MU Scientists Fighting World Hunger

By Bobby Remis | MU Bond Life Sciences Center

Sanborn Field

Sanborn Field, University of Missouri | photo by Kyle Spradley

In the years to come, climate change and population growth will drastically alter the world around us, impacting farmland and the way we grow food.

Scott Peck

Scott Peck, associate professor of biochemistry, studies how plants perceive and respond to changes in their environment.

New research from an interdisciplinary team at the University of Missouri is hoping to curb the decrease in food production due to climate change by studying the roots of corn and understanding its growth in these intense conditions.

Scott C. Peck — an investigator at the Bond Life Sciences Center — joins an interdisciplinary team that plans to study corn root growth in
drought conditions. The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded them a $4.2 million grant to spend four years developing drought-tolerant corn varieties in an effort to sustain the 9 billion people estimated worldwide by 2050.

The interdisciplinary team is comprised of seven co-primary investigators from four MU colleges as well as the USDA-ARS.

Read the full release from Mizzou News.

A Climate Change Recap

It’s been almost a week since the 2016 MU Life Sciences and Society Program Symposium, “Confronting Climate Change” wrapped up. If you missed the event, check out our Flickr gallery to see a little bit of the excitement.

We also had the chance to chat a few minutes with most of the LSSP speakers who graciously shared their insight on climate change in our lives. Check out these conversations on our YouTube page from the link at the top of the page.

Last but not least, we put together a radio piece for KBIA giving some speaker highlights. Visit our SoundCloud to see more.

Combating Climate Change: Q&A with Naomi Oreskes

Naomi Oreskes is a professor of the history of science at Harvard University and a geologist by training.

At a time when global warming was framed by the media as a debate, her 2004 paper in the journal Science showed that climate change was a settled fact among climate scientists.  Of the 928 papers she sampled in her literature search, not a single author denied the reality of climate change. Digging further, Oreskes explored in her book, Merchants of Doubt, co-authored with Eric Conway, the people, organizations, and motivations behind climate science misinformation. From cigarettes and acid rain to global warming and the ozone hole, Oreskes and Conway uncovered how industries such as Big Tobacco and Big Oil employed a core group of ideologically-motivated scientists to fabricate doubt and stymie government regulations.

Since the publication of Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes has been active in conversations about how we can move beyond debate and towards climate change intervention and action. She and Conway also wrote a sci-fi novel imaging a catastrophic future when society in the past (our present) failed to act on climate, The Collapse of Western Civilization.

Naomi Oreskes speaks on Saturday,3:30 pm as part of the LSSP Symposium, “Combatting Climate Change,” held at the Bond Life Sciences Center.

What has been the response of people who, through reading Merchants of Doubt or watching the documentary, have changed their minds about climate change?

Many people have written to me and Erik Conway to thank us for writing the book.  I’d say the most common response was that the book helped them to understand why there was so much opposition to accepting the scientific evidence.  I can’t say that I know for sure that thousands of people changed their minds after reading the book, but I do know that among those who did, the link to the tobacco industry was most compelling.  Our research showed that the opposition was not rooted in problems with or deficiencies in the science. 

You said in an interview with Mongabay, “In our society, knowledge resides in one place, and for the most part, power resides somewhere else.” How can we hold accountable oil and gas companies which have quietly known since the early 1980s that burning fossil fuels contributes to global warming, but used their power to impede actions that would combat climate change?

I’m not a lawyer, so I cannot answer the legal aspects of this question, but state attorneys around the country are now looking into that question.  As a citizen and a consumer, I can say this:  One way we can hold companies accountable by not investing in them,  and this is why I support the divestment movement. We can also boycott their products. In the current world, that is very difficult to do, but we can make a start. I installed an 8-watt solar PV system in my house, and we are now just about net-zero for electricity.

Is it possible to make up for 30 years of squandered time?

No of course not. Lost time is lost time. But knowing how much time has been lost, we should have a sense of urgency now, try not to lose any more. 

Which strategies are being proposed for immediate climate action? Are environmental scientists and economists in agreement over which courses of action make the most sense?

Yes I think so.  Nearly everyone who has studied the issue agrees that the most effective immediate action that is available to us is to put a price on carbon.  This will immediately make renewables and energy efficiency more economically attractive, and it will send a signal to investors that fossil fuels will no longer be given a free pass for their external costs. This means that future returns will be greater in the non-carbon based energy sector.  Anyone interested in this should read Nicolas Stern’s very informative book, Why are we Waiting?

How might the nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court and the results of the 2016 presidential elections affect the role that the US will play in combating climate change? Best case and worse case scenarios.

