides — offered the best defense against the beetles. Through 20 years of research, he and his colleagues produced several hybrids — Regal, American Liberty, New Horizon, and Cathedral — that proved to be hardy against the cold and generally resistant to DED.

Another promising hybrid was Sapporo Autumn Gold. When Prince Philip set one in the ground at Windsor Castle, he also planted the seeds of hope. That elm still stands today and has since propagated more than 100 others on the property.

Smalley died in 2002, but his legacy lives on. His disease-resistant elms have served as replacements all over the world. Even the embattled American elm may be bouncing back. Guries has spotted them being planted once again in Madison. Although it’s unlikely ever to reclaim its former status, the tree and its hybrid cousins serve as reminders that Smalley’s work will continue for decades.

“In developing the right tree, we don’t deal in years,” Smalley once told the Wisconsin State Journal. “We deal in generations.”

Catching a ‘Silent’ Cow Killer

Mitch Breunig BS’92 has been around dairy cows long enough — all his life, to be exact — to suspect something was amiss with two of his Holsteins.

And he’s been around the Department of Dairy Science long enough — considering he’s an alumnus and his 450-cow farm in Roxbury, Wisconsin, is practically a field research station for the department — to suspect ketosis.

This “silent killer” is caused by excessive toxic particles released by the liver, usually when a cow starts to produce milk after giving birth. So it was fortuitous that Heather White, an assistant professor of dairy science and one of the world’s experts on detecting ketosis, was visiting Breunig’s Mystic Valley Dairy, within sight of the St. Norbert’s church steeple in northwestern Dane County, on that day in March.

The start of lactation is the moment of maximum metabolic stress for a dairy cow, when her overworked liver can crank out molecules called ketones that provide energy to other tissues in the body. But if ketones reach excessive levels, they can reduce milk output, set the stage for disease, and even cause the cow to be culled from the herd.

Milk output from the cows in question had dropped, which could have had many causes. Ketosis, however, appears in 40 to 60 percent of lactating American dairy cows.

Even though ketosis costs farmers an average of $290 per cow, it’s often undiagnosed because the blood tests are laborious and expensive. Far better would be a test for telltale molecules in the milk, which is exactly what White has been working on, in collaboration with dairy science department chair Kent Weigel MS’92 PhD’92 and Gary Oetzel, a professor of medical sciences at the UW–Madison School of Veterinary Medicine.

The result of their labor, called KetoMonitor, is now incorporated in the AgSource system used by dairy farmers across the state to track their herds and milk output. AgSource relies on a sophisticated spectrometer to look for two milk-borne compounds that signal ketosis and then refines the prediction through an advanced computer analysis.

When Ryan Pralle BS’15 and Rafael Caputo Oliveira, both graduate students who work with White, sampled blood from the two cows, Breunig’s hunch proved correct. The cows had a silent, or “subclinical,” ketosis. Armed with that knowledge, Breunig began corrective measures that usually tame ketosis, such as dietary supplements.

Blood tests are the old-fashioned but still gold standard method for detecting ketosis. But KetoMonitor’s milk tests and computation have become the first line of defense.

By testing milk from “fresh” cows every week or so, KetoMonitor first estimates the prevalence of ketosis in the fresh cows. Then, by analyzing the data on milk production, reproductive history, and other matters on each fresh cow, it identifies cows that might need a blood test for ketosis.

KetoMonitor already catches 85 percent of cows with the condition, which is almost enough to avoid blood tests entirely. Once they reach 90 percent accuracy, blood tests for every fresh cow would no longer make economic sense, White says.

To reach that magic number, Pralle is using a computational tactic called “machine learning” (think digital self-help class). When the software makes a mistake, it combs through the data, looking to do better next time around. The accuracy is improving, he says. “When we compare it to some other non-blood tests, I think our tools are very competitive.”

White and her collaborators began tackling the problem about 10 years ago. “We recognized there is a lot of money lost in subclinical ketosis,” she says. “A cow is having negative outcomes — she’s making less milk and is not going to rebreed as easily, but she can’t walk up and tell you she’s sick.”

Due to the efforts of White and others at UW– Madison and beyond, that has changed. “Ketosis has become something that producers really want to manage because they recognize the cost of the disorder,” says Pralle.

None of this is lost on Breunig, who sees a future with more constraints as a prime reason to focus on efficiency. “We will be in a position where we will need to grow more food on less land with fewer cows.”

KetoMonitor can help in unexpected ways, Breunig says. “When we adapted to the market by eliminating BST [the hormone bovine somatotropin], we had to change nutrition and management, and we used KetoMonitor to assess the impact of those changes.”

“Advances like KetoMonitor help us keep the herd healthy and allow us to stay competitive,” he says. “That’s the kind of help we really need.”

Clean Tubers, from Test Tube to Plate

Years before that french fry landed on your plate, the plant that would eventually give rise to the spud your fry was cut from was sealed away deep in a secureaccess building, growing slowly in a test tube inside a locked growth chamber.

At least, that’s the case if it was the product of the Wisconsin Seed Potato Certification Program (WSPCP), a 104-year-old CALS program dedicated to supplying Wisconsin seed potato farmers with quality, disease-free tubers.

All that security helps keep these important plants clean, and clean is a big deal for potatoes. Because they are grown from the eyes of tubers, or seed potatoes, rather than from true seeds, potatoes can easily carry bacterial and viral diseases in their starchy flesh from generation to generation. The solution is exacting cleanliness and rigorous testing at every stage of potato propagation.

