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UMaine Today Magazine


The secrets of sea slugs

Sea Slug
Basking in the light yields energy for sea slugs, which carry out
photosynthesis as though they were plants.

Photo by Mary Rumpho

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It seems sea slugs have the best of both worlds. They get energy from eating small marine plants, and from the sun through photosynthesis by absorbing parts of plant cells. Essentially, they become part animal and part plant.

Mary Rumpho, a professor in The University of Maine Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Molecular Biology, is delving into the genetic nuts and bolts that underlie this phenomenon. With support from a $400,000 National Science Foundation grant, she is using the tools of biotechnology to determine exactly how part of a plant cell — in this case the chloroplast that carries out photosynthesis — can successfully mesh with the machinery of an animal cell.

In her Hitchner Hall laboratory, Rumpho maintains three aquaria with slugs that are native to coastal marshes from Florida to Nova Scotia. Some of the animals crawl on the sides and bottoms of the tanks, and look like typical slugs. Lying among them are what appear to be leaves of an exotic plant. Close inspection reveals these leaves to be other slugs that have unfurled their green tissues almost as butterflies open their wings.

The focus of her work is the DNA in the chloroplasts. Plants and animals don't normally share genes, and yet, the slug shows that it is not only possible but that it works quite well.
Rumpho is trying to identify the mechanisms contributing to the long-term survival and functioning of the chloroplasts and their genes.

Biomechanical study looks at arteries

An apple a day may be a simple recommendation for healthy eating. But when it comes to trace elements in the diet, the guidelines get a little more complicated. So it is with manganese, an element that is critical for cardiovascular health, according to a team of University of Maine researchers.

In 1998, research led by Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition Dorothy Klimis-Zacas of the UMaine Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition reported evidence that the trace element may be important to biochemical processes in blood vessel walls. Now, she and her students have turned to mechanical tests of arteries to determine if indeed a lack of manganese paves the way for deterioration of arteries.

Last summer, the researchers fed rats diets that had varying levels of manganese. Their goal is to test the ability of the rats' arteries to contract and relax when exposed to two stimulants, epinephrine and acetylcholine.

In another aspect of the study, blueberries were added to the rats' diets to see if they have any effect on the mechanical properties of arteries. Since blueberries are high in antioxidants and manganese, the research team wants to see if adding the fruit will protect the arteries from damages related to a low manganese diet.

The federal government has not established guidelines for manganese in the diet. The UMaine research could provide the basis for doing so.

Evidence of El Niño in ancient Peru

A team of researchers has found that the climate phenomenon known as El Niño may have been a contributing factor in the rise and fall of ancient civilizations in Peru.

Using archaeological evidence from sites along the Peruvian coast, scientists from The University of Maine, Yale University, University of Pittsburgh and University of Miami suggest that the fate of organized Peruvian societies may be related to environmental changes caused by flood cycles starting about 5,000 years ago.

"We found that there was a change in the frequency of El Niño events about 3,000 years ago, and that correlates in time with cultural change," says Daniel Sandweiss of the UMaine Department of Anthropology, and the Institute for Quaternary and Climate Studies.

Changes in El Niño frequency, and the construction and abandonment of monumental temples in this region, suggest that climate and culture are linked.

Early complex, temple-building cultures in coastal Peru began just after the apparent onset of El Niño about 5,800 years ago, and collapsed between 2,900 and 2,800 years ago. The longest lasting of the temple sites is the only one in which evidence of flood mitigation has been found.

"By doing something proactive about El Niño, the leaders of this site (Manchay Bajo) appear to have been making an appropriate response to changes in their environment. Whether it really worked for the most serious effects of El Niño we can't say. But if it did, that could have given them more long-lasting control," Sandweiss suggests.

Learning to love science and math

The University of Maine is helping teachers get across two of the toughest subjects for many schoolchildren — mathematics and science.

The Center for Science and Mathematics Education Research, established with a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, will conduct research and train master's-level teachers to bring the latest techniques to the classroom.

"One of the greatest challenges we face as a nation is to interrupt the downward spiral in math and science literacy in our students," says Rebecca Eilers, dean of the UMaine College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "To break the cycle, we must equip future science and math teachers with new tools to inspire, stimulate and excite children's natural tendencies to want to understand the natural world."

The center combines instruction and practice in exemplary teaching methods, content and research findings, including effective use of technology. A new Master's in Science Teaching Program will focus on practicing teachers, as well as recent graduates, scientists, engineers and mathematicians who want to pursue a teaching career.

