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UMaine Today Magazine


Potato wart

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Biosecurity in the potato fields

Potato wart, a highly contagious fungal disease of potatoes, can not only ruin a potato crop, it can destroy the agricultural value of the soil it infects for decades. So virulent that it has been listed as a threat to the nation's biosecurity by the federal government, potato wart has had a devastating impact on European agriculture and can be found just beyond Maine's borders in isolated areas of Newfoundland, Canada.

University of Maine researchers Laurie Connell and Rosemary Smith are combining their expertise in molecular biology and sensor development to help combat the dangerous disease. With a four-year, $800,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture Biosecurity Program, Connell and Smith are working with Steven Woods of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to create a fast and effective device for detecting potato wart in soil.

The mobile, hand-held sensor currently being developed will use groundbreaking techniques in nanotechnology to identify the RNA sequence specific to the potato wart pathogen, providing faster, more accurate results than the field identification techniques currently in use. The new sensor, which utilizes a bridge of gold nanoparticles that reacts to specific molecular configurations, could provide researchers with an important new tool for detecting a broad range of potential toxins and pathogens in the field.

Connell and Smith are developing the specialized surfaces and attachment methods required for the nanoparticles and streamlining the process for extracting the potato wart pathogen from the soil. The project promises to greatly improve the chances of early detection of the disease, which is critical to its control.

Toddler talk

Toddlers who speak slower and have long pauses between words may be more likely to have a reading disability later in life, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology.

Looking for predictors of developmental reading disability in 2 1/2-year-olds, researchers at the University of Maine, Hofstra University and Lehman College analyzed the speech of youngsters considered at low and high risk for reading disability. Those considered high risk had at least one parent with reading disability.

Of the 18 children at high risk, half were identified as having a reading disability once they were evaluated in grade school. The 10 children at low risk did not have the developmental disorder. Recordings made years earlier showed that the children with reading disability spoke fewer syllables per second, spending more time pausing.

The goal is to help identify precursors of reading disability to implement intervention strategies. Presently, most children are diagnosed with the disorder after they enter a school reading program.

Arresting Protesters

Social Dissent sometimes leads to confrontations with the police and possible arrest. Studies of social movements have examined the types of police response to such protest. But according to a University of Maine sociologist, the criminal justice treatment of protesters what happens to them after their arrest also is significant in understanding the social control of dissent.

"Protest prosecutions create a very public and potentially dramatic stage for repression and dissent to play out," says Steven Barkan, writing in the international journal Mobilization. "Neither social movements nor law in the United States and other democracies can be fully understood without appreciating the dynamics and outcomes of the prosecutions and trials of political activists."

After a protest arrest occurs, prosecutors and judges respond to legal misconduct and political threat, while protest defendants struggle to balance the needs of their cause and their own political convictions with concerns for their personal welfare.

Barkan proposes eight hypotheses on the factors that determine whether a political or legal defense will better serve protesters and their causes. The hypotheses are informed by his years of research examining many aspects of political justice, including its dissimilar consequences for the Southern civil rights and Vietnam antiwar movements.

Media and the military

A study of a decade of news coverage of U.S. military interventions around the world beginning in the early 1980s shows that American public opinion was most favorable when the Pentagon insisted on media pools, according to a professor of journalism at the University of Maine.

In a military media pool, a small number of participating reporters agree to share their coverage with other news outlets. Military censors clear their reports.

Shannon Martin's research involved the content analysis of nearly 20,000 media articles and transcripts covering U.S. military intervention from the 1980s90s. Her goal was to determine if there is a correlation between the characterization of the intervention by pool reporters and the shifts in public opinion during the U.S. troop deployments to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Grenada, Haiti, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Panama and Somalia.

Message managers know that the public considers the reasons for military deployment as important as the results of the action. The way that action is framed affects public opinion about the "rightness" of the military intervention.

Martin found that when U.S. media were constrained by military pooling, the news corps characterized the military intervention as facilitating local change in government and public opinion was initially favorable. When the media were not constrained by military pooling, intervention was characterized as part of a humanitarian effort and public opinion was less favorable.

The tactic suggests savvy agenda framing and agenda setting among military operations planners who organize the media pools, says Martin, who published her findings in the Journal of Peace Research.

Forests and amphibians

Major habitat changes appear to affect juvenile amphibians more than adults, a finding that is particularly pertinent for species at risk of extinction, according to a recent University of Maine study.

The study of the effects of forestry treatments on a Maine amphibian community focused on five types of frogs and four kinds of salamanders common in the North Woods. The study was conducted in the university's two forests in Orono, Maine, as part of the Land-use Effects on Amphibian Populations project (LEAP) of UMaine, the University of Missouri Columbia and the University of Georgia.

All of the study species had higher juvenile captures in uncut and partial-cut tracts compared to clear cuts. In particular, the number of wood frog juveniles was significantly higher and the animals larger in uncut and partial-cut areas.

The University of Maine study corroborated previous research that found fewer amphibians in clear cuts, with adult green frogs and American bullfrogs showing more tolerance for canopy removal.

But the findings also showed that uses of habitat by adult and juvenile amphibians differed. The UMaine researchers found that juvenile amphibians choose to move through forest rather than open-canopy areas, and partial canopy removal may reduce the abundance of many species.

