college of agricultural sciences

Oregon State receives $1 million gift for research brewery

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University's fermentation science program has received a $1 million gift from Carlos Alvarez, the chairman and chief executive officer of The Gambrinus Company, a San Antonio-based beer company that owns BridgePort Brewing Company in Portland, Oregon; the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas; and the Trumer Brewery in Berkeley, California.

The gift from Alvarez will fund the purchase of a new research brewery to be housed in Oregon State's Wiegand Hall Pilot Plant Facility, where fermentation science students participate in each step of the brewing and packaging process.

"We are incredibly grateful and excited about building on this great relationship with BridgePort and Gambrinus," said Tom Shellhammer, OSU's Nor'Wester Professor of Fermentation Science. "At Oregon State we are very proud to offer students a 'grain-to-glass' education that covers every aspect of the beer-making process. Furthermore, we carry out cutting-edge, globally relevant brewing science research.

"This state-of-the-art facility will allow us to provide an experiential education that is truly world-class, while also enhancing research that benefits industry," Shellhammer added.

Oregon State's collaborative relationship with BridgePort spans more than 15 years. Most recently, Shellhammer, OSU fermentation science students, and BridgePort brewmaster and OSU alumnus Jeff Edgerton collaborated on a session brown ale that won a gold medal at the European Beer Star competition in Germany.

Alvarez is a graduate of the Monterrey Institute of Technology in Monterrey, Mexico, with a degree in biochemical engineering. After working as export manager for Grupo Modelo and taking Corona to the U.S., Alvarez founded The Gambrinus Company in 1986 and became U.S. importer for Corona and other Modelo brands for the next 20 years.

In 1989, he acquired and revitalized the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas, now the fourth largest craft brewery in the U.S. with Shiner Bock as its leading brand. Alvarez subsequently acquired BridgePort Brewing Company in 1995 and founded the Trumer Brewery in Berkeley, California, in 2004.

An ardent supporter of education, Alvarez has contributed to educational institutions across the U.S. with a particular focus on scholarship funding. Among other volunteer leadership roles, he served several years on the board of trustees for Davidson College in North Carolina.

"I am very pleased to support Oregon State's fermentation science program and its outstanding students, who represent so much promise as future craft brewers," Alvarez said. "I am particularly excited to be able to fund this project and give back to the industry that built my business."

Oregon State is one of only two universities in the nation offering undergraduate and graduate level degrees in fermentation science that lead to a career in the brewing industry. Housed within the Department of Food Science and Technology, one of the oldest and top-ranked food science programs in the U.S., the program attracts students from across the country and around the world who hope to enter the craft brewing market. Three out of four students in the department are fermentation science majors.

When construction is finished, the new research brewery funded by Alvarez's gift will be named in his honor.



Tom Shellhammer, 541-737-9308

OSU scientists invent rain-resistant coating that cuts cherry cracking in half

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- A tissue-thin, food-grade film developed at Oregon State University acts like a raincoat for sweet cherries, cutting rain-related cracking of the fruit in half and potentially saving a whole season’s crop.

The stretchy spray-on biofilm, patented as SureSeal, was developed by Clive Kaiser, an OSU horticulturist and Extension tree-fruit expert, and OSU pharmacist J. Mark Christensen. SureSeal is a proprietary mix of natural chemicals similar to those found in the outer skins of cherries and blueberries. Its main ingredients are cellulose, palm oil-based wax and calcium.

Growers spray it onto their trees twice per season in a water-based emulsion. Tiny droplets of the film cohere on the fruit and leaves, forming an edible, elastic, water-resistant bandage about 13 microns thick. The bandage stretches as the fruit grows, staying on through harvest to market and table.

Spring rainstorms – common in cherry-growing country – can crack cherries so badly they’re not worth picking, said OSU horticulturist Lynn Long. An Extension expert in tree fruits, Long conducted field trials of SureSeal in orchards in Oregon’s Wasco and Hood River counties from 2008 through 2014 and helped develop the final commercial formulation.

His field testing in 2007-08 showed that rainfall in late June and early July caused between 10 percent and 27 percent of cherries to crack. Spraying with the biofilm reduced the rate of cracking by at least 50 percent, and more in some cases.

