Alumni who serve the state through UW-Extension Cooperative Extension.
John Ralph PhD’82 talks with the easy, garrulous rhythms of his native New Zealand, and often seems amiably close to the edge of laughter.
So he was inclined toward amusement last year when he discovered that some portion of the Internet had misunderstood his latest research. Ralph—a CALS biochemist with joint appointments in biochemistry and biological systems engineering—had just unveiled a way to tweak the lignin that helps give plants their backbone. A kind of a natural plastic or binder, lignin gets in the way of some industrial processes, and Ralph’s team had cracked a complicated puzzle of genetics and chemistry to address the problem. They call it zip-lignin, because the modified lignin comes apart—roughly—like a zipper.
One writer at an influential publication called it “self-destructing” lignin. Not a bad turn of phrase—but not exactly accurate, either. For a geeky science story the news spread far, and by the time it had spread across the Internet, a random blogger could be found complaining about the dangers of walking through forests full of detonating trees.
Turning the misunderstanding into a teachable moment, Ralph went image surfing, and his standard KeyNote talk now contains a picture of a man puzzling over the shattered remains of a tree. “Oh noooo!” the caption reads. “I’ll be peacefully walking in a national park and these dang GM trees are going to be exploding all around me!”
That’s obviously a crazy scenario. But if the technology works as Ralph predicts, the potential changes to biofuels and paper production could rewrite the economics of these industries, and in the process lead to an entirely new natural chemical sector.
“When we talk to people in the biofuels industry, what we are hearing is that creating value from lignin could be game-changing,” says Timothy Donohue, a CALS professor of bacteriology and director of the UW–Madison-based Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, where Ralph has a lab. “It could be catalytic.”
After cellulose, lignin is the most abundant organic compound on the planet. Lignin surrounds and shapes our entire lives. Most of us have no idea—yet we are the constant beneficiaries of its strength and binding power.
When plants are growing, it’s the stiffening of the cell wall that creates their visible architecture. Carbohydrate polymers—primarily cellulose and hemicelluloses—and a small amount of protein make up a sort of scaffolding for the construction of plant cell walls. And lignin is the glue, surrounding and encasing this fibrous matrix with a durable and water-resistant polymer—almost like plastic. Some liken lignin to the resin in fiberglass.
Without lignin, the pine cannot soar into the sky, and the woody herb soon succumbs to rot. Found primarily in land plants, a form of lignin has been identified in seaweed, suggesting deep evolutionary origins as much as a billion years ago.
“Lignin is a funny thing,” says Ralph, who was first introduced to lignin chemistry as a young student during a holiday internship at New Zealand’s Forest Research Institute. “People who get into it for a little bit end up staying there the rest of their lives.”
The fascination is born, in part, from its unique chemistry. Enzymes, proteins that catalyze reactions, orchestrate the assembly of complex cell wall carbohydrates from building blocks like xylose and glucose. The types of enzymes present in cells therefore determine the composition of the wall.
Lignin is more enigmatic, says Ralph. Although its parts (called monomers) are assembled using enzymes, the polymerization of these parts into lignin does not require enzymes but instead relies on just the chemistry of the monomers and their radical coupling reactions. “It’s combinatorial, and so you make a polymer in which no two molecules are the same, perhaps anywhere in the whole plant,” says Ralph.
This flexible construction is at the heart of lignin’s toughness, but it’s also a major obstacle for the production of paper and biofuels. Both industries need the high-value carbohydrates, especially the cellulose fraction. And both have to peel away the lignin to get to the treasure inside. A combination of heat, pressure, and caustic soda is standard procedure for liberating cellulose to make paper; bleach removes the remaining lignin. In the biofuels industry, a heat and acid or alkaline treatment is often used to crack the lignin so that it is easier to produce the required simple sugars from cellulose. Leftover lignin is typically burned.
The economic cost of these treatments alone is significant, and lignin pretreatment is at the heart of many of the more egregious environmental costs of paper. On the biofuels side, lowering treatment costs to liberate carbohydrates from lignin could change the very economics of biofuels. In these large-scale, industrial processes, saving a percentage point or two is often worthwhile, but the Holy Grail is a quantum jump.
“Because it’s made this way”—Ralph jams his hands together, crazy-wise, fingers twisted together into a dramatic representation of lignin polymerization—“there is no chemistry or biology that takes it apart in an exquisite way,” he says. “We actually stepped back and thought: How would we like to design lignin? If we could introduce easily cleavable bonds into the backbone, we could break it like a hot knife through butter. How much can you actually mess with this chemistry before the tree falls down?”
Ralph’s team had their eureka moment more than 15 years ago, and have been trying to bring it to life ever since.
With a background in forage production and ruminant nutrition, John Grabber, an agronomist at the USDA–Agricultural Research Services’ Dairy Forage Research Center in Madison, got pulled into lignin chemistry through the barn door. On his family’s dairy farm he grew up with lignin stuck to his boots, though he never knew it. But during graduate school he became interested in how plants are digested by cows. Cell walls are potentially a great source of digestible carbohydrates—most plants contain anywhere from 30 to 90 percent of their mass in their cell walls—but it is entangled with lignin. “You quickly find out that lignin is the main barrier to feed digestion,” he says.
Grabber began working on a model system to understand plant lignification—for corn in particular—in 1989. After meeting at a conference, Grabber joined Ralph and plant physiologist Ronald Hatfield at the Dairy Forage Research Center back in 1992. There were many projects ongoing, but Grabber remained interested in trying to fully understand the structural characteristics of the lignin: how it’s made and how to modify it. In his model system they could make any kind of lignin they wanted to study, and see how the changes affected utilization.