If fewer juvenile amphibians choose to enter clear cuts, the probability of successful dispersal and the amount of available habitat are reduced.
The study by UMaine wildlife ecologists David Patrick and Malcolm Hunter, and wetlands ecologist Aram Calhoun was published in Forest Ecology and Management.

Fueled by seeds

Working in collaboration with businesses in northern Maine, University of Maine Cooperative Extension Crops Specialist Peter Sexton has completed a pilot project that successfully converted Maine-grown seed crops into 1,000 gallons of biodiesel. The project offers an exciting glimpse into Maine's potential as a producer of oilseed for fuel.

Sexton planted 30 acres of oil-rich mustard and canola in Aroostook County. The experimental plots yielded more than 25 tons of oilseed, which was pressed by CHB Proteins, an independent mill that is one of several small businesses participating in the project.

More than 2,000 gallons of raw canola oil was extracted from the seeds harvested from Sexton's test plots. A portion of the thick, amber oil was later blended with petroleum-based fuel to produce the state's first 1,000 gallons of homegrown biodiesel, an alternative blend that can be used in the same way as traditional diesel fuel without any engine or burner modifications.

More than half of the biodiesel is being used for home heating and fueling farm equipment in northern Maine. Already available at select sites across the state, biodiesel produced elsewhere is rapidly increasing in popularity as an alternative to all-fossil fuels produced largely overseas.

While oil from field crops will likely remain only a small piece of the nation's energy puzzle, Maine has the potential to greatly increase its oilseed production.

"Within the potato rotation in Maine, if we produce 10,000 to 15,000 acres of canola, then we could in theory produce approximately 800,000 to 1,200,000 gallons of biodiesel," says Sexton.

Assessing aquatic animal health

A more than $396,000 grant from the state's Marine Research Fund will be used to purchase equipment to facilitate applied research in marine animal health assessments and investigations at the university's new Maine Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory (MAAHL).

Several instruments will enable MAAHL to serve as a magnet research facility for marine researchers. For example, a Biolog Microbial Identification System will allow for database building and consistent identification of microbial assemblages of marine aquatic animals. The system will be key to lobster and mollusk diagnostics and health assessments. Plans call for the Biolog to eventually be made available for outside users and sample submissions. The database can be shared with private and government aquatic animal diagnostic laboratories, providing a vital tool for bacterial identification.

The Marine Research Fund grant also facilitates the establishment of the state's first, state-of-the-art marine samples repository, featuring high-capacity -80C freezers and a computerized laboratory information management system. The repository will facilitate comparative studies over time and provide historically supported scientific data critical for informed ecosystem management.

With a fully equipped lab in place, MAAHL personnel will be better able to support marine animal health research, and foster entrepreneurial activity and technology transfer.

MAAHL is a collaborative service of UMaine's Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, Cooperative Extension, and the Lobster Institute.

Historic heavy metals

More than a century after silver and copper mines went bust along Egypt Stream in Maine, scientists are finding elevated levels of heavy metals in adjacent coastal bay sediments.

The findings by University of Maine researchers illustrate that estuarine sediments provide well-preserved records of coastal land use history. Despite mixing by worms, these materials also recorded the deposition of more recent contaminants, including metal and radiogenic particles from the atmosphere.

In 1877, a vein of silver and copper was discovered along the banks of the Taunton River. Within eight years, there were 50 mines in the upland surrounding Taunton Bay, with shafts up to 24 meters deep. Mining activities in the Egypt Stream watershed in Hancock County lasted through the early 1900s. The stream feeds Egypt Bay, part of the Taunton Bay estuary.

Soil samples collected in tailings piles at a former copper mine in the watershed revealed elevated levels of cobalt, zinc, silver and cadmium. The surface soils surrounding the historic mine were not contaminated.

Analysis of sediment from 2634 cm depths in Egypt Bay identified heavy metal enrichment comparable to the soils in the tailings piles. Lead 210 dating of the metal-contaminated silts and clays determined that they were deposited at the time the historic mines operated.

Laurie Osher of the Department of Plant, Soil and Environmental Sciences led the research that involved five UMaine scientists. Their findings appeared in the journal Estuarine Coastal and Shelf Science. The research was initiated by former student Lauren LeClerc.

Genome of deadly fungus sequenced

Researchers around the world now have a valuable new tool for studying the deadly Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis fungus, thanks to the efforts of scientists at the Broad Institute, Timothy James of Duke University and University of Maine researcher Joyce Longcore.

The fungus' genome sequence consists of more than 20 million base pairs, offering scientists new insights into the genetic nature of the pathogen.

One of only a handful of researchers with expertise in identifying and culturing the unusual group of fungi collectively known as chytrids, Longcore provided the diploid strain of B. dendrobatidis that was sequenced by the Broad Institute's Fungal Genome Initiative team. James extracted the DNA from Longcore's cultures.

Implicated in amphibian declines around the world, B. dendrobatidis is the first chytrid to be sequenced. Longcore was the first to isolate a pure culture of the pathogen nearly a decade ago. Her research focuses on the relationships between chytrid species; her lab is the world's leading repository for chytrid fungi strains.


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