Research Team Selected for $8.2 Million NASA Grant to Study Evolution of Life
Space agency officials believe that a better understanding of how life arises, propagates and becomes increasingly complex will help them find and recognize it elsewhere in the universe.
Rosenzweig’s team was one of seven nationwide selected to receive grants that totaled $50 million to assist NASA with astrobiology research. The title of his group’s successful 177-page proposal was “Reliving the History of Life: Experimental Evolution of Major Transitions.”
“We will study major evolutionary transitions in the history of life that have led to increases in biocomplexity,” Rosenzweig says. “These transitions include the evolution of metabolic networks, the evolution of multicellularity and the evolution of cooperative or symbiotic relationships among cells.
“In various ways we are going to try to rewind the tape of the history of life on Earth and study its most important moments in the lab using all the advanced genetic techniques now available,” he says. “By better understanding how these transitions occur in the systems that evolved on our planet, we can be more alert to life-forms of varying complexity on other worlds.”
UM’s partner institutions on the project are Stanford University; the University of Colorado, Boulder; the University of New Hampshire; the University of New Mexico; the Santa Fe Institute; and the University of Pennsylvania.
Rosenzweig says his research team will become part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, headquartered at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.
Research team members at UM include Rosenzweig, John McCutcheon, Scott Miller, Matthew Herron, Margie Kinnersley and Eric Smith.
Rosenzweig says the overarching question for their research is this: What forces bring about the major transitions in the evolution of biocomplexity? Researchers also will delve into how enzymes and metabolic networks evolve; how mitochondria – the power plants of cells – evolve; how cells start working together on the road to multicellularity; and processes that constrain the evolution of novel traits.
Other institutions receiving NASA astrobiology awards include the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Goddard Space Flight Center and the Ames Research Laboratory.
“This new NASA partnership illustrates the tremendously impactful work by our scientists at the University of Montana,” UM President Royce Engstrom says. “Dr. Rosenzweig and his colleagues are among the world leaders in understanding how life develops. When you look at the other institutions that received funding in this competition, you realize what a research powerhouse we have at UM.”
Rosenzweig says the grant will bring the equivalent of 15 “person-years” of postdoctoral salaries to UM, as well as 20 person-years of graduate-research assistantships. “So it will create opportunities to grow our graduate program,” he says. It also will provide 20 fellowships for undergraduates working in University labs.
UM Research and Creative Scholarship Growth Anticipated
Times remain tough for the nation’s research universities with a general reduction in federal research funding, but several recent large research awards to UM faculty suggest the next several years will show improvement.
“Here at UM research was relatively flat, with research expenditures as reported to the National Science Foundation increasing slightly from $59.3 million in 2013 to $60.1 million last year,” says Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship. “However, the recently announced Army Corps contract, the Department of Labor TAACCCT award and several large NASA awards, including the NASA Astrobiology Institute award, should lead to increased research expenditures over the next several years.”
In fiscal year 2014, UM had nine faculty with at least $1 million in research expenditures. The top five earners were:
• David Forbes, College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences, $2.97 million.
• Stephen Sprang, Center for Biomedical Structure and Dynamics, $2.52 million.
• Donald Loranger, Defense Critical Language and Culture Program, $2.33 million.
• Richard van den Pol, Institute for Educational Research and Service, $2.12 million.
• Andrij Holian, Center for Environmental Health Sciences, $1.36 million.
Rapunzel’s Wanderings: Osprey Logs Thousands of Miles
Rapunzel sports a high-tech backpack and a blue anklet with the No. 54. But what makes her most impressive is how she really gets around.
Rapunzel is a 2-year-old osprey who was banded by a team of leading raptor researchers. Raptor View Research Institute Executive Director Rob Domenech, UM Professor Erick Greene and the MPG Ranch are all collaborators on an exciting research project designed to provide complete insights into an osprey’s life cycle.
Before Rapunzel and her brother were able to fly, the researchers used a bucket truck to reach the nest, located just south of Lolo, to band the birds and expertly place the tracking backpack onto the chicks.