Ralph and Hatfield advocated for the work, helping to find funding and offering their expertise. “If I had worked for somebody else I probably wouldn’t be doing this work,” says Grabber. “John and Ron gave me freedom and support to do it.”
Around the same time, Fachuang Lu joined Ralph’s lab seeking a Ph.D. His journey into lignin chemistry was not, at first, his idea. A native of mainland China, he’d enjoyed a successful undergraduate career in Beijing studying chemical engineering, then found himself assigned by the college to a master’s program in lignin chemistry. Lignin is an ingredient in the slurry of chemicals used in oil drilling, and that was his specialty. In 1989 Lu left Beijing for a teaching position at Guangxi University, but three years later he decided to continue his education. Though he’d never met Ralph, he was fascinated by the chemistry and applied to study in his lab.
As Ralph, Grabber, Hatfield and Lu continued to tinker with lignin chemistry, momentum began to build in the lab. Though lignin created a snowflake universe of different molecules, there were rules of assembly. A complex chemical pathway enabled lignin construction, with a mechanism that remained constant across different families of plants, but with many potential building blocks.
Ralph and his colleagues were the first to detail what was happening to lignin as the controlling genes of the biosynthetic pathway were turned on and off, a task ably completed by a slew of outstanding collaborators worldwide with expertise in biotechnological methods—but who lacked the diagnostic structural tools to determine what the plant was doing in response.
Ralph’s team quickly learned that lignification was somewhat flexible. “We figured that we could engineer lignin well beyond the previously held bounds,” says Ralph. As various pathways and chemical possibilities danced in their heads, it struck them: What if, during lignification, they could persuade the plant to slip in a few monomers that had easily broken chemical bonds? If they did it right, lignin would retain its structural value to the plant, but be easier to deal with chemically.
“In the course of our conversation we realized that if plants could do this, it could really revolutionize how readily you could make paper,” recalls Grabber. Says Ralph: “It’s almost impossible to tell which one of us actually verbalized it first—it is one of those great outcomes of the group dynamic.”
Lu’s particular genius was synthesizing the various complex chemicals needed, particularly a novel monomer-conjugate called coniferyl ferulate. It was the key to the zip-lignin—the teeth of the zipper. “He’s got to be one of the best in terms of making molecules,” says Grabber.
They were thrilled by such a revelation, but, in retrospect, they soon realized it was sort of an obvious idea—one suggested by the underlying chemistry and biochemistry of a pathway that was becoming increasingly well understood. Yet it was a discovery of huge potential value. They dropped into stealth mode and began to work on it. They finished important research and stuck it in drawers—signature research, the kind that, when finally published, would capture journal covers. And yet they sat on it, quietly chipping away for nearly a decade.
It helped that there was a flurry of controversy in the field—what Chemical & Engineering News called “the lignin war.” “Part of the reason we could sit on it was that, at the time, making these kinds of molecules was so far-fetched,” says Grabber. “Probably if we had talked about it, people would have laughed at us.”
But as the idea for zip-lignin grew in principle, it became stronger. Lu, Hatfield and colleague Jane Marita MS’97 PhD’01 found that balsa trees and a fiber crop known as kenaf produced very small amounts of coniferyl ferulate. But even as the idea seemed more and more feasible, Hatfield and Marita couldn’t isolate the gene needed to manufacture coniferyl ferulate because of its very low expression in these plants.
And they got stuck. “At the beginning we were thinking that this is just a fantastic idea, but we really didn’t have that much confidence,” says Lu. “Maybe John [Ralph] had more confidence than me.” So they just kept at it. “Every step you think, yes, we are closer, closer, closer.”
In 2008 Ralph moved his work from the Dairy Forage Research Center into UW labs, with research projects under the recently formed Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC). The center, launched with a $125 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy that has since been renewed, was just one manifestation of the money and intellectual heft infusing biofuels research—and for zip-lignin it was a lucky move.
During the center’s first full meeting, Curtis Wilkerson, a plant biologist at GLBRC partner Michigan State University, was sitting in the audience when Ralph took his turn at the podium.
Wilkerson is a cell wall specialist. Though lignin is a third of the wall’s carbon and is essential to the way plants conduct water, he confesses he’d never given it much thought. In a room full of cell wall specialists, Ralph would “likely be the only person talking about lignin,” he says. “It just split that way a long time ago. People like myself had very little exposure to what John was thinking.”
It was this kind of academic silo that a place like GLBRC was supposed to breach. Ralph talked about putting ester bonds into lignins and his team’s long search for the elusive enzyme. Wilkerson saw a solution. Due to recent technical advances, the price of determining all of the expressed enzymes in a plant had become more refined and much less expensive. He offered to use these recent developments to try to find the missing enzyme to enable zip-lignin.
From the previous work, Wilkerson knew essentially the size and shape of the puzzle piece he was looking for. He began, quite literally with Google, trolling through the scientific literature looking for a plant that made a lot of coniferyl ferulate. The Chinese medicinal “dong quai” or Chinese angelica (Angelica sinensis) soon emerged as a candidate. Its roots contained about 2 percent coniferyl ferulate.
The team used knowledge about the likely type of enzyme they were searching for and successfully identified the gene and its enzyme that could produce coniferyl ferulate. The whole search took less than six months.
