College of Agriculture, Food and Environment

Research 2013 Annual Report

We grow

This is the last column I will write as director of the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station, after serving in a dual role during my first year as dean. Looking back over my 13-year involvement with the experiment station provides a good view of growth in the college and of Kentucky’s agriculture, as well as legislative and economic ebb and flow.
Dean Nancy Cox

The 2001 Research Annual Report heralded external research grants valued at $10.5 million; during 2013 the value was more than $26 million. That increased funding represents success in recruiting and supporting talented faculty, staff, and graduate students. External awards reached as high as $33 million during some years, but contractions in federal funding and the removal of directed congressional appropriations resulted in a slight decline over time in all aspects of higher education funding.

Other highlights of the 2001 report included results of experiments that proved eastern tent caterpillars to be the probable source of Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome, MRLS, which caused mares to lose pregnancies. Subsequent experiments demonstrated that caterpillar hairs embedded in the gastrointestinal tract and transmitted infection into the circulatory system. We now describe MRLS as the “tipping point” that caused the college and the industry to think differently about ourselves and to work more closely together.

In the intervening years, the college expanded equine programs to include environment, education, and economics. For example, the Horse Pasture Evaluation Program has evaluated more than 18,000 acres on 120 farms. The Kentucky Equine Survey, the first since 1977, found that Kentucky is home to 242,000 horses with a $3 billion economic impact. These improvements and others place the college’s horse offerings closer to our other successful animal programs, such as beef, sheep, dairy, and poultry.

Also since 2001, the partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service has resulted in a federal laboratory on campus that focuses on forage and animal production, and in the New Crop Opportunities Center being created.

The research projects highlighted in this issue represent not only the continued progress since 2001 but also the diversity of research in the college. We celebrate the renewal of the Nutrition and Superfund Chemical Toxicity grant to the Superfund Research Center—the largest grant awarded to the college; environmental remediation of coal slurry; mineral effects on cattle health and production using state of the art molecular biology; and cutting-edge research on adolescent development.

It has been a distinct honor to serve the researchers of the college and to applaud them for their success, their great ideas, and most of all, their passion for science!

—Nancy M. Cox Dean and Director Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station
S-129 Agricultural Science Center
University of Kentucky Lexington, KY 40546-0091


Powerful Potential

Elisa D'Angelo has built a wetland that removes toxins from coal slurry impoundments using natural processes.

Elisa D'Angelo has built a wetland that removes toxins from coal slurry impoundments using natural processes.
Photo by Matt Barton

Elisa D’Angelo built a wetland with powerful potential—a system that removes toxic elements that might leach out of coal slurry impoundments.

“Our goal is to help the coal industry reduce liabilities associated with mining and coal preparation and help communities near the hundreds of coal slurry impoundments in the Appalachians,” said D’Angelo, Plant and Soil Sciences associate professor.

To produce a cleaner-burning coal, companies must reduce ash and lower sulfur and mercury. The preparation process separates coarse refuge, similar to rocks, from smaller particles called fines. Coarse refuge is used to build dams that confine slurry containing the fines.

“Sometimes impoundments leak into natural water bodies,” D’Angelo said. “But little was known about the chemical composition, so it was impossible to know the potential impacts.”

D’Angelo, aided by Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering professor Richard Warner and Jason Unrine, Plant and Soil Sciences assistant professor, analyzed samples from slurry impoundment and compared the results to water quality criteria.
“Of the dozen trace elements we measured, only one element was potentially causing a problem,” D’Angelo said. “It was right above what they call the warm water aquatic habitat criteria.”

She designed a multi-stage wetland that focused on that element, selenium, as well as on several other elements that could pose a problem at other impoundments.

Her pilot wetland consists of five stages, which use various natural materials, including wood chips, corncobs, and gravel, intended to remove each element in sequence. The first stage raises the pH. The second stage causes dissolved iron, arsenic, manganese, and selenium to fall out in a solid form and ultimately settle in the third stage.

“When contaminants are dissolved, they tend to be more mobile in the environment and reactive with the human body. When converted to solid forms, they’re not as mobile or reactive,” D’Angelo explained.

The fourth and fifth stages, respectively, filter the remaining liquid through a gravel bed and reduce sulfate.

“What we found was, 96 percent of selenium was removed in just Stage 1,” D’Angelo said. “That was great news!”

D’Angelo’s next step is to sell the idea to the coal industry. “It could be a viable green technology for treating this class of waste.”

— Carol Lea Spence


Bernhard Hennig, Dean Nancy Cox and UK President Eli Capilouto.

Bernhard Hennig, Dean Nancy Cox and UK President Eli Capilouto.
Photo by Steve Patton

Offset the Negative

UK’s Superfund Research Center is working to help offset the negative health impacts that can occur when humans are exposed to toxic chemicals and to help accelerate the clean-up of hazardous waste sites in Kentucky.

The center, led by the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment’s Bernhard Hennig, recently received a $12.2 million Nutrition and Superfund Chemical Toxicity grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue this important work. This is one of the largest NIH grants ever received by UK.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines Superfund sites as uncontrolled or abandoned places where hazardous waste is located. Kentucky has more than 200 such locations, including 14 active sites on the National Priorities List, a list of the worst sites in the country.

