Life Sciences & Biology
If there is one thing to celebrate about this year, it’s the fact that the country has finally started to wake up to the climate emergency. Thanks, among other things, to the thousands of children regularly striking for their right to have a better future than the one we have been building for them, a majority of the UK public, now back a 2030 zero-carbon target.
The economically important Norway spruce tree naturally grows in mountain forest ecosystems, and is the main tree species in vast plantations across Europe. However, in the recent decades, its risk of attack by the destructive Eurasian spruce bark beetle has considerably increased. Although the complex interactions of host, pest and environmental conditions that allow attacks to occur have been extensively studied for more than 100 years, predictive tools for pest management still suffer from knowledge gaps. Dr Sigrid Netherer and her team at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU), Austria, have been investigating the role of drought stress and other environmental and biotic factors on infestations, to produce a novel universal framework for monitoring and predicting bark beetle outbreaks.
As humans, we communicate our emotions to others in several different ways, including touch, motion, facial expression, and of course, speech. We can also communicate social information through chemosensory signals. Dr Bettina Pause, a professor at Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, has carried out extensive research exploring human communication and sensory perception, and in particular, how we quickly and effectively convey emotional states such as anxiety and aggression to others without even using words.
Based in in Alexandria, Virginia, the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) is the largest, most influential organisation for horticultural scientists. Representing thousands of professionals worldwide, the Society is dedicated to supporting and advancing research, education and application in all branches of horticulture. In this exclusive interview, we speak with Dr Louise Ferguson, President-Elect of ASHS, who discusses the diverse field of horticultural science, and explains how the organisation supports and promotes the myriad aspects of horticulture.
Dr Tammy Movsas, MD, MPH – Towards a Brighter Future: How Zietchick Research Institute Plans to Transform Treatment for Retinal Disease
Both diabetic adults and premature babies are at risk for a similar type of eye disease that involves the growth of abnormal, blood vessels in the retina, the photosensitive layer of the eye. When this eye disease occurs in diabetics, it is called diabetic retinopathy and when it occurs in premature infants, it is called retinopathy of prematurity. The pathologic vessels, seen in both of these diseases, can pull on the retina and cause it to detach, leading to blindness. Dr Tammy Movsas (Executive Director and Principal Investigator) and Dr Arivalagan Muthusamy (Chief Scientist) at the Zietchick Research Institute, USA, are developing new therapeutics to treat these serious retinal diseases that affect both premature baby eyes and mature adult eyes, such as those of diabetic women.
Because of growing international trade, increasing numbers of invasive pest insects are being transported throughout the world. If they become established, invasive insects can have enormous impacts on agriculture, human health and natural ecosystems. However, it can be difficult to control them without causing further damage to the surrounding environment. Dr Robert K. Vander Meer of the USDA Agricultural Research Service studies the chemistry of pest ants, as it pertains to their behaviour and biological systems, with the aim of identifying efficient novel methods to monitor and control them.
Residues of drugs, pesticides and other chemical substances can reduce the safety of animal-derived foods, adversely affecting the health and confidence of consumers. To address this pressing issue, scientists at several US universities founded the Food Animal Residue Avoidance Databank (FARAD), a program aimed at providing veterinarians and livestock producers with knowledge and tools that can help in preventing or reducing the presence of chemical residues in food.
Carrots display a wide range of different colours – orange, purple, white, red and yellow – driven by the accumulation of various compounds. These compounds affect the nutritional value and health benefits of the roots, making them prime targets for breeding better varieties. Dr Philipp Simon and his colleagues at the United States Department of Agriculture investigate the genetics of carrot colours to help breeders develop even more nutritious strains.
Southern flounder is an economically important edible fish, but farming of this species has not yet been perfected. In fact, fish farms are heavily reliant on capturing new fish from the wild each year for breeding purposes. However, wild populations are in decline due to changing environmental conditions and over-exploitation, which presents a real challenge to the sustainable production of this species. Dr Todd Sink and his colleagues at Texas A&M University are developing new methods to move away from the use of wild fish, by creating a sustainable captive breeding stock.
Liver abscesses can affect as many as nine out of ten cattle in feedlots in the US, with detrimental impacts on animal well-being, performance, and consequently the economic value of beef. Dr Clint Loest and his team from New Mexico State University have been studying the reasons behind varying levels of liver abscess in herds across the US, in an effort to find viable alternatives to antibiotics for controlling these abscesses in feedlot cattle.
