Science – On Wisconsin For UW-Madison Alumni and Friends Thu, 20 Sep 2018 14:07:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Big Dig Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:27 +0000 Pulling a soil sample from frozen Wisconsin ground in January is not impossible, but it certainly isn’t easy.

Armed with a steel pick, plant pathology professor Douglas Rouse sent dirt, grass, and ice flying into the sunlight at the UW Arboretum as a small group of introductory biology students noted the location and condition of the frozen soil. Thawed or frozen, wet or dry, the soil remains an essential hunting ground. Within it lies the key to suppressing what the United Nations calls “the greatest and most urgent global risk”: superbugs — strains of bacteria that have grown resistant to traditional antibiotics. Superbugs could kill more people than cancer by 2050 if left unchecked, according to a 2014 report issued by the United Kingdom’s government.

More than two-thirds of new antibiotics come from soil bacteria or fungi. But since a small sample contains thousands of species of bacteria — and most of the antibiotics they produce are toxic to humans — it requires significant time, labor, and persistence to isolate effective antibiotic producers and to test for new compounds. With the prospects of profitability lacking, pharmaceutical companies have shied away from developing new antibiotics to focus on more lucrative drugs.

Enter Tiny Earth, an initiative based at the UW’s Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID). Rouse’s biology students are just a sampling of the nearly 10,000 students across 41 states and 14 countries who are mining soil to solve the superbug problem.

“Antibiotic resistance is one of the main threats to global health and security, and the students have potential to discover new antibiotics to fill the void that currently exists,” says Jo Handelsman PhD’84, director of WID and founder of the initiative.

Each semester, thousands of students around the world dig into the soil in their backyards, farm fields, stream beds, and forest floors. Just like the UW students, they learn the techniques they need to identify new species and compounds. Along with building a database of new antibiotics with medical potential, Tiny Earth is addressing another looming global crisis: a shortage of students pursuing careers in science.

“One of the best ways to learn is to engage in science actively and to do research so that the thrill of discovery drives the learning process,” says Handelsman, who first developed the program in 2012 at Yale University. She saw too many first- and second-year undergraduates dropping out of the sciences and wanted to reverse the trend by offering hands-on research that pulls in techniques and ideas from disciplines such as ecology, genetics, and molecular biology. For students, it’s a galvanizing introduction to laboratory science: they learn new skills while solving real problems.

The UW introductory biology students spent last spring diluting their soil samples, culturing and isolating bacteria, and profiling the genomes of anti- biotic-producing microbes. Along the way, they made hypotheses about what they might find, learned and selected techniques, and synthesized their findings, all in the hope of discovering new antibiotic compounds. While the samples await final analysis, the initiative is betting on the odds that more participation will increase the chances of unique discovery.

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Washburn Observatory Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:27 +0000 Stargazers take in a nighttime view using the observatory’s vintage telescope. Washburn hosts regular public observing sessions and posts its schedule on Twitter. Built in 1881, the observatory was a gift to the UW from former Wisconsin Governor Cadwallader Washburn, who directed that the 15.6-inch telescope lens be at least equal in size to a rival instrument at Harvard. The telescope’s rusty tube in 2012: its lenses were removed for the first time to clear out dust and debris. “It’s probably working better now than it did in the 19th century,” says Jim Lattis, director of UW Space Place. The dome was refurbished in the 1990s; the rest of the building was restored and updated in 2009. Washburn overlooks Lake Mendota and sits atop Observatory Hill, where students like to sled on campus dining hall trays.

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On the Mend Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:10 +0000 Ferguson the donkey is pictured wearing a prothetic leg

Bryce Richter

Ferguson the miniature donkey got a hand — actually a leg — from the School of Veterinary Medicine recently to replace a deformed hoof. The procedure was a first for the UW’s large animal hospital: amputation with a prosthesis is complex and rare for creatures such as horses or donkeys, who bear more weight in their front limbs. See more images.