Best case: Republicans in Congress come to their senses, and listen to fellow Republicans like Bob Inglis, Hank Paulson, and George Schultz who have made the conservative case for putting a price on carbon.  They can do this pretty much any way they want— through  a tax, thru tradeable permits, or whatever.  it’s clear Democrats would support either, and we know from experience that either approach can work, so long as the price is real (i.e., not just symbolic.) Right now Alberta is talking about $20—that is probably a bit low. BC  is at $30 

Worst case: read The Collapse of Western Civilization.  You’ll find my answer there.

Of all the important issues out there, what motivates you to devote your time and energy to fighting climate change?

Oh that’s a good question.  I didn’t decide to work on climate change, I fell into it when Erik Conway and I tripped over the merchants of Doubt story.  Then, as I learned more and more about the issue, I came to appreciate scientists’ sense of urgency about it. 

 

Climate change to heat up discussion at annual LSSP symposium

By Jennifer Lu | MU Bond Life Sciences Center

climate change

Thinkstock by Getty Images

Climate change is a pressing issue.

Just last week, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published a report linking climate change to extreme weather conditions such as heat waves, droughts, and heavy snows and rains. Globally, 2015 was the warmest year on record, according to climate updates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And January kicked off this year by logging temperatures exceeding those of all previous Januaries on record, a disturbing trend that’s persisted for nine consecutive months to date.

Meanwhile, GOP candidates either do not believe in climate change or deny that it is caused by human activity, or have no strategies to combat climate change. And Democratic hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Saunders split on how to transition to renewable energy and reduce our carbon footprint.

How do we make sense of this?

The 12th annual Life Sciences & Society Program symposium — with events from March 17 to 19 — will tackle one of the most pressing issues facing the world today. Titled “Combating Climate Change,” speakers will address topics such as using technology to help curb global warming, how rising temperatures and more extreme weather will impact human health, the role of government in taking action to combat man-made climate change, and how to effectively communicate climate change.

Marcia McNutt–editor-in-chief of the leading journal, Science, and a geophysicist by training—will talk about the “promise and peril” of climate interventions such as carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and albedo modification, a process that involves spraying particles into the atmosphere to reflect more sunlight back into space to cool the earth.

There has been “significant advancement” in technologies such as carbon capture and storage, McNutt wrote by email, but these technologies have not moved beyond the research stages for economic reasons.

She pointed out that most climate interventions act slowly and take time to implement.

Albedo modification is the exception, McNutt said, but while quite a bit of work has been done to model its effects, the risks are high.

Few scientists believe we know enough about albedo modification to seriously consider it, she said.

“There is no silver bullet that is a magical antidote to climate change,” McNutt said.

The full line-up of speakers for this year’s symposium includes:

  • Andrew Revkin, environmental journalist and author, who proposed the term “anthrocene” to describe “a geological age of our own making” in his 1992 book, Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast. (Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist who won a Nobel prize for studying ozone layer depletion , popularized the more familiar term, ”Anthropocene,” in 2000.)
  • Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science
  • Wes Jackson, founder and president of The Land Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to sustainable agriculture
  • Marshall Shepherd, professor of geography and director of the atmospheric science program at the University of Georgia
  • George Luber, an epidemiologist at the Center for Disease Control and the associate director for climate change in the division of environmental hazards and health effects
  • Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard University. Her book co-written with Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt, showed how rich and powerful industries retained a core group of scientists who used their expertise to create doubt and protect industry interests

To see the schedule of this week’s events and register for the symposium, visit the MU LSSP website.

Seminal work

How unruly data led MU scientists to discover a new microbiome
By Roger Meissen | MU Bond Life Sciences Center

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This seminal vesicle contains a newly-discovered microbiome in mice. Some of its bacteria, like P. acnes, could lead to higher occurrences of prostate cancer. | contributed by Cheryl Rosenfeld

It’s a strange place to call home, but seminal fluid offers the perfect environment for particular types of bacteria.

Researchers at MU’s Bond Life Sciences Center recently identified new bacteria that thrive here.

Cheryl Rosenfeld1.jpg “It’s a new microbiome that hasn’t been looked at before,” said Cheryl Rosenfeld, a Bond LSC investigator and corresponding author on the study. “Resident bacteria can help us or be harmful, but one we found called P. acnes is a very important from the standpoint of men. It can cause chronic prostatitis that results in prostate cancer. We’re speculating that the seminal vesicles could be a reservoir for this bacteria and when it spreads it can cause disease.”

Experiments published in Scientific Reportsa journal published by Nature — indicate these bacteria may start disease leading to prostate cancer in mice and could pass from father to offspring.


A place to call home

From the gut to the skin and everywhere in between, bacterial colonies can both help and hurt the animals or humans they live in.