Damage to cherries can vary widely from season to season, depending on how much it rains at critical points in the ripening.

“If rain damage exceeds 25 percent of the crop, you can’t harvest; the economics don’t support it,” said Long. “But if you can reduce cracking to 12 percent, you’ve got a chance to salvage a crop that would otherwise have been lost. That’s pretty significant.”

Long and Kaiser also conducted controlled tests in orchards in Norway, where cool seasons and rainy weather make cherries even more prone to cracking. In the 2008 season, almost one-quarter of the untreated cherries cracked from the rain, while 17 percent of the treated cherries cracked.

Norway’s climate, said Long, may explain why results there were less dramatic than in Oregon: Cherries will also crack when soils get saturated and water gets drawn into the fruit from inside. “Nothing you spray on a tree,” he said, “can protect cherries against that.”

In Norway, fruit cracking was reduced to 10 percent when the biofilm treatment was combined with plastic ground covers that drew rainwater away from trees’ roots.

Christensen holds a patent on a similar film-like coating that he invented to enable pulse-release dosages of oral medications. Kaiser had worked on food-grade biofilms in his native South Africa before coming to OSU in 2006.

“When I learned about Mark’s work,” said Kaiser, “I wandered over to (the College of) Pharmacy and asked him if we might produce a hydrophobic film for cherry trees. He said he thought we could give it a go.”

The product is completely safe to eat, said Christensen. Each ingredient is either on the Food and Drug Administration’s “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) list or the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of inert ingredients in registered pesticides.

He added that a 2013 trial in Washington found that SureSeal-sprayed fruit had higher residual levels of some insecticides and fungicides. However, these levels did not exceed the thresholds set by the EPA for U.S.-produced cherries, and the study concluded there was no additional risk to human health.

Oregon has about 12,500 acres of sweet cherries, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Oregon growers sold $78.4 million worth of sweet cherries in 2014.

Funds for the initial research that led to SureSeal came from a company that ultimately chose not to commercialize the product, said Berry Treat, director of OSU’s Office of Commercialization and Corporate Development. The university licensed the SureSeal technology to another company, Nevada-based Cultiva LLC, in 2013.

Cultiva manufactures SureSeal-based products and markets them under its own trade names. In 2014, the company released a formulation for blueberries, and is now working on a third for apples. The inventors and OSU share a 5 percent royalty on all revenue derived from SureSeal technology.

Parka, Cultiva’s product for cherries, is now in its third commercial season. The two recommended spring applications cost growers about $75 per acre each. Long estimated that the product could save $16,500 worth of cherries per acre in a rainy Oregon spring.

Cultiva expects to sell 29,000 gallons of product to about 300 cherry and blueberry growers in Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Georgia, said Sean Musser, the company’s vice president for business development. SureSeal-based products are also being marketed in Canada, Chile and Australia.

Story By: 

Lynn Long, 541-296-5494;

Clive Kaiser, 541-938-5597

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Oregon sweet-cherry growers now have a rain-resistant coating to prevent fruit cracking. Photo by Betsy Hartley.

OSU uses unmanned aircraft to take temperatures up in the air

CORVALLIS, Ore. – For the first time, scientists at Oregon State University are measuring atmospheric temperatures with fiber optic thermometers suspended from unmanned aircraft—combining two emerging technologies to probe a poorly understood swath of Earth’s atmosphere.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, John Selker is buying two new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to loft sophisticated measuring instruments of his own design into an atmospheric zone that’s been hard to study until now.

“These two technologies together will add orders of magnitude to the precision and resolution of our atmospheric measurements,” said Selker, a hydrologist and professor in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “We’ll be able to take a continuous slice of data through space and time, getting information that no one has been able to capture before.”

The high-powered thermometers use a down-to-earth technology: fiber-optic cable, similar to that used for telephone and internet communication. By measuring tiny pulses of light zipping along spun-glass strands, the fiber cables capture thousands of temperature readings along their length, detecting differences as slight as 0.01 degree Celsius.

In early-morning test flights near Hermiston, Selker’s OSU colleagues Michael Wing and Chad Higgins suspended a 400-foot sensing cable—not much thicker than a kite string—from an OSU-owned quad copter. They flew the aircraft at 30 miles an hour, sending it high enough that the tip of the cable just touched the ground. The cable reported temperatures every 13 centimeters.

