The Island of Giant Mice

Two thousand miles east of the coast of Argentina, Gough Island rises out of the Atlantic Ocean in an awesome display of ancient volcanic activity. A green carpet of windswept mosses and grasses covers 35 square miles of jagged peaks and steeply sloping valleys. Waterfalls spill out of craggy cliffs and fall hundreds of feet to the sea, which runs uninterrupted for another 1,700 miles before crashing into the tip of South Africa. It is one of the most remote places on our planet.

Four miles west of the University of Wisconsin– Madison campus, the Charmany Instructional Facility is a low-slung labyrinth of concrete hallways lined by bright fluorescent lights and permeated with a smell that is equal parts animal and antiseptic. Part of the UW School of Veterinary Medicine, Charmany is nearly half a world away from Gough Island (pronounced “Goff ”). Yet the two locations share a common trait— they both are home to the largest mice on Earth.

In terms of body size and weight, Gough Island mice are twice the size of their mainland cousins, notes Bret Payseur, a geneticist with a joint appointment in CALS and the School of Medicine and Public Health. “The amazing thing about them being twice the size is that they’ve only been on the island a couple of hundred years,” he says. The island’s early rodent settlers were a more moderate-sized strain of Mus musculus, house mice stowaways in the holds of sealing ships from Western Europe. But somewhere along the line, Gough Island mice outgrew that ancestry—doubling in size over the course of only a few hundred generations. “That’s incredibly rapid evolutionary change,” Payseur says. “It’s some of the most rapid that I know about.”

In the canon of origin stories, however, this tale reads more like a mystery. How did the Gough Island mice get so big so quickly? It could be that a genetic mutation proved so advantageous that huge mice became the norm. Or maybe conditions on the island favored preexisting genetic traits that had lain dormant until the mice became castaways. For the time being, however, the Gough mouse story is transcribed only in A’s, T’s, C’s and G’s—the nucleic acids that write genetic code. Payseur hopes to translate that text. What he finds could not only shed light on evolution in action. It could also help illuminate the genetic mechanisms underlying human metabolic diseases like obesity and diabetes.

The Island Rule

While Gough Island mice are unusually large, it isn’t unusual for small animals on islands to grow bigger than their mainland counterparts. The phenomenon is often referred to as the “island rule,” which states that, in general, small animals tend to get bigger and large animals tend to get smaller once they’ve been island castaways for some period of time. There are, of course, exceptions. But from giant Komodo dragons to extinct pygmy mammoths, examples of the island rule run throughout the animal kingdom.

The gigantism effect of this rule seems to be especially pronounced in rodents. Human history is full of daring adventure on the high seas involving fearless mariners and the obligatory stowaways—mice and rats. As a result, the world’s islands are full of transplanted rodents. Biologist J. Bristol Foster first posited the island rule in a 1964 paper in the journal Nature, titled “The Evolution of Mammals on Islands.” In his study, Foster looked at 69 populations of island mice off the coasts of Western Europe and North America. The mice in 60 of those populations were measurably larger than their mainland cousins. Since that study, time and again, scientists find mice and rats on islands that are markedly bigger than genetically similar mainland populations.

This is notable because, in evolution, random genetic mutations or suddenly shifting environmental conditions can lead a species down a certain path. Which means that chance plays a big role in charting a species’ history. “If you ‘run the tape’ once and go back and run it again,” Payseur says, “you would expect different outcomes because of that role of chance.” When patterns like the island rule appear in evolution, he says, “People get very excited. It suggests that what underlies the patterns is a common mechanism that would tell us something important about how evolution works.”

Payseur’s scientific background is anchored in evolutionary biology, and the natural history of species on islands has fascinated him throughout his career. After early work with primates in Madagascar, Payseur realized that, while there is a lot one can do in primate research, keeping captive colonies of lemurs in a lab and breeding the thousands of crosses needed to actually get at answers wasn’t one of them. So he turned his attention to mice.

“The great thing about house mice—and I know most people don’t think house mice are great—is that the strains or lines of mice that people study in the lab are descended from wild house mice, including the wild mice that often inhabit islands,” Payseur says. “So they’re kind of cousins evolutionarily and share a lot of the same traits. That means we can use the genetic tools developed for the lab strains of mice to understand what’s happening in wild mice.”

He’s looking to these small creatures to answer some very big questions. “In the very long term, what I would like to answer with this research is, ‘What types of genetic changes are responsible for the extreme body size on islands?” Payseur says. “Are they the same on different islands? Do we see the same genes popping up over and over again, or do organisms take different paths to get big?”

Knowing that he would have the time, money and resources to deal with only a single strain of island mouse at a time, Payseur decided to start with the most extreme example of the island rule that he could find. He turned to colleagues who studied house mice in the field—and every one of them pointed him to Gough Island.

An Incredible Journey

Most researchers simply order mice via catalog, usually from what Payseur calls “the world center for mouse genetics,” the Jackson Laboratory in Maine. A copy of their glossy catalog lets researchers pick trait-specific lines of mice, from body size and coat color to preassigned conditions like immunodeficiency. Then, simply place an order and wait a few days for the mail to arrive. Gough Island mice aren’t in that catalog. Which means that Payseur had to figure out a way to get mice from an incredibly remote island with a grand total of six to eight full-time human residents, all of whom were busy with their year-long stint staffing the South African National Antarctic Programme’s weather station.

The solution came in the form of an unusual and macabre adaptation of behavior in Gough Island mice. In addition to developing bigger bodies in their few hundred years on the island, they have also developed an appetite for bigger food—the chicks of nesting seabirds, which they, quite literally, nibble to death. Luckily for Payseur, there are quite a few people concerned about those seabirds.

Gough Island is officially a possession of Britain and part of the Dependency of Tristan de Cunha. It is also listed as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which recognizes Gough as a pristine, primarily untouched ecosystem. Its towering cliffs, according to the UNESCO description of the island, “host some of the most important seabird colonies in the world,” from the endangered Tristan albatross to the Atlantic petrel to the Northern Rockhopper penguin. Under such circumstances, a population of non-native, quick-breeding, bird-eating mice is of grave concern—especially to the governments and scientists tasked with preserving the island’s biodiversity.

Peter Ryan, director of the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, says that, especially where petrels and albatrosses are concerned, Gough Island mice are a threat to breeding populations. Ryan has been an honorary conservation officer in the Tristan de Cunha islands since 1989 and has witnessed the decline in seabirds firsthand. When Payseur reached out to him in 2008, Ryan was working with Richard Cuthbert, a scientist at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, on a census of sorts to help the British government plan an intervention—or, rather, an eradication.

