2002 Research Annual Report
Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station
In 2002, the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station made a giant leap forward in its funding from external grants and contracts for the College of Agriculture. That funding increased 60 percent over 2001 going from $10.5 million to $17.2 million. (The University as a whole increased its external funding by 22 percent.)
That's not the only milestone. Here are others:
- Between $4 and $5 million of the College's external grants are secured by faculty who have a primary appointment in the Cooperative Extension Service.
- College faculty obtained ten patents this year: in biotechnology, veterinary immunology, food science, weed science, and insect culture.
- The year 2002 gave us another chance to discover more about Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome (MRLS). Based partly on recommendations to protect mares from eastern tent caterpillars, only about one-third as many losses occurred in 2002 as in 2001. This past year, many College scientists again pitched in with enormous dedication and ruled out cyanide and mycotoxins as likely causes. Researchers also successfully reproduced the syndrome using eastern tent caterpillars, a key step in understanding the cause of the disease.
- A new program that will foster start-up companies in the state is under way. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Natural Products Alliance aims to translate University plant science research into start-up companies producing natural products such as plant-derived pharmaceuticals.
The report of the year 2002 is a sampling of only a few of the 148 externally-funded research projects in the College, but the stories here reflect the range of activities and the level of commitment typical of the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station. As you will see, our research program is committed to partnerships, world-class science, and discovering new research tools.
For example, we are partnering with:
ExtensionOne of the most important partners for the Experiment Station is the Cooperative Extension Service. The high-impact research of faculty members who have a primary appointment in Extension is making a difference in Kentucky.
Other colleges in the UniversityThese relationships bring the best science to bear on solving agricultural problems, and the discoveries they yield are important to the future of Kentucky agriculture. Biosystems and agricultural engineering research, for example, may result in new approaches to using tobacco plants to produce commercially-valuable proteins. West Nile Virus, a complex disease, is being studied by a cross-disciplinary team. That broad approach is necessary if West Nile's devastation is to be understood and eventually curbed. Partners for these projects come from the College of Pharmacy and the College of Arts and Sciences.
Kentucky State UniversityKSU is a natural partner, since both UK and KSU are land grant universities bent on helping the public. KSU's research on traps for beehive mites illustrates its efforts to replace chemical use with other control methods. Together, UK and KSU serve a broad range of agriculture.
State agenciesForestry faculty members have worked for the past several years with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources in an effort to restore the peregrine falcon to its natural rural habitat. That work is an example of collaboration across organizational lines for the state's benefit.
This report also points up two other important aspects of the College's research program:
- Although many of our programs have international distinction, the programs of Jerry Skees and Peter Nagy have attracted worldwide acclaim for innovation and originality.
- We're committed to expanding opportunities for horticultural crops as you'll see when you read about the creative use of computer scanning to determine seed vigor.
We are proud of what our Experiment Station scientists have done in the past year, and we look forward to the future.
Nancy M. Cox, Associate Director
Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station
S-129 Agricultural Science Center, University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky 40546-0091
Total Research Support
2002 Federal Fiscal Year
(October 1, 2001 through September 30, 2002)
Gifts & Endowment Income$4,313,867
Grants & Contracts$17,200,000
Research Annual Report Stories by Martha Jackson
Managing the Hurricane
Some people expect the worst. Jerry Skees in Agricultural Economics doesn't waste time expecting it. He moves on to how to manage it, traveling the globe to develop agricultural insurance in countries such as Mexico, Morocco, Mongolia, and Argentina.
What we're trying to do is sort out the mix between markets and government for managing natural disaster risk, Skees said. When everyone has a wreck at the same time, it requires special financial arrangements.
In this case, the wreck is generally a hurricane, flood, famine, droughtany devastating weather-related event that affects all parts of a countrys economy.
Skees helps countries figure out how to shift some of the potential economic cost of such disasters into the global financial markets so the economic burden is shared.
Were trying to help countries sort out, before the event, how to finance economic losses as well as who is going to get benefits, he said. He helps countries assess their risk, price it, and recommends how (and who) should bear the cost of those risks.
