Fermentation Education

As the one and only enologist, or wine scientist, on the UW–Madison campus, a large part of Nick Smith’s job is guiding a group of hopeful undergraduates through Food Science 552 — and toward their futures in winemaking and other jobs in the fermented food and beverage industries.

Students who took Smith’s fall 2017 course, “The Science of Wine,” emerged with a solid understanding of the chemistry and microbiology behind the winemaking process. But they also went beyond lecture-style learning to get a real taste for the process of fermentation.

“A key element of the class is to teach the production process,” Smith says. “How does the chemistry impact the final product?”

During the semester, students took two trips to Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac, Wisconsin, where they learned about production procedures and bottling. Back on campus, students broke into small groups, each tasked with creating one of three different wine styles — sparkling, red, or white.

Philippe Coquard, who owns Wollersheim Winery with his wife, Julie, displays a bottle of the freshly pressed grape juice that will become the next small-batch wine, called Campus Craft, to be developed with involvement from students in the Science of Fermented Food and Beverages certificate program. Photo by Ben Vincent.

“[The course gave] me a greater appreciation for winemaking, and I found it very interesting to compare the winemaking and beer-making processes, as they have a lot in common,” says Miles Gillette BSx’18, a senior majoring in food science. He was first inspired to select his major after dabbling in homebrewing of beer, a process he calls “hands-on microbiology.”

Food Science 552 is just one component of the UW–Madison’s new Science of Fermented Food and Beverages certificate program, which was made available to undergraduate students for the first time in the 2017-18 academic year.

The certificate is an option for students pursuing various science majors — food science, microbiology, biochemistry, and others — who want to delve deeper into fermentation. As they progress through the program, students learn about the various scientific aspects involved in fermentation.

Food Science 410, for example, teaches them about the chemical components of food constituents like proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, and enzymes. They also learn about the latest techniques and technology used to produce fermented beverages such as wine, beer, and cider, as well as fermented foods like cheese, bread, and pickles. The hope is that such a comprehensive suite of courses will give graduates a competitive edge in the field.

“The dream is to make UW–Madison the top college when it comes to the fermentation sciences,” says David Ryder, former vice president of brewing and research at MillerCoors and an expert on fermentation and yeast physiology. Ryder was instrumental in coordinating the donation of pilot-scale beer brewing equipment from MillerCoors to UW–Madison in 2008, and he has been a steadfast advocate for the development of the university’s fermentation sciences program, including the new certificate.

Long viewed as a major national center for the beer and cheese industries, Wisconsin is also home to other major manufacturers of fermented goods. The state boasts a growing wine industry, with around a dozen new wineries opening each year. Every bottle of Kikkoman Soy Sauce sold in North America is brewed and bottled at the company’s factory in Walworth. GLK Foods, headquartered in Appleton, is the largest producer of sauerkraut in the world. The scope of the industry in the state is only likely to expand. And that requires trained workers, specialists, and experts in the field.

“With the prominence of all the fermented food and beverage industries we have, we [aim to] start filling the niches and educational needs,” says Smith.

Smith arrived at UW–Madison in March 2015 after spending eight years as an experimental winemaker at the University of Minnesota. The initial funding for his position was secured through a Specialty Crop Block Grant from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection with the support of the state’s key wine organizations. Beyond his teaching duties on campus, Smith works directly with winemakers to assess and improve their wines, helping to troubleshoot problems, as needed.

Students observe as red grapes harvested from the Wollersheim Winery vineyard are sorted prior to crushing and destemming. Photo by Ben Vincent.

This hands-on experience is also a boon for Smith’s students, who participate in the development of various fermented products while earning their certificates. Students in Food Science 551 participate in a beer design and brewing competition offered in collaboration with the Wisconsin Brewing Company (WBC) of Verona, Wisconsin. This partnership has yielded a new WBC beer in each of the last three years. The collaboration’s 2017 brew, Red Arrow, proved so popular that the initial batch sold out in a matter of weeks.

Wollersheim Winery is also a partner in the fermentation sciences program. The company sends grapes to campus for students to make into small batch wines and hosts students so they can observe what’s involved in full-scale wine production.

With the new certificate program, UW–Madison is better positioned to be a wellspring of talent, research, and creativity to support the state’s fermentation-related companies, according to program coordinator Monica Theis MS’88.

“Our vision is that Wisconsin is the place to go to learn about the science of fermentation and that our graduates leave here with a competitive edge,” she says.

Class Act: Kai Rasmussen — ‘Let’s Grow Plants in Space’

Kai Rasmussen BSx’18 spends much of his time studying how plants react to being in outer space. For many of his friends, this calls to mind Mark Watney, the protagonist in the novel-turned-movie The Martian, who devised a way to grow potatoes in a failing space station on the Red Planet’s surface. And Rasmussen agrees. So he wrote a song about it.

Visit Rasmussen’s SoundCloud web page and you’ll find “Young Mark Watney,” an original composition filled with references to the emerging (but still relatively obscure) field of astrobotany. It’s punctuated by a simple chorus that underscores his mission: “Let’s grow plants in space.” For Rasmussen, a junior majoring in biology, this musical venture is just one way he hopes to engage the public in his passion.

Rasmussen’s interest in astrobotany was ignited after taking a class with UW–Madison botany professor Simon Gilroy and learning about his research in the field. Rasmussen soon began working in Gilroy’s lab, where he was offered funding by literal rocket scientists.

“There was just no way I could pass up the opportunity to work on something funded by NASA,” Rasmussen says.

The lab’s research involves mimicking spaceflight using an in-house test structure, but it also integrates the real thing. In 2014 and late 2017, the Gilroy lab sent plants to the International Space Station, and the genetic data beamed back to Earth revealed how enzymes in the plants were affected by the journey.

Scientists have knocked down numerous long-standing barriers to sustainable spaceflight, but many remain. Botany and horticulture systems are critical components of life on Earth, but they evolved over billions of years. Creating similar systems from scratch in space requires some creative solutions.

Cue forward thinkers like Rasmussen.

“We don’t want to send supplies from Earth every time our astronauts need to eat,” he says. “We want them to have self-sustaining systems that provide them with food [and] water.”

But that’s a long-term project. Meanwhile, Rasmussen has created an astrobotany website and T-shirt — all in an effort to bring the science of space plants back down to Earth.

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.

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.

“Legacy Phosphorus” and Our Waters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early Excitement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safer Native Foods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A CALS “Bridge to Business” Turns 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class Act: Sam Schmitz – Big discoveries in little worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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