WSPCP supplies 70 percent of the seed potatoes for Wisconsin’s 9,000 acres of farmland dedicated to propagating seed potatoes. The program certifies 200 million pounds of seed potatoes every year, enough to plant roughly 90,000 acres for commercial growing. Those spuds are then sold to commercial potato growers in Wisconsin, in other states, and around the world to be turned into farm-fresh potatoes, chips, and fries.

Each one of those potatoes’ progenitors once passed through the hands of two plant pathology researchers at UW–Madison, Andy Witherell and Brooke Babler BS’06 MS’10. In about three months, they can turn a handful of small potato plants growing in test tubes into hundreds. Multiply that by dozens of different varieties of potatoes — Caribou Russet, Magic Molly, German Butterball — and together Witherell and Babler produce tens of thousands of potato plantlets every year.

The two scientists work out of the Biotron, a facility on the UW–Madison campus designed to replicate any climate needed for research. The building’s secure access and clean protocols help them scrub the potato plants of any diseases and propagate them in sterile environments until they’re ready to plant in soil.

“This is a good place to grow plants because we’ve got a system that’s really clean,” Witherell says. “The Biotron air is filtered, and we have a clean room to work with.”

The researchers start by sterilizing an eye of a tuber and then inducing it to grow in a sterile container full of a jelly-like growth medium containing bacteria- and virus-inhibiting chemicals. As the spud sprouts into a small plant, they ramp up the heat to try to kill off any viruses. Then they clip off a portion of the shoot and replant it in a clean test tube of growth medium.

Brooke Babler and Andy Witherell check on micropropagated potato plants housed in test tubes at the Biotron Laboratory. (Photo by Bryce Richter)

Babler and Witherell can keep their plantlets in stasis in cold storage until the call comes in — 308 plantlets of Dark Red Norland are needed by July. Babler pulls out a box with several plantlets and takes them to the clean room, a space about the size of a parking space. On a sterile work surface, she takes out a scalpel and slices the plants into several pieces before replanting them in a new box. Just a small portion of one plant’s stem will grow an entirely new plant under the right conditions.

In this way, eight potato plants become 30. Four weeks later, those 30 become 80; then 80 become 310. They are all genetically identical clones of one another, and they are all still clean.

Thousands of plantlets of different varieties are shipped to the program’s farm in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, where they are grown hydroponically or in pots to begin producing tubers. Over several generations, one plant gives rise to many spuds, which in turn are replanted to make even more potatoes. In a few growing seasons, what once was handled by Witherell and Babler in the Biotron now weighs hundreds of millions of pounds and requires the work of two dozen independent, certified farms to manage.

Along their journey, the potatoes are screened for diseases that might have crept in. After Babler and Witherell leave the Biotron for the day (they only enter the facility once per day to better avoid bringing in pathogens from outside), they work in Russell Laboratories, where they help run diagnostic tests on potatoes to screen for viral and bacterial infections.

“Part of the certification process is to walk the fields and visually assess plants for the disease,” says Babler, a native of Viroqua, Wisconsin, who earned her UW–Madison degrees in both plant pathology and horticulture. “You can visually assess plants, but sometimes you can’t tell exactly what the disease is. So the inspectors ship the plants back to us, and we do diagnostics throughout the growing season.”

As part of her research, Babler is developing an improved test for a relatively new potato disease, Dickeya. The bacteria can spoil up to a quarter of a farmer’s yield under the right conditions and has recently taken hold in North America. Seed potato programs like the WSPCP are designed to detect and restrict the spread of new diseases like Dickeya, which spread primarily through infected seed potatoes.

Only those potatoes with a healthy pedigree get the WSPCP seal of approval. A portion of the sale of each bag of potatoes that commercial growers buy, certified to be as clean as possible, supports this years-long, labor-intensive process.

It’s a certification well worth the price — ensuring that Wisconsin potato growers continue to succeed, helping keep the state one of the top producers of potatoes in the country.

In the Field: Alumni Making a Difference through Parks

Tom Blackwood MS’77 

Tom Blackwood enjoys parks so much he decided to live in one. As the superintendent of Door County’s Peninsula State Park, Blackwood resided in the park’s “state house,” with his wife, Joan, and their two children, Sarah and Matt  — fortunate to call Wisconsin’s most popular camping destination their backyard for 23 years. Blackwood was drawn to a career in parks by his inherent curiosity in the unexplored. “I was always enamored with ‘what was out there,’ the roadless patches on the state map — all those beautiful, natural areas,” Blackwood says. His time spent at UW–Madison began as an undergraduate majoring in psychology but took a quick and meaningful turn after graduation. Involvement with the Department of Forestry and the Department of Wildlife Ecology (now merged as the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology) led him to pursue a master’s degree in recreational resources management. Post graduation, Blackwood built his resume through seasonal positions at Effigy Mounds National Monument, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, and Wyalusing State Park, after which he was accepted into the Park Manager Trainee Program with the Wisconsin State Park System. “The rest is history,” he says. Blackwood retired from Peninsula State Park in 2010 after celebrating its 100th anniversary. Though officially retired, he still spends much of his time hiking, biking, and skiing the trails of Door County and serving on the board of directors of the Door County Land Trust. During the summer months, he shares his extensive knowledge of the area’s land, water, wildlife, and history giving group boat tours on the bay and its islands.

