UD Cooperative Extension aids UD researcher at Delaware Ag Week

February 10, 2014 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

Professor Kent Messer and his team of researchers poll farmers at Ag WeekSometimes, an offer can seem too good to be true. The University of Delaware’s Kent Messer was worried that would be the case with his latest research project — one that promised land owners in the state who owned more than 10 acres of land $50 simply for completing a 30-minute survey and offered up to $40,000 worth of funding to support cost share and landowner incentives to help implement nutrient management practices on private property.

Luckily for Messer and his research team, University of Delaware Cooperative Extension — in conjunction with Delaware State University Cooperative Extension and the Delaware Department of Agriculture — was holding Delaware Ag Week in Harrington at the Delaware State Fairgrounds and welcoming around 1,900 visitors, many of them land owners.

“We were able to piggyback on Extension’s work and trust with the farmers,” said Messer, Unidel Howard Cosgrove Chair for the Environment in the Department of Applied Economics and Statistics (APEC). “Our research was more believable because we were at Ag Day.”

“This is an excellent example of outreach and engagement within UD,” said Michelle Rodgers, associate dean for Cooperative Extension in the University’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “Cooperative Extension is a key partner in the Ag Week event which provided over 97 educational sessions with over 1900 attendees. Students involved in the survey were introduced to Cooperative Extension programming and through the event were able to meet face to face with their desired survey participants. This is was a win-win for the researchers and the research participants.”

Messer’s project is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economics Research Service and at Ag Week, his team conducted a field experiment on nutrient management practices and landowners’ attitudes toward and adoption of those practices.

The USDA project had funding to support cost share and landowner incentives to help implement nutrient management practices on the ground. Messer’s team asked landowners about conservation buffers, areas that are vegetated along streams and ditches either by grass or forest, and asked the landowners how much they would be willing to share the costs of those practices.

Messer singled out Jennifer Volk, extension specialist in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, for helping to identify practices relevant to Delaware for the survey that are not currently available for cost share. “We didn’t want to fund practices that were already supported by state or federal programs; we want to learn about landowners’ attitudes and behavior related to new practices,” said Messer.

Messer said he combined this project with another one of his National Science Foundation (NSF) projects that focuses on the Murderkill Watershed, which has issues surrounding nutrients. If participants had property in the watershed, they were eligible for an extra $25 for taking the survey.

Survey team members included Walker Jones, a master’s degree student in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), Maik Kacinski, a postdoctoral researcher in APEC, Linda Grand and Seth Olson, both seniors in the Department of Applied Economics and Statistics, and Michael Griner, a student from Delaware Technical Community College.

The research team set up shop in Harrington for four days during Ag Week. With four and sometimes six tablet computers available for survey participants, the team members set up through each day of Ag Week and was able to attract 80 people to participate in the survey, which Messer called a “home run.”

“One of the reasons I love Ag week is that it helped ensure our validity. Our booth had a bright blue University of Delaware sign on it. We were in a UD event. Because, in many cases, you could say that this was a too good to be true offer — $50 for a 30-minute survey. We’ll pay up to $40,000 for you to do nutrient management on your land. Most people will see that survey and throw it in the trash because they think there must be a catch.”

Messer said that he was very happy to be able to conduct his research survey at a Cooperative Extension event.

“I’m fundamentally committed to good research that has Extension components. I think that’s a wonderful pillar of the land grant and these are exciting opportunities to collaborate. This is a time when the Extension efforts helped the research project,” said Messer. “We wouldn’t have been successful without having Extension do what it does and having this program that is servicing the landowners. And we were really just able to take advantage of it and participate in it.”

The next steps for Messer and his team include collecting data via mail from participants who were not at Ag Week and finalizing the results of the study.

Article by Adam Thomas

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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Soil may harbor answer to reducing arsenic in rice

May 1, 2013 under CANR News

Drs. Harsh Bias & Janine Sherrier work together with bacteria resistant rice plants at the Greenhouse.Harsh Bais and Janine Sherrier of the University of Delaware’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences are studying whether a naturally occurring soil bacterium, referred to as UD1023 because it was first characterized at the University, can create an iron barrier in rice roots that reduces arsenic uptake.

Rice, grown as a staple food for a large portion of the world’s population, absorbs arsenic from the environment and transfers it to the grain. Arsenic is classified as a poison by the National Institutes of Health and is considered a carcinogen by the National Toxicology Program.

Long-term exposure to arsenic has been associated with skin, lung, bladder, liver, kidney and prostate cancers, and low levels can cause skin lesions, diarrhea and other symptoms.

The risks of arsenic in rice were recently highlighted in the national press, when arsenic was detected in baby foods made from rice. In regions of the world where rice is the major component of the human diet, the health of entire communities of people can be negatively impacted by arsenic contamination of rice.