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Lake Invaders Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:09 +0000 Graphical illustration of the United States showing the spread of zebra mussels through the Great Lakes

Map: Bergserg/Istock; Illustration By Danielle Lawry

“It would be hard to design a better invasive species delivery system than the Great Lakes overseas freighter,” journalist Dan Egan writes in The Death and Life of the Great Lakes — this year’s selection for Go Big Read, UW–Madison’s common reading program. Egan’s page-turning narrative details how zebra and quagga mussels native to the Caspian Sea came to wreak environmental havoc: disrupting the aquatic food chain, fueling deadly algae blooms, and clogging intake pipes. Their “front door” to the Great Lakes is the St. Lawrence Seaway, which, beginning in 1959, gave ships from around the world access to 8,000 miles of U.S. and Canadian interior coastline. As freighters travel along the system of locks, they take on cargo and empty ballast tanks of water picked up in foreign ports — releasing small plants and animals from the ocean along with it. Invasive species have also sneaked out the “back door” of the Great Lakes, by way of the Chicago canal linked to the Mississippi River basin. Quagga mussels, called “the STD of the sea,” have found their way west to Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States.

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Campus Construction Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:09 +0000 Construction workers standing in a lift inspect second story windows on a campus building

Bryce Richter

Major projects are under way on the UW–Madison campus to remove bottlenecks for students who need access to chemistry classes to graduate, modernize campus dairy operations, and make more room for meat science teaching and research.

Chemistry building expansion and renovation

A new 10-level tower will house undergraduate instructional labs; renovations to the existing chemistry building will modernize teaching labs original to the 1964 building and add more classrooms, study spaces, and offices for undergraduate chemistry staff.

Babcock Dairy plant renovation/Center for Dairy Research addition

A three-story addition will bring the facility that produces ice cream and other products up to date with modern manufacturing practices, as well as provide a state-of-the-art teaching and research facility.

Meat Science and Animal Biologics Discovery building

The new meat research facility (pictured above) will include a demonstration suite, a biosecurity level 2 food safety lab, classrooms, office and support spaces, and a retail store featuring student-made food products.

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Deadly Cold Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:09 +0000 A chimpanzee sits among green leafy plants

Richard Wrangham

It wasn’t poachers or predators who killed some of the wild chimpanzees living in Uganda’s Kibale National Park — it was the common cold.

UW researchers made the startling discovery when investigating a 2013 outbreak of severe coughing and sneezing among a community of 56 chimps. Five of them died from the human cold virus known as rhinovirus C, including a two-year-old whose body was quickly recovered and autopsied after her death.

“It was surprising to find it in chimpanzees, and it was equally surprising that it could kill healthy chimpanzees outright,” says Tony Goldberg, a professor in the UW’s School of Veterinary Medicine who for years has worked in Uganda tracking viruses in animals. Goldberg was featured in the spring 2017 issue of On Wisconsin.

The findings, says Goldberg, are a cautionary tale about human interactions with wild apes. In Africa, people encounter chimpanzees and other apes when human settlements expand into habitats and when the animals leave the forests to raid crops.

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The Pregnancy Puzzle Wed, 23 May 2018 14:24:42 +0000 In the maritime city of Rostock, Germany — thousands of miles from their families — Dan and Iris Levitis processed their loss in isolation. Though her ultrasound had been normal just a few weeks earlier, a doctor shared the heartbreaking news: a miscarriage, 12 weeks into Iris’s first pregnancy. The fetus had stopped developing.

Frustrated, Dan wanted answers. As a demographer, he researched the patterns of all manner of populations: their births, survival, and deaths. His dissertation had focused on why people tend to live so long past their childbearing years. But the crushing loss prompted him to turn his attention to the beginning of life. Why was miscarriage so common, he wondered, and were humans uniquely burdened by pregnancy loss, as he’d always been taught?

In the eight years since launching his research, Dan, now a scientist in UW–Madison’s botany department, has discovered that he and Iris were far from alone in their struggle to bring life into the world. Humans have plenty of company: living things from geckos to garlic and cactuses to cockroaches routinely lose their offspring when they reproduce sexually.

Dan’s discovery didn’t provide a fix — if anything, he found that losses like his family experienced are an unavoidable part of reproducing. But this kinship with the natural world gave the couple some comfort.

• • •

Dan has spent a lifetime puzzling over the structure of the natural world, and he has a knack for questioning the obvious.

“When I was six and people asked me what I was going to do when I grew up, I would say, ‘I’m going to be a zoologist,’ ” says Dan, whose earliest romps through nature centered on the wild animals that popped up in his suburban Maryland backyard. He spent summers exploring his grandparents’ 46-acre property in Mahopac, New York.

An influential ecology class at Bennington College in Vermont showed him that science was more than a collection of facts in a textbook — it was a way of thinking.