The mice “were easy enough to catch,” Ryan wrote in an email recalling Payseur’s request. “They occur at very high densities and we’d been live-catching lots of mice to estimate their movements and densities and to conduct poison trials to ensure that all were susceptible to the poison bait.” Ironically, in order to study how best to kill them, the researchers had the live traps, food, bedding and other paraphernalia needed to keep the mice alive for study.

The “big issue” Ryan recalls, was shipping them. Eventually, the crew of the S.A. Agulhas, a South African Antarctic research vessel, agreed to give the mice a lift, but “Even this was a bit tricky, because we had to convince them that the mice wouldn’t be able to escape.” In the fall of 2008, 50 Gough Island mice boarded a boat and took the return trip to the mainland, specifically Cape Town, South Africa. After a lot of paperwork they were sent to Johannesburg, with inspections and quarantines and mountains of paperwork piling up as they made their way by plane to Europe, then to Chicago and, in a final car ride, to the campus of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where postdoctoral researcher Melissa Gray was waiting.

That September, Gray had just begun her stint in Payseur’s lab. The idea of working with mice excited her, since, as with Payseur’s initial study of primates in Madagascar, the Channel Island foxes she had been working on promised to be a difficult study organism. When a mentor suggested she reach out to Payseur, Gray says, “It was a perfect connection.” She had a background working on island populations and the genetics of size and “Bret already had this project and nobody to work on it.” Plus, she wouldn’t have to wait long to get going. “I started in Bret’s lab in September,” Gray recalls, “and the mice arrived in late October.”

Immediately upon their arrival, the Gough Island mice alleviated any concerns about their suitability as a study subject. “Basically it was a cardboard box with some breathing holes and food stuffed inside,” Gray recalls. But when she opened the box, “It was amazing,” she recalls. Ryan had sent 50 mice off to Wisconsin. Forty-five survived the trip and, even better, they’d managed to produce a couple of litters along the way. They hadn’t even begun their experiment, and already the Payseur Lab was growing a colony of Gough mice. “In a way, we ended up with more than we started with, which is crazy with the amount of stress they were under,” Gray says.

After that initial excitement wore off, the real work began. First, Gray had to randomly breed several sets of mice to ensure that their large size was genetic and not the result of conditions on the island. When those lines came out as big as the wild-born mice, she could turn her attention to creating the first lab-raised line of Gough Island mice, inbreeding some promising strains of mice to create lines that were genetically identical, which makes gene mapping much easier. These mice would then serve as the lab’s breeding colony, slated as mates for lab mice with a mainland heritage.

One way to think about the process—to borrow a metaphor from Mark Nolte, a current postdoctoral researcher in the Payseur Lab—is to imagine two decks of playing cards, one red and the other blue, where each card is a gene. Each deck represents a chromosome, a long strand of DNA wrapped around proteins that carries genetic instructions from a parent to its offspring. When sexual reproduction occurs, each parent contributes a copy of one of their two chromosomes to their offspring.

Imagine the Gough Island mice as having two blue decks of cards—one deck for each chromosome—and the mainland mice as having two red decks. Their initial mating yields what’s called a “filial generation one,” or an F1 baby mouse with two distinct chromosomes, one with all blue cards and the other with all red cards. But when an F1 mouse mates with another F1 mouse, those decks get shuffled. These “filial generation 2,” or F2 mice, hold the first key to untangling the riddle of the evolution of Gough Island’s giant mice.

Breaking the Code

In a small, windowless room at the Charmany Instructional Facility, doctoral candidate Michelle Parmenter lifts two wriggling brown mice out of separate plastic cages by the base of their tails. One is from a line of laboratory mouse with a lineage that runs, if one looks far enough back, to a population of U.S. house mouse. The other is also a strain of laboratory mouse, although it’s of the lab’s own creation—its Gough Island heritage evident in the way it dwarfs its companion when nestled side by side in Parmenter’s hand.

Parmenter, Nolte and a half-dozen Payseur Lab undergrads spend a large portion of their time taking measurements, plopping each of the 480 mice in the room—increasingly inbred descendants of the original Gough mice—one by one into an empty container of French onion dip and putting it on a scale.

Parmenter has slipped on tough blue “bite gloves” before handling the mice— and one mouse’s attempted nibbles remind her why she needs them. “Okay, you’re trying to bite me,” she announces, putting the critter down. “These bite gloves are good, but they’re only so good.”

A smaller mouse, on the other hand, sits meekly in her palm. Parmenter and Nolte say there are a lot of anecdotal differences in behavior between the Gough line of mice and their mainland counterparts. Gough mice scrabble at the corners of their clear plastic cages and frantically scale the grates near their water bottles like monkey bars. The mainland mice spend more time quietly nestled in the shredded paper bedding provided for burrows. When working with the mice, Parmenter and Nolte put them in deep plastic basins, since the Gough mice seem to be strong jumpers and more aggressive. In comparison, says Nolte, “I could work with classical laboratory strains of mice on a level surface and they wouldn’t go anywhere. They wouldn’t even try to escape.”

While they enjoy discussing the potential evolutionary drivers behind some of this observed behavior, what is really exciting to Parmenter and Nolte is what these mice are now telling them at a genetic level.

By crossing mice from Gough and the mainland strain, the Payseur Lab has produced about 1,400 F2 mice. They’ve extracted DNA from each one, sent those samples to a lab for analysis and, in return, received a genomic portrait of each mouse’s DNA. Combing through all of that is a slow process, says Parmenter, but already they are finding hints of the genetic code responsible for their remarkable size.

“Imagine I take the two decks of cards—or ‘chromosomes’—and spread them out, and I can go down each row and say, ‘Oh, there’s a mainland chunk of DNA,’ or ‘Hey, that one came from Gough,’” Nolte says. When you do this enough, patterns begin to appear. “If you take your largest mice and spread their decks, you notice that at the same position on the chromosome they all share the same Gough DNA.” When a big enough percentage of large mice show the same chunk of genes at the same position on the genome, Nolte says, it indicates that, somewhere in the region, there is a gene responsible for size.

That strong association, however, isn’t exactly a smoking gun. When the project began, says Payseur, a prevailing thought was that the rapid evolution in Gough Island mice would be the result of mutations in just a couple of key genes. But in a September 2015 paper in the journal Genetics, the lab published its first genetic mapping results from the F2 crosses, reporting that 19 different sections of the genome appear to play some role in the rapid and extreme size evolution of Gough Island mice. Each of those 19 sections is comprised of anywhere from 400 to 1,400 genes, which means there is much more work to do.

