University of Kentucky College of Agriculture Agriculture Image

We in the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station are proud of what we accomplished in 2003. Our achievements for the year are as broad as a federal-state collaboration and as focused as new knowledge about a particular plant, microbe, or gene. But all of our work is focused on discovering new knowledge that is relevant to both our state and our region.

Notable Successes of our programs during 2003 include:

  • A new partnership with the USDA Agricultural Research Service for a Forage-Animal Production Research Unit. (See the related story in this issue.) Dr. Jim Strickland joined us in 2003 and is leading a group of federal research scientists who will collaborate with College scientists. Together, they will use modern genetic research tools to study how forage systems and animal biology can be integrated to improve animal health and productivity. The federal investment was provided by a special appropriation through the Kentucky congressional delegation, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell.
  • A partnership with the Gatton College of Business and Economics created a position to coordinate entrepreneurial efforts within the College of Agriculture. Gabriel Wilmoth, as coordinator of the Natural Products Alliance, works with student and faculty entrepreneurs to stimulate business startups in the natural products area. A particular emphasis is encouraging local communities to embrace entrepreneurism.
  • As state revenues remain stable, external grant awards remain important to our research programs. Overall, external grant awards to the College of Agriculture increased dramatically from fiscal year 2000 through 2003. And, UK ranked 14th nationally in research and development expenditures in agricultural sciences as reported by the National Science Foundation for 2001 (the latest figures available).

Research Highlights--

The research areas highlighted in this year's report, food systems and natural resource sciences, represent two targets of opportunity for the College of Agriculture--programs with the potential to achieve national recognition for research excellence as well as for service to the commonwealth. As always, our research projects are designed to partner with the Cooperative Extension Service, state and federal agencies, and the College's excellent teaching programs.

The merger of the College of Agriculture with what is now the School of Human Environmental Sciences consolidates our talents in food systems research, encompassing the spectrum of food and nutritional sciences from the producer to the consumer. The Five-State Beef Initiative, which was supported by a nationally competitive grant, is one of the first national efforts to assist farmers in creating brand beef products for the consumer. Our project with type 2 diabetes represents our research at the consumer end of the spectrum and illustrates the value of education to promote health, a core area of expertise for the School of Human Environmental Sciences. One of the strongest research areas in food systems is our food safety programs. Discovery of new technologies to detect food pathogens is important to prevent natural disease and bioterroristic threats, and our researchers make sure that small as well as large processors benefit from our expertise.

An important part of the College's mission is to share knowledge and tools for wise and innovative use of natural resources across the landscape. Efforts to understand the habits of the black bear, for example, represent our commitment through a nationally recognized wildlife restoration program to diversity in ecosystems. While we are encouraging bear habitats, we are at the same time applying ecological principles to discourage success of the gypsy moth. The final natural resource project highlighted in this report addresses the economic problem of how to use biomass to produce fuel that could reduce our dependency on fossil fuels as well as provide new production systems for farmers.  

We were privileged to work on behalf of Kentucky in 2003, and we look forward to the discoveries that lie ahead.

Nancy M. Cox, Associate Director
Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station
S-129 Agricultural Science Center, University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky 40546-0091
E-mail: nancy.cox@uky.edu

ENVIRONMENT/
NATURAL RESOURCES

We constantly walk a tightrope in managing our environment and natural resources, using what the world has to offer while also working to sustain it for generations to come.

Scientists in the UK College of Agriculture are intent on discovering knowledge that can help us with this balancing act.

Sometimes the College's scientists see our planet through a microscope, sometimes through the forest, surface-mined land, or a stream. But always, they seek to shed the bright light of science on this world we inhabit.

Here's a look at some of their research. It will show you how our scientists in the UK College of Agriculture are dealing with issues as wide as the world and as close as your neighborhood.

The Comeback Kid

A century and a half ago Kentucky's landscape was full of black bears, but then they were gone--or nearly so.

For the past 20 years, the black bear has been coming back in the Bluegrass State as we've protected more public land and ceased to hunt bears for their hides or as a source of food.

Black bears are not returning in great numbers to Kentucky, and they are still in small, fragmented populations, but we have enough of them for Dave Maehr in the Department of Forestry to think a true resurgence is possible.

For three summers now, working under a grant from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, he and his research staff have been counting noses.

Already, 15 bears have been tagged in southeastern Kentucky, mostly in Kingdom Come State Park and in and around Cumberland Gap National Historic Park.

Maehr can't say exactly how many black bears Kentucky has, but taking a "wild guess," he said it's "less than 100, possibly more than 50."

He and his colleagues are also studying the bears' movements, habitat base, food needs--everything that fits into understanding how black bears live and what they need to survive.

This is not an up-close-and-personal project. Rather, the bears are temporarily and humanely trapped, briefly sedated, outfitted with a collar that beeps a radio signal, and then released.

The bear then goes about its normal business, but with somebody keeping tabs: the collar's radio signal is picked up by a standard receiver or a GPS system. Researchers (such as Dave Unger and Hannah Harris, Ph.D. students in Animal Sciences) know when a bear is active, when it's moving, and they can track its path remotely.