Claire Campbell MS’15  

Originally from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Claire Campbell describes herself as an energetic and outdoorsy child. “I was always the kid that was out playing in the woods,” she says. “From bugs and plants to my first summer job flipping rocks in streams and chasing salamanders for a species inventory in East Tennessee, I was fascinated by the big picture — how and why do our natural systems end up the way that they are?” Her love for the outdoors led her to complete her undergraduate degree in earth and environmental sciences at Furman University. In addition to her studies, Campbell interned on a local farm where she studied soil carbon management and volunteered for Grand Canyon National Park. “I came to love the complexities of how soil forms, how we manage it, and what options exist to protect soil systems,” Campbell says. She then came to UW–Madison to reinforce her passion with a graduate degree in soil science. She explored the role of nutrient management and agricultural efficiencies in healthy soil, which was integral in helping her realize her desire to work in the public sector. Campbell set her eyes on a job with the U.S. Forest Service and received an offer from Montana’s Lolo National Forest the same day she defended her master’s thesis. Since moving to Montana, Campbell has enjoyed checking off adventures in her 600-page book of hikes and backpacking trips near Missoula. Her favorite thus far is a bike ride up Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park.

Ethan Lee BS’14  

Is your tree in need of a checkup? Certified tree doctor and UW–Madison graduate Ethan Lee may be able to help. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Lee attended UW–Rock County, where he spent three years studying mechanical engineering before transferring to UW–Madison and ultimately majoring in forestry. Upon graduating, Lee chose to give back to his childhood community by using his skills to enhance Janesville parks. He accepted a job as the parks and forestry coordinator for the City of Janesville Parks Division. He is also an International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) certified arborist. Lee’s day-to-day work schedule is anything but consistent, with tasks ranging from individual tree assessment and forest health to installing new playgrounds and engaging in community outreach. “I feel extremely lucky and honored to go to work every day with a smile on my face and look forward to all the new challenges,” Lee says. “I love my job and my community, and for that, I am very grateful.”

Jill Peters BS’14  

Communications may not be the first field that comes to mind when you think of careers in Rocky Mountain National Park, but it’s reality for Jill Peters. She grew up on Sand Island, a part of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, where she was immersed in the outdoors from a young age and gained a deep appreciation for the natural world. When it came time to choose a degree, Peters was stuck between pursuing her knack for writing, photography, and outreach and her passion for science and the outdoors. Thankfully, she found the perfect marriage of her interests through the life sciences communication major at UW– Madison. After graduating, Peters headed straight to Fire Island National Seashore along the coast of Long Island, New York, where she explored both research and communications positions. In May 2017, she applied and was accepted as the new biological science technician at Rocky Mountain National Park. Here, Peters has been able to continue her multifaceted career by participating in and communicating the latest scientific research in one of the planet’s most picturesque places. “Getting to be in the mountains, participating in all sorts of science research, and then playing a role in making the complexities of that science accessible to the public is a challenging and rewarding experience,” Peters says. “It’s truly the best of both of my passions.”

David Powell MS’75  

Recognizing his interests in nature and recreation, David Powell created his own undergraduate degree program at Carleton College to prepare him to pursue further education in outdoor design. Upon graduation, Powell headed to UW– Madison to obtain his master’s degree in landscape architecture and kick-start his career. With this education to guide his craft, he returned to Canada, settling in Saskatchewan to work as the chief landscape architect for the province’s Parks Service and eventually opening his own landscape architecture firm. Powell has worked in private practice for more than 25 years and shows no sign of slowing. The reward of creating living landscapes and watching them grow and change over time keeps Powell energized and inspired. In the midst of his success, he recognizes his time in Madison as his design awakening. “UW–Madison exposed me to ways of understanding and appreciating natural systems, which have forever framed the way I look at the world,” Powell says.

Pamela Schuler BS’80  

As the Ice Age National Scenic Trail manager for the National Park Service, Pamela Schuler works with public and private partners to oversee and carry out federal requirements to plan, acquire land for, develop, and interpret the 1,200-mile Wisconsin trail. Schuler became involved with the Ice Age Trail as a horticulture major working as an intern through the Department of Landscape Architecture. Upon graduation, she gained recognition for developing the trail through various positions with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which led to her current position. Though she began as a landscape architect, Schuler stresses how much collaboration and community involvement are required to build and maintain the trail. Her life’s work continues to pay off in a beautiful and visible way. “The Ice Age Trail reaches into communities to bring urban residents and children out into nature, provides an outstanding hiking experience that educates the public about our glacial past, and restores ecosystems along its footpath while connecting public lands across the state,” she says.

Jon Adams-Kollitz BS’89  

Jon Adams-Kollitz’s interest in urban parks has taken him around the world. While pursuing his undergraduate degree in landscape architecture at UW– Madison, he took advantage of every possibility he could. “I was floored by the sheer amount of options and possibilities UW offered,” Adams-Kollitz says. He focused his studies on architectural history and cultural geography and later became involved with Madison’s sustainability organization, Sustain Dane. Upon graduating with his BSLA, Adams-Kollitz spent the summer in St. Petersburg, Russia, and Washington, D.C., inventorying and documenting historic landscapes for a survey. After launching Formecology, an ecological/ artistic design build firm in Madison, he continued his education at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, where he focused on sustainable urban design. In 2007, Adams- Kollitz settled in Burlington, Vermont, where he works as the parks project coordinator for the Parks, Recreation, and Waterfront Department. He is now focused on designing and implementing an ecofriendly and universally accessible playground and on rehabilitating Burlington’s iconic eight-mile waterfront bike path, efforts that earned him the first ever Mayor’s Award for Innovation in 2016.