Right now, the process “is not getting at a specific gene,” says Gray, who was the lead author of the Genetics paper. “It’s saying, ‘Okay, this chunk of genome right here somehow corresponds to body size.’ So if you want to tease that apart more, you have to shuffle the deck again. And then shuffle it again.” Keeping your eye on the right card gets difficult. “You really need a lot of samples to get past the noise,” she says, “and that’s a challenge about a project like this. You need a lot of individuals, and that means a lot of money and a lot of time and a lot of mice.”

The Search for a New Island

As the “giant mice” experiment currently stands, the Payseur Lab will, eventually, uncover specific genes that are responsible for the Gough Island mouse’s astounding size, work that could have implications for research on things like human metabolic diseases or even breeding livestock.

“When you look at domesticated animals, size is one of the most important traits because it’s correlated with characteristics like productivity,” Payseur explains. “There’s a lot of interest in CALS in understanding the genetic basis of size variation—in that context it would help select for increased body size and know what genes confer the response. Maybe there’s a more efficient way to ‘build the animal.’”

But if Payseur is to truly unravel the evolutionary mystery of the island rule, he’s going to not only need more time, money and mice—he’s going to need a new island.

The idea is to run the same experiment with another population of large island mice and see if evolutionary patterns emerge. Do some of the same 19 genetic regions his lab has identified show up in those mice, or did they get bigger through a completely different mechanism?

“It would be nice to choose an island because it has similar ecological conditions to Gough that might have driven the same kind of body size increase,” Payseur muses. “But another consideration is, it would be nice to choose an island where the mice have come from a different part of the world. I’m in the throes of figuring that out right now.”

Either way, it’s not a decision that will be made quickly. And the project, which is funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, is slated to run for several more years, meaning that large mice will be calling a UW–Madison lab home for a while.

Gray has already moved on from the project, taking a job as a research scientist at Exact Sciences, a Madisonbased biotech company. Both Nolte and Parmenter realize that they’ll also head elsewhere in their careers before the full story of the Gough Island mice can be translated. But they admit to hoping that they’re still around when the next cardboard box full of large, wild mice arrives in the lab.

“Just knowing that Bret is pursuing a new island population makes us all giddy,” Nolte says.

Payseur shares their excitement, but he knew when he launched the study that he was signing on for what could end up being a career-long project.

“I think that genetics is the most powerful way to answer evolutionary questions,” he says. But getting at answers can be “more complicated than one might imagine,” Payseur admits. “It would be nice to have a simple explanation, but I tend to be attracted to more complicated projects.”

In one respect at least, things might be finally getting a little less complicated for the Payseur Lab: Wherever they turn next for a population of giant mice, the island in question will be a little less remote than Gough. And the mice involved will be a little smaller. And, just maybe, writing the next chapter of this story will be a little bit easier—aided by a key created from the genome of the largest mice on Earth.


Catch Up With … Shannon Strader BS’14 Biology

Shannon Strader BS’14 is no stranger to pain. At age 8 she lost her twin sister, Lauryn, to complications arising from cerebral palsy. Strader herself suffered from an excruciating condition that was eventually diagnosed as posterior nutcracker syndrome, a rare kidney disease where the renal vein is anatomically displaced and compressed by the spinal cord and aorta.

“I never knew what it was like to not be in pain,” Strader says. “I never went a day without a stabbing pain in my lower back and abdomen. I never knew what it was like to eat without feeling nauseated. I never knew what it was like to have a functional body.”

A series of surgeries alleviated her suffering, but not before Strader had reached college age. From her anguish, two dreams arose. One was to work with pioneering stem cell researcher Jamie Thomson in his regenerative biology lab at UW–Madison’s Morgridge Institute for Research. Another was to found a nonprofit that would provide emotional support and financial assistance to college students coping with disease or disabilities.

Strader was successful on both counts. She worked in Thomson’s lab all four years, and for her capstone project as a CALS biology major conducted research involving DNMT3B, a gene that plays an important role in embryonic development.

And—with help from the Thomson lab, the McBurney Disability Resource Center, and fellow students Lauren Wilmet, Harris Sinsley, Kym Ludwig, Al Ritger, Jamie Holt and Matt Anderson—she founded Bella Soul, a nonprofit that in just over one year of operation has provided scholarships to six students and support to countless others.

• Why is Bella Soul needed?
Before Bella Soul, out of the nation’s 1.5 million nonprofits, there was not one directed toward helping college students confronting chronic illness or disability through scholarships and/or emotional support that wasn’t limited to a specific illness. Bella Soul does not favor a particular disease. Another cool thing is that 100 percent of our donors’ money goes to scholarships. We pay for our printers, paper and fundraising galas through corporate donations. We do not pay our “employees,” either.

• What kind of feedback have you gotten?
Individuals who read our stories online say they have been blown away by what some young adults persevere through every day while working hard to accomplish their dreams. Every story and scholarship application we have received I have cried over and really been touched by.

• Can you share a few examples?
In this last scholarship round, we were going to give out one scholarship. Instead we ended up giving out four. How do you decide between Sarah, who has to deal with the difficulties of cerebral palsy financially and emotionally, and Cheyenne, who recently was diagnosed with cancer? We ended up giving a scholarship to both of them, along with two others.

• You’ve just started medical school in Tennessee. What are your long-term hopes for Bella Soul and your career?
Our plan is to start Bella Soul chapters at other universities and provide resources for hospitals to share with teenagers transitioning to college. As for my career, I hope to someday establish my own cerebral palsy clinic as well as be a principal investigator in an embryology/developmental research lab.

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Insects For All

Life’s astounding diversity is rarely more apparent than on a warm summer night when the porch light glows and we are ensconced behind a protective mesh of screen, reading or dozing after dinner.

It is then that the din begins to rise in the gathering dusk.

From out there, beyond our domestic ramparts, the buzzing, fluttering horde is gathering. Soon the screen will billow and dance beneath their numbers—emissaries from a class that is as profligate and strange as any ever created by even the best of our science fiction masters.

June beetles. Katydids. Moths and crickets. Beetles. Mosquitoes and no-see-ums. Mayflies. Lacewings. The constant tick and ping of their assault on the screen is a reminder that we humans are but bit players in a world that really belongs to them—the insects.

Behind our screens we fight a nervous and mostly futile holding action.

Most of us have little idea what we’re really up against when we array our meager weapons against the insects—our sprays and our treated jackets and head nets and our zappers and swatters.

But there is a place on the UW–Madison CALS campus that might give you a pretty good idea of why we are largely at the mercy of this winged, barbed, needle-nosed, multilegged, goggle-eyed empire.