The lightweight pack is solar-powered and programmed to send a signal from the antennae to a satellite that receives the GPS signal. The data points provide researchers with incredibly accurate locations for the osprey, helping them understand the birds’ migration patterns and the causes of their successes or fatalities.
So what makes Rapunzel stand apart from the other osprey? Researchers were astounded by the remarkable mileage that the young bird covered.
First, it was her initial southerly migration that gave researchers a surprise. Her antennae reported a dramatic detour from her direct route to Arizona hundreds of miles east and back north to Oklahoma, before she eventually settled down in urban Freeport, Texas. But it was her return north that really made their jaws drop.
Like the other birds, she took a direct route back to her birthplace near Lolo, but she continued on. With a few days to rest and fish at Flathead Lake, she eventually ended up in Alberta, Canada, in the wide open plains – habitat usually not occupied by osprey.
From her comfortable perch in the tall trees near a ranch house, she fed handsomely from a lake stocked with trout for summer recreationalists. Once her fuel tank was full, Rapunzel took weeklong “road trips” that covered mind-boggling distances. During summer 2014, she astounded researchers by logging nearly 7,000 miles, flying large loops through western Canada, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana – stopping at Flathead Lake to fish – and then eventually returning to the ranch house in the Alberta plains after every journey.
“Without the satellite tracker, we would have had no idea she would be doing these kinds of ‘road trips,’” Greene says. “What we think she is doing is prospecting for a mate and a good place to settle down.”
UM Professor Part of Team Selected to Search for Life on Mars
UM geosciences Professor Nancy Hinman is part of a team recently selected by NASA to search for the fingerprints of life on Mars.
Hinman will join the SETI Institute, which seeks out intelligent life in the universe and was named as a new member for NASA’s Astrobiology Institute’s five-year research program “Changing Planetary Environments and the Fingerprints of Life.”
Hinman will work with other scientists to produce guiding principles to better understand where to search for life, what to search for and how to recognize evidence of past or current life.
“The overarching goal of this work is to combine strategies from multiple disciplines to search for and identify likely biosignatures – characteristics that singularly or in combination indicate life,” Hinman says. “Because biosignatures may change after exposure to environmental conditions or because characteristics of Martian life may differ from those on Earth, SETI NAI team members will measure and model such changes in order to adapt search criteria to address these possibilities.”
Hinman and the SETI team will conduct fieldwork in extreme environments on Earth analogous to sites on Mars where water once flowed. The scientists will research sites in Yellowstone National Park, California, Chile, Axel Heiberg Island in the high Arctic and western Australia. These locations contain examples of volcanic and hydrothermal terrain, lake sediments, salt deposits and perennial cold springs.
The Earth sites will be explored from satellites, air, ground and at the microscopic level in the field and laboratory, giving the team a better understanding on how to select the best sites for discovering biosignatures on the red planet in preparation for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover.
In addition to other university scientists, the SETI team brings together a diverse team of experts in planetary science, robotics, laboratory experimentation and exploration from across the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia and South America.
Research Reveals Secrets
of Animal Weapons
From antlers to horns, humans have long been fascinated by animals’ ability to defend themselves with their natural-born weapons. But until now, no studies have directly tested whether those weapons perform better with the animals’ own style of fighting than they would using the fighting style of another species. UM researchers recently discovered each species’ weapons are structurally adapted to meet their own functional demands of fighting.
The groundbreaking research, conducted over the past year by UM doctoral student Erin McCullough and designed with the help of UM researchers Doug Emlen and Bret Tobalske, was published last fall in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Animal weapons are some of the coolest and most exaggerated and diverse traits that we find in nature, and I think a big question for biologists is understanding why these structures are so diverse,” McCullough says. “Intuitively, different animals have different weapons because they fight in different ways, and I think my research provides the first rigorous test of this hypothesis.”