In Vivo: ‘There is Nothing So Stable as Change’

Kate VandenBoschThroughout its remarkable 128-year history, CALS has continually embraced change. To keep us at the forefront of the agricultural and life sciences, our leaders have seized new opportunities just as other endeavors have passed from the picture. In fact, our college formed in response to great change, during a time when Wisconsin’s farmers began to recognize the vital role of scientific agriculture in their success.

But one does not have to delve far into the past to find other examples of such adaptation. Only a decade ago, the departments of Forest Ecology and Wildlife Ecology merged, partly to put themselves in a better position to address new challenges related to natural resources.

Today is no different. We face a constant flow of change — in higher education, in funding, in scientific advancement, in our disciplines. Except the changes seem to have picked up the pace. Now the need for expertise is growing ever more rapidly as our challenges expand, from the threat of new invasive species to the difficulties of feeding a growing population. And the tools we use have advanced dramatically in the last two decades. We find our-selves in a postgenomic era where the mining of massive data sets has become as commonplace as microscopes. What, then, do we do?

The answer: we become more flexible, more responsive, more focused. But this cannot be achieved without careful thought about how we select and support our priorities in CALS. This is why, in late 2016, we began an orga-nizational redesign process for our college. Led by a multidisciplinary team of our faculty and staff, we are undergoing a thorough analysis of the trends that affect our work as well as the strengths of our departmental programs. Based on their findings, our team will propose a new conceptual design for the college, one that helps us concentrate our work where it can have the greatest impact, and one that positions us to be more responsive to global challenges, changing scientific opportunities, and student needs.

As we go forward, this proposal will be thoroughly vetted by the CALS community and guided through the implementation phase. This fall, our team is presenting the design options it has distilled for CALS, which will be followed by exciting discussions about shared priorities and vision, and how we can work together in the future. We look forward to reporting on all of this activity as this process continues. And if you would like more detail about the redesign now, please visit orgredesign.cals.wisc.edu.

In the meantime, one important change has already happened. After much deliberation over the past two years, including discussions among the faculty and administration and consultations with students and alumni, the departments of Landscape Architecture and Urban and Regional Planning have merged to form the Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture, effective July 2017. This new department will be housed in the College of Letters & Science, but we will always embrace those who earned their degrees from CALS as our alumni.

Change can be difficult, but this is an exciting time, and I am optimistic about the opportunities it will bring.

 

Back to Farming Basics in Guatemala

When Claudia Calderón touched down in the fertile highlands of western Guatemala, she was stepping into a sociological experiment already afoot.

What brought her to the verdant country in Central America in 2016 was a collaborative study conducted alongside her peers from Universidad de San Carlos in Guatemala. The group wanted to determine how two different types of small-holder farms (less than about 2.5 acres) perform in two key areas of sustainability — food security and climatic resilience.

The study compares semiconventional farms (those that use agrochemicals like pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers and grow a comparatively limited array of crops) and agroecology-adopting farms, which largely eschew modern pesticides for organic alternatives and are characterized by a sense of self-reliance, a concern for community well-being, a deeply rooted land ethic, and a tightly knit “solidarity economy” where food production and exchange occur for reasons beyond capital accumulation.

“They’re really focusing on the well-being of their families, of their communities,” says Calderón, an assistant faculty associate in the Department of Horticulture. “And not just the individual profit, but also the community profit.”

The first thrust of the study — food security — is a prominent issue in Guatemala. Large parts of the country lack the proper infrastructure to transport excess goods to market in time, and most rural households need to buy more food than they can produce. Combine this shortage with high levels of poverty, and malnutrition follows.

The group also investigated the agroecological method’s adoption and resilience to climate change. Agroecological farmers tend to grow a greater diversity of crops, including maize, bean, brassicas, leafy greens, potatoes, carrots, and fruits. This allows them to bounce back even if one crop is devastated by drought or rain. They also utilize terraces, contour planting, and live fences to mitigate the effects that washouts can have on their steep hillside plots.

“The whole world is talking about climate change, but particular regions of the world are especially vulnerable to the effects,” Calderón says.

Both agroecological and semiconventional agricultural methods are not without their challenges. Political will is fragmented. Property rights are murky or altogether absent. Extractive industries take advantage of this, hoping to ply the ground for valuable minerals in the soil.

But Calderón is intrigued by the symbiotic relationship between Guatemalan small-scale farmers and their land. She notes that women have become more involved in decisions about crop management. The takeaway? A set of farming practices aimed at optimizing yields, rather than maximizing them, may hold promise for the future of farming in Guatemala.

“What consequences are coming from particular ways of doing agriculture?” says Calderón. “We need to see the whole picture and recognize the role that small-holder farmers play for food security around the world.”

Five Things Everyone Should Know about…Birds, Buildings, and Avian Mortality

1 l Glass is invisible to birds. When birds see clouds or vegetation reflected in glass, they perceive it as open sky or habitat. Also, if they see plants on the inside of a building through glass, or if they see completely through to the other side of a building, they don’t recognize that there is a solid surface in front of them.

2 l Timing and location increase collision risks for birds. When birds are in close proximity to expanses of glass that reflect habitat, they are in a dangerous situation. This can occur when birds are foraging during the day any time of the year. It can also happen during migration, when many bird species launch into long flights around sunset; they fly for several hours and then land to rest and refuel. When they land near houses in unfamiliar territory, they risk running into glass as they search for food or fly toward reflections of what they typically use for cover from predators and weather.

3 l New buildings present opportunities to decrease collision related bird deaths. With new construction, a good way to design a bird-friendly home or commercial building is to use glass that has patterns etched into it, which breaks up reflected habitat images. This is called fritted glass; an added benefit is that it also helps control heat and light. For existing buildings with large glass expanses, films can be applied that decrease reflectivity. A great source for more information is collisions.abcbirds.org.

