Field Notes

Kazakhstan: Turning Dirty Bombs into Clean Silage

When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, a group of microbiologists in Kazakhstan lost their jobs. And that’s a good thing, because they’d been employed to develop biological weapons.

But if you’re interested in world security, it’s probably not a bad idea to keep people with this kind of expertise off the job market, which is why the U.S. Department of Agriculture retrains former weapons makers to do agricultural research. Sponsored by the state department, the program teams U.S. researchers with colleagues in former Soviet republics to redirect their microbiological talents on problems that will lift the economies of their home countries.

“The goal is to help them develop production of commodities that could be used commercially, either domestically or for export,” says Paul Weimer MS’75 PhD’78, a bacteriologist who participates in the program.

Weimer and Richard Muck, scientists with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service who hold appointments on the CALS faculty, have traveled to Kazakhstan twice and will return this year. Kazakh scientists have also visited the UW–Madison campus, where Weimer and Muck have demonstrated improved techniques for making silage.

Although Kazakhstan is in the middle of an oil boom, it’s still largely an agrarian country with extensive grasslands. Thanks to oil, incomes have improved, creating interest in new foods and ways of eating. This has led to a “mini dairy boom,” says Weimer. “But they don’t have strong dairy production system in terms of feed analysis and the technology to grow high-quality forages. We’re helping them develop enzyme preparations that will help them upgrade their grasses to make better silage.”

In the course of the Kazakh scientists’ former line of work, they had researched countless native bacteria and fungi and discovered some that produce an effective cellulase, an enzyme that breaks down cell walls and release sugars. Weimer and Muck helped them find ways to put these native microbes to work making silage.

“Their results look pretty promising,” Weimer reports. In fact, quantities of the Kazakh enzymes may soon be on their way to Wisconsin, where Muck and Weimer will use them to make silage and feed cows.

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