Kentucky also has rates well above national averages of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and hypertension. The center’s biomedical research focuses on the idea that nutrition can help reduce negative health effects from exposure to hazardous chemicals, Hennig said. The team is also looking at the impacts exposure has on prenatal development.
Environmental scientists are working to develop new methods to detect hazardous chemicals and clean up contaminated sites. The research is likely to have other applications as well, including uses in treating drinking water and removing toxic metals from power plant water, said Lindell Ormsbee, associate director of the center and Raymond-Blythe professor of civil engineering.

The grant, funded through the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences supports the work of more than 50 scientists and students from 15 departments within CAFE, Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Medicine, and Public Health.

“This project brings the best scientists from many different disciplines together for a high-impact collaboration that advances our knowledge of some of the most pervasive chemical contaminants in our environment,” said Dean Nancy Cox. “These scientists also collaborate with colleagues from other state and national agencies and work within affected communities on strategies that may help combat the effects of contaminants and improve overall health.”

More information on the Superfund Research Center can be found at the center’s website.

— Laura Skillman

Josh Baker, NRES Academy

(l-r) Phil Bridges, Jamie Matthews, and Roy Burris evaluated the most metabolically effective form of selenium for cattle.
Photo by Stephen Patton

Form Matters

Cattle consuming forages grown in Kentucky may not be getting necessary amounts of selenium, a trace element that’s necessary for growth, reproduction, and immune status. Producers often need to add supplements to their cattle’s diets.

An interdisciplinary team of UK Animal and Food Sciences researchers consisting of Jamie Matthews, nutritional physiologist; Roy Burris, extension beef specialist; and reproduction physiologist Phil Bridges, conducted a series of mineral intake trials to evaluate the most metabolically effective form of selenium to include in cattle mineral mixes. They conducted a three-year study with grazing beef cattle at UK’s Research and Education Center in Princeton.

The team used Calan gates, a specialized piece of equipment used to control and record feed intake, to measure individual animal intake of mineral mixes containing selenium. They then expanded the pilot trials to production herd-sized experiments. The researchers used DNA microarray analysis, a process that allowed them to isolate genetic contents of cells and determine which genes were expressed, or turned on. Of particular interest were genes involved with growth, reproduction, and immunity.

The principal take-home message from these trials was that each different form of supplemental selenium consumed, whether inorganic, organic, or a mixture of the two, affects gene expression in the liver, cows’ skeletal muscles, and testes of their newborn calves. Since the trial found that gene expression of newborn calf testes was dependent on the form of selenium consumed by their dams, the team is conducting an experiment to determine if the form of selenium can improve fertility in sexually mature bulls.

“One of the things we are most proud of about this study is we are getting both the molecular and the practical, and the more we do that, the quicker the translation to the farmer,” said Matthews.

And getting the results of the research into the hands of beef producers is important to the team.

“We have to have enough confidence in our research to make a recommendation, and we feel that we are doing solid research that matters,” Burris said.

The college and the Alltech-University of Kentucky Animal Nutrition Alliance jointly funded the research.

— Jeff Franklin

teenagers texting

Teenagers Gone Viral

Most parents wonder what makes their teenagers tick. University of Kentucky professor Alexander T. Vazsonyi has spent his entire career researching that very topic.

Vazsonyi is the college’s John I. and Patricia J. Buster Endowed Professor of Family Studies. He has published numerous peer-reviewed articles related to student achievement, problem behaviors, health-compromising behaviors, and violence.
One of his current studies examines the social media habits of Kentucky teens.
Alexander Vazsony

What makes teenagers tick?
Alexander Vazsonyi is an expert.

Vazsonyi and UK graduate students Gabriela Jiskrova and Albert Ksinan surveyed students at Paris middle and high schools during the 2013-2014 school year about their online habits and parental supervision of online activities.

The amount of time students spent online increases as they age, his survey revealed. Of the middle school students, 73 percent spent two hours or less online each day. Half of the high school students surveyed said they daily spent three or more hours online.
Instagram was the preferred social media platform for both groups.

Cyberbullying also increased with age. Of those surveyed, 44 percent of high school students and 18 percent of middle school students said they were sent either a slur, threat, or other provocation at least one time in the past year, with 9 percent of high school students and 2 percent of middle school students reporting such attacks at least once a week.

In the school system, parental internet monitoring decreased with students’ age. More than half of middle school students reported their families had rules about when and how long adolescents in the home were allowed to be online. Only 17 percent of high school students said their families had similar rules.

“This was an opportunity for us to understand how important social media is to our students and to begin to learn how to engage our students in different ways,” said Gary Wiseman, superintendent for Paris Independent Schools. “The online safety issue gives us an opportunity to examine our policies and filtering devices to ensure we are addressing the correct issues.”

Vazsonyi plans to conduct the same study with middle school and high school students in the Lincoln County and Bourbon County school districts during the 2014-2015 school year.

— Katie Pratt