4 l Bird feeder placement matters. One best practice is to put feeders relatively close to a house or building. This may seem counterintuitive, but this way, when birds leave the feeder suddenly because they are startled, they can’t build up enough momentum to hurt themselves if they mistake nearby glass windows for habitat. Placing netting between feeders and windows is another good solution. Also, because birds can perceive ultraviolet (UV) light, window decals have been developed that reflect the UV portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Birds can see these extremely well, but people cannot, and sunlight still passes through. These decals need to be reapplied frequently because they degrade in sunlight. Other ways to break up habitat images are creating patterns with washable tempera paint and installing Acopian BirdSavers, which are evenly spaced nylon strings that hang in front of window glass.

5 l Birds face many risks beyond architecture. Buildings and glass are not the only major hazards for birds. Habitat loss is the primary factor causing avian mortality. Beyond that, best estimates point toward cats as the biggest direct mortality factor caused by humans. Building collisions are right up there at number two. Other mortality sources from humans include collisions with automobiles and communication towers.

Anna Pidgeon is an associate professor in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology.

Kernza: Perennial Crop with Perks

Valentin Picasso’s career has taken him across two continents — and always from the ground up. His research as an assistant professor in the Department of Agronomy focuses on forage and grazing systems in the United States and around the world.

A native of Uruguay, Picasso earned his Ph.D. in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University before returning home to teach for seven years at the University of Uruguay (UDELAR). Now back in the Midwest, he is intrigued by the ways sustainable agricultural methods, such as the use of perennial crops (those that can be harvested year after year), can build resilience to worldwide threats like climate change. Because perennials have deep roots, they hold soil in place, reduce water contamination, and rebound quicker from drought or extreme temperatures.

One such crop is Kernza, which was developed through selective breeding of a Eurasian forage grass related to wheat. In addition to its use as feed for livestock and its environmental benefits, it also serves as a grain crop, weed fighter, and money saver, all of which is boosting its popularity among farmers.

Picasso is excited to collaborate with his new colleagues at UW–Madison. “There are lots of opportunities to develop interdisciplinary projects to solve the most critical problems we are facing today in terms of agricultural sustainability,” he says.

And in an era of increasing globalization, Picasso has cast his gaze beyond the borders of Wisconsin. He maintains an international focus as he studies the agroecological intensification of grazing systems around the globe, especially in Latin America.

You’re working with Kernza. Can you tell us what that is?

Kernza is a perennial grain and forage crop, so it is a dualpurpose crop. You can harvest grain out of it, and you can harvest forage out of it. Once you plant it, you can harvest it for many years. The grain can be used as human food, just like wheat; you can use it for flour for making bread. You can ferment it and produce beer or other drinks. We’re also looking at weed management. This crop has the potential to really clean a field of weeds because it’s really competitive. Once it is established, it outcompetes a lot of weeds.

Where does it come from?

This plant is originally from central Europe and Asia. It was introduced as a forage crop to the U.S. in the early 1900s, and it’s been bred over the last 10 years by The Land Institute in Kansas. When you think about this, the breeding for grain of this crop started only 10 years ago. The breeding for grain for other crops started thousands of years ago and have been in modern breeding for hundreds of years.

And here in Wisconsin, which people are interested in Kernza?

The main interest here in Wisconsin comes from farmers who want to have a flexible crop that they can use for harvest grain, but at the same time they may have some dairy or beef — farmers who have cattle and want to be able to harvest forage or to graze this crop. So, we’re doing research on what the impact of grazing is on the grain production. You can either graze it in the spring or graze it in the fall, before or after the grain harvest. So, it produces a lot of forage and a lot of biomass, but at the same time you can harvest grain, which is what everybody wants.

How long will it last when it’s planted?

A crop of intermediate wheatgrass can last a long time. You can have it for 10 or 20 years. The grain production in the first two years is usually very good and then declines in the third year. We’re trying to understand why this happens. Every time we talk to farmers, they’re very interested in trying it both for forage and for grain. It would fit very nicely here in Wisconsin because we’re a dairy state, and dairy farmers have that unique set of skills as grain and livestock farmers. So that’s exactly what we need.

Is there any need for special equipment or agronomic practices?

Well, this is basically a forage grass, so anybody with machinery to plant forage grass can plant it. For harvesting, you can use a small grain combine. So, it’s just normal agricultural practices. The main issue now is the learning curve for farmers because every new crop requires learning new methods.

What is the market for the grain?

There’s a lot of interest right now in that grain. For instance, there’s Patagonia Provisions, which is a food company that has just produced what they call “Long Root Ale,” which is basically a beer brewed out of 15 percent Kernza grain. Recently, General Mills also announced that they are going to incorporate this perennial grain into some of their products in their organic Cascade Farms brand. And then there are a lot of restaurants and bakeries in the area where they are serving products with Kernza as part of their menu or as part of their baked goods.

So a farmer can market this grain if they grow it?

Absolutely. There’s a large demand for that. There’s a group called Plovgh [in Viroqua, Wisconsin] that a farmer should contact if they’re interested in growing Kernza, and they can provide the seed and the basic knowledge how to manage this crop in order to get a harvest. We’re very confident that the grain yields will increase. Because this is a new crop, there’s a lot of agronomic management issues that we haven’t figured out yet. What’s the proper harvesting method? What’s the proper harvesting time? What machine works best? What are the settings of the combine? All of these are things we’re still learning. And that’s what makes this really exciting. The research we’re doing, everything we learn makes a change in the way farmers can manage the crop, so that’s really exciting. And, really, commercial production started two years ago.

