OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

college of agricultural sciences

Study: Future for charismatic pika not as daunting as once feared

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The American pika is thought by many biologists to be a prime candidate for extirpation as the planet continues to warm, done in by temperatures too severe for this small mammal native to cold climates.

But a new study, published this week in the journal Global Change Biology, paints a different, more complex future for this rock-dwelling little lagomorph – the same order that includes rabbits and hares. Pikas may survive, even thrive, in some areas, the researchers say, while facing extirpation in others.

The research is important because pikas are considered a sentinel species for climate change impacts. 

Led by Oregon State University post-doctoral researcher Donelle Schwalm, the study delved into where pikas live and how they move among habitat patches. The team used that information to create species distribution models for eight National Park Service areas in the western United States and forecast pika distribution 30, 60 and 90 years into the future, based on expected climate change scenarios.

The Pikas in Peril research project, funded by the National Park Service, was launched in 2010 to determine how vulnerable the animals are to climate change in eight NPS units. 

“If you look at the overall picture, the amount of suitable habitat will decline and temperatures will warm in most of these National Parks,” Schwalm said. “But many of these sites have areas that are colder, higher and sometimes wetter than other areas, and pikas should do quite well there.

“In some parks, risk of extinction will increase,” she added. “But in other parks, like Grand Teton and Lassen, their populations should remain stable.” 

Pikas seek out icy pockets in rock fields or lava flows and live near other pikas in small patches of these cool habitats. One key to their survival appears to be maintaining connectivity among different pika patches, which keeps a satisfactory level of genetic diversity among the broader population and allows for the inevitable downturns in survival due to weather, predation, disease and other factors, noted Clinton Epps, an associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, and co-author on the study.

“If you just have three or four pikas in a given area, that’s a pretty small group and at the patch level, they can wink out pretty quickly,” said Epps, who studies habitat connectivity for many animal species. “But if you can maintain good connectivity, pikas can disperse from other patches and the overall system remains strong as long as habitat remains generally suitable.” 

The study found that connectivity influenced where pikas persist in most of the eight parks, and thus must be incorporated in forecasts of future pika populations, the researchers noted.

The ideal habitat for pikas is a high-elevation, cold boulder field with north- and east-facing slopes that is adjacent to similar boulder fields. The herbivorous pikas also need access to high-quality forage, including forbs, grasses, sedges, twigs, moss and lichen, said Thomas Rodhouse, a biologist with the National Park Service. 

“The study is important because it suggests that some parks may be more appropriate areas to focus our resources than others,” Rodhouse said. “If we look at it on a system-wide basis, the pika should survive. But we can’t say that they will be thriving, or even present, at all eight parks down the road.”

“We potentially could move pikas from vulnerable areas to locations with suitable habitat,” Rodhouse added. “Or we could discuss enhancing habitat and creating more connectivity, though you have to examine whether that is something we should be doing in a National Park. But this study allows us to begin having these strategic discussions.” 

Study results for the eight National Park Service units suggest that:

  • Crater Lake National Park’s pikas already occupy the highest-elevation habitat, thus there is no refuge to which pikas may escape. Warming temperatures, particularly in winter, may reduce the insulating snow layer and decrease patch occupancy by 50 to 100 percent;
  • Craters of the Moon National Monument is hotter and drier than the other parks and the best habitat is occupied. Although temperature and precipitation may change in this park, it appears that the pika will persist, although at lower numbers;
  • Grand Teton National Park has exceptional connectivity among habitat patches, which likely will persist over time. Cool temperatures and increasing precipitation at high elevations make this park an important refuge for the species;
  • Great Sand Dunes is a cool, dry park and pika populations may experience slight declines initially, but they also could increase over time as precipitation is projected to increase in the future;
  • Lassen Volcanic National Park has pikas well-distributed through the talus boulder fields and lava flows. Strong connectivity suggests pikas will persist under most climate change scenarios;
  • Lava Beds National Monument is unusually hot, dry and low in elevation, though the extensive lava flow is good habitat. Climate change modeling in this park was inconclusive, but low genetic diversity and warming suggests that this population is vulnerable;
  • Rocky Mountain National Park’s low elevations and south-facing slopes are impediments to gene flow. Rising temperatures, especially during the winter, and changing connectivity result in increasing likelihood of pika extirpation by the end of the century;
  • Yellowstone National Park also is predicted to see complete extirpation of pikas under most climate change scenarios because of warming and loss of connectivity.