“Science as a list of facts can be exciting for a little while. But science as a way of asking better questions, and getting better answers to them, is much more useful and much more interesting,” he says.

After graduation, Dan joined short-term research projects studying birds in Florida, New York, Ontario, and then California before accepting a graduate position to study ornithology at the University of California–Berkeley.

While there, Dan applied his analytical approach to finding a partner. Inspired by a headhunter he heard interviewed on NPR, he realized the ideal ad gets one response from the most qualified applicant.

“I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to write a dating ad, and I’m going to try and write in a way that I get only one response,’ ” says Dan, who posted his deliberately polarizing ad on Craigslist. “And Iris responded to it. And she was the only one.”

Back from the Peace Corps in Niger, Iris was studying for her master’s in applied linguistics at Berkeley. The two connected over their bewilderment with much of modern American culture, with both generally eschewing drinking, television, and movies. Iris transferred to the University of California–Davis as the two continued dating.

For his graduate work, Dan partnered with a professor of human demographics, Ron Lee, to develop new methods of comparing humans with other primates on their ability to live past their reproductive years. He found evidence that humans are unique in living so long after we stop having children. But in many ways, Dan’s time researching what makes humans special only reinforced his belief that we’re better off remembering that we’re not so separate from the rest of the natural world.

As they both completed their degrees, Dan and Iris married. Dan landed a position at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, and the newlyweds packed their bags for Germany. • • •

After Iris’s first miscarriage, Dan buried himself in scientific literature about infant and prebirth mortality for humans and every other species he could get good numbers on.

The crux of his research came down to a U-shaped curve well known to him and other demographers. It charts the risk of death for any given organism, starting high for the young, dipping down low at maturity, and rising again as age sets in. The pattern is ubiquitous across nature.

A half-century of research has focused on the second half of the curve: aging. While scientists had chipped away at explaining the evolution of age- related deaths, they had largely disregarded the half of the curve that shows high rates of mortality for the very young. Young organisms are weak and vulnerable, researchers figured, nothing more. Unsatisfied, Dan sought reasons for why seemingly every species faced the same precariousness with its young, both before and after birth, and why natural selection hadn’t fixed this problem.

While Dan trawled through hundreds of scientific papers on lost offspring, he and Iris got pregnant again. As they neared and then passed the 12th week, the couple felt relief. They told their friends and family the happy news.

But then Iris developed a leaking amniotic sac, threatening her fetus. Bedrest didn’t resolve the complication, and the chances of carrying the pregnancy safely to term dropped steeply.

At her doctor’s recommendation, she aborted the pregnancy at 16 weeks.

Navigating the German medical system twice in one year while grieving their losses was bewildering and isolating.

“I think most of the girls and women that I knew, we spent a lot of time thinking about how not to get pregnant. And then finding out that actually it’s hard to become pregnant, or to have a successful pregnancy, was really a shock,” Iris says. “You’re supposed to worry about unwanted pregnancies, not whether you can [get pregnant].”

At the end of 2010, Iris got pregnant again, and Dan published his research on early mortality. In his paper, he argued for a new field focused on the inherent difficulty of developing a healthy, complex organism, where any one of a million steps can go wrong. His next step was to test his theories by comparing the success of different types of reproduction across nature.

The next summer Iris gave birth to their first child, a girl.

• • •

Researchers know that miscarriages are extremely common but can’t pinpoint just how frequently they occur.

Kristen Sharp, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, researches pregnancy loss and its consequences. She says that up to 20 percent of pregnancies that are confirmed by a physician end in miscarriage. But the true rate is likely quite a bit higher because many women don’t realize they are pregnant before an early loss occurs.

Tracking rates of pregnancy loss is extremely difficult. Differences in record keeping and follow-up procedures at emergency rooms and hospitals make a reliable search of records nearly impossible. And any woman who is not receiving medical care will be invisible to researchers studying miscarriage.

Cultural norms — such as concealing a pregnancy until after the first trimester — keep people from having open conversations about their experiences, says Sharp, who also counsels patients who have lost pregnancies. And feelings of guilt stop some women from discussing it, even though most miscarriages are the result of “genetic accidents.”

“It’s amazing, really, that any of us are alive and breathing, because there’s about a million pieces of this intricate problem that need to go right to lead to a pregnancy,” she says.