Arsenic may occur naturally in the soil, as it does in many parts of Southeast Asia, or it may be a result of environmental contamination. Despite the health risks arsenic in rice poses to millions of people around the world, there are currently no effective agricultural methods in use to reduce arsenic levels.

Sherrier, professor, and Bais, associate professor, are investigating whether UD1023 — which is naturally found in the rhizosphere, the layer of soil and microbes adjacent to rice roots — can be used to block the arsenic uptake. Bais first identified the bacterial species in soil samples taken from rice fields in California.

The pair’s preliminary research has shown that UD1023 can mobilize iron from the soil and slow arsenic uptake in rice roots, but the researchers have not yet determined exactly how this process works and whether it will lead to reduced levels of arsenic in rice grains.

“We have a bacterium that moves iron, and we want to see if creating an iron shield around the rice roots will slow arsenic movement into other parts of the plant,” Bais said.

Sherrier and Bais, who received a 2012 seed grant for the project from Delaware’s National Science Foundation Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), ultimately want to determine how UD1023 slows arsenic movement into rice roots and whether it will lead to reduced levels of arsenic in the rice grains, the edible portion of the plant.

“That is the most important part,” Bais said. “We don’t know yet whether we can reduce arsenic in the grains or reduce the upward movement of arsenic towards the grain, but we’re optimistic.”

Bais says that, if successful, the project could lead to practical applications in agriculture.

“The implications could be tremendous,” he said. “Coating seeds with bacteria is very easy. With this bacteria, you could implement easy, low-cost strategies that farmers could use that would reduce arsenic in the human food chain.”

Article by Juan C. Guerrero

Photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

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Prestigious travel grants allow UD students to attend plant biology conference

March 30, 2012 under CANR News

Harsh Bais, assistant professor in the University of Delaware Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, has chosen his research team well. Two members of his group, postdoctoral researcher Venkatachalam Lakshmanan and graduate student Emily Alff, have received travel grants from the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), which will enable them to attend the society’s annual meeting this summer in Austin, Texas.

According to Bais, the number of ASPB travel grants is limited to 20 for postdocs and 30 for graduate students worldwide.

Alff received the ASPB travel grant for her project that explores the role of rhizobacteria in rice growth promotion and defense against the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae, commonly known as rice blast.

Her research examines the natural relationships between rice plants and the microbial communities that inhabit the rhizosphere, the area surrounding their root systems. Secretions from the root system are rich in nutrients, which sustain microbial communities that can be detrimental or beneficial to the plant.

Rice blast can cause devastating crop losses, but Alff’s research has demonstrated that certain bacteria can significantly decrease the effects of rice blast and improve plant growth. The goal of the project is to provide a basis for inoculating seeds with beneficial microbes, which is cost-effective for farmers and more environmentally sound than fungicides.

Lakshmanan’s research was also selected for oral presentation in a “mini-symposium” on plant-microbe interactions as part of the conference. He studies microbe-associated molecular patterns, or MAMPs, which are responsible for triggering a plant’s immune response if it is attacked by a pathogen. This signaling process is well understood in response to foliar pathogens; however, the role of MAMPs in response to the belowground microbial community is largely unknown.

Lakshmanan’s project indicates that certain beneficial rhizobacteria are able to block MAMPs signaling and subdue an immune response from the plant, allowing them to colonize the plant’s root system. The bacteria are beneficial because they subsequently activate the plant’s immune response if it is attacked by another pathogen. Lakshmanan’s research is expected to expand the current understanding of intra-plant signaling and its relationship with microbial communities.

Awards for current research in the field, which affects many of today’s top issues, will be presented at the Plant Biology conference. Alff is eager to see how it will play out.

“It is extremely important to me to see the impact that plant biology research is making towards the vital issues of food security and safety, climate change, bioenergy, and medicine,” she said.

Lakshmanan sees the plant biology symposium as “a unique opportunity to network and receive feedback from peers.” At the conference, Alff and Lakshmanan will present and discuss their research with plant biology faculty, postdocs and students from around the country.

Alff says, “This meeting will help in my transition from a graduate student to a professional scientist. Receiving feedback from the plant biology community will help in preparation for my thesis defense and eventual job interviews.”

The research conducted by Alff and Lakshmanan in Bais’ lab is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Delaware EPSCoR program.

Article by Jacob Crum

Photo of Emily Alff by Kathy F. Atkinson

This article can also be viewed on UDaily

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UD scientists featured in top environmental science journal

January 29, 2010 under CANR News

Research performed by Matthew Ginder-Vogel, associate scientist in the Delaware Environmental Institute, Gautier Landrot, a graduate student in environmental soil chemistry at the University of Delaware, and Donald L. Sparks, S. Hallock du Pont Chair of Soil and Environmental Chemistry and director of the Delaware Environmental Institute, is featured in this month’s special issue of Environmental Science and Technology, the premier environmental science and engineering journal in the world.

Read the full story online here at UDaily.

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