Summer Internship for Native Americans in Genomics (SING) Workshop at Institute for Genomic Biology (1/15/13) The Institute for Genomic Biology will once again be hosting the Summer Internship for Native Americans in Genomics (SING) Workshop. The workshop will take place from August 4-10, 2013, at the IGB to discuss genomics as a tool for Native American communities and assist in the training of Native Americans in the concepts and methods currently used in genomics.
University of Illinois to Improve Crop Yield through Photosynthesis in a New Global Effort (12/7/12) The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has received a five–year, $25-million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to improve the photosynthetic properties of key food crops, including rice and cassava. The project, titled “RIPE – Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency,” has the potential to benefit farmers around the world by increasing productivity of staple food crops. Illinois research will take place at the Institute for Genomic Biology , a state-of-the-art facility whose large shared laboratories accommodate multiple groups and encourage cross-discipline interaction.
Study of giant viruses shakes up tree of life (9/13/12) A new study of giant viruses supports the idea that viruses are ancient living organisms and not inanimate molecular remnants run amok, as some scientists have argued. The study may reshape the universal family tree, adding a fourth major branch to the three that most scientists agree represent the fundamental domains of life. The new findings appear in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology.
5-Year NASA-Funded Research Grant Awarded (9/7/12) The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been selected as one of five new research teams joining the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) to study the origin and evolution of life, on a five-year grant totaling approximately $8 million. Nigel Goldenfeld, Swanlund Professor of Physics and leader of the Biocomplexity research theme at the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB), will serve as the principal investigator. The goal is to characterize the fundamental principles governing the origin and evolution of life anywhere in the universe. This multidisciplinary effort to define and characterize “universal biology” will include the fields of microbiology, geobiology, computational chemistry, genomics, and physics.
Maps of miscanthus genome offer insight into grass evolution (5/15/12) Miscanthus grasses are used in gardens, burned for heat and energy, and converted into liquid fuels. They also belong to a prominent grass family that includes corn, sorghum and sugarcane. Two new, independently produced chromosome maps of Miscanthus sinensis (an ornamental that likely is a parent of Miscanthus giganteus, a biofuels crop) are a first step toward sequencing the M. sinensis genome. The studies reveal how a new plant species with distinctive traits can arise as a result of chromosome duplications and fusions.
New antibiotic could make food safer and cows healthier (3/20/12) Food-borne diseases might soon have another warrior to contend with, thanks to a new molecule discovered by chemists at the University of Illinois. The new antibiotic, an analog of the widely used food preservative nisin, also has potential to be a boon to the dairy industry as a treatment for bovine mastitis. The antibiotic nisin occurs naturally in milk, a product of bacteria resident in the cow’s udder. It helps keep milk from spoiling and kills a broad spectrum of bacteria that cause food-borne illness, most notably listeria and clostridium. It was approved as a food additive in 1969, and since then has become prevalent in the food industry in more than 50 countries.
Team Discovers How Bacteria Resist A ‘Trojan Horse’ Antibiotic (3/19/12) A new study describes how bacteria use a previously unknown means to defeat an antibiotic. The researchers found that the bacteria have modified a common “housekeeping” enzyme in a way that enables the enzyme to recognize and disarm the antibiotic. The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Bacteria often engage in chemical warfare with one another, and many antibiotics used in medicine are modeled on the weapons they produce. But microbes also must protect themselves from their own toxins. The defenses they employ for protection can be acquired by other species, leading to antibiotic resistance.
Study of Ribosome Evolution Challenges RNA World Hypothesis (3/12/12) In the beginning – of the ribosome, the cell’s protein-building workbench – there were ribonucleic acids, the molecules we call RNA that today perform a host of vital functions in cells. And according to a new analysis, even before the ribosome’s many working parts were recruited for protein synthesis, proteins also were on the scene and interacting with RNA. This finding challenges a long-held hypothesis about the early evolution of life.
Insects have personalities too, research on honey bees indicates (3/8/12) A new study in Science suggests that thrill-seeking is not limited to humans and other vertebrates. Some honey bees, too, are more likely than others to seek adventure. The brains of these novelty-seeking bees exhibit distinct patterns of gene activity in molecular pathways known to be associated with thrill-seeking in humans, researchers report.