McCullough, who earned her Ph.D. in March, studied three different species of rhinoceros beetles with three different horns using three different fighting styles. She took micro-CT scans of each beetle and used the images to construct 3-D models of each species’ horn. By using the same software engineers use to design and test bridges, she tested the stresses and strains on each species of beetle in battle.
The biomechanical modeling approach allowed McCullough to find out whether each species’ weapon performs better at its own style of fighting than it would using a different species’ style of fighting. It’s something that can’t be tested in the field.
“You can’t get the animals to do it in the wild; they don’t cooperate,” Emlen says. “You can’t get a whitetail deer to fight the way a caribou fights.”
McCullough’s research found that horns are stronger and stiffer when exposed to species-typical fighting styles, which suggests that performance in battle played an important role in the diversification of each weapon form.
“Even though people have been interested in animal weapons for a long time, nobody’s been able to test it directly until now,” Emlen says.
Three Listed Among ‘The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds’
Three UM faculty members were lauded in a Thomas Reuters publication that asked, “Who are some of the best and brightest scientific minds of our time?” Those making the list published the greatest number of highly cited papers between 2002 and 2012. Highly cited papers rank in the top 1 percent by citations for their field and year of publication.
UM Regents Professor of Ecology Steven Running is listed in the Geosciences section and Associate Professor of Conservation Ecology Gordon Luikart and Regents Professor of Ecology Ragan “Ray” Callaway are listed in the Environment/Ecology section. They are the only researchers from Montana on the list.
The publication lists 3,200 people of influence in the sciences and social sciences. According to the report, “They are people who are on the cutting edge of their fields. They are performing and publishing work that their peers recognize as vital to the advancement of their science.”
“The level of research being conducted at UM for our faculty size is astounding,” says Scott Whittenburg, UM vice president for research and creative scholarship. “Steve Running, Ray Callaway and Gordan Luikart are among our best and brightest, and I couldn’t be more proud that UM is represented so well in such a prestigious listing.”
“It is precisely this type of recognition by peers, in the form of citations, that makes their status meaningful,” the report reads.
UM Students Launch Businesses
Paul Gladen, an entrepreneur and co-founder of the Hellgate Venture Network, has been selected to direct the Blackstone LaunchPad at UM.
Blackstone LaunchPad helps University students jump-start their own businesses. Gladen now works to foster connections among campus, the business community and local entrepreneurs to create an environment that nurtures young entrepreneurs and provides them the skills and network necessary to succeed.
“This is a very exciting time for entrepreneurship in Montana,” Gladen says. “The Blackstone LaunchPad will play a valuable role in equipping students to pursue their passions and create the next generation of entrepreneurial Montana businesses. I’m excited to have the opportunity to help University of Montana students bring their innovative ideas to life.”
As co-founder of the Hellgate Venture Network, a 500-member networking group for entrepreneurs in the Missoula area, Gladen has strong connections with the Montana entrepreneurial community.
He also has experience engaging with UM business school students and faculty. As co-chair of the Montana Academy of Distinguished Entrepreneurs, which organizes the John Ruffatto Business Plan Competition, Gladen has judged and coached student entrepreneurs.
Unlike traditional college curricular programs, Blackstone LaunchPad is open to all UM students regardless of major. A $2 million grant announced in 2013 established a partnership between UM, Montana State University and Headwaters RC&D in Butte to introduce entrepreneurship as a viable career and provide students with a network of venture coaches and entrepreneurial support to transform their new ideas into sustainable companies.
UM Study Finds Air Pollution
Harmful to Young Brains
Pollution in many cities threatens the brain development in children.
Findings by UM Professor Dr. Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas and her team of researchers reveal that children living in megacities are at increased risk for brain inflammation and neurodegenerative changes, including Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
Calderón-Garcidueñas’ findings are detailed in a paper titled “Air pollution and children: Neural and tight junction antibodies and combustion metals, the role of barrier breakdown and brain immunity in neurodegeneration.”
The study found when air particulate matter and their components such as metals are inhaled or swallowed, they pass through damaged barriers, including respiratory, gastrointestinal and blood-brain barriers and can result in long-lasting harmful effects.