The researchers started their flights at sunrise because they wanted to see how the atmosphere develops in the boundary layer, the lowest portion of Earth’s atmosphere, as the sun’s heat begins to move the air.

The Earth’s surface and near atmosphere—up to about 1,000 meters above the ground—is a critical zone of feedbacks between air, water and earth, Selker said. “It’s where processes interact, where synergies occur. And temperature is a critical driver of these interactions.”

Until now, he said, scientists have had a hard time taking comprehensive measurements of the lower atmosphere.

“Typically, you’d have to take readings from a fixed point, a tower or a balloon,” Selker said. “Now, instead of measuring one or two or three points at a time, we can measure a million points.”

Such detailed measurements promise to shed light on how clouds and rainstorms develop, how air pollution gets diluted, how pollen moves across the landscape and other important atmospheric dynamics, he said.

Selker’s sensors have captured data from land and sea—an old-growth forest canopy, the Pacific Ocean floor, Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf. Until now, there hasn’t been an easy way to deploy them in the air.

UAVs equipped with fiber-optic sensors represent “a fundamentally new way to look at the lower atmosphere,” Selker said. “It’s like living with 20-200 vision and then getting a good pair of glasses. You see a different universe.”

UAVs—popularly known as drones—are best known for their military uses, but they have found many civilian applications, including precision agriculture, traffic surveillance and wilderness rescue. They are a boon to environmental scientists, Selker said, because they can carry measuring instruments into places where it’s difficult or dangerous to send humans, or where other technology can’t easily reach.

Selker’s UAVs will join a growing suite of instruments and tools at the Center for Transformative Environmental Monitoring, or CTEMPs, an NSF-sponsored partnership between OSU and the University of Nevada-Reno. CTEMPs has a fleet of scientific instruments that it makes available, along with training, to environmental scientists throughout the United States.

Selker is a co-director of CTEMPs along with Scott Tyler of the University of Nevada. Wing is director of AirCTEMPs and directs UAV flights at OSU for agriculture, engineering, fish, wildlife and natural resource applications.

The $1.2 million NSF grant renewal will also fund CTEMPs’s purchase of other UAV-mountable instruments, including thermal imaging cameras and a small LIDAR, or laser-powered imaging tool, that captures three-dimensional measurements of landscape features.

Story By: 

John Selker, 541-737-6304;

Michael Wing, 541-737-4009

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UAV with fiber optic cable

OSU scientist Michael Wing flies a UAV equipped with a fiber-optic temperature sensing cable over farm fields near Hermiston, Ore. Photo by Robert Predosa


UAV with fiber optic cable. Photo by Robert Predosa

UAV flies over clouds in eastern Oregon.

Climate change, plant roots may accelerate carbon loss from soils, say OSU researchers

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Soil, long thought to be a semi-permanent storehouse for ancient carbon, may be releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere faster than anyone thought, according to Oregon State University soil scientists.

In a study published in this week’s online edition of the journal Nature Climate Change, the researchers showed that chemicals emitted by plant roots act on carbon that is bonded to minerals in the soil, breaking the bonds and exposing previously protected carbon to decomposition by microbes.

The carbon then passes into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2), said the study’s coauthor, Markus Kleber, a soil scientist in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

He said the study challenges the prevailing view that carbon bonded to minerals stays in the soil for thousands of years. “As these root compounds separate the carbon from its protective mineral phase,” he said, “we may see a greater release of carbon from its storage sites in the soil.”

It’s likely that a warming climate is speeding this process up, he said. As warmer weather and more carbon dioxide in the air stimulate plants to grow, they produce more root compounds. This will likely release more stored carbon, which will enter the atmosphere as CO2—which could in turn accelerate the rate of climate warming.

“Our main concern is that this is an important mechanism, and we are not presently considering it in global models of carbon cycling,” Kleber said.

CO2 is a major driver of the current warming of Earth’s atmosphere. By failing to account for accelerated soil-carbon decomposition, the study suggests, current climate-change models may be underestimating carbon loss from soil by as much as 1 percent per year.