Would you believe an essential tool for the genetic engineering of poplars is a hole punch? That’s the word from Shawn Mansfield, a molecular biochemist at the University of British Columbia, who took the zip-gene from the Angelica and made it work in poplar, a popular tree in the biomass and forest products industry.
Working from Wilkerson’s gene, the first job was figuring out how to tag the new protein so that it fluoresced during imaging. While not necessary to the function of the genetically modified plant, it essentially allows the scientists to check their work: see where the protein is, how much is there, and if it is behaving as a protein should.
Mansfield’s lab also had to find a way to turn the gene on at the right time and place. It could make all the coniferyl ferulate one wanted, but if it wasn’t made at the right time and tissue, there would be no zip-lignin.
After perfecting these finer points, the gene is inserted into a special bacterium—and then the hole punch finally comes into play. Disks punched from poplar leaves are mixed with bacteria that have been inoculated with a special chemical that stimulates the bacteria to share their DNA around. Then the leaf disks are put in a special growth medium. As many as 12 shoots might emerge off of a single disk, but the lab would select and nurture only one shoot from each disk.
In the end they had about 15 successful transgenic candidates that they grew in the greenhouse and then shipped off to Wilkerson and Ralph for further study. Final selection was made based on the amount of fluorescent yellow the trees gave off, and from a newly devised analytical method developed by Lu and Ralph that was particularly diagnostic for the incorporation of the zip monomer into the lignin polymer.
The team knew that genetically modified organisms are not popular or easily talked about—never mind the exploding trees. The idea of reworking a fundamental building block of the plant world will breed resistance.
Ralph argues that this is already part of nature’s vocabulary: they’ve found their building blocks within the plant kingdom, including mutants that do similar things. And now that they know what they are looking for, Steven Karlen, a member of Ralph’s group, is continuing to find more evidence that Mother Nature is doing it herself. “We managed to persuade plants to do this,” Ralph says. “Chances are that nature has already attempted it and you could actually get there by breeding.”
It’s no surprise that Mansfield, who created the final transgenic tree, argues that there is a role for this kind of technology. “We as scientists should be wise in advocating for the proper use of it,” he cautions. “I would never force it on anybody. I would never try to sway people to think that it is the end-all or be-all for everything.”
But given the growing human population and rising CO2 levels, something like zip-lignin has a definite use in reducing the carbon footprint by reducing processing energy and chemical loads. “That means there are less environmental pollutants that need to be cleaned up afterwards,” Mansfield says.
“Our ecological footprint can be much reduced using these kinds of transgenic trees,” he argues. “The caveat is that we need to be very smart about where and how we plant them.”
Not many things in the natural world can take apart lignin, but any homeowner with a deck knows that fungi are up to the task. A recent analysis of mushroom genomes suggests that fungi evolved this ability about 300 million years ago. This is about the end of the Carboniferous era, when earth’s coal production began to slow down. Coincidence? Perhaps not. Now that wood could rot, it probably slowed the burial of organic carbon via tree trunks and other lignin-rich plants.
Could the discovery of zip-lignin signal another transition, and hasten our move away from fossil fuels laid down in the Carboniferous?
Tim Donohue likes to think so. He likens biofuels now to the early oil industry, when oil was simply being turned into liquid fuel while the by-products were burned or dumped. It took a few decades for inventors to capitalize on this now valuable stream of raw materials to build the modern chemical industry.
“Lignin is about 25 to 30 percent of carbon in the plant. So if we’re going to catalyze an industry that makes clean energy and chemicals from plant biomass, figuring out what to do with the lignin is going to be key,” Donohue says.
People in the industry used to joke that you could do a lot of things with lignin except make money from it. But that may be changing. “The economics and profitability of the industry will be very different if lignin can be turned into valuable compounds,” says Donohue.
One of the early efforts to make use of lignin was in Rothschild, Wisconsin, at a company now known as Borregaard LignoTech. When processed properly, lignin has many uses, from the manufacture of vanilla flavor to additives for concrete. There is even a small amount of it in the battery of your car that allows it to keep recharging.
Jerry Gargulak is research manager at Borregaard LignoTech, and learned about zip-lignin recently in his capacity as a scientific advisor to the GLBRC. Despite its many uses, Gargulak and his colleagues dream about a time when lignin can replace carbon black in tires and be used to build carbon fibers and structural plastics.
Zip-lignin and the ideas behind it could bring this day closer. “It gives us a technology that might yield a more interesting lignin-derived starting material,” Gargulak says. “It could potentially lead to a lot of innovation downstream in lignin technology.” But he emphasizes, “There are a lot of i’s to be dotted and t’s to be crossed.”
This story is just beginning. Zip-lignin has a patent and has excited industrial interest that could be worth significant dollars. Ralph and his colleagues continue working to further refine the process, increasing the percentage of zippable bonds in poplar and also inserting the gene into more plants, such as corn and Brachypodium, both grasses.
And in the basement of the shiny new Wisconsin Energy Institute building, where the GLBRC is based, two massive new nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometers work 24/7, providing a level of detail into lignin that Ralph has never had before.
“We spend a lot of time looking at these Rorschach test–like figures,” Ralph says of the information generated from the NMR. “The detail in them is unbelievable. These things have been revolutionizing what we do.”
The Kickapoo Valley is a picturesque area of western Wisconsin that attracts many visitors during the summer. But to improve economic development throughout this rural region, many residents and business owners want to lengthen the tourism season—and CALS/UW–Extension researchers are helping them make plans to do so.