Calderón-Garcidueñas and her team compared 58 serum and cerebrospinal fluid samples from a control group living in a low-pollution city and matched them by age, gender, socioeconomic status, education and education levels achieved by their parents to 81 children living in Mexico City.
The results found that the children living in Mexico City had significantly higher serum and cerebrospinal fluid levels of autoantibodies against key tight-junction and neural proteins, as well as combustion-related metals.
“We asked why a clinically healthy kid is making autoantibodies against their own brain components,” Calderón-Garcidueñas says. “That is indicative of damage to barriers that keep antigens and neurotoxins away from the brain. Brain autoantibodies are one of the features in the brains of people who have neuroinflammatory diseases like multiple sclerosis.”
While the study focused on children living in Mexico City, others living in cities where there are alarming levels of air pollution such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia-Wilmington, New York City, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Tokyo, Mumbai, New Delhi or Shanghai, among others, also face major health risks. In the U.S. alone, 200 million people live in areas where pollutants such as ozone and fine particulate matter exceed the standards.
The issue is important and relevant for one reason, she explained. The breakdown of the blood-brain barrier and the presence of autoantibodies to important brain proteins will contribute to the neuroinflammation observed in urban children and raises the question of what role air pollution plays in a 400 percent increase of MS cases in Mexico City.
Calderón-Garcidueñas points out that there is a need for a longitudinal follow-up study to determine if there is a relationship between the cognition deficits and brain MRI alterations previously reported in Mexico City children and their autoimmune responses. But what is clear is that the kids are suffering from immune dysregulation.
UM One Step
Closer to Discovering New Worlds
“First light” marked a new dawn for UM astronomy on Dec. 16.
“First light” refers to successfully taking first observations from a telescope. UM astrophysics Associate Professor of Astrophysics Nate McCrady traveled from Missoula to Mount Hopkins, Ariz., to oversee the installation of UM’s new 0.7-meter telescope by crane at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory.
The UM-owned telescope is part of Project MINERVA, a multi-telescope observatory designed to hunt for rocky planets similar to Earth around nearby stars. The project involves four telescopes, each worth about $250,000 and owned by different institutions.
With 0.7-meter collecting mirrors, the telescopes work together – flying in formation – to create the power of a telescope with a 1.4-meter mirror that would cost $7 million.
The telescope owners are UM, Harvard, Penn State and the University of New South Wales in Australia. University of New South Wales also successfully installed its telescope at the site Dec. 16.
“This is a big moment for our astronomy program,” McCrady says of the event. “It places UM shoulder-to-shoulder with our partner institutions, doing cutting-edge research in exoplanet science.”
The telescopes are housed 7,600 feet above sea level at the Whipple Observatory, which was selected as the site because it offers an average of 300 clear nights a year for observation. McCrady says the site’s other advantage is its talented and capable observatory staff.
Team Reveals How Wild Rabbits Genetically Transformed to Tame
An international team of scientists that included UM’s Jeffrey Good has made a breakthrough by showing that genes controlling the development of the brain and the nervous system were particularly important for rabbit domestication. The study was published Aug. 28 in Science.
Rabbit domestication happened about 1,400 years ago at monasteries in southern France. It has been claimed that rabbits were domesticated because the Catholic Church had declared that young rabbits were not considered meat, but fish, and could therefore be eaten during Lent.
“The domestication of rabbits depended upon small genetic changes in many genes rather than more radical mutations in a few genes,” says Good, a UM assistant professor and study co-author.
The scientists first sequenced the entire genome of one domestic rabbit to develop a reference genome assembly. Then, they resequenced entire genomes of domestic and wild rabbits.
Study Shows Worldwide
Drop in Large Carnivores
Research co-written by UM scientists finds steep declines in the worldwide populations and habitat range of 31 large carnivore species. The analysis, published last winter in Science, shows that 77 percent of the studied species – including tiger, lion, dingo and puma – are decreasing in number.