Welcome to the University of Wisconsin Insect Research Collection, one of those wonderful hidden gems of curated knowledge. Open the door and you drop down Alice’s rabbit hole into a world of carefully preserved dung beetles, walking sticks and enough mounted lice to give even the most stoic grade-school mom nightmares.

Stashed in a warren of rooms on the third floor of Russell Labs—and in an annex on the third floor of the Stock Pavilion—are more than 3 million curated insect specimens, along with 5 million more unsorted bulk samplespreserved in jars and tiny vials of ethyl alcohol.

You will find hundreds of thousands of every kind of insect you can imagine, meticulously arrayed in glass-topped wooden drawers in rank upon rank of cabinets. Here are specimens from around the world collected over the last 170 years by a cast of brilliant characters ranging from an entomologist who was known internationally for studying and espousing insects as food to a curious young naturalist who tragically died in a car crash at age 33 and left behind as pets two parrots, a boa constrictor, and two large spiders.

In Russell Labs, the collection is approached down a hallway guarded by glass cases of mounted moths, butterflies and one giant walking stick large enough to hang laundry from. Inside are walls and aisles lined by so many cabinets and drawers that they challenge the extravagance of Kim Kardashian’s walk-in clothes closet. But here, instead of the scent of perfume, you will be greeted by the distinctive but not altogether unpleasant lingering odor of naphthalene, once used to keep live bugs from eating the mounted dead bugs.

You will also likely be met by entomology professor Daniel Young, the collection’s enthusiastic director. Chances are he will be wearing a T-shirt that depicts an insect of some sort. At our first meeting, he sports a shirt fromthe 2006 meeting of the Entomological Society of America. Once you get to know him, his wardrobe seems the least unusual thing about him. In fact, Young, like just about everyone who has anything at all to do with this remarkable collection of insects, seems as pleasingly eccentric as any of the myriad species in the giant insect mausoleum he tends. On one visit, Craig Brabant, one of Young’s graduate students, is busy in the lab and hardly looks up at an inquiry about his professor’s whereabouts.

“Oh, he’s back there with his beetles somewhere,” Brabant said with the nonchalance of a dedicated and somewhat distracted bug person.

When Brabant refers to “Young’s beetles,’’ you have to understand what this truly means. Young has traveled the world in search of beetles—specimens of the order Coleoptera. This has been his passion since boyhood, when he fished for trout with his father in Michigan and paid close attention to the flies the fish slurped from the surface of such rivers as the Au Sable and the Pere Marquette.

Young’s course as a prolific collector of beetles was set when he was an undergraduate at Michigan State University and a fellow student who collected beetles suddenly became more enamored with bees that pollinate cucumbers. He turned his beetle collection over to Young—and ever since, Young has never met a beetle he didn’t want to name and classify.

Just how big a task does Young face in his chosen field of study? There are more than 300,000 species of beetles, he says, compared with 4,000 species of mammals. In his book The Variety of Life, Colin Tudge writes that about a fifth of all known animals are beetles. Yet Young keeps tilting at his own private windmill. For more than 40 years he has collected more than 200,000 specimens—and that collection now resides in the cabinets in Russell Labs.

Now Young is faced with an undertaking that seems almost as daunting as putting the world’s beetles in order. He is overseeing the Department of Entomology’s
ambitious effort to digitize the entire insect research collection, taking digital photos of all the insects and putting them online as part of a web-based project called InvertNet, which stands for Invertebrate Collections Network.

Lest you fear for Young’s sanity, he will not be spending the rest of his career snapping photos of millions of insects. The project, a collaborative effort involving 22 Midwestern insect collections housing more than 50 million specimens, has been made possible by the development of a robotic digital camera that can image an entire drawer of mounted insects in seconds.

The department took delivery of the unique $6,800 camera in November and, like kids with a present on Christmas day, Young and his students began playing with it immediately. Installed in a place of honor on a desk in one of the research rooms next to its controlling computer, the camera is a marvel of robotic engineering. Ensconced in a steel frame and suspended from three arms that are outfitted with multiple springs and gears, the camera is designed to move precisely and rapidly above a brightly lit drawer of mounted specimens. Its movement, programmed by the computer, is mesmerizing. With a soft hum, it crawls back and forth and up and down, as insectlike in its movements as the creatures it photographs.

With the camera, the job of digitizing the Wisconsin collection, along withmore than 20 other such collections throughout the Midwest, becomes not only manageable but also affordable, according to Young. Until now, such an effort was slow and costly, about $1 per specimen as opposed to 10 cents per specimen with the new camera. It also minimizes the risk of damaging delicate specimens. And the camera does not take just a single image of a specimen; researcher will be able to manipulate the photograph to see different parts of each insect, almost as if it were in 3-D.

Even with the advanced camera, Young estimates that getting the entire collection photographed and onto the web could take as long as two years. But the benefits, he adds, are many. Fewer than 5 percent of invertebrate collections in the U.S. are available online. And making collections available at the click of a computer key will make the knowledge that they preserve much more broadly available, not only for researchers but also for a lay public that is endlessly fascinated by bugs—but frequently poorly informed about their value in the web of life.

“Many of the advantages are for the taxonomic community,” Young says. “I can’t just up and visit all the collections in the world. But if I can remotely see them, I can point out a drawer to a local curator. I can even point to a particular part of a drawer, specific specimens, and ask the curator to loan them to me.”

“There is also a tremendous potential benefit for education and outreach,” Young continues. “This adds a new K–12 students so they can remotely visit the collection. They can pull outthe drawers and look at that specimen that was collected in 1890. The bottom line is that we have to make this relevant beyond the taxonomic community.”

Understanding the value of having the insect collection available online requires appreciating the value and intrigue of such collections to begin with. Such an appreciation comes not only from recognizing the wealth of scientific data they harbor, but also from hearing the stories of how a particular collection came to be. The Wisconsin lab is fairly haunted by all of those, professional and amateur, who at one time or another wielded their insect nets in a pasture or woodlot to add specimen after specimen, drawer after drawer, cabinet after cabinet—lately to the tune of about 21,000 specimens a year.

Their names are all there in the drawers, forever connected to their insects by the information on the tiny white tags attached to each pinned specimen. The slips of paper contain in black type the collectors’ names and very concise descriptions of the insects and the details of their capture (“Found dead in the middle of a dirt road,” reads the short story of one tiny, nondescript beetle). Now the names of insect and collector alike will be forever preserved in the digital ether of the World Wide Web.

Consider, for example, the 16,050 syrphid, or flower flies, collected by Charles L. Fluke, the first director of the research collection. His collection is considered among the best in the nation, according to Young, and Fluke’s accomplishment is recognized by a room named in his honor.