Team aims to make sugarcane, sorghum into oil-producing crops (3/1/12) With the support of a $3.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, researchers will take the first steps toward engineering two new oil-rich crops. They aim to boost the natural, oil-producing capabilities of sugarcane and sorghum, increase the crops’ photosynthetic power and – in the case of sugarcane – enhance the plant’s cold tolerance so that it can grow in more northerly climes.
Patterns of antibiotic-resistant bacteria seen in Galápagos reptiles (1/23/12) Land and marine iguanas and giant tortoises living close to human settlements or tourist sites in the Galápagos Islands were more likely to harbor antibiotic-resistant bacteria than those living in more remote or protected sites on the islands, researchers report in a new study.
Feces collected at several different sites from free-living reptiles harbored Escherichia coli bacteria that were resistant to ampicillin, doxycycline, tetracycline and trimethoprin/sulfamethoxazole. Another bacterial species collected from the feces, Salmonella enterica, was found to be only mildly resistant or not resistant at all to the same antibiotics, most likely because of the differing ecology of these two bacterial species in the gut, researchers said.
From Field To Biorefinery: Computer Model Optimizes Biofuel Operations (1/17/12) Research into biofuel crops such as switchgrass and Miscanthus has focused mainly on how to grow these crops and convert them into fuels. But many steps lead from the farm to the biorefinery, and each could help or hinder the growth of this new industry.
A new computer model developed at the University of Illinois can simplify this transition, researchers say. The model can run millions of simulations, optimizing operations to bring down costs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions or achieve other goals.
“Biomass from the field will not just show up magically at the biorefinery,” said agricultural and biological engineering professor and department head K.C. Ting, who developed the model with Energy Biosciences Institute research professor Yogendra Shastri and agricultural and biological engineering professors Alan Hansen and Luis Rodriguez. “You have to harvest, transport, store and deliver,” he said. The institute, funded by BP, supported the research. Ting, Hansen and Rodriguez are affiliates of the Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois.
Researchers identify molecular 'culprit' in rise of planetary oxygen (1/10/12) A turning point in the history of life occurred 2 billion to 3 billion years ago with the unprecedented appearance and dramatic rise of molecular oxygen. Now researchers report they have identified an enzyme that was the first – or among the first – to generate molecular oxygen on Earth.
The new findings, reported in the journal Structure, build on more than a dozen previous studies that aim to track the molecular evolution of life by looking for evidence of that history in present-day protein structures. These studies, led by University of Illinois crop sciences and Institute for Genomic Biology professor Gustavo Caetano-Anollés, focus on structurally and functionally distinct regions of proteins – called folds – that are part of the universal tool kit of living cells.
Team finds a better way to gauge the climate costs of land use change (1/9/12) Those making land use decisions to reduce the harmful effects of climate change have focused almost exclusively on greenhouse gases – analyzing, for example, how much carbon dioxide is released when a forest is cleared to grow crops. A new study in Nature Climate Change aims to present a more complete picture – to incorporate other characteristics of ecosystems that also influence climate.
“We know that forests store a lot of carbon and clearing a forest releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contributes to climate change,” said University of Illinois postdoctoral researcher Kristina Anderson-Teixeira, who pioneered the new approach with plant biology and Energy Biosciences Institute professor Evan DeLucia. “But ecosystems provide other climate regulation services as well.”
Team Designs a Bandage that Spurs, Guides Blood Vessel Growth (12/15/11) Researchers have developed a bandage that stimulates and directs blood vessel growth on the surface of a wound. The bandage, called a “microvascular stamp,” contains living cells that deliver growth factors to damaged tissues in a defined pattern. After a week, the pattern of the stamp “is written in blood vessels,” the researchers report.
A paper describing the new approach will appear as the January 2012 cover article of the journal Advanced Materials.
“Any kind of tissue you want to rebuild, including bone, muscle or skin, is highly vascularized,” said University of Illinois chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Hyunjoon Kong, a co-principal investigator on the study with electrical and computer engineering professor Rashid Bashir. “But one of the big challenges in recreating vascular networks is how we can control the growth and spacing of new blood vessels.”
Let’s do the Twist: Spiral Proteins are Efficient Gene Delivery Agents (12/15/11) Clinical gene therapy may be one step closer, thanks to a new twist on an old class of molecules.