As a sentinel species, pikas may provide a clue to how other animals react to climate change, the researchers note. “They can act as the proverbial canary in the coal mine, but they’re also just really cute, charismatic little animals,” Schwalm said. “There is a lot of public interest in preserving the pikas.”

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Doni Schwalm, 806-252-6074, doni.schwalm@oregonstate.edu; Clint Epps, 541-737-2478, clinton.epps@oregonstate.edu; Tom Rodhouse, 541-312-6425, tom.rodhouse@nps.gov

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Pika photo by Drew Rush

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Pika photo by Clinton Epps

CRMO&GRTE 143

New chemical could yield therapy to prevent Type 1 diabetes

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University researchers have discovered a chemical that blocks Type 1 diabetes in laboratory mice and may work the same way in humans.

The chemical, nicknamed BBQ, works at the genetic level to prevent a rogue immune response from destroying insulin-producing cells in diabetic mice, researchers said.

If it works the same way in humans, it could yield a breakthrough therapy for Type 1 diabetes and possibly have applications in other autoimmune diseases as well, including colitis, psoriasis and multiple sclerosis.

“This compound has a very targeted effect, and it’s safe at therapeutic doses in mice,” said Nancy Kerkvliet, a professor in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences and lead researcher on a new study just published in the Journal of Immunology.

“If it works in human clinical studies, we envision a therapy that could be started early to block the onset of Type 1 diabetes, and maybe even cure it in the long run,” she said.

Type 1 diabetes — sometimes called juvenile diabetes — causes the immune system to destroy insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. The disease often doesn’t show symptoms until the pancreas damage is irreparable, Kerkvliet said.

The body needs insulin to move food energy, in the form of glucose, from the bloodstream into tissues. Type 1 diabetics usually have to take artificial insulin for the rest of their lives. Among U.S. children up to age 19, the incidence of Type 1 diabetes has increased 21 percent from 2001-2009, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In the new research, Kerkvliet’s laboratory worked with mice bred to develop Type 1 diabetes, one group of which received BBQ three times a week. A control group of untreated mice developed diabetes, while the BBQ-treated mice were protected from disease.

The treated mice showed virtually no inflammation in their pancreatic “islets” — the pockets of cells in the pancreas that make insulin, Kerkvliet said. Inflammation of these islets is a telltale sign of the disease. In contrast, all of the control mice showed extensive islet inflammation.

Researchers say that BBQ works by binding to a protein within cells called the aryl hydrocarbon receptor, or AhR, which then regulates genes that influence immune responses.

After the BBQ locks onto the AhR, it moves into the nucleus of T cells — white blood cells that coordinate the body’s immune response. There, AhR latches onto the DNA and changes the messaging of the genes, which prevents the T cell from attacking the pancreatic islets.

Allison Ehrlich, a postdoctoral fellow in the Kerkvliet Laboratory and co-researcher on the study, said the beauty of BBQ is that it works without shutting down the rest of the immune system, unlike current steroid-based immunosuppressants.

Erlich said that T cells are born “naïve,” and “learn” to attack harmful pathogens. As this happens, the cells become more specialized — a process called differentiation.

“When BBQ binds to the AhR, it stops new T cells from differentiation,” Ehrlich said. “The ‘memory’ T cells, those that already exist, aren’t affected. So the body stays protected against pathogens it has been exposed to in the past.”

In earlier studies, Kerkvliet discovered that the chemical TCDD — better known as dioxin — also binds to AhR and prevents Type 1 diabetes in mice. But dioxin is not a good candidate for an immune-suppression therapy, she said, because it lingers in the body for years after exposure and is considered a toxic chemical.

“So we went looking for another compound that would function in the same way but without the bad effects,” said co-researcher Siva Kolluri. After screening tens of thousands of chemicals, Kolluri’s laboratory hit upon BBQ. Unlike dioxin, BBQ has a good safety profile, he said.