• • •

Among those million pieces that must fall perfectly into place is meiosis — perhaps the most complicated thing that cells do.

Organisms use meiosis (pronounced my-OH-sis) to produce sperm and eggs for sexual reproduction. Dan describes it as a kind of cellular line dance, one that mixes up chromosomes to reshuffle genes. This rearrangement helps produce offspring that are different from their parents, offspring that might be better equipped to survive in a changing world.

Meiosis takes place in the cells that give rise to sperm or eggs. To reshuffle genes, the chromosomes you inherited from your mother pair up with the chromosomes you inherited from your father. They sidle up to one another, attach, and then trade pieces of genetic information, sometimes physically swapping chunks of DNA. Then the chromosomes separate to be dealt into individual sex cells.

The upshot is that each sperm or egg a person produces inherits a set of mixed-up chromosomes with new variations. Because the swapping occurs essentially randomly during each round of meiosis, every sperm or egg created in your lifetime is bound to be as unique as the offspring created when sperm and egg ultimately meet.

This sidling, attaching, swapping, separating, and dealing is a mind-numbingly complex process. A lot of things can go wrong along the way — and they often do. The sex cells can end up with missing or extra chromosomes, almost always a fatal error leading to miscarriage if they create an embryo. Other, less obvious genetic mishaps can also occur, and often prove lethal.

The common wisdom for explaining high rates of miscarriage and fertility problems in humans has been that we have a rougher go with meiosis than other organisms. A woman’s eggs start meiosis while she is still in her mother’s womb, go on hiatus for years, and then finish the process to form a mature egg prior to ovulation. Perhaps this long pause leads to more errors, the thinking went. • • •

Dan isn’t one to accept common wisdom. After all, he reasoned, all female mammals pause meiosis, and many wait just as long to reproduce as people do. Plus sperm inherit more genetic problems than eggs, and they don’t wait decades to finish the process. What if humans aren’t unique — what if meiosis is just so complicated that it is bound to go awry?

Sexual reproduction always uses meiosis. But many plants and animals — palm trees and brambles, fruit flies and grasshoppers — also reproduce asexually, meaning they produce clones of themselves. Asexual reproduction typically uses the simpler process of mitosis, which doesn’t reshuffle genes. But certain species still use meiosis to reproduce asexually, a vestige of sexual reproduction. Because meiosis didn’t evolve to work for asexual reproduction, asexual meiosis is even more complicated and error prone than sexual meiosis.

Dan figured that the more complicated the cellular process underlying reproduction, the more likely it was to go wrong and lead to lost offspring. If he was right, then organisms using the most complicated process — asexual meiosis — should lose the most offspring, followed by species using sexual meiosis, and then asexual mitosis.

He wanted to compare as many animals as possible that use these three different reproductive strategies. And he believed his assumption should be just as true for plants, which reproduce using the same cellular machinery as animals.

Unable to do experiments on dozens of plants and animals himself, Dan worked with UW botany professor Anne Pringle and Harvard graduate student Kolea Zimmerman to comb through thousands of scientific articles in search of data collected by experts in each organism.

The study tracked how each species reproduced and its rates of loss during reproduction, ordering them by the complexity of their reproduction. Dan was initially skeptical when he first saw the result: 42 of the 44 plants and animals they studied supported his original idea linking complexity to reproductive loss. A menagerie of creatures and plants fit the pattern: lizards and magnolias; meadow grass and shrimp; stick insects, and dandelions. Each paid a price for reproducing sexually.

“That was the biggest surprise — how strong the pattern was,” he says.

His findings are evidence of an inherent tradeoff: there is no sexual reproduction without meiosis. And there is no meiosis without mistakes, and loss.

• • •

Dan wanted to share his results as widely as possible so that more people could understand how fundamentally difficult it was to bring offspring into the world. He and Iris found some solace knowing that their struggles were universal, and they figured other people would, too.

Individual portrait photographs of Dan and Iris Levitis and each of their three children

After the heartbreak of two lost pregnancies, Dan and Iris Levitis welcomed three children (left to right): Tigerlily, 6; Kestrel, 3; and Peregrine, 18 months.

With botany department illustrator Sarah Friedrich ’98, Dan created a short video explaining his family’s story of loss, his search for answers, and the barrier that meiosis poses to healthy reproduction. He shared the video widely, including on a Facebook page for the March for Science.