A group of University of Illinois researchers, led by professors Jianjun Cheng and Fei Wang, have demonstrated that short spiral-shaped proteins can efficiently deliver DNA segments to cells. The team published its work in the journal Angewandte Chemie.
“The main idea is these are new materials that could potentially be used for clinical gene therapy,” said Cheng, a professor of materials science and engineering, of chemistry and of bioengineering.
Eight Illinois Faculty Members Elected Fellows of AAAS (12/6/11) Eight University of Illinois faculty members have been elected fellows in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Fouad Abd-El-Khalick, Rashid Bashir, Debasish Dutta, K. Jimmy Hsia, Keith W. Kelley, Wilfred van der Donk, M. Christina White and James Whitfield.
The Illinois researchers are among 539 new fellows chosen by their peers for their efforts toward advancing science applications that are deemed scientifically or socially distinguished. The new fellows will be honored at the AAAS annual meeting in February.
“These faculty members embody the spirit of excellence that characterizes Illinois scholarship,” said Phyllis M. Wise, the chancellor of the Urbana campus and a vice president of the university. “Such commitment to quality inspires their colleagues and students, and advances Illinois as a leader in academics, research and innovation.”
Team Discovers how a Cancer-Causing Bacterium Spurs Cell Death (11/1/2011) Researchers report they have figured out how the cancer-causing bacterium Helicobacter pylori attacks a cell’s energy infrastructure, sparking a series of events in the cell that ultimately lead it to self-destruct.
H. pylori are the only bacteria known to survive in the human stomach. Infection with the bacterium is associated with an increased risk of gastric cancer, the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide.
“More than half the world’s population is currently infected with H. pylori,” said University of Illinois microbiology professor Steven Blanke, who led the study. “And we’ve known for a long time that the host doesn’t respond appropriately to clear the infection from the stomach, allowing the bacterium to persist as a risk factor for cancer.”
Ionic Liquid Catalyst Helps Turn Emissions into Fuel (10/6/11) An Illinois research team has succeeded in overcoming one major obstacle to a promising technology that simultaneously reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide and produces fuel.
University of Illinois chemical and biological engineering professor Paul Kenis and his research group joined forces with researchers at Dioxide Materials, a startup company, to produce a catalyst that improves artificial photosynthesis. The company, in the university Research Park, was founded by retired chemical engineering professor Richard Masel. The team reported their results in the journal Science.
Study of Bees Links Gene Regulatory Networks in the Brain to Behavior (9/26/11) A new study reveals that distinct networks of genes in the honey bee brain contribute to specific behaviors, such as foraging or aggression, researchers report.
The study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to show that common, naturally occurring behaviors are under the influence of discrete regulatory networks in the brain. It confirms, scientists say, what years of research into the brain and behavior seemed to indicate: There is a close relationship between changes in gene expression – which genes are actively transcribed into other molecules to perform specific tasks in the cell – and behavior.
“We found that there is a high degree of modularity in the regulation of genes and behavior, with distinct behavioral states represented by distinct gene network configurations,” said University of Illinois entomology and neuroscience professor Gene Robinson, who led the study. Robinson is the director of the Institute for Genomic Biology at Illinois.
Illinois Professor to Receive NIH Director's New Innovator Award (9/20/11) Douglas A. Mitchell, a professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois, is a recipient of the 2011 National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award. The award recognizes bold ideas from some of the nation’s most promising new scientists.
The $1.5 million award, given over a period of five years, supports young investigators who have proposed exceptionally creative research ideas that have the potential to produce important medical advances.
Mitchell uses chemical methods to study the mechanisms that contribute to bacterial virulence and antibiotic resistance. His current studies focus on the thiazole/oxazole-modified microcins, a class of microbial compounds with profound structural and functional diversity. While some of these compounds have antibiotic or anticancer activity, others are disease-promoting toxins.
Six U. of I. Faculty Members Named University Scholars (9/15/11) Six Urbana campus faculty members have been recognized as University Scholars. The program recognizes excellence while helping to identify and retain the university’s most talented teachers, scholars and researchers.