With the right kind of planning, a country can better survive the disaster's economic pummeling and rebound more quickly with less dependence on the whims of international aid.
Social scientists rarely have the opportunity to try different approaches in other countries, Skees said about his international experience. The hope is that the learning will be something we can bring back to Kentucky and the nation.
Skees continues to be involved in advising on the U.S. crop insurance program, for which the issue of sharing the risk in a global market is still of great significance.
Photo: Jerry Skees in Agricultural Economics works around the world to develop agricultural insurance.
Moving Over to Better Red Clover
Twelve years ago, most of the red clover seeded in Kentucky was of common (and relatively cheap) varieties. Research showed that some varieties were better, but how to convince farmers? For Jimmy Henning, then an Extension specialist (now assistant director of Extension for agriculture and natural resources), it was a matter of putting the plow horse in the race with the Thoroughbred.
Variety trials were expanded to include common red clovers. Those trials began to show that, by comparison, research-proven varieties improved yield, lived longer, and brought in at least $250 more per acre than did the common varieties.
But Henning knew improved varieties of red clover wouldnt take hold unless farmers saw them work firsthand. So he and Dan Grigson, Lincoln County agent for ag and natural resources, carried out an information campaign that is a model for how to put research to work. Henning and Grigson conducted demonstrations, held field days, spoke at meetings, and told their story to anybody who would listenin the media, in newsletters (including Grigson's own Uddergram), and at farm supply stores. They convinced distributors to put better red clover varieties in the stores.
Farmers began asking for improved varieties, and stores began to stock them. The added value due to extra yield and persistence grew from about $3.5 million in 1995 to nearly $7 million in 2002 because of increased use of the better varieties.
Not all farmers in Kentucky (or Lincoln County) are convinced, of course. But the effort shows that research, packaged so that its benefits are clear, can mean more profits for farmers.
|Tobacco has a biological system well-suited to produce proteins that can be used in all sorts of medicines. Biosystems engineer Czarena Crofcheck is working on a way to efficiently remove those proteins from the plant.
Pharming and Foam
Most people still look at a tobacco plant and think of only one product, but College researchers are exploring tobacco's potential to manufacture crucial proteins for the pharmaceutical industry through a new biotechnology called molecular pharming.
Kentucky, a state that wrote the book on how to grow tobacco, is in a prime position to take advantage of a crop thats being used in new ways.
The tobacco plant is able, with the jump-start of a genetically modified protein introduced into its biological system, to produce proteins that can become the basis for all sorts of medicines.
The next step in this kind of pharming is to harvest these proteins as efficiently and as inexpensively as possible. That's where the engineer comes in. Czarena Crofcheck in Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering is working with colleagues including Michael Jay and Paul M. Bummer in the College of Pharmacy and Indu B. Maiti at the Kentucky Tobacco Research and Development Center on how to best separate and recover these crucial proteins from the hundreds of other proteins produced by tobacco.
These researchers are using a method called foam fractionation. It's based on the scientific principle that if a gas is bubbled through a liquid, foam is created and surface-active components concentrate in the foam. These components can then be removed along with the foam.
Crofcheck and her colleagues have already shown the process works. Now, they are refining the technique. If they are successful, they will lower the cost of producing drugs from tobacco plants and potentially increase the output of tobacco pharmers in Kentucky and elsewhere.
Sleuthing Our Way to Fuel Alternatives
|Herb Strobel, a microbiologist in Animal Sciences, prepares some ethanol-sensitive proteins to be analyzed. It's part of a new set of techniques called proteomics that could pave the way to cheaper, renewable energy sources.
Many hope for a world in which we will be less dependent on non-renewable oil, coal, and natural gas to power our cars and heat our homes. Ethanol made from renewable organic material such as plants may be part of the answer, but right now it's expensive to produce. Two UK researchers could help change that.
Herb Strobel in the College's Department of Animal Sciences and Bert Lynn at the UK Mass Spectrometry Facility are analyzing the bacterium Clostridium thermocellum, which one day could be an efficient ethanol-producing machine. It works quickly at high temperatures to convert organic matter into ethanol. But this bacterium can't itself tolerate much ethanol, and that means it can't produce ethanol beyond a certain amount.