Or there are the approximate 14,000 mounts and 6,000 slides of mosquitoes collected from around the world by Robert J. Dicke. And 175,000 aquatic insects, almost all of them from Wisconsin waters, collected by William Hilsenhoff. “There was hardly a lake, river or stream he didn’t sample,” says Young.

Of all the individuals who have contributed to the Wisconsin collection, few have a story that can match that of the late Gene DeFoliart, a long-time CALS professor of entomology who studied how insects spread viral diseases. In the early 1970s, however, DeFoliart became fascinated with insects as an important food source throughout the world. He developed an international reputation for his expertise on the subject. His work even got a comedic nod from Johnny Carson, who joked about DeFoliart and “roast of roach.”

Young and others recall DeFoliart serving up various insect concoctions in the department. His daughter, Linda DeFoliart BS’81, who now lives in Alaska, remembers her father bringing home leftovers.

“I remember he brought us mealworm and sour cream potato chip dip,” says Linda. “And deep-fried crickets. We reheated those in the microwave. They had the consistency of popcorn and they kind of stuck in your teeth.”

But Linda also recalls her father’s obsession with collecting and stories about him as a boy growing up in rural Arkansas, riding around on his bike with his butterfly net and a glass jar of cyanide—his “kill” jar. His passion and his insects are forever preserved in the Wisconsin collection—hundreds of mosquitoes, 1,500 slide-mounted lice, and 5,000 butterflies and skippers that Linda and her siblings donated after Gene DeFoliart’s death in 2013.

“We decided to donate the collection to the university because we thought that was where Dad would have liked for it to reside,” says Linda.

The collecting and naming and classifying continue today. In Mequon, a dermatologist named Peter Messer is a wellknown amateur taxonomist who has become a recognized expert on ground beetles, one of the most species-rich families in the entire beetle group. He is regularly published by entomological journals, and in a 2009 published survey he identified 87 species of Wisconsin ground beetles not previously recorded from the state, some of which he collected in his backyard. His beetles are well represented in the Russell Lab collection.

“There is great satisfaction in knowing almost everything about something that hardly anyone else knows about, and then conveying that knowledge to others,” says Messer.

Young emphasizes that the digital images and online availability do not diminish the need for the actual physical collections gathered over the years by all of these dedicated souls. Today, for example, much of the research on insects involves studying their DNA for clues to mysteries ranging from identification and evolutionary change to the insect’s potential role in understanding the spread and treatment of disease.

“Now that we have the image, we still need the specimen. The image isn’t a substitute. Specimens can give you DNA ,” Young says. “Here’s the thing—we don’t even know what these collections can give us. We weren’t even talking DNA 40 or 50 years ago.”

According to Young, the collection has also become an important resource for scientists studying climate change, another phenomenon that could not have been foreseen in the early years of the collection. Each specimen, Young explains, represents not only the body of an insect but a preserved point in time. Knowing what insects existed inwhat places and at what periods allows researchers to trace changes on the landscape.

“Some see a dead beetle on a pin; we see a collection event, a rich story that continues to unfold with potential ‘plot twists’ we are not yet even aware of,” says Young.

But just for purposes of identifying and classifying insects, collections are invaluable. Collecting involves the wonderfully strange discipline of taxonomy, the scientific process of placing organisms into established categories and the use of hierarchical groupings with names that we all struggled to memorize in high school biology—domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. Though it might seem an arcane art to some, taxonomy is a fundamental and essential step toward understanding the natural world and how it works.

“People are intimidated by it,” Young says. “It looks like a tedious, potentially boring mystery. But we are all taxonomists. Let’s say you want a box of butterscotch Jell-O pudding when you go to the store. Do you know what aisle to look in? Or is it just randomly placed in the store?”

“The first question everyone asks when they contact us about an insect is, ‘What is it?’ The second question is, ‘What does it do?’” Young continues. “The first question is taxonomy. The second is about ecology and natural history— and without the taxonomy, you can’t tell anything about the ecology and the natural history.”

A close colleague of Young’s— Darren Pollock, professor and head curator of collections in the Biology Department at Eastern New Mexico University—tells how he was able to use the Wisconsin collection to identify a previously undescribed species. Like Young, he specializes in beetles, specifically (among others) of the genus Mycterus. This particular taxonomic adventure started when Young sent Metallic wood-boring beetles (Euchroma gigantea)Pollock some Mycterus specimens from the Wisconsin collection.

“Specimens can ‘languish’ in collections for years, decades or even centuries,” says Pollock. “More than a few of these specimens were collected decades ago, in the late 1940s. And then they sat. And sat. Until I looked at them.”

“It was obvious to me that these old Wisconsin specimens represented a totally new species, the closest relative of which is a species from southern Florida,” says Pollock. “Now they are all labeled as type specimens of the recently described species Mycterus youngi Pollock!” (The “youngi” is for Daniel Young.)

This enthusiasm, so typical of those drawn to taxonomy and exemplified in collectors such as Pollock and Messer, seems to come not only from a preoccupation with order, but also from a deeper desire to acknowledge and name insect life even as we hasten its passing from the planet. Young says the most rational estimates place the number of insects with us right nowat between 3 and 5 million. And, he says, only about 20 percent of them have been identified. It helps explain the almost manic drive of taxonomists to discover and describe and label.

“When there are 30 species in a genus and you’ve collected 29 of them,” Young says, “guess what you’re going to be doing next summer?”

Pollock praises the Wisconsin collection for its size and diversity. And, like Young, he sees such collections as arks that affirm our connections to the natural world and solidify those ties by giving even the tiniest speck of buzzing, darting life a name and a nod for just being.

And then there is the ticking clock.

Collections are also repositories for what we’ve lost. Though they seem ubiquitous, insect species are going extinct at an alarming rate, according to a study by entomologist Robert Dunn of North Carolina State University. He estimates that hundreds of thousands of insect species could be lost over the next 50 years. The reasons are many, but habitat loss is a major culprit. Monarch butterfly populations, for example, are suffering because of the destruction of the Mexican forests where they winter.

And Young says he knows many areas where he used to collect, especially in southeastern Wisconsin, that are now paved and developed, the insects he once found no longer in evidence.

Young doesn’t know for sure how many extinct or extirpated species are represented in the Wisconsin collection. But he knows there are many resting in the drawers, their stilled, pinned forms a rebuke to a world that took little or no notice of their existence or their passing.

The UW Insect Research Collection( WIRC) may be found at The digitized collection from the Invertebrate Collections Network is at

If you wish to support the collection, please make your check payable to UW Foundation and send it to UW Foundation, US Bank Lockbox 78807, Milwaukee WI 53278-0807. On the memo line, write Entomology–WIRC.