Seminal fluid offers an attractive microbiome — a niche environment where specific bacteria flourish and impact their hosts. Not only is this component of semen chockfull of sugars that bacteria eat, it offers a warm, protected atmosphere.

“Imagine a pond where bacteria live — it’s wet it’s warm and there’s food there — that’s what this is, except it’s inside your body,” said Rosenfeld. “Depending on where they live, these bacteria can influence our cells, produce hormones that replicate our own hormones, but can also consume our sugars and metabolize them or even cause disease.”

Rosenfeld’s team wasn’t trying to find the perfect vacation spot for a family of bacteria. They initially wanted to know what bacteria in seminal fluid might mean for offspring of the mice they studied.

“We were looking at the epigenetic effects — the impact the father has on the offspring’s disease risk — but what we saw in the data led us to focus more on the effects this bacterium, P. acnes, has on the male itself,” Rosenfeld said. “We were thinking more about effect on offspring and female reproduction — we weren’t even considering the effect the bacteria that live in this fluid could have on the male — but this could be one of the more fascinating findings.”

But, how do you figure out what might live in this unique ecosystem and whether it’s harmful?

First, her team found a way to extract seminal fluid without contamination from potential bacteria in the urinary tract.

“We gowned up just like for surgery and we had to extract the fluid directly from the seminal vesicles to avoid contamination,” said Angela Javurek, primary author on the study and recent MU graduate. “You only have a certain amount of time to collect the fluid because it hardens like glue.”

Once they obtained these samples, they turned to a DNA approach, sequencing it using MU’s DNA Core.

They compared it to bacteria in fecal samples of the same mice to see if bacteria in seminal fluid were unique. They also compared samples from normal mice and ones where estrogen receptor genes were removed.


The difference in the data

It sounds daunting to sort and compare millions of DNA sequences, right? But, the right approach can make all the difference.

“A lot of it looks pretty boring, but bioinformatics allow us to decipher large amounts of data that can otherwise be almost incomprehensible,” said Scott Givan, the associate director of the Informatics Research Core Facility (IRCF) that specializes in complicated analysis of data. “Here we compared seminal fluid bacterial DNA samples to publicly available databases that come from other large experiments and found a few sequences that no one else has discovered or at least characterized, so we’re in completely new territory.”

The seminal microbiome continued to stand out when compared to mouse poop, revealing 593 unique bacteria.

One of the most important was P. acnes, a bacteria known to cause chronic prostatitis that can lead to prostate cancer in man and mouse. It was abundant in the seminal fluid, and even more so when estrogen receptor genes were present.

“We’re essentially doing a lot of counting, especially across treatments to see if particular bacteria species are more common than others,” said Bill Spollen, a lead bioinformatics analyst at the IRCF. “The premise is that the more abundant a species is, the more often we’ll see its DNA sequence and we can start making some inferences to how it could be influencing its environment.”

Although this discovery excites Rosenfeld, much is unknown about how this new microbiome might affect males and their offspring.

“We do have this bacteria that can affect the male mouse’s health, that of his partner and his offspring,” Rosenfeld said. “But we’ve been studying microbiology for a long time and we still find bacteria within our own bodies that nobody has seen before. That blows my mind.”

The study, “Discovery of a Novel Seminal Fluid Microbiome and Influence of Estrogen Receptor Alpha Genetic Status,” recently was published in Scientific Reports, a journal published by Nature.

 

Rodents of unusual appetites

How food cravings and eating affects the brain
By Jennifer Lu | MU Bond Life Sciences Center

When it comes to cookie dough, we’re not the only ones who can’t control our cravings. Kyle Parker’s rats couldn’t resist, either, thanks to a tweak in their brain chemistry.

Parker studies the neuroscience of food-based rewards.

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Matthew Will, associate professor of psychological sciences at the Bond Life Sciences Center, studies the neuroscience of behaviors such as over-eating and addiction | photo by Jennifer Lu, Bond LSC

“It’s like when I eat dessert after I’ve eaten an entire meal,” said Parker, a former grad student from the lab of Bond LSC’s Matthew Will. “I know that I’m not hungry, but this stuff is so good so I’m going to eat it. We’re looking at what neural circuitry is involved in driving that behavior.”

Behavior scientists view non-homeostatic eating — that’s noshing when you’re not hungry — as a two-step process.

“I always think of the neon sign for Krispy Kreme donuts.” Will said, by way of example.

“The logo and the aroma of warm glazed donuts are the environmental cues that kick-start the craving, or appetitive, phase that gets you into the store. The consummatory phase is when you “have that donut in your hand and you eat it.”

Parker activated a “hotspot” in the brains of rats called the nucleus accumbens, which processes and reinforces messages related to reward and pleasure.