“There is more carbon stored in the soil, on a global scale, than in vegetation or even in the atmosphere,” said Kleber. “Since this reservoir is so large, even small changes will have serious effects on carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, and by extension on climate.”

One percent may not sound like much, he added. “But think of it this way: If you have money in the bank and you lose 1 percent per year, you would be down to two thirds of your starting capital after only 50 years.”

Between 60 and 80 percent of organic matter entering the soil gets broken down within the first year in a chain of decomposition that ends with CO2, Kleber said. Most of the remaining carbon gets bound to the soil’s minerals through a variety of physical and chemical mechanisms. When this happens, the carbon is protected because the microbes can’t get at it to break it down.

For the past couple of decades, scientists have assumed that these carbon-mineral bonds amounted to a long-lasting “sink” for soil carbon—keeping it out of the atmosphere by storing it in a stable form over many centuries.

“But from the beginning, there was a question that made a lot of folks uneasy,” said Kleber. “If carbon keeps going into the soil and staying there, then why aren’t we drowning in carbon? Isn’t there some process that takes it back into the cycle? That part was not very well researched, and it was what we were trying to find.”

The researchers tested three model compounds for common “root exudates”—chemicals commonly excreted by plant roots—to see how strongly each one stimulated the microbes that drive organic-matter decomposition.

In the laboratory, using a syringe and pump, they applied oxalic acid, acetic acid and glucose to soil taken from a dry-climate agricultural area and a wet-climate forest, both in Oregon. They conducted the experiment over 35 days to simulate a flush of root growth in the spring.

Prevailing theory, said Kleber, would predict that the hungry microbes would respond most strongly to the nutritious glucose, which would give them the energy to tackle the rest of the organic matter, including the carbon.

“And this is likely happening to a certain extent,” he said. “But our big surprise was that the energy-poor oxalic acid generated a much stronger response from the microbes than the energy-rich glucose.”

When they analyzed the water stored in the oxalic acid-treated soil, the researchers saw there was eight times more dissolved carbon in it than there had been before. Additional laboratory tests confirmed the finding that the acids were breaking the carbon-mineral bonds.

“The significance of this research,” Kleber said, “is that we have documented for the first time a mechanism by which long-stored soil carbon is cycled back into the system.”

Oxalic acid is a good stand-in for a whole suite of root compounds that are excreted by plants in the root zone, Kleber said. “Roots excrete several compounds similar to oxalic acid. We can assume that many root exudates act in a similar way.”

Kleber collaborated on the study with his doctoral student Marco Keiluweit and researchers from Australia and the United States. The work was funded by a U.S. Department of Energy grant and directed by Jennifer Pett-Ridge at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif.

Story By: 

Markus Kleber, 541-737-5718

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Markus Kleber is a soil scientist at Oregon State University.

Baby boomers dance and cook their way to health in new OSU program

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A group of Deschutes County baby boomers got their groove on as music from a Wiggles children’s tape streamed from speakers. Behind them a kitchen was ready for the brain-beneficial menu next on the agenda. The fun had just begun.

It was the first day of a four-part Nourishing Boomers and Beyond program, a pilot project by Oregon State University’s Extension Service in Deschutes County in partnership with North Dakota State University, where the curriculum was developed.

The plan is to repeat the course in June and have the program picked up by other counties, said Glenda Hyde, an Extension family and community health educator who started the project. Created to help boomers prevent chronic diseases by taking charge of their health, the course touches on strategies for nourishing the brain, skin, digestive system and heart.

Patty Stark, who has taken several classes through Extension, including canning and food preservation, heard about the class and thought, “Gosh, that sounds great. I figured I could really benefit from it.”

After the first class, she was convinced. The dancing, she said, was a kick, and she’d had no idea how important it is for brain health.

“I went home and told my husband that the research shows dancing is one of the best things you can do for memory and preventing Alzheimer’s,” she said. “Maybe we’ll dance more now.”

The cooking segment was even more meaningful for Stark, who is gluten intolerant and has a family history of heart attacks, stroke and Alzheimer’s. Learning to make a gluten-free blueberry buckle made an impression on her, as did a salmon salad with lemon-tarragon dressing.