In recent years, dramatic advances have been made in brain science and molecular genetics. However, there is currently a shortage of psychiatrists with the scientific training necessary to take this knowledge and apply it in the clinic. Psychiatrist and neuroscience researcher, Dr Susan Voglmaier of the University of California, San Francisco, runs a research training program that supports the next generation of research scientists in the field of psychiatry. Dr Voglmaier believes that by training doctors in scientific techniques and methods, we may come to better understand mental illness and provide more effective treatments for psychiatric diseases in the future.
Dogs are renowned for their status as man’s best friend. Based first at the University of Colorado and now at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, Dr Jaime Modiano and his team have spent the last 25 years trying to understand how cancer develops at a basic level, aiming to use this knowledge to improve the health and wellbeing of both humans and their companion animals.
Over 30 years ago, a small group of diverse medical research charities formed the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) to unite the sector and provide it with a leading voice. Since then, their membership has grown to 146 charities and they continue to lead and support the sector in delivering high-quality research that saves and improves lives. The AMRC is now the the UK’s national membership organisation for health and medical research charities. In this exclusive interview, we speak with Aisling Burnand, AMRC’s Chief Executive, to hear about their vital work.
The incidence and severity of droughts continue to increase across the globe, posing a significant threat to agricultural productivity and our ability to feed a rapidly increasing human population. However, drought-stressed plants encourage a shift in the microorganism communities surrounding their roots, which in turn may help the plants to tolerate drought conditions. By harnessing this system, Dr Devin Coleman-Derr and his team at the USDA Agricultural Research Service and University of California, Berkeley, aim to develop microbial-based treatments to improve the drought tolerance and productivity of important crop species.
Dr Melinda Frye | Dr Noa Roman-Muniz – A Holistic Approach to Advancing the Rural Veterinary Population
Within the agricultural community, there is a great shortage of veterinary professionals. This lack of ‘Food Supply Veterinarians’ (FSVs) creates risk for economic loss, public health concerns, and a decline in animal welfare. Dr Melinda Frye, Dr Noa Roman-Muniz and their colleagues at Colorado State University have developed a program that aims to increase the number of practising FSVs. As part of the program, these highly-trained professionals can more easily integrate into the agricultural community, ultimately enhancing animal welfare, food safety and farm profits.
Traditional intensive farming practices have significant negative consequences for the land and surrounding ecosystems. By disrupting the natural function of these habitats, the valuable ecosystem services they provide are compromised. Dr Richard Teague in the department of Ecosystem Science and Management at Texas A&M University, and colleagues around North America, are investigating the costs and benefits of replacing traditional farming practices with regenerative cropping and grazing techniques that restore ecosystem function and soil health as the base for improving profits.
Fruit flies cause significant annual damage to fruit crops globally by laying their eggs into healthy, living fruit tissue. The difficulty in predicting the attacks and controlling the flies before it is too late leads farmers to spray pesticides that can have damaging consequences for surrounding ecosystems. Dr Nicholas M. Teets and his team from the University of Kentucky’s Department of Entomology aim to eliminate the need for pesticides in the battle against these insect pests, through the development of sterile insects that are easy to rear and release en masse.
Dr Renée Arias | Dr Victor Sobolev | Dr Marshall Lamb – Ensuring Peanut Safety by Harnessing Plant Defences
Fungal toxins that may accumulate in peanuts pose a hidden threat to people globally. Whereas European countries and the USA have controls to prevent contaminated seed from entering the market, this is not available in many developing countries, where peanuts are a vital source of protein and nutrients. However, detecting and controlling these toxins has posed significant scientific and economic challenges. Dr Renée Arias, Dr Victor Sobolev and Dr Marshall Lamb of the USDA National Peanut Research Laboratory have pioneered methods for inhibiting toxin production using RNAi technology and enhancing natural peanut defences.
As the human population increases, so does the demand for food and fuel. However, suitable land for growing crops is already severely limited, and there is an urgent need to protect remaining wilderness areas from being converted into cropland. Through a translational research approach, Dr Sanju Sanjaya and his team at the Energy and Environmental Science Institute of West Virginia State University are developing ways to increase the oil content of crops that are able to grow on poor-quality land, such as reclaimed surface coal mines. By increasing the energy provided by plants, the land requirement to grow both biodiesel and food crops could be significantly reduced.
New advances in neural engineering have led to devices that can be operated using the nerves of the user, but the effectiveness and safety of these devices over long periods of use is a key concern. Professor Dominique Durand, Director of the Neural Engineering Center at Case Western Reserve University, leads a team of scientists looking to improve neuroprosthetics through developing new methods of interfacing with the nervous system.