The information Maehr and his fellow researchers can provide will help conservation agencies decide about acquiring land, restoring habitat, and other management practices that affect the black bear's habitat.

Maehr believes in the importance of restoring the black bear and other large mammals not only in Kentucky, but around the world.

He said they offer "variety in the ecosystem, and they provide a service to plant species, disseminating seeds around the forest."

"If we succeed in protecting the black bear, hundreds of other (animals) will subsist in the same habitat. If we succeed in protecting these things, we succeed in protecting the entire landscape," Maehr said.

Putting Godzilla on a Diet

Oaks are essential components of both forests and cities in Kentucky. But now, an insect called the gypsy moth has the potential to take out large numbers of our oak trees.

The gypsy moth is the Godzilla of oak leaf-eating insects. It can grow nearly as big as a human thumb and attacks not just oak trees, but 400 to 500 other plants as well. It can also cause rashes and breathing problems for people.

Lynne Rieske-Kinney in the Department of Entomology is studying just how the gypsy moth behaves in the forest--what varieties of oak it prefers and what happens to the oaks when the insects feed on them. She is also looking at what happens to the insects when various management techniques, such as tree thinning or controlled burning, are used to manage forests.

Over time, Rieske-Kinney monitors the growth of the gypsy moth and how much oak leaf it can consume. She also compares how it fares on one kind of oak versus another to distinguish which ones it likes and which ones it doesn't. So far, she has found that the gypsy moth prefers black oak and burr oak over red, pin, and willow oak.

What Rieske-Kinney learns about the gypsy moth may also hold true for other threats to Kentucky's oaks, including other leaf-destroying insects such as the common oak moth.

Foresters can use her research to help maintain the forests' balance and diversity.

Some oaks in Kentucky will inevitably be lost to the gypsy moth, but Rieske-Kinney thinks that if we maintain a variety of healthy tree species, we'll have fewer of the highly stressed oak trees that the gypsy moth's caterpillar loves to eat.

The result? A diet of sorts that blunts the gypsy moth's effect.

This Fuel Might Fill 'Er Up Forever

Go into Mike Montross' lab, and you'll find wooden crates filled with corn husks, cobs, and leaves. Decorations for a fall festival?

Hardly.

Instead, this corn stover (everything from the corn plant but the grain itself) is a source of sugar that can be used to make ethanol.

Ethanol is already being blended with gasoline. It's gaining a lot of interest because it can reduce emissions and could cut our dependence on imported oil.

In order to meet projected increases in demand for ethanol, alternative sources of sugar are needed.

Montross and Sue Nokes are among researchers in Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering who are investigating cheaper ways to make ethanol (as are Czarena Crofchek and Scott Shearer).

They are discovering ways to improve on existing technology, which concentrates on grain only, by using other parts of the plant.

Nokes is working with the microorganism Clostridium thermocellum, which is one of the microorganisms that can be used to break down plant material into sugar.

Montross theorizes that another source of sugar--the stover--could be efficiently collected if combines, which now harvest only the corn grain, could be adjusted so that the husks, cobs, and leaves of the plant would be collected as well.

The combine would take up only about a third of the stover, leaving the rest on the field to protect the soil from erosion.

Hopes are that eventually the producer could sell the collected stover for processing into ethanol, giving farmers a marketable product without extra labor costs.

If the cost of producing it could be lowered, corn stover could become a major source of renewable energy, not to mention a new source of revenue for farmers.

FOOD

We're more enthusiastic about our food than ever. Shopping at farmer's markets is now a weekend pastime, and many of us will make a trip to the country just for the thrill of picking our produce ourselves.

Locally-grown food may have movie star status, but at the same time the Internet is providing us with everything from oranges shipped from Texas to spices from Australia.

Our fixation on food goes further than availability--we also want it to be safe. And, with obesity now seen as the root cause of many of our ills, more of us now also see the need to eat wisely.

Some of the researchers in the UK College of Agriculture are all about food--from studying cancer-inhibiting substances in milk to discovering what kinds of late-season sweet corn will grow in Kentucky.

Read about some of this research here. And keep eating. It helps keep us in business.

Everybody Wins

For the past four years, Kentucky has been part of the pioneering Five-State Beef Initiative, which might well be called the Everybody Wins Initiative.

The program, which has included Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, and Michigan as well as Kentucky, pulled together those in the beef industry chain--from breeders to backgrounders to feedlot owners to processors--who agreed to meet high standards and share information up and down the line.

Results have shown that when producers pay attention to both quality and feedback about animal performance, they not only increase their profits, they also put a better steak on the table.

"To be in the Five-State Beef Initiative, you have to have a goal of a better, higher quality animal," said John Johns, extension professor in beef nutrition and management.

"We're trying to create a good, consistent, quality product," said Lee Meyer, extension professor in agricultural economics.

The initiative has also helped Kentucky producers understand that consumers are not all cut with the same stamp. "Some consumers rate leanness high," Meyer said. "Others rate juiciness and tenderness high."