“Oh yeah, that was a really nice salad,” she said. “I try to eat healthy, but we go out quite a bit. That was definitely something I’ll try at home.”

In the second class on caring for your skin, Hyde introduced facial masks made with ingredients like avocado, whipping cream, carrot, yogurt and flaxseed. She asked everyone to make and try one.

“It was a hoot,” Hyde said. “They made two and put one on each side of their faces. They put the yogurt one on one side first and it was really good. But then they put the second one on the other cheek and, holy smokes, they said they could tell a big difference between the two.”

When the class made oven-roasted sweet potatoes with walnuts, brown sugar and spices, they found out sweet potatoes are even more full of cancer-fighting antioxidants than blueberries. The gluten-free, whole-grain cornbread made with brown and white rice flour, potato and tapioca starch was a revelation, too.

“Nobody could believe how good it was,” Hyde said, adding that ingredients provided by sponsor Bob’s Red Mill went home with participants to encourage them to make the cornbread and other recipes on their own.

Hyde taught more hands-on cooking in the classes on the digestive system and heart, including a popular breakfast dish of whole-grain polenta, wilted spinach, grated Parmesan cheese, mango and just a bit of sausage.

“That went over really well,” she said. “The whole Boomers and Beyond course went over well. Everyone soaked up the information we gave them and everyone had fun, too.”

Story By: 

Glenda Hyde, 541-548-6088

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Nourishing Boomers and Beyond

Patty Stark dishes up smoked salmon salad, a recipe she learned in the Nourishing Boomers and Beyond course in Deschutes County. Photo by Glenda Hyde.

OSU’s Seed to Supper program teaches low-budget vegetable gardening

CORVALLIS, Ore. – For many people a sweet carrot pulled from the soil or a spicy pepper picked fresh from the garden isn’t how they get their vegetables, if they get them at all.

The Seed to Supper program, a partnership between Oregon State University’s Extension Service and the Oregon Food Bank, is working to change that. The free, five-week course teaches adults from low-income families how to grow and enjoy their own vegetables, said Pami Opfer, a coordinator for Extension’s Master Gardener Program.

More than 800 people have completed the program, taught in large part by Master Gardeners, in 55 classes since 2013, according to Opfer. This year Seed to Supper has expanded to include Jackson, Josephine, Klamath, Lane, Marion, Polk, Hood River, Tillamook, Umatilla, Morrow, Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties.

On a recent evening in Corvallis, a group of 13 people gathered around a table, pulling apart tiny starts of marjoram, parsley and thyme, then picking up bamboo chopsticks to gently tuck them into plastic containers filled with potting soil. Jennifer Klammer, an OSU Extension Master Gardener since 2011, and volunteer Donna Durbin led them through the process.

The two women, who founded a garden at their church that donates more than 2,000 pounds of produce a year to assist local residents in need, took it upon themselves to start the program in Linn and Benton counties in the winter of 2013 after Klammer saw information about Seed to Supper on the food bank’s website.

“Working in the garden and donating food, it seemed like there was a missing link,” Klammer said. “This gives people a sense of control over their food source. It’s especially hard for low-income folks to get high-quality produce. It’s expensive. But if you can grow a salad bowl on your deck and it’s easy, why not?”

Class participant Cindel Mikesell agreed.

“I tell people I know who have balconies and say they can’t garden, ‘Yes, you can,’ Mikesell said.  “I’ve read about a woman in England that grew $5,000 worth of food on her balcony. I’d like to do that.”

Breanne and Bobby Taylor, who brought along their new baby, said they came to the class so they could help Bobby’s aging father manage his garden and to learn time-saving tips that would help them as new parents, who both work full-time and manage a community garden plot.

To help, they’ll receive a 96-page handbook, seeds and starts.

“They have the booklet, which is always a reference,” Durbin said. “And they can always contact the Master Gardeners. People end up feeling connected. Their response has been overwhelmingly positive.”

Participants learn the basics in classes that include lessons in how to build healthy soil and plan, plant, care for and harvest a garden.

Brittney Fry, who enthusiastically jotted notes as the class went on, said she’d shown up because she’s motivated to garden but has never done it before.

“I have a weed patch now,” she said. “I have three small kids, and I’m really excited getting them into it – growing things they’ll love and enjoy.”