Research on how students learn science and math is at the core of the center's activities. The research findings will inform student teachers at the University and teachers in the classroom.

Directed by University of Maine physicist Susan McKay, the center will draw from ongoing research in UMaine's Physics Education Research Laboratory, and projects in the departments of Chemistry and Computer Science. Participants also will include faculty in the College of Education and Human Development, and the departments of Mathematics and Statistics, Geological Sciences and Biological Sciences.

What's all the buzz in the blueberries?

Most blueberry growers spray insecticides to control harmful pests, such as beetles and flies that can damage crops. But sometimes the chemicals harm the growers' most important allies — the bees that help make the fruit possible.

In the last four years, University of Maine entomologist Frank Drummond has been working with growers to find new ways to protect native bees and honeybees. More bees mean more berries.

In his research, Drummond has learned where native bees nest and where they forage when blueberries are not in bloom. Keeping sprays away from those important bee habitats, he says, is one step that growers can take.

Drummond also found that once some insecticides have been sprayed and allowed to dry, they pose little danger to bees. Growers could avoid spraying during the times bees leave nests and hives.

Drummond and Constance Stubbs, assistant scientist in UMaine's Department of Biological Sciences, have been using automated bee counters to keep track of when bumble bees and honeybees forage for nectar.

Eventually, Drummond would like to produce a set of recommended "best management practices" for blueberry growers. The information, he says, could be extended to farmers who grow other crops that depend on bees, such as strawberries, cranberries and apples.

Competitive Family Farms

American farms have grown larger and more industrial as they specialize in one type of livestock or certain crops. However, new agricultural technologies, combined with integrated cropping and livestock systems, could provide a boost to smaller, family-run farms, according to Stewart Smith, University of Maine professor of sustainable agriculture.

Smith is administering a $2 million competitive research grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study this issue with colleagues in Maine, Michigan and Iowa.

The project will study integrated farms — dairy and potato operations in Maine and Michigan, and hog and feed grain farms in Iowa. Farmers are helping to evaluate the performance of these systems.

Scientists are looking at factors such as profitability, marketing, and effects on rural communities and ecosystems. They also are considering what motivates farmers to adopt or shy away from integrated farming strategies.

Saving the corner store

Amid national chains and big-box stores, small and independent neighborhood groceries are struggling.

With a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Fund for Rural America, Gregory White of The University of Maine Department of Resource Economics and Policy is looking at factors that could help small and independent stores develop a market niche and be more competitive.

"Nationally, grocery store sales are up about 30 percent over the last decade, but the number of independent and small stores decreased by 17 percent and 35 percent, respectively, over the same period," says White.

In the study, White will be joined by other UMaine scientists, as well as by storeowners, farmers, the Maine Grocers Association, and state and federal agencies.

While the project will be conducted in Maine, the researchers expect to apply the results throughout the country.

In search of ancient deep-sea corals in the Gulf of Maine

We typically think of corals as living in the warm waters of the Caribbean or the South Pacific. But these reef-building animals — some hundreds of years old — also are found in the cold Gulf of Maine.

Now scientists are studying these little-known yet ancient deep-sea corals to shed light on the ecosystems and natural resources off the East Coast. What they find also could provide a glimpse of a diverse underwater ecosystem that has been dramatically altered by human activity.

Les Watling, a professor in The University of Maine's School of Marine Sciences, and graduate student Anne Simpson are studying coral communities as part of a three-year federally funded project known as Deep East.

Last September, they started looking in areas just outside the Gulf to find corals unaffected by human activity. They and other scientists used the U.S. Navy's deepest diving submersible, the Alvin, to explore two canyons that plunge toward the Atlantic Ocean bottom just south of Georges Bank.

"We were looking at the distribution of coral communities and the animals that live on them," says Watling, who believes corals were once pervasive throughout the Gulf of Maine. "We were surprised to find species that are related to animals in the Antarctic. We know that relatives of Antarctic species can live in the deep water off the East Coast, but we didn't expect to find them here."

In the rocky walls of one canyon, the researchers found corals that provide a home for brittle stars, worms and other animals. The trip to the muddy slopes of the second canyon failed to find corals.

This year, Watling and Simpson will dive in the shallower water at the mouths of the canyons — areas they expect to be more favorable for coral communities. In 2003, they will explore areas within the Gulf of Maine itself.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is conducting the Deep East project.

Water molecules in a tight spot

Two University of Maine chemists and a scientist at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have used computer simulations to discover how water molecules behave in tight spaces.

Their findings, reported in the journal Nature, have implications for medical research and may contribute to an understanding of how water behaves in the pores of cell membranes.