“We’re fairly busy in the peak season, but tourism drops off in the shoulder months,” says Sadie Urban, the events coordinator for the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, an 8,500-acre natural and recreational area. “There’s still a lot to do in the area during those times, but we don’t really see the tourists then.”
To form a plan of action to attract new visitors, the Kickapoo Valley Reserve applied for funding help from the Kickapoo Valley Reforestation Fund, also known as the Ralph Nuzum Fund. The fund supports projects that enhance the ecological, economic and social well-being of Kickapoo Valley residents.
As part of the grant, Urban and her colleagues needed a University of Wisconsin partner—and Bret Shaw, a CALS professor of life sciences communication, was the right fit for the project.
“I’m interested in the intersection of tourism, sustainability and economic development, so this project was right in my wheelhouse of market research and helping rural communities,” says Shaw, who also has an appointment with UW–Extension as an environmental communications specialist.
Shaw started work in the valley by talking with stakeholders and identifying the goal of attracting tourists during the shoulder months. He and graduate student Heather Akin then surveyed Kickapoo Valley visitors and wrote a report about tourist demographics, behaviors and feelings. The full report is available at http://go.wisc.edu/kickapoo.
Community organizations in the Kickapoo Valley are using Shaw’s findings to influence their marketing materials and plan new events. Research indicated that excitement, adventure and food-related experiences would attract visitors. An immediate response was the Kickapoo Reserve Tromp and Chomp, a new trail run held in May featuring post-race meals by local chefs and growers. Urban says the event brought at least $6,400 tourist dollars into local economies—and that it will be held annually.
In addition to consulting on new events, Shaw is involved in the Ralph Nuzum Lecture Series, which introduces valley residents to experts on topics such as agriculture, wildlife and sustainability. Shaw also helped establish an Extension video channel to share those lectures with a broader audience and showcase the valley in general. Videos are available at http://uwexvideochannel.org/.
Shaw is optimistic that these ongoing collaborations between UW–Madison, UW–Extension and the Kickapoo Valley Reserve will produce the desired increase in tourism and economic development.
“Each time we attract a new visitor, that person spends around $140 if they stay overnight, so we’d like to see these events continue to help local businesses and residents,” Shaw says.
PHOTO—Natural beauty: A rock bluff along the Kickapoo River, one of the area’s many draws for tourists.
Jodi Forrester got the call while she was in the forest. The loggers were ready to go. So on a cold winter day in northern Wisconsin, she found herself riding shotgun in a harvester. Forrester, a research scientist in forest and wildlife ecology, watched as the loggers cut down the trees she and her team had carefully selected in the Flambeau River State Forest. Another huge vehicle, a forwarder, clambered behind, pinching the cut trees in its claw and moving them to where they were needed. All the while, the loggers played a little game, dodging between laundry baskets placed around the forest floor to catch leaves and falling debris. In the end, they managed to avoid all but a few.
It was not a typical job for the loggers. Instead of harvesting trees for timber, they were taking part in an experiment—the second phase of a research project on a large scale. Under the supervision of CALS forest and wildlife ecology professor David Mladenoff, Forrester and her colleagues had already been working for years to plan a forest experiment that would stretch over almost 700 acres. The loggers were there to implement that plan. Because all the wood they were cutting was going to be left in the forest as part of the experimental setup, the loggers were not able to remove any of it. It went against their nature.
“Every once in a while, the loggers had to cover their eyes,” says Forrester with a smile. “There are a lot of beautiful, valuable trees in that forest, and I think they weren’t too sure about what they were being asked to do.”
But the loggers had agreed to the job because they knew it was part of an experiment that would push the science of forest management in Wisconsin forward. All the work, including the tough job of watching the wood get left behind, was being done in the name of science—specifically, in the name of bringing the characteristics of old-growth forests back to the state.
Old-growth forests have been a scarce sight in Wisconsin since the early 20th century. Clear-cutting in the late 1800s and early 1900s left few old-growth stands. In the Upper Midwest, most big trees had been cut down by the 1930s. In the place of those stands, younger second-growth forests emerged.
Starting in the 1980s, a push to promote and protect old-growth forests picked up steam. It started in the Pacific Northwest, where obligate species, such as the spotted owl, live only in old-growth forests. As the interest in these forests moved east, people in the Midwest began recognizing the valuable ecosystem services provided by old-growth forests, such as storing carbon, maintaining soils and fostering biodiversity in plants, animals and microbes by offering needed habitats.
In Wisconsin it wasn’t a matter of protecting old-growth forests, it was a question of creating them again, or at least some of the functions they provide. And that was no small task. Creating old-growth forests requires defining them, and even that can be difficult. It’s not just a matter of age—and age doesn’t always mean the same thing. A 40-year-old aspen forest would be old, notes Mladenoff; a 40-year-old sugar maple forest, on the other hand, would be quite young.
“It’s not always the age that matters,” says Mladenoff. “Sometimes what really matters are the characteristics and features of the forest.”
With the features of Upper Midwestern old-growth forests unclear, Mladenoff and scientists at UW–Madison, other UW campuses and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in 1992 started Phase 1 of what was dubbed the Old Growth Project.
Phase 1 was a comparative study. The researchers looked at forests of various ages and histories—a total of 46 different areas—to determine what was unique to the older, unmanaged forests. They considered features like plant and tree species and sizes, woody debris on the ground, snags or standing dead trees, soil characteristics and forest wildlife. Different scientists looked at different aspects, the collaboration creating a complete picture of the forests.