Upcoming classes are being held in the following locations:

Linn and Benton counties

Albany: March 19 to April 16

Lebanon: March 10 to April 7

Portland metro area

Portland: March 1-29; April 12 to May 17

Sandy: March 7 to April 4

In other counties, check with your local Master Gardener program.

Story By: 

Pami Opfer, 541-766-6750

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Low-income adults learn to grow their own vegetables in Oregon State University Extension Service’s Seed to Supper program. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.

OSU to host small farms conference Feb. 28

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The 15th annual Oregon Small Farms Conference, which drew 800 people last year, takes place Feb. 28 at Oregon State University.

The event, one of the flagship educational offerings of OSU Extension Service’s Small Farms Program, is geared toward farmers, agriculture professionals, food policy advocates, students, restaurant owners, food retailers and managers of farmers markets. Over the years, participants have learned how to harvest rainwater, market meat products, develop a business plan, sell products to schools, graft vegetables and lease land.

This year, presenters will include farmers, OSU faculty and representatives of agribusiness and government agencies. Five of the speakers, including Jean-Martin Fortier, will conduct full-day sessions.

Fortier founded the organic farm Jardins de la Grelinette near Quebec, which is recognized internationally for its high productivity and profitability using low-tech, high-yield methods of production. A graduate of the McGill School of Environment in Montreal, Fortier is a passionate advocate for strengthening local food systems and has facilitated more than 50 workshops and conferences in Canada, France, Belgium and the United States promoting the idea of micro-scale farming. His session covers Six Figure Farming for Small Plots.

In addition, the Oregon Small Farms Conference will feature 24 workshops, including three in Spanish, on topics that include:

  • Healthier animals, healthier profits;
  • Diversification of orchards and markets;
  • Climate change and perennial fruit and nut production;
  • Marketing farmers markets;
  • Crunching numbers to determine greenhouse costs;
  • Exploring the small farm dream;
  • Advanced plant disease management on organic vegetable farms;
  • New grant opportunities for farmers markets;
  • Impacts of organic certification.

The cost, which includes lunch, is $65 per person or $100 at the door. Registration is open until midnight on Feb. 18. The conference will take place from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the LaSells Stewart Center. To register, go to the Small Farms Conference website.

OSU will host a free screening of the documentary “Dryland” at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 27 at the conference center.

An after-conference hootenanny with dinner, local beer and cider, and dancing to live music will start at 5 p.m. Tickets are $15 through Feb. 15, and then $20.

Story By: 

Chrissy Lucas, 541-766-3556

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Oregon Small Farms Conference

Everything from how to market farmers markets to the impacts of organic certification will be covered at the Oregon Small Farms Conference at OSU. Photo by Tiffany Woods.

Another reason to drink wine: it could help you burn fat

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Drinking red grape juice or wine – in moderation – could improve the health of overweight people by helping them burn fat better, according to a new study coauthored by an Oregon State University researcher.

The findings suggest that consuming dark-colored grapes, whether eating them or drinking juice or wine, might help people better manage obesity and related metabolic disorders such as fatty liver.

Neil Shay, a biochemist and molecular biologist in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences, was part of a study team that exposed human liver and fat cells grown in the lab to extracts of four natural chemicals found in Muscadine grapes, a dark-red variety native to the southeastern United States.

One of the chemicals, ellagic acid, proved particularly potent: It dramatically slowed the growth of existing fat cells and formation of new ones, and it boosted metabolism of fatty acids in liver cells.

These plant chemicals are not a weight-loss miracle, cautions Shay. “We didn’t find, and we didn’t expect to, that these compounds would improve body weight,” he said. But by boosting the burning of fat, especially in the liver, they may improve liver function in overweight people.

“If we could develop a dietary strategy for reducing the harmful accumulation of fat in the liver, using common foods like grapes,” Shay said, “that would be good news.”

The study, which Shay conducted with colleagues at the University of Florida and University of Nebraska, complements work with mice he leads at his OSU laboratory. In one 2013 trial, he and his graduate students supplemented the diets of overweight mice with extracts from Pinot noir grapes harvested from Corvallis-area vineyards.