Communicating Science in the Digital Age

Two months after retiring from the Madison-based Wisconsin State Journal, where for 34 years he’d reported primarily on science and the environment, Ron Seely splays his hand on the table and points to a small knot of flesh on his palm.

It’s from how he cradled his iPhone, his physician told him, especially when Seely was constantly tweeting live from such events as legislative hearings on mining in Wisconsin.

“It was exhausting,” says Seely, who like many journalists balanced the new duties of tweeting and other social media tasks with researching and writing his stories, all while meeting daily deadlines. “It’s a vicious cycle: You create the expectation that people will have news instantly.”

Seely began his career in daily journalism with hot type and ended it with hot tweets. And his career—which includes serving as a teacher of life sciences communication at CALS—reflects the seismic changes that have jolted science journalism.

Take it from anyone who has ever struggled through freshman biology or o-chem: science news was hard enough to understand before the collapse of traditional media. Then Twitter and other social media exploded, blogs proliferated, reader comment sections swelled—and the science got even more complex.

It’s no longer just the newspaper plopping on your doorstep—the science journalism of years past, when discoveries were presented in one-way fashion by writers with science expertise and passively consumed by a trusting public. Science reporting was hit hard by the economic collapse of traditional media, with many science reporters laid off or not replaced upon retirement (example: the New York Times closed its environment desk early this year). As science journalism migrated online, web technology blurred the lines between professionally trained journalists, bloggers and other commentators, the public and, most notably, the scientists themselves, who face new and evolving challenges in understanding science communication.

Today, coverage is tweeted, re-tweeted, “liked” on Facebook, interpreted and reinterpreted by any willing participant—and is the target of instant and often rude, politically tinged reader commentary. With one in seven people actively using Facebook and Twitter users posting 340 million tweets daily, understanding the interaction between science news and readers is crucial.

In short, science communication is being reborn while the media reinvents itself online. That collision raises concern about how society views the science that can solve energy problems, mediate climate change, improve health and feed a hungry planet.

Stem cells, genetically modified organisms, nanotechnology, bioenergy and other complex advancements have all poured down on an American public ill prepared to understand even basic science. The National Science Board, for instance, in 2010 reported that only 73 percent of U.S. adults were able to answer correctly that the earth revolves around the sun; only 52 percent could say how long that takes. And a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that only 47 percent of respondents knew that electrons were smaller than atoms.

That lack of knowledge, combined with built-in attitudes about science among much of the public—often rooted in religious or political beliefs—makes groundbreaking discoveries difficult to grasp or embrace.

“We’re no longer just using microscopes. We’re using scanning, tunneling nanoscopes that go into 1,000 times more detail,” notes Dietram Scheufele, a CALS professor of life sciences communication. “The science is more complex, and just as complex is the question of what we want to do with that science.”

Small wonder that when the public turns to the media, it is often flummoxed, whipsawed by Internet trolls’ nasty comments and unsure what to think of the science’s legal, social and

We used to believe that if we only explained to people what the science is about, they would understand and support it.

ethical implications. In the process, is innovation handcuffed by public opinion at just the moment when society needs it most?

Against that backdrop, Scheufele and his colleague Dominique Brossard are in the vanguard of researchers who are trying to understand the emerging media landscape and its volatile dynamics.

Microbes & Human Health

Jim Steele used to be one of the skeptics. He’d be at a conference, listening to early research on the health benefits of probiotics. Steele scoffed at the small experiments. “We would literally try not to laugh in the audience, but we’d laugh pretty hard when we went out that night,” he admits.

But slowly the punch lines gave way to revelation. Steele, a professor in CALS’ Department of Food Science, conducts research on lactic acid bacteria, with a focus on Lactobacillus species. They’re important for human gut health, critical for the production of cheese and yogurts, and are the most common probiotic genus. He knew how incredibly useful they were, but still watched with a humbling disbelief as the data on the health potential of these microbes kept getting broader, deeper and more intriguing.

Our microbiota—what we call the totality of our bacterial companions—is ridiculously complex. Each human harbors a wildly diverse ecosystem of bacteria, both in the gut and elsewhere on the body. They have us completely outnumbered: where the typical body may contain a trillion human cells, your microbial complement is 10 trillion. They have 100 times more genes than you, a catalog of life potential called the microbiome. (The terms “microbiome” and “microbiota” are often used interchangeably in the popular press.)

While our initial, germaphobic impulse may be to freak out, most of these bacterial companions are friendly, even essential. On the most basic level they aid digestion. But they also train our immune system, regulate metabolism, and manufacture vital substances such as neurotransmitters. All of these things happen primarily in the gut. “In many ways the gut microbiota functions like an organ,” says Steele. “It’s extraordinarily important for human health,” with as much as 30 percent of the small molecules in the blood being of microbial origin.

Early research has suggested possible microbiota links to protecting against gastric cancers, asthma, numerous GI disorders, autoimmune disease, metabolic syndrome, depression and anxiety. And the pace of discovery seems to be accelerating; these headlines broke in just a few months last spring:
• Mouse studies suggested that the microbe Akkersmania muciniphila may be a critical factor in obesity;
• Kwashiorkor, a form of severe malnutrition that causes distended bellies in children, was linked to a stagnant microbiota;
• Risk of developing Type 2 diabetes was linked to an altered gut microbiota.

The catch: For all the alluring promise of microbes for human health—and it’s now clear they’re critically important—we have almost no idea how this complex system works.

The human gastrointestinal (GI) tract is a classic black box containing hundreds or thousands of species of bacteria (how many depends on how you define a species). There are viruses, fungi and protozoans. Add to that each person’s distinct DNA and their unique geographic, dietary and medical history—each of which can have short- and long-term effects on microbiota. This on-board ecosystem is as unique as your DNA.

Beyond these singularities, the action is microscopic and often molecular, and even depends on location in the GI tract. Most microbiota studies are done with fecal material. “Is that very informative of what’s going on in the ileum?” asks Steele, referring to the final section of the small intestine, which is thought to be the primary site where immunomodulation occurs. “From an ecosystem perspective, fecal material is many miles away from the ileum. Is it really reflective of the ileum community?”

Protecting our Pollinators

People and bees have a long shared history. Honeybees, natives of Europe, were carried to the United States by early settlers to provide honey and wax for candles. As agriculture spread, bees became increasingly important to farmers as pollinators, inadvertently fertilizing plants by moving pollen from male to female plant parts as they collected nectar and pollen for food. Today, more than two-thirds of the world’s crop plants—including many nuts, fruits and vegetables—depend on animal pollination, with bees carrying the bulk of that load.