After a decade of collecting and comparing enormous amounts of data, Mladenoff and his colleagues found that many of the features of old-growth forests had to do with two structural elements: the size and distribution of gaps in the forest canopy and coarse woody debris—sizable logs—on the forest floor.
Gaps are openings in the forest canopy caused when large trees fall. With sunlight able to reach the forest floor, these areas become places of regeneration and growth, and the diversity of understory plants is often higher in gap areas than in the surrounding forest.
Coarse woody debris, meanwhile, provides shelter for salamanders, insects and other small animals as well as food for fungi, insects and even other trees like hemlock and yellow birch. Logs also sequester carbon on the forest floor and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide returning to the atmosphere.
“We wanted to explore the importance of those two elements in more detail,” explains Mladenoff. “We wanted to know if creating those structural elements in second-growth northern hardwood forests could restore functional old-growth characteristics.”
Phase 2—The Experiment
Mladenoff, Forrester and their colleagues—including Craig Lorimer and Tom Gower, emeritus and former CALS professors of forest and wildlife ecology, respectively—wanted to address that question using an experimental setup. Phase 2 of the Old Growth Project, the Flambeau Experiment, was born. The first step of that phase, however, was not a trivial one. They had to find a piece of land on which to conduct the experiment. They needed a site that was big enough for all the treatments they envisioned and that would otherwise be undisturbed for a long period of time—50 years, in fact.
With help from the DNR, Mladenoff and his colleagues used geographic information systems—GIS—to look at forests at different sites to find one that would fit the bill. After two years of looking, the researchers, including a postdoctoral student dedicated to the project, finally chose the site in the Flambeau River State Forest—a hardwood stand around 100 years old, dominated by sugar maples.
Before the experimental treatments were applied to the newly found forest, pretreatment data were collected. Scientists could then compare the data collected after treatment to this baseline information. Forrester and her colleagues, including several graduate students, used grids that they laid on the forest floor to count and catalog understory plant species such as trout lilies, wild leeks, nodding trillium and jack-in-the-pulpits. They also observed and measured tree species and diversity, leaf litter that fell in the forest, nutrient cycling, activity of soil microbes and more.
Finally, after spending two years looking for a site and two more years collecting pre-treatment data, the Flambeau site was ready for treatment in January 2007. In came the loggers and machinery to create the canopy gaps and coarse woody debris. The researchers also put up fences surrounding some of the plots to exclude deer and remove their influence from those treatment areas.
For five years after Forrester first rode shotgun in the harvester, she, graduate students and other scientists worked year-round to collect data. In the winter, researchers made the four-hour trip from Madison to Flambeau to check equipment, take measurements, replace batteries and mend fences. Once the spring thaw came, their work ramped up.
A typical summer day in the forest lasted about 10 hours. The scientists would ride from their rented cabins to the Flambeau Forest, walk about a half-mile to the research site and start collecting data. These days would last until October or November, when the researchers would start to see the orange vests of hunters.
“We’d head out in the morning and take our lunch and everything we needed for the day,” says Forrester. “We’d walk into the site, do our work, then head back to the cabins and crash.”
Their work included collecting a huge number of plant and soil samples. Without any university buildings at the Flambeau site, Forrester and her colleagues had to transport all of those samples back to Madison in their vans. Once back on campus, the samples and data needed to be analyzed and entered into spreadsheets.
“We have gobs of soil and wood samples, and we employed a lot of undergrads to help us,” says Forrester, laughing. “Some folks would help in the field in the summers and then continue working in the lab in the fall while they took classes.”
Ten years into Phase 2, Forrester, Mladenoff and their collaborators are just now beginning to shape a picture of the effects of their treatments. While a decade seems like a long time for research, they have another 40 years ahead of them. Such is the course of a 50-year experiment. And researchers have a vast array of forest components to consider and measure.
At this point they have some preliminary data and even some surprising results. One of the unexpected outcomes has been in the plots with coarse woody debris. While the researchers were expecting that the effects of woody debris would take years to recognize as the wood decayed, they are already beginning to see changes in the carbon dynamics. The woody debris affected rates of decomposition and what kinds of microbes were present in the soil, for example, within just a few years after being left on the forest floor.
“I thought someone else would be seeing what happens to the wood in the future, that I would just be seeing the effects of the canopy gaps,” explains Mladenoff. “But it didn’t turn out that way.”
The researchers are also seeing more expected results. Saplings and understory vegetation are growing more quickly in areas with canopy gaps and more light, for example. Also, the deer exclusion fences make a difference. In areas without the fences, the deer are eating all of the sprouts growing from the stumps of harvested trees, which can change the composition of the forest, leaving more of the less palatable and lower value trees such as ironwood.
After five years of intense sampling after treatment, the researchers are now spacing out their measurements and sampling to allow the forest time to grow, settle, decay and cycle. With such a long-term experiment, some of the time must be spent waiting.
That time will also be spent securing funding for the project as it goes forward. The DNR provided money both for Phase 1 of the project and to get the experimental Phase 2 going. That initial funding for Phase 2 allowed the researchers to do the preliminary work, after which other funding started flowing in.
“The DNR was really helpful in getting this project started,” says Forrester. “They provided all that base funding for us to get established, and only once we started were we able to get other money.”