Mark Hebblewhite, associate professor of ungulate habitat, and Joel Berger, John J. Craighead Chair and professor of wildlife conservation, co-wrote the study with scientists from Oregon State University, the University of California, Yellowstone National Park, University of Washington, Yale University and researchers in Australia, Italy and Sweden.
The study shows that 17 of the species occupy less than half their normal habitat range. These changes have serious environmental consequences, the authors argue.
Large carnivores are vulnerable to extinction because of their low population densities and their need to roam widely to search for food. These animals are essential to the health of an ecosystem and also provide social and economic benefits for humans.
“Ecosystems depend on large carnivores to control herbivores like deer and populations of smaller carnivores,” Hebblewhite says. “We suggest that losing a population of large carnivore doesn’t just impact that species, but an entire landscape.”
Further declines in the populations of these large carnivores will lead to changes in plant species diversity, biomass and productivity. These vegetation changes will have a wide-ranging influence on other species. Carnivore losses also will impact wildlife disease dynamics, wildfire and carbon sequestration.
Hebblewhite points to several success stories, like the reintroduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park, potential delisting of grizzly bears in the Northern Rockies and the Global Tiger Initiative, to demonstrate that reintroducing and recovering carnivores has many benefits.
Research Improves Temperature Modeling Across Mountains
Recent research by UM doctoral student Jared Oyler provides improved computer models for estimating temperature across mountainous landscapes.
The work was published Aug. 12 in the International Journal of Climatology in an article titled “Creating a topoclimatic daily air temperature dataset for the conterminous United States using homogenized station data and remotely sensed land skin temperature.”
Collaborating with UM faculty co-authors Ashley Ballantyne, Kelsey Jencso, Michael Sweet and Steve Running, Oyler provided a new climate dataset for ecological and hydrological research and natural resource management.
“I think we have addressed several limitations of existing temperature datasets,” Oyler says.
He used data from weather stations, as well as atmospheric weather model data and satellite-based observations, to come up with daily temperature estimates from 1948 to 2012 for every square kilometer in the contiguous United States.
Many existing datasets generally assume that temperatures are cooler at higher elevations. However, inversions often cause the reverse. For example, on a calm winter day or summer night in Missoula, the air may be warmer on Mount Sentinel than in the valley. Oyler’s dataset addresses the oddities of inversions by combining weather station data with fine-scale satellite-based observations of the land surface.
Accurate, spatially based estimates of historical air temperature within mountainous areas are critical as scientists and land managers look at temperature-driven changes to vegetation, wildlife habitat, wildfire and snowpack.
Additionally, the dataset is the first fine-scale work to correct for artificial trends within weather station data caused by changes in equipment or weather station locations. It also is the first to provide direct estimates of uncertainty and open-source code.
Rivertop Begins Construction of Commercial Plant
Rivertop Renewables, a Montana-based specialty chemicals company based on UM research, has begun construction of its first commercial plant.
The plant will be located at DanChem Technologies Inc.’s facility in Danville, Va.
DTI, a custom manufacturer of fine and specialty chemical products, is expected to begin production of Rivertop’s sustainable, high performing, cost-competitive, glucaric acid-derived products beginning in summer 2015. At full capacity, the plant will produce up to 10 million pounds of product per year.
“Partnering with DTI for contract manufacturing both lowers the cost and speeds time-to-market for our novel performance chemicals,” Rivertop CEO Mike Knauf says. “The volumes produced will enable us to not only meet the needs of our existing customers, but also enable us to unlock new markets with ample supply for testing and co-development with partners.”
Among the products produced will be Rivertop’s Riose® detergent builder, which is designed for the consumer segment of the automatic dishwashing detergent market.
DTI also will produce Headwaters® corrosion inhibitor that states, municipalities and snow-removal contractors blend with salt brine to help reduce the corrosive impacts of deicer on roads, bridges and vehicles.
Based in Missoula at UM’s MonTEC business incubator, Rivertop Renewables is a producer of novel performance chemicals derived from all-natural resources. UM chemistry Professor Emeritus Don Kiely generated the initial patents for the chemicals.