As the first step to understanding how particular proteins contribute to ethanol tolerance, Strobel and Lynn are identifying the proteins in the bacterium using a set of state-of-the-art techniques called proteomics. It's a preface to genetically altering this bacterium's proteins so that it can tolerate (and thus produce) more ethanol.
Their procedure is exacting: Strobel and his colleagues tag the ethanol-sensitive proteins to be studied; Lynn and his staff analyze them at the smallest structural level to identify them precisely.
This research could lead to all sorts of cheap organic matter being used to make ethanolcorn husks, sawdust, wood chips, even municipal wasteand the search for renewable energy sources will have taken a giant step forward.
Using Numbers to Tell the Tale
If Julie Zimmerman had her own bumper sticker, it might read Have Numbers: Will Travel.
That's because Zimmerman, a faculty member in the Department of Community and Leadership Development, is the primary organizer of a database of social and demographic data for every county in the commonwealth.
Called Kentucky: By the Numbers, Zimmerman's program started as a result of federal welfare reform in the late 1990s, when the federal government mandated that states find ways to help welfare recipients make the transition to work.
People weren't really sure just how the resulting changes would affect their communities. They told us they needed data to help them make decisions, Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman and her colleagues asked people what types of information they needed to respond to the changes. Since then, shes assembled a broad range of social and demographic data including, for example, how much of a community's economy depends on food stamps, how many women are in its labor force, and how many farmers live in a county. The material is organized so that it is easy to access and use.
The numbers have been used by a diverse group of people, including researchers and organizational and governmental officials.
Response continues to be high for this series. Our plans are to continue adding data on issues facing Kentucky communities, Zimmerman said.
Kentucky: By the Numbers is available through local Extension offices or on the Web at: www.ca.uky.edu/snarl.
West Nile Virus: Where the Sciences Meet
||Current research about West Nile Virus could lead to more effective control strategies and more protection for horses against the disease.
To most of us, West Nile Virus is only a passing worry. To horse farm managers, West Nile is a very real threat. To a group of UK scientists, it is an example of the interconnectedness of nature and an opportunity to work together to combat a complex disease.
Peter Timoney and Tom Chambers in Veterinary Science, David Westneat in UK's Department of Biology, and Stephen Dobson in Entomology are collaborating to better understand West Nile, which was identified in the United States in 1999.
More than one kind of mosquito can carry the virus, and more than 100 species of birds are known to be susceptible to it. A third complication is that, while mosquitoes carrying the virus normally infect birds, some species can bite horses or people instead. The virus can kill birds and cause a range of symptoms in people and horses. Very occasionally, West Nile causes fatal neurological disease.
Dobson is working with livestock managers to obtain mosquito samples that are tested for the virus. Timoney and his colleagues provide information about the horses that fall ill with West Nile, and Westneat is looking at bird species to see which ones make good hosts, and why.
Together with other UK scientists and state and county health departments, they are working to better understand West Nile: its natural cycle, key participants, and risk factors. By better understanding this disease, they hope to provide more focused and effective control strategies that will result in a safer environment for the state's human and equine populations and financial savings for farm managers.
Bringing Back the Peregrine Falcon
The peregrine falcon is a great-winged bird of prey that dive bombs for its food and can almost outstrip a flying plane. It can live anywhere from the tropics to the North Pole, but this bird is hard to find in Kentucky. Mike Lacki in Forestry has been working for the past three years at the Red River Gorge to find out why.
The peregrine has been known lately as more of a city bird. When the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources decided try to re-establish it in a more rural setting, Lacki and his graduate students began to handle bird release, hatching of young in captivity, and data collection.
Peregrines are great migrators. Ours have moved on, but currently, four nesting pairs of peregrines (plus a lone female) are in the state, having migrated here from elsewhere. The College's research project is adding to the knowledge base of how to encourage more peregrines to live and thrive in Kentucky in the future.