The USDA has provided a five-year grant, and Mladenoff and his colleagues have also received funding from the Department of Energy and USDA McIntire-Stennis grants for graduate students. Forrester is now working to secure funds for the years ahead.
The USDA grant afforded Forrester and her colleagues an unexpected benefit—the opportunity to teach a new generation of forest ecologists. The grant was awarded based on their proposal to integrate an educational component into their research, and to fulfill that aspect, Forrester created a summer internship program. Undergraduate students from around the country and the world, most with little experience in forest research, joined the scientists in the Flambeau.
“Initially we taught them the basics of forest ecology measurements and had them help us with our measurements,” explains Forrester. “As summer rolled on, we helped them focus on a topic and develop an independent study project.”
Around 40 students participated in the program over the four years it was available. At the end of each summer, they’d hold a symposium to allow the students to present their work and interact with the scientists. The graduate students gained valuable mentorship experience. It was a beneficial experience for all involved, and one that both Forrester and Mladenoff discuss with pride.
“It was an important part of the project, and it turned out to be a really great component of those summers,” says Forrester.
In addition to providing funding, scientists at the DNR are also long-term collaborators with CALS researchers. They are working on a parallel 50-year project called the Managed Old-Growth Silviculture Study, or MOSS. Silviculture is the practice of managing forests to meet various needs or goals.
Having worked with Mladenoff and his team from Phase 1 of the project and into Phase 2, the DNR wanted to look at many of the same elements of old-growth forests, but with a more operational spin. They wanted to find out how to create the characteristics of old-growth forests while also allowing for economically beneficial harvesting of timber.
“There were three objectives for the MOSS project,” says Karl Martin BS’91, a former wildlife and forestry research chief at the DNR who is now with UW–Extension as state director of the Community, Natural Resource and Economic Development (CNRED) program. “We wanted the study to be applicable to the forest industry, we wanted to do something on a large scale so we could look at impacts on wildlife, and we wanted to show this was economically viable from a commercial standpoint.”
Martin worked closely with Mladenoff and other CALS and UW scientists to collaborate on the parallel MOSS project. One of the three MOSS sites is just north of the CALS site in the Flambeau River State Forest, with the two other sites located in the Northern Highland American Legion State Forest and the Argonne Experimental Forest.
Many of the treatments used on those three tracts of land are the same as those the CALS team is using in their experiment—canopy gaps, coarse woody debris and deer exclosures. The MOSS project also considered snags, or standing dead trees, which are another feature of old-growth forests.
Before establishing the treatments, Martin and his team spent several years surveying and measuring the trees. Because they wanted to harvest timber, they had to carefully consider which trees would be cut down and which would be left behind. Yellow birch trees were rare in the sites, so those were immediately off the table for harvesting. They also wanted to avoid cutting down the largest trees in the stands. To establish snags, the researchers chose crooked or highly branched trees that were of low economic value. While such trees make good habitat for wildlife, they are most likely to be used for low-valued pulpwood or firewood if harvested.
“We took three or four years before treating to really get things in place,” says Martin. “The problem with a 50-year study is that if you rush into it, you’re going to look back and wish you’d done something differently. We really wanted to cover all our bases.”
As with the CALS study, MOSS is in the early stages of gathering data and there are many angles to consider. The economic viability of silviculture that encourages old-growth characteristics is one of the main questions MOSS aims to answer, and Tom Steele MS’83 PhD’95, director of the Kemp Natural Resources Station in Woodruff, has been instrumental in finding that answer. Early data suggest that treatment cost of traditional harvests and the MOSS harvests is similar. In addition, the difference in timber revenue that a landowner would receive is quite minimal—just a few percent.
With years ahead to uncover the economics of such a system, MOSS is well positioned to understand and implement silviculture systems that are both economically and ecologically viable. That, in the end, is what the CALS–DNR collaboration is all about. It’s a partnership that brought about an otherwise unlikely project.
“The idea behind the collaboration is to leverage the resources of both organizations to help the citizens of the state,” explains Martin. “The scale of this study would not have been possible without the partnership of the university and the DNR. You need those resources, both intellectual and financial, to come together in a cohesive project.”
The size and scope of the Flambeau Experiment and MOSS are what make the projects so powerful—and so promising. There are decades of study ahead for researchers, and many of the original scientists will have to pass the project on to new researchers before it’s over. But the goal is clear: To determine if diverse ecosystems of old-growth forests can be developed through management while allowing for sustainable timber harvests. The outcome of the projects will have major impacts on forest management and harvests as well as on property owners, residents and visitors.
“With long-term studies, we work in the present, build on those that came before us, and count on colleagues in the future to continue the work,” says Mladenoff. “This research will be essential for long-term sustainable ecosystems and the services they provide.”
Forestry technician Donald Radcliffe BS’15, who graduated with CALS degrees in forestry and life sciences communication, contributed to reporting this piece.
Few people inspire students as much as our professors. When I ask students about their most important experiences at CALS, almost invariably they talk about professors who have changed their lives—how, as researchers, teachers and mentors, professors opened their eyes to new fields of knowledge and new ways of envisioning their own futures.
But our professors don’t only provide inspiration. They are the lifeblood of our college, bringing in more than $100 million in research grants each year as they make discoveries across campus and around the world. It is essential to our long-term success that we continue to recruit and retain top-notch faculty.
One of the best ways to do this—and one of our best tools as we compete with other universities—is through private support to create named professorships and chairs, prestigious titles (with accompanying funding) awarded to faculty of distinction. Private support will allow us to maintain our tradition of faculty excellence into the future, and also help us use state funds more efficiently.
