Thomas R. O'Donnell

A zombie tractor and ISU plant research’s new direction

In University research on April 14, 2014 at 6:30 am
The automated phenotyping robot, or as I call it, the zombie garden tractor: RTK-GPS, autosteer system, multiple 3-D digital camera.

The automated phenotyping robot (zombie garden tractor): RTK-GPS, autosteer system, multiple 3-D digital camera. (From a Patrick Schnable presentation)

The zombie garden tractor gets your attention.

The driverless machine can move through rows of sorghum, going for hours with only a GPS navigation brain to guide it. High-tech cameras, meanwhile, take three-dimensional photos of every sorghum plant it passes – a kind of Google Street View for fields.

More importantly, the unmanned machine represents Iowa State University’s push into phenomics, a research frontier that promises to reshape the way we grow the food and substances we count on.

Just as genomics researchers aim to understand a plant’s total genetic makeup – every letter in the long book of its DNA – and how it influences plant development, phenomics aims to understand plant phenotypes in similar depth.

A phenotype is the way an organism grows, appears and performs, given its genetic makeup, the environment it lives in, and how the two interact.

“What’s cool – and this is what makes it most interesting to me – is the interaction between genetics and environment,” said Patrick Schnable, an ISU distinguished professor of genetics.

Schnable leads ISU’s drive into phenomics research. He took over as director of the Plant Sciences Institute (PSI) in February with the charge to bring it (and the university) to international prominence in one or more research areas.

He’s targeting phenomics, knowing the field is ripe for discovery.

Cold facts: UNI-led effort probes Arctic sustainability

In University research on March 10, 2014 at 10:07 am
UNI Geography Professor Andrey Petrov, in furry hat and gloves, holds a piece of Lake Baikal ice in front of his face  during his most recent Siberian visit.

UNI Professor Andrey Petrov hold a piece of Lake Baikal during his recent Siberian visit. Credit: Andrey Petrov.

When I contacted Andrey Petrov a week ago, he was returning from the Irkutsk region of Siberia.

The University of Northern Iowa geography professor makes frequent visits to Siberia and other similarly remote – and cold – regions, including Canada’s Yukon Territory and northern Russia. This time he was interviewing residents of villages and towns near Lake Baikal about the region’s reindustrialization. In the last century the area had seen an inflow of industry that went bust. Now it’s rising again, thanks to the search for oil.

“Unfortunately, it’s warmer there than here,” Petrov said from Cedar Falls on Monday, when the thermometer was scraping to get above zero Fahrenheit. “It was pretty sunny there and it was probably 20s. … For them it’s warmer than usual.”

The extreme conditions and isolation are some of the reasons Petrov, a native Russian, returns to places like Irkutsk and Yellowknife. “I’m fascinated with the resilience of people living in difficult conditions,” he says, but the challenges facing Arctic communities go beyond the weather and distance.

Those challenges are the subject of a new project Petrov directs. Headquartered at UNI, the five-year program, supported with nearly $750,000 of National Science Foundation money, will knit researchers from multiple institutions around the globe’s northern regions. Their goal: understanding Arctic communities and how they can enhance their development, health and well being while preserving societies and ecosystems.

It’s a big job. Five years won’t be enough, Petrov says.

ISU research fraud probe staked out faked results

In Uncategorized on January 27, 2014 at 1:05 pm
Lactobacillus casei

Lactobacillus casei, a strain of bacterium similar to what Michael Cho and colleagues have engineered to express proteins in the hope of sparking an immune response to HIV. AJC1 via photopin cc

The investigation into faked AIDS vaccine tests “followed an atypical path compared to most research misconduct cases,” an Iowa State University administrator wrote in a report last October.

The case “began with proof of research misconduct and only after considerable effort was the responsible party identified,” Charlotte Bronson, Iowa State University’s associate vice president for research and research integrity officer. Multiple researchers handled samples that later proved questionable. The research also hadn’t been published, at which point other scientists may have questioned the results.

The investigation, which led ISU scientist Dong-Pyou Han to resign, played out over nearly 10 months, starting a year ago this week. It actually began at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where Han and the leader of his lab group, Michael Cho, worked before Iowa State recruited Cho.

The investigation exonerated Cho and other members of his lab, but it doesn’t erase their embarrassment and chagrin at having pursued a dead lead – and at facing questions about the federal financing that supported the research.

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