Pasture-raised chicken is viewed as a more ethical option compared to that reared in overcrowded barns. However, pasture-raised birds are more likely to come in contact with bacterial pathogens that can be dangerous to consumers. Dr Michael Rothrock and his colleagues, at the Egg Safety and Quality Research Unit of the United States Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service, investigate how environmental factors can lead to the contamination of pasture-raised chicken with harmful bacteria. Through their research, the team hopes to find ways of ensuring the safety of this popular food.
‘Biological control’ refers to the practice of controlling invasive pest populations by introducing their natural enemies into an ecosystem. Although biological control can reduce reliance on toxic chemicals and protect natural ecosystems, this approach is not without its challenges. Dr Peter McEvoy and his colleagues at Oregon State University discovered that certain biological control organisms show unexpectedly fast rates of evolution, which can lead to unforeseen impacts on ecosystems and agriculture. These scientists believe that it is time to develop an all-embracing theory to help assess the evolutionary potential of biological control organisms that may influence the efficacy and safety of future introduction programs.
Dairy farming is a tough business, where farmers experience countless challenges on a regular basis, from ensuring the health and welfare of their cattle to protecting the safety of their employees. Dr Amber Adams-Progar and her team in the Department of Animal Sciences at Washington State University are involved in many research projects, which aim to improve various aspects of the dairy industry, by protecting farm profits, worker safety and animal welfare.
Atherosclerosis is a global health issue. Atherosclerosis is a multifactorial chronic inflammatory disease characterised by the accumulation of modified lipoproteins and immune cells in the aortic wall, vascular dysfunction, low-grade chronic inflammation, and formation of dangerous atherosclerotic plaques within the medium and large size vessels. Atherosclerosis is a prominent cause of cardiovascular diseases and mortality in many countries and this disease is closely associated with type 2 diabetes. Dr Elena Galkina, Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Cell Biology at Eastern Virginia Medical School, USA, has been working to determine the immune processes involved in an attempt to identify much-needed novel therapies.
Effective treatments for cognitive dysfunction, such as declines in memory and other mental faculties often associated with depression or old age, may be within reach, according to Professor Etienne Sibille at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and the University of Toronto, Canada. Professor Sibille has shown for the first time that newly synthesised compounds targeting GABA receptors improve specific types of memory in mice, opening the door to the development of effective new pharmacological options.
Dr Elizabeth Nance has an impressive track record. Now a Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Washington, USA, Dr Nance’s work centres around the use of nanoparticles to deliver therapeutic agents to the brain, a seemingly simple operation which is confounded by a highly regulated blood brain barrier which prevents access to the brain and a complex brain environment which prevents access to diseased cells. Her current work also investigates the potential use of nanoparticles to probe tissue environments to map tissue structure, and how tissue structure changes in the presence of a disease.
For many years, Dr Matthew Boisen, Director of Diagnostics Development at Zalgen Labs, has focussed on trying to understand Lassa fever. Part of the Viral Hemorrhagic Fever Consortium, his group’s objectives are threefold: first, to develop fast and accurate diagnostics for Lassa fever; second, to design new therapeutic approaches; and third, to create an effective vaccine providing long-term protection against this condition.
Research into animal fear typically utilises laboratory techniques based on Pavlovian fear conditioning, but these approaches are limited. Professor Jeansok Kim, from the Department of Psychology, University of Washington (USA) has developed a much more realistic way to study fear that closely mimics risky conditions in the wild. New discoveries by Professor Kim and his team are challenging existing paradigms and providing exciting insights into the underlying brain mechanisms of fear in both animals and humans.
To accomplish even a simple goal, our brain must coordinate thousands of pieces of information, remember which parts are relevant, and ignore anything that is extraneous. Dr Mark D’Esposito of the University of California, Berkeley, studies how different parts of the brain work together to create working memory, the cognitive system that temporarily and actively holds information in mind allowing us to complete complex tasks.
The brain is the most mysterious organ in the human body – despite decades of research, we have just begun to scratch the surface in understanding how the brain works and how we can help it to heal following an injury. Professor Mark D’Esposito of the University of California, Berkeley, uses advanced imaging technology to illuminate how the connections in our brain function in order to find new ways to aid brain healing after injury.
Ocean acidification, caused by increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, is having a negative impact on marine ecosystems. To effectively respond to the issue, a deep understanding of it is absolutely necessary.
Our nervous system has such an important function in our body that neurons have their own bodyguards. Known as glial cells, they protect brain cells against injury and prevent damage. Dr Mary Logan and Dr Sean Speese, both based at the Jungers Center for Neuroscience...