We already had the good fortune of offering a number of named professorships at CALS. But thanks to the generosity of donors John and Tashia Morgridge, we are now in a position to offer several more. The Morgridges honored the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a $125.1 million gift providing a 1-to-1 match for any other donor who made a contribution to endow a professorship, a chair or a distinguished chair—a tremendous gift that ended up more than tripling the university’s number of fully endowed professorships and chairs.
CALS has reaped the benefits of the Morgridges’ generosity. Their donation allowed us to establish:
• The Owen R. Fennema Professorship in Food Chemistry, matched by a group of donors led by James Behnke MS’68 PhD’72 and Daryl Lund MS’65 PhD’68, a former professor of food science;
• The Henry C. Taylor Professorship in Agricultural and Applied Economics, matched by a gift from Robert Miller MS ’59 PhD ’67;
• The Patrick Walsh and Noreen Warren Endowed Professorship in Biological Systems Engineering, matched by a gift from BSE emeritus professor and department chair Patrick Walsh and his wife, Noreen Warren;
• The Clif Bar and Organic Valley Chair in Plant Breeding for Organic Agriculture, matched by gifts from those two companies;
• The James F. Crow Professorship in Genetics, named for the late emeritus professor James F. Crow, matched by gifts from a group of donors; and
• A soon-to-be-named chair in bacteriology, now in the final stages of planning.
We thank all these donors for their generous gifts, which will go a very long way toward “growing the future” at CALS.
If you wish to learn more about private support for professorships, please contact
Kate Bahr at the UW Foundation, tel. (608) 308-5120, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wisconsin is known for fermented products like cheese, pickles and beer. But now it’s adding even more to that blossoming list: wine and cider. And the Badger State’s 110 wineries and commercial cider makers now have a new resource to help them compete: Nick Smith.
Since he started at CALS earlier this year as the university’s first wine and cider outreach specialist, Smith has been traveling the state, knocking on doors and meeting Wisconsin’s wine and cider makers.
Wine grapes can be difficult to grow in Wisconsin since most varieties prefer warmer climates, but after years researching wine and working with growers in Minnesota, Smith is confident there’s a market for it here, too, given the state’s legacy of fermented products, bustling tourism industry and agricultural diversity.
Smith’s also interested in helping producers realize profits in cider, where it can be hard to compete with large cider makers who sell product for the price of craft beer.
“It’s a relatively rapidly growing industry, especially for cider, which is one of the fastest-growing market segments in terms of percentage growth year after year,” he says.
Smith has blazed a meandering trail to his current position. He was a 19-year-old business management major at the University of Minnesota the day he caught the wine and beer bug. He was making a delivery for one of his campus jobs when he noticed a certain shop across the street.
“There was a homebrew shop right there on campus—I think it was owned by a retired microbiology professor,” he says. “I thought: ‘What is that?’ and instantly, I was hit. It never occurred to me that you could homebrew.”
Smith ended up taking numerous food and fermentation science classes. He then spent a year studying beer and winemaking at Oregon State University before taking a job as a chemist for a commercial winemaker in California.
But the draw back to the Midwest was strong, and he took a position as a research winemaker at the University of Minnesota, where he spent eight years preparing small batches of wine for tasting analysis based on the selections of grape breeders. He also earned a master’s degree in food science.
Just prior to joining CALS, Smith was working as a winemaker in Rochester, Minnesota, but the opportunity to build something from the vineyard (and orchard) up in Wisconsin was too good to turn down.
Since his arrival, Smith has participated in workshops hosted by the wine industry and is gathering input and information about the needs of wine and cider makers in Wisconsin. Many, he says, are new to commercial production and are looking for advice and help in scaling up from homebrew or commercial small-batch operations. Smith, who is funded by state and industry grants, is working with the Wisconsin Winery Association to develop educational outreach tracks for conferences, find speakers and develop short courses for industry, much like the CALS-based Center for Dairy Research, which he says serves as a good model for developing outreach and viticulture partnerships.
As examples, over the summer he hosted an industry workshop on sparkling wine production, which he expects to be a profitable segment of the market in Wisconsin, as well as a preharvest workshop on aspects of fermentation chemistry in winemaking. This fall he’s hosting regional winemaker roundtables at three wineries around the state, offering winemakers an opportunity to meet and discuss wines they are producing.
Smith’s also working to get a fermentation lab bubbling in Babcock Hall, where he currently shares space with ice cream and other frozen-dessert researchers. He may also take students interested in making wine and cider for an independent study course, similar to a beer-brewing course recently led by Jim Steele, head of the fermented foods and beverages program in the Department of Food Science. The department plans to soon offer an undergraduate certificate in fermented foods and beverages.
Smith hopes the revenue generated from workshops will fund additional research on how grape growing affects flavor and aroma development. Wisconsin is, after all, fertile terroir: roughly 10 new wineries, 10 new breweries and 10 new distilleries pop up in the state each year.
“It’s a growing industry, and it’s going to grow without us,” he says. “But the UW can help it grow better.”
Ben Futa has one of the most beautiful workplaces on campus. And, as the new director of the CALS-based Allen Centennial Gardens, he loves the opportunity to connect visitors with its many splendors.
“What I like most is connecting people with plants,” says Futa. “People come in and say, ‘I’ve never seen this plant. What is it?’ Or they ask, ‘How do you get away with growing this in Wisconsin?’ And you get to share something with them.”