Some of the mice were fed a normal diet of “mouse chow,” as Shay calls it, containing 10 percent fat. The rest were fed a diet of 60 percent fat – the sort of unhealthy diet that would pile excess pounds on a human frame.

“Our mice like that high-fat diet,” said Shay, “and they overconsume it. So they’re a good model for the sedentary person who eats too much snack food and doesn’t get enough exercise.”

The grape extracts, scaled down to a mouse’s nutritional needs, were about the equivalent of one and a half cups of grapes a day for a person. “The portions are reasonable,” said Shay, “which makes our results more applicable to the human diet.”

Over a 10-week trial, the high-fat-fed mice developed fatty liver and diabetic symptoms – “the same metabolic consequences we see in many overweight, sedentary people,” Shay said.

But the chubby mice that got the extracts accumulated less fat in their livers, and they had lower blood sugar, than those that consumed the high-fat diet alone. Ellagic acid proved to be a powerhouse in this experiment, too, lowering the high-fat-fed mice’s blood sugar to nearly the levels of the lean, normally fed mice.  

When Shay and his colleagues analyzed the tissues of the fat mice that ate the supplements, they noted higher activity levels of PPAR-alpha and PPAR-gamma, two proteins that work within cells to metabolize fat and sugar.

Shay hypothesizes that the ellagic acid and other chemicals bind to these PPAR-alpha and PPAR-gamma nuclear hormone receptors, causing them to switch on the genes that trigger the metabolism of dietary fat and glucose. Commonly prescribed drugs for lowering blood sugar and triglycerides act in this way, Shay said.

The goal of his work, he added, is not to replace needed medications but to guide people in choosing common, widely available foods that have particular health benefits, including boosting metabolic function.

“We are trying to validate the specific contributions of certain foods for health benefits,” he said. “If you’re out food shopping, and if you know a certain kind of fruit is good for a health condition you have, wouldn’t you want to buy that fruit?”

The research was supported by the Institute of Food and Agricultural Science at the University of Florida and Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The study appears in the January issue of the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry.

Shay’s research with mice was supported by the Blue Mountain Horticultural Society, the Erath Family Foundation, and the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences.

Story By: 

Neil Shay, 541-737-0685

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Neil Shay 1

Neil Shay, biochemist and food researcher at Oregon State University, at the university’s research vineyard near Alpine, Oregon. Photo by Lynn Ketchum

OSU to host Willamette Valley Bird Symposium on Jan. 24

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University and the American Ornithologists’ Union will host the Willamette Valley Bird Symposium, a one-day event focusing on research and careers in avian biology, on Saturday, Jan. 24, at the Linus Pauling Science Center on the OSU campus.

The symposium is aimed at high school students, teachers and undergraduates. It is also supported by The Audubon Society of Corvallis and the U.S. Geological Survey Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center. More information is available at: http://www.audubon.corvallis.or.us/wbs.shtml

Eric Forsman, a bird expert from the U.S. Forest Service in Corvallis, will give the keynote talk: “A Thirty-Year Study of Spotted Owls in the Old-Growth Forests of Western Oregon.”

The symposium will feature more than 20 short talks on bird research. Among the topics:

  • Mercury in Willamette Valley riparian songbirds;
  • Snowy plover survival, population and management in Oregon;
  • Effectiveness of backyard wildlife habitats;
  • The Oregon 2020 project of citizen scientists contributing to Oregon bird surveys;
  • New research on Adelie penguins.

Other talks will cover a variety of bird species, including swallows, Aphelocoma jays, Pfrimer’s parakeet, songbirds, seabirds, Caspian terns, bald eagles and common murres. Monitoring technology will be covered in talks on solar-powered cameras, use of drones in ornithology, archival GPS tags on diving seabirds, and other topics.

The symposium runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. It also will feature a live bird exhibition from Chintimini Wildlife Center, demonstrations of ornithological research techniques, and a panel discussion on careers in ornithology.

Story By: 

Sue Haig, 541-750-0981; willamettebirds15@gmail.com

Why do plankton bloom? The answer could force rethinking of ocean’s food web

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study at Oregon State University could overturn conventional wisdom about the role of phytoplankton in the Earth’s carbon cycle, potentially changing scientists’ understanding of how global warming will alter the environment for marine life.