It’s no surprise that beekeeping has become a big business in the farm-rich Midwest. Wisconsin is one of the top honey-producing states in the country, with more than 60,000 commercial hives. The 2012 state honey crop was valued at $8.87 million, a 31 percent increase over the previous year, likely due in part to the mild winter of 2011–2012.

But other numbers are more troubling. Nationwide, honeybee populations have dropped precipitously in the past decade even as demand for pollination-dependent crops has risen. The unexplained deaths have been attributed to colony collapse disorder (CCD), a mysterious condition in which bees abandon their hives and simply disappear, leaving behind queens, broods and untouched stores of honey and pollen. Annual overwintering losses now average around 30 percent of managed colonies, hitting 31.1 percent this past winter; a decade ago losses were around 15 percent. Native bee species are more challenging to document, but there is some evidence that they are declining as well.

Despite extensive research, CCD has not been linked to any specific trigger. Parasitic mites, fungal infections and other diseases, poor nutrition, pesticide exposure and even climate change all have been implicated, but attempts to elucidate the roles of individual factors have failed to yield conclusive or satisfying answers. Even less is known about native bees and the factors that influence their health.

Poised at the interface of ecology and economy, bees highlight the complexity of human interactions with natural systems. As reports of disappearing pollinators fill the news, researchers at CALS are investigating the many factors at play—biological, environmental, social—to figure out what is happening to our bees, the impacts of our choices as farmers and consumers, and where we can go from here.

Taking Out the Guesswork

Growing human embryonic stem cells in the lab is no small feat. Culturing the finicky, shape-shifting cells is labor intensive and, in some ways, more art than exact science.

But a team of researchers led by Laura Kiessling, a UW professor of biochemistry and chemistry, has developed a culture system that promises a more uniform and, for cells destined for therapy, safer product. The system is inexpensive and takes much of the guesswork out of culturing the all-purpose cells. “It’s a technology that anyone can use,” says Kiessling. “It’s very simple.”

At present, human embryonic stem cells are cultured mostly for use in research settings. And while culture systems have improved over time, scientists still use lab dishes coated with mouse cells or mouse proteins to grow batches of human cells. Doing so, however, increases the chances of contamination by animal pathogens such as viruses, a serious concern for cells that might be used
in therapy.

“The disadvantages of the culture systems commonly used now are that they are undefined—you don’t really know what your cells are in contact with—and there is no uniformity, which means there is batch-to-batch variability,” Kiessling explains. “The system we’ve developed is fully defined and inexpensive.”

Instead of mouse cells or proteins, Kiessling’s new culture system utilizes synthetic, chemically made protein fragments. The system can culture cells in their undifferentiated states for up to three months and possibly longer. It also works for induced pluripotent stem cells, the adult cells genetically reprogrammed to behave like embryonic stem cells.

Cells maintained in the system were subsequently tested to see if they could differentiate into desired cell types, and performed just as well as cells grown in commercially available cell culture systems, Kiessling says.

The first clinical trials involving human embryonic stem cells are underway. As more tests in human patients are initiated, confidence in the safety of those cells will be a top concern, notes Kiessling.

Challenging Their Brains

CALS soil scientist Teresa Balser remembers the “aha moment” when she first decided to change her teaching style—a departure that, more than anything, led to her recently being named U.S. Professor of the Year, an award that recognizes excellence in undergraduate teaching. The honor was bestowed by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education and The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

A couple of years into her assistant professorship, Balser realized her soil biology lectures were designed for the small percentage of students following in her footsteps: aspiring academics who love learning for learning’s sake. “So I reframed the material,” says Balser, who studies soil microbes’ contribution to global carbon dioxide emissions. “Instead of saying, ‘I’m going to teach you this because I love it,’ I started saying, ‘I’m going to teach you this because you need to learn it, and here’s why.’”

To revamp her course, Balser turned to an obvious but often overlooked resource for advice: her own students. She conducted what she calls a “mid-course correction” survey, soliciting feedback on what was and wasn’t working for them. She also dug into pedagogical literature, searching for ways to ramp up student engagement in the classroom.

Instead of saying, ‘I’m going to teach you this because I love it,’ I started saying, ‘I’m going to teach you this because you need to learn it, and here’s why.’

What emerged was an approach known as active learning. Compared to the typical lecture-and-quiz format found in most college classrooms, active learning is about getting students involved—having them answer questions, participate in small-group discussions, interact with guest lecturers and work on hands-on projects. To this day, Balser continues to survey her students on a regular basis and to test out new teaching techniques, including cutting-edge educational technologies.

Balser’s enthusiasm for biology education reaches far beyond her own classrooms. She’s one of the founders of a new national education research group in biology. And on campus, Balser is director of the Institute for Cross-College Biology Education (ICBE), which serves as the administrative home of the university’s biology major. With about 6,000 undergraduates in 31 biology-related major programs, it is the largest, most complex area of study on campus.

One of Balser’s main goals at ICBE is to help modernize the university’s Introduction to Biology course, a critical educational portal crossed by more than 4,500 aspiring scientists each year. “The way we teach biology has got to catch up with the way scientists do research. Students need to understand how chemistry, math, physics and engineering are all relevant to biological research,” says Balser. “But the way we teach them now, all of those subjects are taught separately, in different boxes.”

The overhauled biology course, as Balser and several key biology faculty imagine it, will feature a mix of labs, lectures, computer projects and—of course—active learning techniques.

Skin Deep

MOST PEOPLE THINK OF SKIN only as a cover that shields the body from germs. But CALS biochemist James Ntambi has discovered that our largest organ plays a major role in energy metabolism by releasing a chemical signal that tells the body when to burn dietary fats. Ntambi’s lab is now working to identify the factor in skin tissue and pinpoint its place in the body’s metabolic processes. “We have an idea what the factor is, but we still need to show that it gets secreted into the blood to prove that it’s the one,” he says. If he’s successful, the work could open the door to new kinds of weight-loss drugs that would mimic or boost the signal coming from the skin, triggering our metabolism to burn off excess fat.

Telltale Chemistry

For a woman with polycysticovary syndrome, life is full of unwelcome surprises. Starting at puberty, her body, surging with an unnatural burst of testosterone, will grow hair where it shouldn’t and produce acne and sweat. She may gain weight, often hurtling toward obesity despite her most fanatical efforts to shed pounds. She may become prone to diabetes and heart disease. But that’s not the worst of it. The cruelest blow is that all of this may happen without her knowing why. Though PCOS is the most common hormonal disorder among women of reproductive age, affecting as many as one in 10 women, it’s a tricky one for doctors to detect because its symptoms mimic many other ailments. Many women don’t discover they have PCOS until they try to get pregnant, their struggles to conceive only heightening their creeping doubt that something inside is wrong.