Any recommendations for a farmer who might want to try this?

The main thing is to start small. We recommend farmers try it in a small area and get familiar with the crop before deciding to go to larger acres. Ideally, we’re looking for farmers who are familiar with growing grains. But at the same time, it’s great if you have cattle. That way, you can either graze it or harvest the hay and give it to the cattle, and that’s what makes it profitable right now — the dual use. Dairy farmers who are very used to harvesting grain and have cattle are clearly a good target for this grain.

At what point can we expect perennial grain crops to be as productive as annual grain crops?

Yields of Kernza have been increasing rapidly and continue to grow. Kernza grain yields are between 400 and 900 pounds per acre in the first year. However, the productivity of Kernza is measured not only in terms of grain yield but also in terms of forage yield. Kernza can produce up to 5 tons per acre of forage on top of the grain yield, which can be grazed or hayed. And inputs like fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery passes are minimal, so costs are much lower than annual crops.

What are the other advantages to Kernza?

The main advantage of growing this perennial grain is the environmental benefits. Because it’s perennial, it covers the ground year-round for many years, so there’s no soil erosion, there’s no leaching of nutrients into the groundwater. It’s a great way of conserving soil and water quality. It also has very deep roots, so the amount of carbon that it can fix in the soil is important. In a way, it’s also reducing greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. The main reason you would want to develop this are the environmental benefits.

Class Act: Caroline Hanson and the ‘Patio Tomato Project’

For sophomore genetics major Caroline Hanson, growing tomatoes goes beyond community gardens and farms. It could be the key to healthier lifestyles.

With that in mind, she teamed up with campus and community partners in summer 2017 to distribute free patio tomato plants to low-income families, introducing them to easy, low-maintenance gardening that yields health benefits and encourages long-term healthy practices.

Hanson’s interest in food security began to take root after completing a First-Year Interest Group seminar in plant pathology with professor Jeri Barak-Cunningham. The course inspired her to secure a Wisconsin Idea Fellowship from UW–Madison’s Morgridge Center for Public Service to help pay for the materials for her project. As a part of the grant, she proposed teaming up with the River Food Pantry on Madison’s north side to distribute the tomato plants. Hanson and her team of fellow CALS students grew the project’s cherry tomatoes in two campus locations and then transplanted them into donated five-gallon buckets that act as inexpensive patio pots.

When distributing the plants during workshops at the pantry and community centers on Madison’s north side, the team provides tomato care instructions, recipes, and arts and crafts for kids. They also offer free samples of dishes that incorporate cherry tomatoes — cheddar tomato cobbler, tomato risotto, parmesan tomato chips — many of which can be made for $4 or less. The workshops get families involved in working with vegetables and understanding more about healthy lifestyles.

“The health benefits are obvious, and you see kids become passionate about something they can do on their own and is good for them and is good for their community,” Hanson says.

The project was initially slated for a single summer, but Hanson is working with different organizations to secure funding for another year and eventually make it an official student organization. With possible expansion, Hanson is determined to keep the project simple and rooted in helping people.

“What we love about this project is, even if you can’t start a community garden, it’s focused on container gardening,” Hanson says. “You don’t need a fancy gardening system. You can just get a bucket and some dirt, and you can get to work.”

New Clues to Healthy Bones for People with PKU

Individuals with the metabolic disorder phenylketonuria, or PKU, cannot metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine. Without careful dietary management, it can accumulate at high levels in their blood, leading to cognitive impairment, seizures, and other serious health problems.

There is no cure for PKU, and patients must adhere to a lifelong diet of medical foods that contain protein but are low in phenylalanine. Traditionally, these medical foods have been made using synthetic protein substitutes derived from mixtures of amino acids. But these amino acid- based medical foods could be contributing to the skeletal fragility seen in many PKU patients, according to a new study led by nutritional sciences professor Denise Ney and Bridget Stroup PhD’17.

The researchers also discovered that an alternative medical food, developed by Ney from a protein called glycomacropeptide (GMP) — a natural byproduct found in the whey extracted during cheese production — could allow PKU patients to manage their diets without compromising their bone health. This study represents the first human clinical trial comparing how different PKU-specific diets affect the bone health of people living with the disease.

Ney helped develop GMP-based foods for PKU patients just over a decade ago. In subsequent studies, she has shown that mice fed GMP-based diets have larger and stronger bones than mice on amino acid based diets. “It was a vital clue that there could be a link between amino acid medical foods and the skeletal fragility seen in many PKU patients,” says Ney, a researcher at UW–Madison’s Waisman Center.

For the current study, Ney and her research team assigned eight individuals with PKU to a diet of amino acid-based medical foods before switching them to GMP-based foods with a low dietary acid load. The researchers found that PKU patients had higher amounts of calcium and magnesium in their urine while on the amino acid based diet, a sign of bone breakdown, which can impair bone health.

“The amino acid medical foods have high acid loads, which can change the overall acid-base balance within the body,” Stroup says. Bones are able to buffer high acid loads in the body, but over time this leads to a breakdown and release of minerals. On the other hand, Glytactin (the trademarked brand name for the formulation used in the study) GMP medical foods do not have high acid loads.

Although the researchers did not directly measure bone breakdown and density in this study, other studies have found that reducing the acid content of diets leads to lower urine-calcium excretion and increased bone density.