New Sensors Streamline Detection of Estrogenic Compounds (8/25/11) Researchers have engineered new sensors that fluoresce in the presence of compounds that interact with estrogen receptors in human cells. The sensors detect natural or human-made substances that alter estrogenic signaling in the body.
The study appears in the journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering.
Estrogen occurs naturally in the body (in the form of 17-beta-estradiol), and a variety of plants (such as soybeans), pharmaceuticals, microbial byproducts and industrial chemicals (such as bisphenol A, in plastics) are also known to activate or block the activation of estrogen receptors in human cells.
“There are so many estrogenic compounds in our environment, and some of them could be a danger to health,” said University of Illinois chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Huimin Zhao, who led the research. Zhao also is an affiliate of the chemistry and biochemistry departments, the Center for Biophysics and Computational Biology, and the Institute for Genomic Biology, all at Illinois. “We are concerned about estrogenic compounds because they interact with the estrogen receptor, which plays an important role in many important biological processes, like reproduction, bone growth, cell differentiation and metabolism.”
Researchers Map Minority Microbes in the Colon (8/2/11) They make up less than one-hundredth of 1 percent of the microbes that live in the colon, but the bacteria and archaea that sop up hydrogen in the gut are fundamental to colon health. In a new study, researchers take a first up close look at these “hydrogenotrophic” microbes, mapping where they live and how abundant they are in different parts of the lower intestine.
The findings are reported in the International Society for Microbial Ecology Journal.
This is the first study to sample these – or any other – microbes at specific locales in the colon, said University of Illinois animal sciences and Institute for Genomic Biology professor Rex Gaskins, who led the research with Carle Foundation gastroenterologist Dr. Eugene Greenberg. These organisms are particularly difficult to get at because they inhabit a thick layer of protective mucous that lines the colon. Previous studies looked only at microbes passed in stool, Gaskins said.
Team Shows How the Honey Bee Tolerates Some Synthetic Pesticides (7/20/11) A new study reveals how enzymes in the honey bee gut detoxify pesticides commonly used to kill mites in the honey bee hive. This is the first study to tease out the precise molecular mechanisms that allow a pollinating insect to tolerate exposure to these potentially deadly compounds.
The findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Previous studies have shown that honey bee hives are contaminated with an array of agricultural chemicals, many of which the bees themselves bring back to the hive in the form of contaminated pollen and nectar, said University of Illinois entomology professor and department head May Berenbaum, who led the new research.
Switch from Corn to Grass would Raise Ethanol Output, Cut Emissions (7/12/11) Growing perennial grasses on the least productive farmland now used for corn ethanol production in the U.S. would result in higher overall corn yields, more ethanol output per acre and better groundwater quality, researchers report in a new study. The switch would also slash emissions of two potent greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.
The study used a computer model of plant growth and soil chemistry to compare the ecological effects of growing corn (Zea mays L.); miscanthus (Miscanthus x giganteus), a sterile hybrid grass used in bioenergy production in Western Europe; and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.), which is native to the U.S.
MicroRNAs in the Songbird Brain Respond to New Songs (6/30/11) Whenever it hears an unfamiliar song from a malle of the same species, the zebra finch stops chirping, hopping and grooming. It listens attentively for minutes at a time, occasionally cocking its head but otherwise immobile. Once it becomes familiar with the song, it goes back to its busy routine. (See video.)
In a new study, researchers discovered that levels of microRNAs –“ short lengths of ribonucleic acid that appear to regulate protein production – go up or down in the songbird brain after it hears a new song. TThese microRNAs likely represent a new class of regulatory agents that fine-tune the brainâ€™s response to social information, said University of Illinois cell and developmental biology professor David Clayton, who led the study.
New Curation Tool a Boon for Genetic Biologists (6/21/11) With the BeeSpace Navigator, University of Illinois researchers have created both a curation tool for genetic biologists and a new approach to searching for information. The project was a collaboration between researchers at the Institute for Genomic Biology and the department of computer science. Led by Bruce Schatz, professor and head of medical information science at the U. of I., the team described the software and its applications in the web server issue of the Journal Nucleic Acids Research.
Two Illinois Professors Elected to American Academy of Microbiology (4/21/11) Two University of Illinois professors have been elected fellows of the American Academy of Microbiology. James Slauch and Wilfred van der Donk are among the 78 microbiologists chosen by their peers for significant contributions to their field.