The five-state program, Johns said, has "helped producers target particular markets."

Food Safety Matters, Too

These days, consumers want not only tasty beef and beef tailored to their particular palate, they also want assurance that their beef is safe to eat. Toward that end, the USDA has looked at a national system to track cattle from the farm through processing.

Here, too, the Five-State Beef Initiative has been a pioneer.

Since the program began, it has used electronic source identification to provide producers with data on their cattle as they leave the farm and make their way through the industry.

"We started electronic identification," Meyer said. "We required individual animal identification and settled upon electronic identification as the way to do that. We proved its practicality."

Electronic source identification, Johns said, "enabled other projects to utilize an already-tested technology."

In developing and implementing such systems to assure good beef, the Five-State Beef Initiative has left its mark.

"We've been a major contributor to bringing the industry to where it is now," Johns said.

Making Choices, Choosing Health

Lisa Gaetke, in Nutrition and Food Sciences, is a teacher, so she believes in education. But Gaetke is also a scientist, so she also believes in the truth of data.

Gaetke the Teacher had a theory that if you teach people with diabetes or heart disease about eating right, it can make a difference in their health. Gaetke the Scientist believed the facts would bear her out.

And they did.

Gaetke's research began through a working relationship she had with a dietitian in rural Kentucky who counseled patients referred by a local physician. These patients had either type 2 diabetes (the most prevalent kind) or heart disease.

Gaetke's research involved tracking health data on some of these patients and, as a control group, tracking a like-sized group of the doctor's patients who received no nutrition counseling. All patients were identified to Gaetke only by a number.

The results, three to four months later, were striking:

After a single counseling session, those with type 2 diabetes who had seen the dietitian had a:

  • 33% decrease in fasting blood glucose levels (a measure of how well the patient is managing blood sugar at a given point in time).
  • 27% drop in what's called glycosylated hemoglobin, a measure of how well a patient has controlled his or her blood sugar over the previous two to three months.

Also after just one counseling session, those with heart disease who had seen the dietitian had a:

  • 10% decrease in their total cholesterol.
  • 11% decrease in their LDL ("bad" cholesterol).

Those who did not see a dietitian did not experience similar results. In fact, glucose levels were up for those with type 2 diabetes, and total cholesterol levels were up for those with heart disease.

Gaetke continued to track the patients for up to 24 months, and she found that in general the patients lost ground in their management of their disease, which may mean that continued nutrition counseling is necessary.

"People don't always think of going to a dietitian in the first place," Gaetke says, "and they almost never think of going back for additional visits."

In Kentucky, where heart disease is the leading cause of death and diabetes is the sixth leading cause of death, nutrition counseling offers a promising approach to treating these chronic diseases.

Protecting Our Food

Two researchers in the Department of Animal Sciences are working on new ways to protect our food supply.


Clair Hicks is already known for a patented technology that makes it easier to produce cheese. He is now working on a bacteria test for foods that would be faster, cheaper, and more sensitive than the tests now used.

Hicks' idea is called novel phage peptide technology.

"We are going to be able to identify individual bacteria, such as salmonella and E. coli, right down to the species in 30 minutes," Hicks said.

The test could be a boon to the food industry, which now pays up to $30 for a bacteria test that can take up to a week to return results. For the consumer, this new test could result in an even safer food supply, since even more minute levels of disease-causing bacteria could be detected.

Hicks' new test involves using peptides, the building blocks of proteins, to count the amount of particular bacteria present in a food.

These peptides are produced by taking advantage of how a virus, or phage, infects a bacterial cell. Phages multiply actively in the bacteria. Hicks takes peptides from the phage that have a "memory" of the bacteria, allowing them to identify with that bacteria in food. With one more ingredient, a luminescent molecule similar to a firefly's light, Hicks can make contaminated food "light up." He links that luminescent molecule to the peptides. The result: the luminating peptide is put on the food, resulting in a fast and easy test for the bacteria.

Hicks anticipates that the technology could be used in milk, vegetables, and meats. He thinks it could also be used to test "hot spots" on food processing machinery: those places where bacteria are more apt to be found.

Helping the Smaller Food Processor

The smaller food processor--and Kentucky has quite a few of those--is often seeking a way to further assure a bacterially-safe product: something that is easy, economically practical, and still does the job. Often, these processors turn to Benjy Mikel in Animal Science's food science program to help them. And Mikel turns to researcher Melissa Newman.

Newman and her research staff have found some novel answers to this question. Some of them are relatively simple (which is good news for the small business without lot of capital), but still quite effective.        

The researchers have found, for example, that some ready-to-eat products can be packaged and then heated up (pasteurized) right in the bag.

Newman and her colleagues also have found that a warm water rinse followed by a quick chill works quite well on other products. She expects that processors may well use the warm water-quick chill technique in combination with other methods to destroy bacteria on products.

Hesham Elgaali, a doctoral student in Newman's research lab, has been experimenting with spice-like natural products that may not provide flavor, but do kill bacteria on foods.

"These natural products could be inserted in the product or sprayed on," Newman said. "Preliminary data show that this solution works."

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