Short of a cure, what many women with PCOS hope for is a warning—a test that could alert future patients to the presence of the syndrome, giving them the head start they need to keep their symptoms in check. But no such test exists. PCOS involves multiple genes and an assortment of hormones that act on several different organs in the body. The best doctors can do now is diagnose PCOS by exclusion, ruling out other possible explanations in a process that can take months of testing.

The earliest signs of illness and disease show up in your body’s metabolites. Now scientists are figuring out how to track these molecules–and they’re changing medicine in the process

But what if we knew what our bodies know? “Your body is very smart,” says Fariba Assadi-Porter PhD’94, an associate scientist in the CALS Department of Biochemistry. “It does really clever chemistry when it confronts disease. Before any physical signs show, your body is already adjusting its chemistry to defend itself.” Like sentinels prepared for combat, our body’s defenses react to conditions that we aren’t able to perceive. What we really need is news from the front—an alert that the enemies are massing at the gate.

Assadi-Porter is among a growing community of scientists who argue those alerts are all around us—in our blood, sweat, urine, tears and literally every breath we take. Those bodily fluids contain thousands of tiny molecules called metabolites, which are created when we digest foods, drugs or pollutants from the environment. By studying the profile of those metabolites, Assadi-Porter and other researchers hope to identify signals in the body’s internal chemistry that can help doctors diagnose hard-to-catch diseases like PCOS. Currently she is scouring blood, urine, sweat and breath samples from dozens of women with PCOS to look for metabolite profiles that are consistent with the syndrome. Once found, those telltale molecules could become the basis for a simple, noninvasive diagnostic test.

The project is a prime example of the promise of metabolomics, an exploding area of science that focuses on our chemical makeup at the most basic level. Smaller than cells, genes and proteins, metabolites are essentially the chopped-up products and by-products of our cells’ energy functions. Metabolic processes such as digestion create tiny fragments of foods and drugs, which float around as sugars or fatty acids inside us. Our bodies harbor at least 3,000 different types of metabolites, and their quantities are constantly changing, depending on factors such as diet, exercise and viral or bacterial infections.

Assadi-Porter says that shifting profile makes the metabolome—the term researchers use to describe the whole picture of our metabolites at any given moment—a compelling place to look for evidence of something new arising in our bodies. Her PCOS experiments—which won one of the first grants awarded by the university’s new research incubator, the Wisconsin Institutes of Discovery—are just the beginning. She predicts that within a decade a comprehensive screen of a patient’s metabolome will become a routine part of a trip to the doctor.

“This is very important for personalized medicine, to monitor peoples’ health status,” she says “With current technology we’re going to be able to do that. In the next ten years, we’re going to be there for sure.”

The idea behind metabolomics isn’t a new one. People have long understood that states of health and disease are somehow reflected in the concentrations of molecules inside our bodies. Physicians in ancient China used to set bowls of urine near colonies of ants to see if the insects swarmed. If they did, it meant the sample was full of sugar, confirming diabetes. Today doctors still look at sugar to diagnose the disease, measuring patients’ blood glucose levels. In the same way, they test cholesterol to monitor heart disease and urea and creatinine for kidney problems. Metabolomics is different mostly because of its scale: Instead of looking at the quantities of one or two isolated metabolites, it involves taking a broad view of scores or even hundreds of metabolites at once.

Grow Fish

WITH MANY WILD FISH STOCKS in decline from overfishing and other threats, aquaculture—the managed cultivation of fish—has taken on a larger role in feeding the nation’s growing appetite for seafood. But are farmed fish really any freer from contamination than wild ones?

That all depends, says Jeff Malison, director of the CALS aquaculture program in the Department of Animal Sciences.

“No fish is going to be pollutant-free,” he says. “But yes, farmed fish can have much lower levels (of contaminants) than wild fish—at least they have that potential.”

Because farmed fish accumulate toxins from the environment and their food just like wild fish do, the key to producing a “clean animal” is to grow it in fresh, unpolluted water and feed it a diet free of toxic ingredients, Malison says. But farmed fish also have a fin up on their wild kin: They grow much faster, which means they have considerably less time to collect pollutants during their short lives. Pond-raised rainbow trout, for example, are usually big enough for the dinner plate by one year old, whereas wild trout of the same size might be three to four years old.

Wisconsin happens to be among the top 10 producers of farmed rainbow trout in the country. But before consumers rush out to buy farm-raised filets of other popular Midwest fish, such as yellow perch and walleye, they should know that fish farming is hardly routine. Malison points out that we raise only about six to 10 bird and mammal species for meat, but we eat around 200 species of fish, each with its own set of environmental needs and tolerances. And with the exception of a few species, most fish have yet to be bred for captivity.
“Even though it was practiced in China 4,000 to 5,000 years ago,” says Malison, “aquaculture is still relatively young as a technological industry.”

The aquaculture program has been working since the 1970s to improve two critical factors that limit the production of fish: reproduction in captivity and the costs of raising juveniles. The diminutive yellow perch is a prime example. Because it takes many perch to make a meal, farmers need to grow lots of them. “And when you need lots of them you’ve got to make sure the cost of the babies is really, really low to develop a profitable industry,” says Malison. “So we’ve been doing a lot of research on reproduction to try to reduce the cost of fingerling production.”

CALS researchers have also studied walleye, but for a very different reason. Carnivorous and aggressive, “it’s really kind of a rascal in captivity,” Malison says, noting that farmed walleye have a tendency to attack their own mates. To solve this problem, his group is now using Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection funds to breed the brutish walleye with a closely related fish, called the sauger. The result is a much more docile fish that also grows faster.

The success of these projects will surely expand the choices consumers have at the grocery store. But another goal is to expand the state’s aquaculture industry, which also encompasses bait fish and fish for stocking lakes and rivers. And as Malison notes, Wisconsin has plenty to bring to the table—water resources, farming expertise and, of course, the market. Fish fry, anyone?

Michael Meyer

When Meyer returned to Wisconsin in 2008 to become an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin, he brought a wealth of experience that has given him a unique perspective on his specialty of critical care. Serving 13 years in the U.S. Air Force, Meyer rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and saw duty at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan as a critical-care medical consultant. He then led a critical-care air transport team that assisted in the evacuation of critically ill patients from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. These days he pursues research on transport medicine while treating patients in critical condition at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.