These findings, Ney says, could also help patients with other kinds of metabolic disorders, like maple syrup urine disease. And although the sample size of the study was relatively small, it is typical of investigations into rare diseases; Ney hopes to secure additional funding for further study.

Ney is working on a larger clinical trial to study the metabolism of calcium and other minerals in PKU patients consuming amino acid or GMP medical foods. “We will be looking at bone health and also other physiological aspects, such as the gut microbiota,” she says.

Beyond Antibiotics

Since the beginning of their widespread adoption in the 1940s, antibiotics — the antimicrobial drugs we use to treat bacterial infections — have saved millions of lives. In recent years, however, misuse and overuse of these drugs in human medicine have helped put us on the path to a worldwide crisis. In this environment, harmful bacteria can evolve more rapidly, developing higher and higher levels of resistance. As a result, our “wonder drugs” are losing their effectiveness. This leads to longer and more complicated illnesses; greater risks for spreading infections; more hospital visits; the use of stronger, costlier, and more toxic drugs; and, ultimately, more deaths. Fortunately, scientists at CALS are facing this challenge head-on. From alternative forms of treatment to better methods of infection detection, here are some of the solutions they are working to bring to the world of modern medicine.

Friendly Microbes

Microbiologist Jan Peter van Pijkeren looks at probiotics — those microbes thought to provide health benefits in our bodies — as more than just friendly bugs. He sees them as a way to sneak in antibiotic-free treatment for disease-causing bacteria like Clostridium difficile.

Jan Peter van Pijkeren works with Laura Alexander, a doctoral student of microbiology, in his lab. (Photo by Tim Fitch)

Known as C. diff, this resilient gastrointestinal pathogen causes stomach pain, diarrhea, and potentially life-threatening inflammation of the colon. But by loading the probiotic bacterium Lactobacillus reuteri with viruses targeted at C. diff, van Pijkeren aims to deliver genetic instructions that cause the pathogen to self-destruct.

In an ironic twist of fate, C. diff often colonizes the gut after antibiotics wipe out the microbial communities that normally keep it at bay. Infections often happen in hospitals, where antibiotics are becoming more common. Additional antibiotic treatments targeting C. diff don’t always work, and the infection recurs in as many as 20 percent of patients.

“The downside of antibiotics is they are a sledgehammer that depletes and destroys the gut microbial community,” says van Pijkeren, an assistant professor of food science. “You want to instead use a scalpel to specifically eradicate the microbe of interest.”

Van Pijkeren thinks that L. reuteri, a probiotic bacterium found in many foods and the intestines of most animals, could be that scalpel. His team was able to amplify by 100-fold the natural ability of their strain of the bacterium to survive its trip through the harsh environment of the gut, making it a good candidate to deliver antibiotic-free treatments to the intestines where C. diff resides.

Van Pijkeren’s idea, in collaboration with Rodolphe Barrangou of North Carolina State University, is to use one of C. diff’s own defense mechanisms, called CRISPR, against it. CRISPR is a genetic surveillance system that bacteria use to protect themselves from invading viruses, which inject DNA into bacterial cells to attempt to replicate. If a bacterium has the right sequence of DNA to match an invading virus, it can use the CRISPR system to cut the viral DNA, thereby inactivating it and preventing infection.

Scientists have used this ability to cut specific sequences of DNA to genetically engineer a wide range of organisms for research aimed at developing new therapeutics. The van Pijkeren lab, which has been developing CRISPR to genetically engineer L. reuteri, now wants to co-opt the system by delivering DNA that targets C. diff’s own chromosome. That DNA will be injected by C. diffspecific viruses, which will hitch a ride with L. reuteri into the intestines.

If it works, C. diff will unwittingly cut and degrade its own DNA, preventing the pathogen from multiplying and doing more damage. Because both the viruses and the genetic instructions are targeted at C. diff, Pijkeren believes no helpful bacteria should be harmed.

Working with Barrangou and funding from the National Institutes of Health, van Pijkeren has engineered L. reuteri to produce viruses that target lactic acid bacteria, an initial step toward getting the probiotic to produce C. diff-specific viruses. They are also developing ways to induce the probiotic to release these viruses at the right time inside the gut. If these lab tests go well, van Pijkeren’s goal is to start testing the system in a mouse model of C. diff infection soon.

“I think it’s pretty fascinating that an organism like Lactobacillus in such low numbers and small amounts can actually have a health benefit,” van Pijkeren says. “To then exploit these microbes to deliver therapeutics is very appealing because we know humans have been safely consuming them for thousands of years.”

“Grazing” Amoeba

Bacteria have developed an uncountable number of chemistries, lifestyles, attacks, and defenses through 2.5 billion years of evolution. One of the most impressive defenses is biofilm — a community of bacteria enmeshed in a matrix that protects against single-celled predators and antibiotics. But there’s a way through every suit of armor, and professor of bacteriology Marcin Filutowicz has found one.

Along with Dean Sanders, presently at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, and patent co-inventor Katarzyna Borys, Filutowicz has shown the first proof that a certain group of amoeba called dictyostelids (“dicty”) can penetrate biofilms and eat the bacteria within. In a recent study, the researchers pitted four types of dicty against biofilm-forming bacteria that harm humans or plants. For example, they targeted Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a common, multidrug-resistant bacteria that afflicts people with burn wounds or cystic fibrosis, and Erwinia amylovora, the cause of a devastating disease known as fire blight in apple and pear trees.

