News Highlights

Boyer tackles major highbush blueberry disease

Boyer in the field

As New England’s blueberry season approaches, OEB doctoral candidate Matt Boyer says a fungal pathogen of highbush blueberries known as mummy berry is a common threat to growers, and if left untreated can destroy up to 50 percent of a crop. It is so named because it produces dead-looking, berry-shaped lumps instead of healthy berries.  Matt is a student in Lynn Adler's lab.  Read more.

That's Life [Science] -  interdisciplinary Life Science Blog launching May 1st

That's Life Science staff

An interdisciplinary group of life science graduate students has been working very hard over the last few months to put together a new outreach blog titled That's Life [Science]. Their blog goes live on May 1. To find out more, go to their website:  thatslifesci.com.

Normark receives Fulbright to study ancient native plants, invasive insect threat

Ben Normark in Gabon

Benjamin Normark, OEB & Biology faculty, was recently selected as a Fulbright scholar and will spend the fall 2016 semester in Mexico documenting the spread of the insect, cycad aulacaspis scale. It is an invasive species that threatens the country's cycads, plants sometimes called "living fossils" because they have changed little in the last 280 million years. Globally, says Normark, "Cycads are under unprecedented assault from armored scale insects and from the global nursery trade that sees cycads as commercially valuable ornamentals." Mexico is home to 55 of the world's 300 cycad species. Most of these are vulnerable or endangered, and many are culturally important, valued for stems that can be pounded into an edible meal, and for their foliage, still used for traditional religious ceremonies.  Read more

Maple syrup jars

As maple sugaring season approaches, plant ecologist Kristina Stinson recently received a two-year, $149,800 grant to study the impact of climate change on the quantity and quality of sugar maple sap, including its chemical composition, and of sap from red maples, a species less sensitive to climate change.

Rosie Cowell receives NSF CAREER award

This 5-year award, "Testing a unified theory of perception and memory in the medial temporal  lobe," for approximately $600,000 will allow Professor Cowell to develop and test a theory of how memory interacts with high-level visual perception and why both of these cognitive functions depend upon the medial temporal  lobes. By applying the theory to both amnesia caused by brain damage and the more moderate memory loss caused by normal aging, this project will investigate whether these two forms of memory loss can be expained by the same mechanisms. This research will employ studies of memory performance, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and computational modeling.

UMass Amherst Researchers Identify a Key Molecule in Nitrogen-Fixing Bacteria

Nitrogen-fixing symbiosis. A population of bacteria (colored blue) transverses the root tissue to colonize the incipient nodule.  (Photo credit Cara Haney)

Researcher Dong Wang (Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology), along with postdoctoral researcher and lead author Minsoo Kim and former undergraduate student Chris Waters and colleagues at the Noble Foundation in Oklahoma, report in the early online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences their discovery of a peptide found in alfalfa that holds the potential to improve crop yields without increasing fertilizer use.  This peptide, DNF4 (also known as NCR211), is a “double agent,” having the ability to support nitrogen-fixing bacteria present inside the plant, while also killing free-living bacteria outside.  Wang’s comments about his research in this area: “Next we want to find out why this peptide helps the bacteria inside the plant, but it can kill free-living bacteria outside the plant. Why does one molecule function as a double agent?”  Read More

Gerald Downes receives grant to study how brain regulates locomotion

Photo of Gerald Downes

Neurobiologist Gerald Downes, with chemist James Chambers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Amherst College neurobiologist Josef Trapani, have been awarded a three-year $824,025 collaborative research grant from the National Science Foundation to study the zebrafish brain to better understand how neurons regulate locomotion. Downes, the lead investigator, says his ultimate research goal is to better understand how different chemical signals, called neurotransmitters, work together at cellular and molecular levels to coordinate normal locomotion such as walking and swimming. Read more

MCB Students Receive Fellowships

Safia Omer, 4th year student in Wei-Lih Lee’s lab in the Biology Department and Cameron Butova, 2nd year student in Scott Garman’s lab in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Department have both been awarded fellowships from the Biotech Training Program (BTP) for the following two years.  The BTP training program is newly established through a T23 grant.  Students granted this fellowship will complete BTP curriculum, complete an Individual Development Plan (IDP) with the Office of Professional Development, and pursue an Industrial Internship in addition to ongoing research in their labs.

Peterson's collections-based research gaining attention

Daniel Peterson's recent Evolution paper "Phylogenetic analysis reveals positive correlations between adaptations to diverse hosts in a group of pathogen-like herbivores" is discussed under "Research highlights" in the current issue of Evolutionary Applications. Peterson is an OEB PhD candidate in the Normark lab.

Li-Jun Ma named a Burroughs Wellcome Fund Investigator

Li-Jun Ma, a University of Massachusetts Amherst biochemist and genomics expert, has received a coveted five-year, $500,000 Burroughs Wellcome Fund Investigator in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease award to develop new treatment options for opportunistic fungal infections.  The Ma lab studies the genetic mechanisms that underlie the aggressive pathogenicity and genome evolution at the fungus-human interface in the model fungus Fusarium oxysporum.  Ma and her colleagues will combine experimental and computational approaches to investigate pathogen virulence and host defense at the same time. Because of the huge amounts of data involved, she says, this project will use the advanced computing capabilities at the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke.  Read the full UMass News article here.

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