He then fed the rats a tasty diet similar to cookie dough, full of fat and sugar, to exaggerate their feeding behaviors. Rats with activated nucleus accumbens ate twice as much as usual.

But when he simultaneously inactivated another part of the brain called the basolateral amygdala, the rats stopped binge eating. They consumed a normal amount, but kept returning to their baskets in search for more food.

“It looked like they still craved it,” Will said. “I mean, why would a rat keep going back for food but not eat? We thought we found something interesting. We interrupted a circuit that’s specific to the feeding part — the actual eating — but not the craving. We’ve left that craving intact.”

To find out what was happening in the brain during cravings, Parker set up a spin-off experiment. Like before, he switched on the region of the brain associated with reward and pleasure and then inactivated the basolateral amygdala in one group of rats but not the other.

This time, however, he restricted the amount of the tasty, high-fat diet rats had access to so that both groups ate the same amount.

This way, both groups of rats outwardly displayed the same feeding behaviors. They ate similar portions and kept searching for more food.

But inside the brain, Parker saw clear differences. Rats with activated nucleus accumbens showed increased dopamine production in the brain, which is associated with reward, motivation and drug addiction. Whether the basolateral amygdala was on or off had no effect on dopamine levels.

However, in a region of the brain called the hypothalamus, Parker saw elevated levels of orexin-A, a molecule associated with appetite, only when the basolateral amygdala was activated.

“We showed that what could be blocking the consumption behavior is this block of the orexin behavior,” Parker said.

The results reinforced the idea that dopamine is involved in the approach — or the craving phase — and orexin-A in the consumption, Will said.

Their next steps are to see whether this dissociation in neural activity between cravings and consumption exists for other types of diets.

Will also plans to manipulate dopamine and orexin-A signaling in rats to see whether they have direct effects on feeding.

“Right now, we know these behaviors are just associated with these neural circuits, but not if they’re causal.”

 

Behavioral Neuroscience published the study, “Neural Activation Patterns Underlying Basolateral Amygdala Influence on Intra-Accumbens Opioid-Driven Consummatory Versus Appetitive High-Fat Feeding Behaviors in the Rat,” in the December 2015 issue. A grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse supported this research.

Unmasking the unknown

Scientists explore genetic similarities between plants and mice

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University of Missouri PhD Candidate Daniel L. Leuchtman peers through an Arabidopsis plant. Leuchtman has been experimenting with replacing a gene in the plants immune system with a similar gene from mice. | Photograph by Justin L. Stewart/MU Bond Life Sciences Center

By Justin L. Stewart | MU Bond Life Sciences Center

Almost two-thirds of what makes a human a human and a fly a fly are the same, according to the NIH genome research institute.

If recent research at the University of Missouri’s Bond Life Sciences Center is verified, we’ll soon see that plants and mice aren’t all that different, either.

Dan Leuchtman studies a gene in Arabidopsis plants called SRFR1, or “Surfer One.” SRFR1 regulates plant immune systems and tell them when they are infected with diseases or illnesses. Leuchtman studies this model plant as a Ph.D. candidate at MU, splitting time between the labs of Walter Gassmann and Mannie Liscum.

His research involves breeding Arabidopsis plants missing the SRFR1 gene and then replacing it with the MmSRFR1 gene.

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A series of Arabidopsis plants show the differences between the plants, from left, without SRFR1, with MmSRFR1 and with SRFR1. | Photograph by Justin L. Stewart/MU Bond Life Sciences Center

So, what is MmSRFR1? Leuchtman and company believe it’s the animal equivalent of SRFR1, though they aren’t fully aware of all of its’ functions.

“We’re actually one of the first groups to characterize it,” Leuchtman said.

Arabidopsis plants missing the SRFR1 gene struggle to grow at all, appearing vastly different from normal plants. Leuchtman says that a plant missing the SRFR1 gene is a mangled little ball of leaves curled in on itself. “It’s really strange looking.”

While his experiments haven’t created statuesque plants equal to those with natural SRFR1 genes present, the Arabidopsis plants with MmSRFR1 show a notable difference from those completely lacking SRFR1. Leuchtman says the plants with MmSRFR1 lie somewhere in between a normal plant and one lacking SRFR1.

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University of Missouri PhD Candidate Daniel L. Leuchtman poses for a portrait in a Bond Life Sciences Center greenhouse. Leuchtman has been experimenting with replacing a gene in Arabidopsis plants immune system with a similar gene from mice. | Photograph by Justin L. Stewart/MU Bond Life Sciences Center

“At its’ core, it’s more understanding fundamental biology. How do we work? How do organisms tick? How do you go from DNA in a little bag of salts to a walking, talking organism?” Leuchtman said. “The more you know about how an organism functions, the more opportunities you have to find something that makes an impact.”