 

As expected, the results depended on the strain of dicty and the bacterial species. In several cases, the dicty completely obliterated thriving biofilms containing millions of bacteria, all of it captured in time-lapse, microscopic movies, the first of their kind. In addition to the cinematic evidence (see video above), other indicators of successful attacks against all four species of bacteria include spore germination and the subsequent union of single-celled dicty into a multicellular “slug” (a striking trait that has earned dicty the label “social amoeba”).

Filutowicz became interested in dictyostelids after discovering a neglected archive of about 1,800 strains amassed by Kenneth Raper, a UW–Madison bacteriology professor who discovered the soil-dwelling microbes and started collecting them in the 1930s. He found that Raper and his team were feeding and growing dictys in the lab using bacterial prey, but nobody had pursued their commercial potential as microbe hunters.

“They grow on E. coli [a common resident of the human intestine], and I quickly realized that, because dicty are not pathogenic, we might use them as a biological weapon against bacteria.”

Marcin Filutowicz (Photo by Allan Attie)

Since 2010, Filutowicz has learned a good deal about how dicty “graze” upon bacteria, and which ones they prefer. “We looked at how these cells dismantle biofilms, trying to understand what physical, chemical, and mechanical forces deconstruct the biofilms, and how the dicty move in 3-D space,” he says. “These are phagocytes, and they behave much like our own immune cells, except our immune cells do not break down biofilms.”

His collaborator, Curtis Brandt, a professor of ophthalmology and visual science at UW–Madison, has produced promising results suggesting that the organisms are harmless to rodents. Now, the National Institutes of Health have given them and AmebaGone a $1.5 million grant to support their research on using dictys to fight bacterial keratitis, an eye infection, first in rodents and then in rabbits and humans.

“This medical application has a lot of promise,” Filutowicz says.

More near-term use for dicty are found in agriculture. In 2010, Filutowicz formed AmebaGone. With funding from the National Science Foundation, the firm has been advancing dicty products toward commercializations, including treatments for fire blight and other bacterial infections of crops.

“Our 2017 external field trials for fire blight treatments were very promising,” says Chad Hall, a senior scientist and director of AmebaGone’s fire blight project. “Several of our dicty-based products reduced fire blight disease without harming either trees or fruit. In fact, one of our treatments was as effective as the antibiotic streptomycin, which is the gold standard treatment for fire blight control in conventional apple orchards but is now banned in organic apple production.”

Infection Detection

One way to prevent the overuse of antibiotics, and the drug resistance it creates, is to determine when treatment is not needed. And that’s one of the benefits of a new system developed by Isomark, a UW–Madison spin-off company, and its founder, Mark Cook.

Isomark’s system measures carbon isotopes in exhaled breath. Without even touching the patient, it can offer the earliest warning of severe bacterial infection, says Cook, a professor of animal sciences. He founded the company in 2005 along with Warren Porter, a professor of zoology; nutritionist Dan Butz; and others.

Their novel detection device can often spot a bacterial infection before the patient feels symptoms, increasing the potential for faster, better treatment for severe infections. The company is focused on intensive care units (ICUs), which treat about 5 million people in the United States each year.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria like MRSA (methicillin-resistant staph aureus) are an accelerating problem in hospitals, says Isomark CEO Joe Kremer. “The average hospital stay is five days, but it’s 20 days with a hospital-acquired, resistant infection. The healthcare industry puts the cost of diagnosis, treatment, and the extended stay at $35 billion to $88 billion.”

Isomark’s analytical instrument offers earlier detection of bacterial infection by measuring the ratio of carbon isotopes in patients’ breath samples. (Photo by Ben Vincent)

These figures do not account for the pain, worry, and deaths associated with these severe infections. About 100,000 Americans die of a hospital-acquired infection each year, Kremer says, and ever-more stringent controls have not brought the problem to heel. But earlier detection may help.

When the immune system responds to an infection, subtle changes in the ratio of the common carbon 12 isotope and the rare carbon 13 can be detected long before a doctor, a blood test, or even the patient knows that an infection is present. (Isotopes are chemically identical versions of an element that can be distinguished by their differing masses.)

After gathering breath samples and medical records from 100 ICU patients, Isomark scientists saw a telltale change in the isotope ratio for each patient who became ill. “Our studies show that we are 18 to 48 hours ahead of when clinicians suspect an infection,” Cook says.

Rapid detection offers multiple benefits, he adds. This includes earlier treatment, which can reduce the ill effects that come with a severe infection, and earlier guidance for physicians about the need for tests to determine the location and cause of an infection. It can also lead to less antibiotic use.

Because bacterial infections are a major hazard in ICUs and operating rooms, “Antibiotics may be thrown at every patient after surgery as a preventive, but that is actually breeding resistance,” Cook says. “If a breath test comes back negative, antibiotics may be unnecessary.”

Since the test measures nonradioactive isotopes in exhaled breath, the procedure is noninvasive and safe. And the testing process could hardly be simpler. The patient breathes into a bag, or a sample is grabbed from a ventilator. The bag is connected to the tester, the patient ID is punched in, and results appear in 10 minutes.

Isomark is seeking FDA approval as a medical device and is gearing up for a final “regulatory trial” that will look at 300 patients in up to six hospitals nationwide. “We can’t be sure about the FDA’s decision, but the agency has been very positive,” Kremer says. A decision could arrive in January 2018.

EDITOR’S NOTE

We are sad to report that Professor Mark Cook passed away in early September due to complications of cancer. He will be deeply missed by the CALS community and beyond. Read more about his life and distinguished career as a teacher, mentor, entrepreneur, and groundbreaking researcher in the realms of food production and animal health.