Futa comes to Allen from Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve in Niles, Michigan, where he started as a horticulturist and eventually became manager of horticulture. Futa, who studied sustainability at Indiana University South Bend, also did an internship at Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park.
Futa is already revitalizing Allen with a newly established year-round internship program offering students hands-on experience in the areas of public garden leadership, education and community programming, marketing and outreach, and plant records management. Another new program is Tai Chi in the Garden, offered in partnership with the Tai Chi Center of Madison.
All these efforts, Futa says, are intended to preserve and enhance Allen’s welcoming environment as the campus’ artful living laboratory.
“You don’t have to know a thing about plants,” Futa says. “Just come out and embrace the space.”
| Learn more at allencentennialgardens.org
Ken Schroeder serves as the agricultural agent for Portage County, specializing in commercial vegetable production. He pursues that work in a variety of ways, from one-on-one consulting to group education and field tours. He conducts on-farm applied research in cooperation with area vegetable growers, and his current projects focus on improving the sustainability of vegetable production on irrigated land in Central Wisconsin. His statewide work includes serving on the UW–Extension Fresh Market and Commercial Vegetable Team, on the education committee of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association (WPVGA) and on the central Wisconsin Groundwater Task Force. “My favorite part of my job is helping people. I enjoy working with farmers, agribusinesses and home gardeners, providing educational programing and resources where they live and work,” says Schroeder, who holds degrees in horticulture and in plant breeding and plant genetics.
Sarah Krier, a junior majoring in environmental studies and life sciences communication, had already spent two seasons as a camp counselor in Hudson. But this past summer she wanted to do something deeper: impart the teachings of Aldo Leopold to young people.
In particular she wanted to draw from a recent massive open online course (MOOC), “The Land Ethic Reclaimed: Aldo Leopold, Perceptive Hunting, and Conservation,” featuring wildlife ecology professor Tim Van Deelen.
“I never fully appreciated the outdoors until my dad took me hunting when I was 12. For the first time I felt that nature is a community I’m a part of,” says Krier. While hunting was not on the camp’s agenda, the course’s overarching concepts certainly could be: “I wanted every child to be able to form a personal connection with the outdoors.”
For the “Little Aldos” project, as it was called, Krier received a Wisconsin Open Education Community Fellowship, an award totaling up to $6,000 offered by the Division of Continuing Studies and the Morgridge Center for Public Service. Under the guidance of LSC professor Bret Shaw she designed programs for younger and older campers, drawing on materials from the nonprofit Aldo Leopold Foundation.
The YMCA Camp DayCroix offered a rich opportunity to work with children from diverse backgrounds, many of them from the Twin Cities. Younger children explored the camp’s different ecosystems and engaged in fun activities (wildlife observation, planting sugar maples) developed as an accompaniment to Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. They kept nature journals in which to draw and write about their experiences.
Older campers built Leopold benches and led a project implementing a compost system for the camp’s food waste. While Krier had nearly 80 kids in her programs throughout the summer, these activities extended her reach to many more of the season’s some 3,000 campers.
She feels she met her goal of helping children form a personal connection with nature.
“Every kid’s connection was a little bit different. Some kids really got into bug catching. Others dove into their journals,” Krier says. “We had kids who had never actually seen a chicken. For them to come and say ‘I eat chicken all the time, and that’s what it looks like?’ is just a really cool way for them to have that connection to nature.”
You can see Krier in action in a video produced as part of UW–Madison’s All Ways Forward campaign.
1 It’s not a nut. Nutmeg is the seed kernel inside a yellow fruit of the nutmeg tree, an evergreen native to the Molucca Islands (sometimes called the Spice Islands) of Indonesia. Whole nutmeg seeds are oval, brown and about an inch long, with a nutty aroma and taste—but they don’t pose a risk to people with nut allergies.
2 This beloved holiday spice can be dangerous. But only in fairly large amounts. It takes two tablespoons or more to produce symptoms of nutmeg poisoning, toxicologists say. Those symptoms may include acute nausea, dry mouth, dizziness and a slowdown of brain function to the point where victims experience blackouts. Higher doses can cause shock and hallucinations.
3 That’s due to the nutmeg’s essential oil. Myristica, as the oil is called, contains myristicin, a narcotic that functions in the plant as a natural insecticide. Nutmeg also—as do its frequent recipe companions, cinnamon and clove—acts as an antibiotic.
4 Nutmeg has other medicinal properties as well. Consumed in small doses, nutmeg can serve as a digestive aid in reducing flatulence and indigestion, and can also help treat nausea and diarrhea as well as lower blood pressure. Applied topically, it can offer pain relief and has been used for rheumatism, mouth sores and toothache.
5 Nutmeg was more valuable than Manhattan. By the 16th century, nutmeg—coveted as a flavoring, hallucinogen, alleged aphrodisiac and deterrent to the plague—was being sold by European traders at a 6,000 percent markup. The Dutch soon wrested control of all the nutmeg-producing Moluccas except for a tiny island called Run, which was controlled by the British. At that time, Run seemed more valuable than Manhattan, then under Dutch control as New Amsterdam. In order to seal their nutmeg monopoly, the Dutch gave the British New Amsterdam in exchange for Run. It seemed like a good idea.
Johanna Oosterwyk, a faculty associate in the Department of Horticulture, is manager of the DC Smith Greenhouse, a facility that provides plant-growing space for the instructional needs of departments and programs of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.