It is a great pleasure to again share highlights of experiment station research and the overall accomplishments of UK Ag. Our talented faculty conduct projects that are not only on the leading edge nationally and internationally, but also dedicated to improving Kentucky’s economy, environment, and quality of life. A complete report of projects, publications, and grants is on the Web at http://www.ca.uky.edu/research.
About the Experiment Station
One of the most important functions of an experiment station is to provide unbiased reports of new technologies that may improve agricultural production in ways that preserve consumer confidence.
To that end, we support agricultural operations of all of Kentucky’s crops and animal products at locations in Princeton, Eden Shale, Quicksand, and in Central Kentucky. These research units experience the same challenges as commercial operations in terms of input and energy costs.
We appreciate that support for University research farms is a high priority in the 2007-2012 strategic plan of the Kentucky Agricultural Council, an organization of the state’s agricultural schools, agencies, and commodity groups.
Also of note is that we are undertaking a substantial reorganization of the College’s research support operations to make sure we are providing maximum returns to Kentucky’s agricultural economy. In this restructuring, Steve Workman has been named assistant dean for research and associate director of the experiment station, and Lesley Oliver has joined UK as the experiment station’s assistant director (see related article, this issue).
Top 10 Ag College
Once again UK Ag research has been ranked in the top 10 nationally in research in the agricultural sciences. This ranking is an index created by Academic Analytics, a company partially owned by the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The ranking measures productivity of faculty members based on publications, grant dollars, and honors and awards.
Highlights in This Report
In this report, we have highlighted a few of our best projects. You will read about cutting-edge work toward solutions for problems prevalent in the Commonwealth and beyond, including use of the Web to improve the emotional well-being of people, gene technologies to control insect pests, geospatial technologies to control invasive plants, improvements in fertilizer applications, environmental impact of animal production, and ways to provide safer and healthier meat products. These diverse projects have one thing in common: faculty of national distinction who are dedicated to Kentucky.
Nancy M. Cox
Associate Dean for Research
Director, Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station
S-129 Agricultural Science Center
University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky 40546-0091
GRANTS & CONTRACTS
Awarded to the UK College of Agriculture
through the UK Research Foundation
* Includes funding secured by teaching and extension faculty
Nothing is more important to corn yield than nitrogen. But how much nitrogen to add to the soil? Ah, there’s the question. John Grove, a plant and soil scientist in the College, is working to answer it as part of a multi-state, federally funded project.
“We want to understand nitrogen’s behavior, plus develop strategies to optimize its uptake,” Grove said.
Maximizing that uptake is important for a couple of reasons. One, of course, is economic. In 2008, a producer might have spent as much as $200 per acre just for nitrogen, not to mention other inputs the crop and/or soil might need.
The other reason is the potential impact of excess nitrogen on the soil, water, and air.
“Any fertilizer nitrogen that’s not utilized by the corn crop can go in a number of different directions, some of which are environmentally degrading,” Grove said.
The problem is that it’s difficult to know how much fertilizer to add, since corn is also taking up nitrogen directly from the soil as part of what’s called the nitrogen cycle—a dynamic, ever-changing process.
Grove has set up experimental corn plots at three of the College’s research farms and two private farms, and he will analyze the soil periodically. The data he collects will provide information about how much nitrogen corn takes up from the soil and thus a clearer picture of how much nitrogen fertilizer needs to be added.
Right now, scientists can provide a range—telling producers they need to add between 125 and 165 pounds of nitrogen per acre on a well-drained soil under no-tillage management.
Grove thinks the research will narrow the range and also provide producers more background information to use in deciding where they need to be in that range.
Kentucky is making a distinctive contribution to this multi-state research.
“No-till is very important here,” Grove said. “That makes Kentucky’s nitrogen cycle different. That’s what we bring to the table in a regional project.”
“Not all green is good,” said Songlin Fei, a researcher in forestry. The not-so-good green that he’s talking about is invasive plants that move into a territory not their own, upset the balance of nature, and make it hard if not impossible for native species to survive and thrive.
Invasive species can also be a threat to human health, and getting rid of them is a daunting, expensive, and long-term task.
Fei is using some of the newest geospatial technology to better understand what kind of landscape encourages invasive plants to spread.
The ecosystems for his work include both Robinson Forest in Eastern Kentucky and urban forest remnants in several city parks in Lexington and Louisville.
In Robinson Forest, Fei is studying the invasion process by comparing less disturbed forest interior with highly disturbed areas where invasives have a higher likelihood of occurring, such as hiking trails, logging landings, and reclaimed surface mines.
In the city parks, Fei has set up systematic survey plots. He calls the parks “invasive hot spots.”
“Birds take seeds and disperse them from parks into people’s yards, and vice versa,” he said. “People use these spaces for recreation and carry the seed in their boots to other places.”
He and his students are using geospatial technologies to obtain an accurate picture of where the invasives are based on high-resolution aerial images. They are also trying to predict how invasives will spread based on current distribution and a vast amount of other data, such as land slope, topography, and land use and management histories.
“Invasives require an ecological niche,” Fei said. “If we understand how different landforms influence them, we can adjust our management practices and use of the land to minimize their impact.”
In Kentucky, where poultry is a major agricultural commodity, the waste from its production is a convenient fertilizer.
But poultry litter’s use does pose some challenges. Poultry, like other food animals, are fed antibiotics to ward off disease and promote growth, and most of the antibiotics make their way into the litter (which is combination of manure and rice hulls or wood chips).
Elisa D’Angelo, a soil scientist, wants to know the impact, if any, of the antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the poultry litter on environmental quality and the health of people and animals.