Lacki thinks restoration of birds such as the peregrine, which was once on the endangered species list, is important. If we make no effort to restore what we've already eliminated, we've accepted that natural systems are a little less than what they could be, he said.
He also believes it matters to bring the peregrine back to places like the Gorge.
If you're going to truly restore something, you're going to put it where it belongs, he said.
Using an Electronic Yardstick
The impatiens, petunias, and other flowers you buy at the garden center just naturally grow to the same height, right?
Wrong. If all your seedlings are the same height, it may be because bedding plant growers detected and replaced weak, low-vigor seedlings with strong ones.
The strength of seeds (and their ability to grow rapidly and uniformly) is called seed vigor, and until recently, seed vigor in bedding plants hadn't gotten much attention.
Bob Geneve and his colleagues in Horticulture are changing the way seed producers evaluate seed vigor by using a flat-bed scanner.
This little piece of office equipment is usually used to copy documents into an electronic file, but Geneve is using it to take digital images of seeds as they germinate and the seedlings grow. Directed by a computer program, the scanner takes pictures often, and at scheduled intervals, so it's easier to pinpoint exactly when the seedling first starts to grow, which is an indicator of seed vigor.
The scanner is also able to produce an image that makes it possible to measure growth precisely so that growth comparisons between one seed and another are more accurate.
Using this flat-bed scanner technique to identify high-vigor seeds could mean more money for the bedding plant industry. By using high-vigor seeds, seedling growers could save on labor costs to replace seedlings that don't come up on schedule. Seed companies, if they could show that their seeds have high vigor, would have another selling point in the marketplace.
Finding the Virtue in Viruses
|Peter Nagy in Plant Pathology is one of a group of scientists worldwide studying how RNA viruses work. Their work could help curb viral infections in people and animals as well as plants.
RNA viruses are a wily enemy of agriculture and medicine. They cause disease in plants, animals, and people. Peter Nagy in Plant Pathology is part of a group of researchers around the world looking at how RNA viruses (those with ribonucleic acid as genetic material) work in small plants. If their work is successful, science will have taken a big step in learning how to disarm these viruses before they can do harm.
These viruses are a tough adversary. They can replicate so fast it would be dizzying to watch: 1 million new virus particles can be made from a single cell. It's one of the most efficient processes on earth, Nagy said. Sometimes, the viruses accidentally produce defective offspring that steal the parent's proteins. The parent virus cant reproduce itself without those proteins, and the defective virus can't produce them at all, so replication is curbed. Therefore, these defective viruses are potentially our allies against harmful viruses.
Nagy wants to understand both how the virus can copy itself so quickly and how replication can be blocked, which could mean not only less viral disease for plants but also strides in understandingand blockingviral infections in people and animals.
This research has even larger implications. Viruses could be harnessed for 21st century technology: the replication process of RNA viruses, once they are separated from their own harmful effects, could be used to turn plants into efficient little factories for medicines and other products.
Help for the Honeybee
Honeybees not only make tasty golden nectar, they scurry from plant to plant with the pollen essential to growing a variety of crops from apples to almonds.
For years, honeybee hives have been beset by the Varroa mite. This little vampire of a bug attaches itself to the bees, sucks their blood, weakens them, and shortens their life-span. Occasionally the mites fall off, but they just crawl back on the bees and continue their dirty work.
Acaricidesinsecticides for miteshave been the tool of choice in the past, but Tom Webster, an entomologist at Kentucky State University, is one of several people nationwide studying an inexpensive, non-chemical alternative.
The method under study is remarkably simple: A screen with about eight holes per inch is inserted in the hive. When the mites attach themselves as usual to the bees and fall off, they plummet through the screen trap. Unable to climb out to re-attach themselves to the bees, the mites die.
Webster and his research assistants at Kentucky State have carried out the first long-term project using the traps and have found, over 15 months, that they reduce mites by 60 percent.
He estimates that, nationwide, the traps could save $12 to $24 million in acaricides (even more if you add in the cost of labor to apply them).
The traps are already on the market. They cost about $10 retail.