Jayendran Rasaiah and Jerzy Noworyta of UMaine's Department of Chemistry collaborated with Gerhard Hummer of NIH. Rasaiah's research was supported by a National Science Foundation grant.

They used computer simulation to generate a tiny tube of carbon atoms, then placed it in a virtual pool of water. The simulations provide dynamic information that goes beyond static pictures of conventional structural biology, Rasaiah says.

From previous research, the scientists expected that water would not enter such tubes, known as carbon nanotubes. However, they found that the chains of hydrogen-bonded water molecules, only a single molecule wide, move through the tube in short bursts.

How water is conducted in biological channels is important, says Rasaiah. For example, the heart depends on concentrations of calcium in water; movement through cell membranes may help balance calcium.

Got a taste for fortune? How about gingergold?

University of Maine researchers are conducting field trials and taste tests for six new apple varieties that may expand opportunities for the state's apple industry and offer new choices for consumers.

The University's Maine Agricultural Center is sponsoring the research. The focus is on the hardiness, disease resistance and other growing characteristics of arlet, cameo, fortune, honeycrisp, gingergold and yataka apples.

Renae Moran, tree fruit specialist at The University of Maine's Highmoor Farm in Monmouth, manages the experimental orchard and works closely with apple growers.
Moran also monitors fruit for quality and storage characteristics. On campus, she works with UMaine food scientists to conduct consumer preference tests of each variety.

Based on early findings, apple growers in the state have added some of the varieties to their orchards.

Focusing on the future of the Acadian forest

Jeremy Wilson, a specialist in forest landscape management, is the new Irving Chair of Forest Ecosystem Management and an assistant professor in the Department of Forest Management at The University of Maine.

Wilson's work in Maine will echo his efforts on the Landscape Management Project at the University of Washington. "The project evolved out of forest crises like the spotted owl controversy," he says. "Traditionally, much of forestry deals with individual forest stands. However, it is difficult to address the complex goals associated with watershed protection, wildlife habitat and aesthetics using this approach.

"What you do in a particular stand has implications for what you're going to do in other stands around it. The Landscape Management Project set out to think about techniques and tools for managing at larger scales, ecosystems and landscapes."

Wilson will use a software system he and his colleagues produced to evaluate the consequences of forest management alternatives at scales from individual stands of trees to large landscapes. It allows planners to analyze and compare the implications of management issues, ranging from wildlife habitat and economic returns to risk of disturbances.

"Technology is the only way forest managers can effectively address the ever-increasing number of goals being placed on forestland," he says.

The Irving Chair is funded by a $1 million endowment established by J.D. Irving Limited, through the University of Maine Foundation. The position focuses on research in support of science-based management of the Acadian forest ecosystem.

Snacks from the sea

"Pass the crab chips, please" could be a request heard in gourmet restaurants and health-conscious households as a result of a University of Maine food science research project.

Denise Skonberg, assistant professor in UMaine's Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, is developing a snack chip using powdered crab shell and mince, the bits of meat that are left on the shell after processing.

With support from the Lobster Institute at the University, Skonberg and her graduate students have developed prototype chips. Crab mince is mixed with corn meal, potato flakes, spice and other ingredients, and then subjected to steam and pressure in an extruder. The final product is a crispy snack food that has the consistency of a puffed corn breakfast cereal.

Such sea snacks are value-added foods, making use of underutilized seafood by-products. The marine munchies also are healthy snack alternatives; powdered crab shell contains chitin, a natural substance high in calcium.

East meets West in education reform

Culturally distinct, industrialized countries in the East and West have taken different paths to educational reform in the past two decades. Yet, if implemented successfully, these policies would make two distinctive educational systems more alike, according to Jaekyung Lee, UMaine assistant research professor specializing in comparative education and educational policy analysis.

Lee examined major school reform in Japan and Korea, with highly centralized school governance systems and homogeneous educational values. In the United States and England, he studied school structures with decentralized educational governance and relatively heterogeneous educational values.

Western policy makers saw their school systems as fragmented and student outcomes mediocre. They focused on raising standards, and tightening curriculum and assessment. Policy makers in the East saw their system as deficient, with too much weight on standards and high-stakes testing hindering creativity. They emphasized diversifying curriculum and assessment, and enhancing whole-person education.

According to Lee, the research challenges the view of school reform as a routine cycle or tinkering within a national boundary. It presents a new perspective of reform — dynamic efforts to assess needs and attain optimal education with reference to the world.


UMaine Today Magazine
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