OSU researcher Michael Behrenfeld, an expert in marine plants, is leading a $30 million NASA-funded study of a phytoplankton “hot spot” in a triangle of ocean stretching from Woods Hole, Massachusetts to the Azores and north to Greenland’s southern tip.

Behrenfeld’s team will gather shipboard and in-ocean data from four sea cruises over the course of the five-year study. The two spring cruises will catch the North Atlantic plankton bloom – one of the biggest on the planet – in its most southerly latitude and follow it as it progresses north with the warming weather.

Simultaneously, aircraft will fly near the ship and take measurements of tiny airborne particles called aerosols, which are linked to plankton activity and which also play a big role in the Earth’s energy cycle.  

Phytoplankton – which are an assortment of single-celled plants dwelling in the ocean’s upper layer – are the foundation of the marine food web.

“They are tiny, but they’re extremely abundant,” said Behrenfeld. “If you look at the photosynthesis of all these microscopic plants on a global basis, it’s the equivalent of the photosynthesis of all the plants on land.” 

As they capture sunlight and turn it into sugar, they become food for zooplankton (the animal variety of plankton), which are eaten in turn by other organisms, and so on up the chain.

Phytoplankton are present throughout the world’s oceans and are most abundant in the high latitudes of the northern and southern hemispheres. In these cold, nutrient-rich waters, they typically undergo seasonal population explosions, or blooms.

For decades, scientists have attributed these blooms to springtime increases in sunlight and warming temperatures – much the same seasonal pattern that makes gardens bloom on land. This explanation is based on a limited number of measurements from ships in the early 20th century.

Under this traditional scenario, warmer oceans should produce bigger blooms, which should produce more food for ocean-dwelling life.

Yet satellite images suggest a different story, Behrenfeld said. Sophisticated instruments continuously monitor global plankton populations year-round by measuring shifts in light-wave frequencies that capture changes in phytoplankton abundance. Studying these images a few years ago, Behrenfeld noticed phytoplankton blooming when they shouldn’t have been.

“In the middle of winter, in the worst conditions for growth, we saw that the pigment concentrations actually started to increase,” he said. “That alone tells us that the old hypothesis is incorrect.”

Behrenfeld proposes a different explanation: The blooms are born in early winter, when the ocean’s upper waters – the so-called mixed layer – are agitated by strong winds. They also are churned by a process called thermal convection, in which the top tier of water gets cold and sinks, causing the warmer waters beneath to well up to the surface.

These physical forces cause a deepening of the mixed layer, and this, Behrenfeld believes, gives the phytoplankton room to spread out, making it easier for them to escape being eaten by zooplankton.

“You can think of phytoplankton as the grass and the zooplankton as the grazers – the cows, if you will,” Behrenfeld explained. “The idea is that these strong physical processes deepen the mixing layer and dilute the phytoplankton to such low levels that the zooplankton can’t effectively feed on them.”

He hypothesizes that the phytoplankton take advantage of their competitive edge to out-multiply their grazers and begin a population increase that culminates in a spring bloom.

If the winter turbulence of the ocean is what triggers a plankton bloom, as Behrenfeld believes, and not spring warming, then a warming ocean should produce smaller blooms, reducing photosynthesis and potentially limiting the ocean’s food supply.

The new study will provide the measurements needed to test this hypothesis and compare it to the traditional explanation.

“Our investigation will address two basic questions,” Behrenfeld said. “First, what processes allow the bloom to be recreated each year? And second, how do blooms impact atmospheric aerosols and clouds? By answering these questions, we will be able to make better predictions on how marine ecosystems, including fisheries, will be affected.”

The NASA team includes four other researchers from OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences (Stephen Giovannoni, Kimberly Halsey, Allen Milligan and Toby Westberry) and scientists from NASA, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and six other U.S. universities. Almost $4 million of the grant funds will go to the OSU team.

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Michael Behrenfeld, 541-737-5289

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Michael Behrenfeld

Scientist Michael Behrenfeld is leading a major study that may overturn the accepted theory about plankton blooms. Behrenfeld is a marine botanist at Oregon State University. (Photo by Gail Wells)