Genetic Study Offers Insight into the Social Lives of Bees (4/8/11) Most people have trouble telling them apart, but bumble bees, honey bees, stingless bees and solitary bees have home lives that are as different from one another as a monarch’s palace is from a hippy commune or a hermit’s cabin in the woods. A new study of these bees offers a first look at the genetic underpinnings of their differences in lifestyle.
The study focuses on the evolution of “eusociality,” a system of collective living in which most members of a female-centric colony forego their reproductive rights and instead devote themselves to specialized tasks – such as hunting for food, defending the nest or caring for the young – that enhance the survival of the group. The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Eusociality is a rarity in the animal world, said Gene Robinson, a University of Illinois entomology professor and the director of the Institute for Genomic Biology, who led the study. Ants, termites, some bees and wasps, a few other arthropods and a couple of mole rat species are the only animals known to be eusocial.
Ha Wins 2011 Ho-Am Prize in Science (4/8/11) Professor of Physics and Howard Hughes Medical Investigator Taekjip Ha has been awarded the 2011 Ho-Am Prize in Science by the Ho-Am Foundation in Korea. The Prize was established by Kun-hee Lee, chairman of Samsung, in 1990 to honor the vision of "Ho-Am" Byung-Chull Lee, the founder of Samsung, and to carry forward his commitment to promote activities and people that contribute to the public well-being. The Ho-Am Prizes are widely regarded as the Korean equivalent of the Nobel Prizes.
Illinois Chemistry Professor Ryan C. Bailey Named Sloan Fellow (2/16/11) University of Illinois chemistry professor Ryan C. Bailey has been selected to receive a 2011 Sloan Research Fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Bailey is one of 118 early career scientists and researchers from 54 colleges and universities chosen for a two-year fellowship. In keeping with its goal of recognizing potential groundbreaking researchers in their respective fields, the Sloan fellowship program awards fellows $50,000 to pursue their choice of research topics and allows them flexibility in applying funds toward their research.
A Billion Tons of Biomass a Viable Goal, But at High Price, New Research Shows (2/16/11) A new study from the University of Illinois concludes that very high biomass prices would be needed in order to meet the ambitious goal of replacing 30 percent of petroleum consumption in the U.S. with biofuels by 2030.
Triblock Spheres Provide a Simple Path to Complex Structures (1/19/11) University of Illinois materials scientists have developed a simple, generalizable technique to fabricate complex structures that assemble themselves.
Their advance, published in the Jan. 20 issue of Nature, utilizes a new class of self-assembling materials that they developed. The team demonstrated that they can produce a large, complex structure – an intricate lattice – from tiny colloidal particles called triblock Janus spheres.
“This is a big step forward in showing how to make non-trivial, non-obvious structures from a very simple thing,” said Steve Granick, Founder Professor of Engineering at the University of Illinois and a professor of materials science and engineering, chemistry, and physics. “People know a lot about how to do it with molecules – soaps for example – but scientists and engineers know very little about how to make it happen with particles. Particles are very different from molecules: They’re big, they’re nonflexible, and they have lots of critically different materials properties.”
Study Estimates Land Available for Biofuel Crops (1/10/11) Using detailed land analysis, Illinois researchers have found that biofuel crops cultivated on available land could produce up to half of the world’s current fuel consumption – without affecting food crops or pastureland.
Published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the study led by civil and environmental engineering professor Ximing Cai identified land around the globe available to produce grass crops for biofuels, with minimal impact on agriculture or the environment.
Team Overcomes Major Obstacle to Cellulosic Biofuel Production (12/27/10) A newly engineered yeast strain can simultaneously consume two types of sugar from plants to produce ethanol, researchers report. The sugars are glucose, a six-carbon sugar that is relatively easy to ferment; and xylose, a five-carbon sugar that has been much more difficult to utilize in ethanol production. The new strain, made by combining, optimizing and adding to earlier advances, reduces or eliminates several major inefficiencies associated with current biofuel production methods.
The findings, from a collaborative led by researchers at the University of Illinois, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of California and the energy company BP, are described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The Energy Biosciences Institute, a BP-funded initiative, supported the research.