Some people commented that the research made them feel better about their own miscarriages by making it clear it wasn’t their fault. Another coined the phrase “meiosis mishaps” to describe her own pregnancy losses.

“Every time I’ve talked about this in any sort of public setting, whether it’s online or in person, somebody ends up sharing their story of pregnancy loss and saying that they’re so glad that people are talking about it,” Dan says.

The Levitises now live on a quiet street on the east side of Madison with their three children, each born in a different country: Tigerlily in Germany; Kestrel in Denmark; and Peregrine in the United States, after they moved to Madison. (Each was also given a conventional middle name to turn to should their parents’ natural-world choices ever fail to suit them.)

And years after losing their first two pregnancies in Germany, Dan’s findings have given the couple a springboard to talk about their losses and work through them together.

“I thought it was kind of cathartic research,” Iris says. “It makes you feel less alone. More than just having somebody say, ‘Oh, I lost a pregnancy, too.’ More than just anecdotal evidence from other humans. It’s more widespread than that.”

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Agriculture by Air Wed, 23 May 2018 14:24:42 +0000 Illustration of drone flying over farmland

John Miller

Right now, cranberry growers who suspect that pests have invaded their crop have two options: hunt around in the beds themselves, examining each individual plant, or spray the entire field and risk wasting costly resources.

But agricultural engineers at UW–Madison are trying to change that by experimenting with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones, that could take a more comprehensive look at cranberry plants that might be infected.

They fitted a UAV with two special cameras that capture temperature and other information. Unhealthy plants exhibit signs of stress that the device can detect, including how leaves reflect light patterns.

Healthy plants are key for Wisconsin, which has 21,000 acres of cranberry marshes in 20 counties and grows more than half of all the cranberries in the world. Cranberry country lies east of the Wisconsin River, beginning at the Wisconsin Dells and stretching north.

The ultimate goal for Brian Luck, an assistant professor of biological systems engineering, and his research team is to use machine-learning technologies, much like facial recognition on Facebook, to predict what exactly is wrong with diseased plants. But for now, the research is in its primary stages as they collect baseline data in greenhouses and move out to cranberry beds this summer for real-world deployment.

As with any new technology, there are a few hurdles to clear before the practice can be widely implemented. Though UAVs are commercially available, the cost is high. And to fly one for commercial purposes, a farmer must be licensed through the Federal Aviation Administration.

Still, researchers say the potential benefits for farmers are exciting. “The more precise data you have on the field, the more precisely you can manage it, which can lead to more efficient and sustainable agriculture,” says Jessica Drewry PhD’17, a postdoctoral assistant on the project.

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Monarch Guardians Wed, 23 May 2018 14:24:41 +0000 Monarch butterfly perches on orange flower

A Monarch butterfly dines on the nectar from a colorful hillside planting of orange Tithonia (Mexican sunflowers) along Observatory Drive. Jeff Miller

UW–Madison’s Arboretum is participating in a nationwide effort dedicated to researching monarch butterflies, conserving their habitat, and educating the public about these charismatic insects. Arboretum director Karen Oberhauser ’81, a leading monarch researcher, cofounded the Monarch Joint Venture while at the University of Minnesota. The UW’s is the first arboretum to join the more than 70 institutions involved in the effort, and Oberhauser says the new partnership recognizes efforts already under way at the Arboretum. Projects include establishing habitats friendly to butterflies and other pollinators and identifying threats to monarch populations.

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Origins Wed, 23 May 2018 14:24:07 +0000 UW–Madison researchers in South Africa are at the heart of work that is unraveling the mysteries of the universe, determining when and how life on Earth began, and identifying the origins of humankind. A team from University Communications — videographer Justin Bomberg ’94, photographer Jeff Miller, and science writer Kelly April Tyrrell MS’11 — traveled to Johannesburg to capture those stories in words and images that now appear in a vivid project published at The journey begins at one of the world’s largest optical telescopes, which gazes into the dark skies over Sutherland, South Africa (pictured above), to help astronomers understand how planets, stars, and galaxies form and behave. It continues with geoscientists looking at rocks to find the earliest signs of life on Earth. And it concludes with a closer look at anthropologists who have unearthed some of our earliest known human ancestors. The takeaway: the beginning can be the most captivating part of a story.

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