D’Angelo and her students have found that one antibiotic (Roxarsone) never made it to groundwater and was not taken up by corn leaves or grain when it was applied to soils. Instead, the antibiotic was sequestered in a water-insoluble form. They also found that antibiotic sequestration by soils reduced the antibiotic’s ability to affect nitrogen cycling and microbial community composition. Her research team is trying to understand the nature of these insoluble antibiotic “pools.” “Once the nature of these antibiotic sequestration processes are understood, we can find ways to optimize them in a variety of soil environments,” D’Angelo said.
Another concern is that antibiotic-resistant organisms from litter-fertilized soil can infect humans and animals after they contact, ingest, or inhale contaminated soil, food, water, or airborne dust particles. Individuals infected with these organisms will not be readily treatable with frontline antibiotics. It is not known how long these pathogens can survive or whether they can transfer their antibiotic-resistant genes to other organisms in the environment.
“If the antibiotic-resistant pathogens are long-lived, then it will be critical to find ways to reduce their numbers before applying them to soils—for example, by composting, lime stabilization, or other treatments,” D’Angelo said.
Beetles annually cause billions of dollars in damage to the nation’s crops, but it’s hard to control them because they develop resistance to insecticides. Those that do work can also kill beneficial insects, such as honey bees, butterflies, and moths.
To better understand this resistance, S.R. Palli, a College entomologist, is studying the red flour beetle, which can do a lot of damage to stored grains. Palli’s findings should be valuable in controlling not only this beetle, but other beetles as well, including those that damage potatoes, eggplant, and tomatoes.
He is focusing on the beetle’s nuclear receptors, cellular proteins that work much like a circuit box by switching internal processes on and off.
Palli and his research team propose that a nuclear receptor can flip a switch that activates a particular enzyme. The beetle then uses that enzyme to de-toxify the insecticide that would otherwise kill it.
“Knowing this will help us eliminate the trigger in the receptor so that the beetle no longer develops resistance,” Palli said. “We’ll be able to prolong the life of currently used insecticides.”
Palli and his research team reasoned that if nuclear receptors and their ligands are identified, they could be used as gene switches to regulate expression of transgenes used in human gene therapy and produce genetically improved crop plants that could better fight diseases and pests.
“The use of gene switches will eliminate a majority of public concern about safety of use of genes to cure disease or improve crop plants,” Palli said. “So, we are analyzing the genetic makeup of 21 different nuclear receptors to see which ones react to certain chemicals that could be developed into insecticides or gene switches.
“Our goal is to develop insecticides for only the target species, so we can precisely kill what’s causing problems. The by-products of this research are gene switches that could be used in medicine and agriculture,” said Palli, who, in recognition of his work, was recently named one of four University Research Professors at UK for 2009-2010.
UK blue is something to cheer about, but not the blue that comes with clinical depression, which is a major health concern.
Leigh Ann Simmons, a faculty member in Family Studies, and Leslie Crofford, a UK physician who is chief of Rheumatology and director of the Center for the Advancement of Women’s Health, decided to do something about that other kind of blue.
They have developed a program called Blue to You. “It was designed in response to county extension agents who identified women’s health and mental health as an area where they needed more programming,” Simmons said.
“Blue to You shows how depression is personal, but also how UK is helping people deal with it,” she said.
The pilot study has been funded with a grant from Health Education for Extension Leadership, an extension program focused on improving the health of Kentuckians.
Simmons and Crofford conducted a random phone survey of 1,000 women in Western Kentucky and found that almost 16 percent reported struggling with depression or other mental problems, compared to a national rate of about 12 percent.
They developed a Web site and teaching modules about depression that the agents can use. The modules cover signs and symptoms of depression and how it can affect daily life.
Originally, the focus was women and depression, but the scope has been widened to include all ages and both sexes.
The modules are now being piloted in 10 Western Kentucky counties, where they have been used in classrooms, at Rotary, and at senior citizen centers, among other places.
The goal is to go statewide next year.
“We want to reduce the stigma associated with mental health problems,” Simmons said. “It does have biological origins; it’s not a sign of weakness.”
For more information about Blue to You, go to www.bluetoyou.org.
Youling Xiong, a College food scientist, is carrying out research that may not only help prevent meat from going bad, but might also have health benefits.
Xiong and his research team began by producing hydrolyzed proteins— proteins that have been broken down into their component parts—from soy, buckwheat, corn, whey, potato, and yeast.
Hydrolyzed proteins have long been used by the food industry to add flavor to products, but Xiong’s lab has screened them to find out which ones also act as antioxidants.
“Our approach is to look at the protein structure and cut where we can generate a specific protein fragment (peptide) that will have the unique ability to inhibit food action,” Xiong said.
As antioxidants, the “action” these particular protein chips inhibit is oxidation. When oxygen gets to meat, it can turn the meat brown and cause it to lose flavor or become tough or rancid during retail display or storage. For grocery stores, their suppliers, and occasionally consumers, that’s money down the drain.
Xiong’s group will eventually introduce those proteins with high antioxidant effect into processed meats and evaluate how well they work.
These proteins could do more than maintain the quality of our meats. Because hydrolyzed proteins are small-sized antioxidants, they can be readily absorbed. That means they have the potential to be good for us by curtailing the oxidative stress on the body’s cells, proteins, and DNA that can lead to disease.
Already, there’s been some interest in Xiong’s work from the food industry.
Who knows? We may one day chow down on a beef roast, hot dog, or bologna sandwich that’s chock full of antioxidants. Blueberry lovers, move over.