Kerkvliet said BBQ also has potential for treating other autoimmune diseases such as colitis, psoriasis and multiple sclerosis. It holds promise for alleviating graft-versus-host disease by suppressing the immune response in, for example, organ-transplant surgery.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health and appears in the January 2016 issue of The Journal of Immunology.

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Nancy Kerkvliet, 541-737-4387, nancy.kerkvliet@oregonstate.edu

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Nancy Kerkvliet, Oregon State University immunotoxicologist, researches chemicals that suppress the immune system. Photo by Stephen Ward.
Nancy Kerkvliet, Oregon State University

Climate change may bring global food insecurity, impacts on U.S.

CORVALLIS, Ore. - The warming of Earth’s climate threatens to increase global food insecurity and halt more than two decades of progress toward curbing global hunger, according to a major assessment by 31 researchers.

Worldwide, climate change is likely to destabilize cropping systems, interrupt transportation networks and trigger food shortages and price hikes, says the report, unveiled last week by U.S. agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack at the UN’s COP-21 climate conference in Paris.

While the pace of these changes depends on a multitude of factors, their effects will become more pronounced by mid-century, the researchers found. Under the least optimistic scenario—based on high carbon emissions and low international cooperation—agricultural yields could go down by as much as 15 percent and food prices could rise more than 30 percent by 2050. 

“A lot has been written about the impacts of climate change on agriculture in developing countries,” said John Antle, an agricultural economist in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University who led the study’s socioeconomic modeling.

“What’s different about this study is that it brings the impact of food insecurity home to the United States,” Antle said. 

While developing countries, particularly in tropical regions, will suffer the most, the United States - the world’s largest exporter of food - will also feel the shocks, he said. Hunger is not expected to rise in the world’s richest country, but climate-driven changes are expected to lower long-term agricultural productivity, with an impact on a major sector of the U.S. economy.

Climate is, of course, the most important influence on agriculture. The crops in various regions of the world are adapted to particular regimes of temperature, season length and rainfall. When those parameters change with a changing climate, agricultural systems are disrupted. 

What’s less recognized, say the researchers, is that climate change also disrupts global systems for transporting, storing, packaging and delivering food, making it harder for people to get enough of the right kind of food, especially in regions that already are food-insecure.

The percentage of the world’s undernourished people has been cut nearly in half since 1990-91, from 19 percent to 11 percent, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. 

“The challenge we now face,” Vilsack said in a statement, “is whether we can maintain and even accelerate this progress despite the threats from climate change.”

Earth’s climate is getting warmer because of increased carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse” gases in the atmosphere. Two hundred years ago the atmosphere held about 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Now it holds about 400 parts per million, and as a result, Earth’s average temperature has risen about 0.8 degrees C (1.4 degrees F). 

The report reviews and synthesizes recent research by global and regional modeling teams that projects impacts of climate change on agricultural production, consumption, prices and trade.

One of these teams is the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project. Antle is a co-leader of that project, which uses detailed regional data to assess the vulnerability of poor rural populations to economic disruptions linked to climate. Antle leads the project’s regional economic assessment teams in Africa and South Asia. 

“These assessments have helped us develop a range of plausible outcomes from the variety of responses to different levels of climate change,” Antle said.

“Agriculture has adapted to various shifts in climate over time, but I think the concern now is how rapidly things are changing,” he said. “We have a growing global population and increasing pressure on water, soil and other resources. Even without climate change, feeding the world would likely get harder.” 

The researchers also said that appropriate technological, economic and policy decisions could greatly mitigate the destabilizing effects of climate.

“Climate Change, Global Food Security and the U.S. Food System” is the result of a 3-year study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. Its 31 contributors represent universities and other research institutions in four countries. 

The Paris climate conference continues through Friday, Dec. 11.

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John Antle, 541-737-1425, john.antle@oregonstate.edu

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John Antle, agricultural economist at Oregon State University. Photo by Studio Lux Images.

John Antle, Oregon State University

OSU study: Packaging insecticides in tiny capsules may make them more toxic

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Encasing insecticides in microscopic plastic capsules—a common formulation for many pest sprays on the market—may make them more toxic than the active ingredient alone, according to a new study from Oregon State University.

Environmental toxicologist Stacey Harper and her team found that a common agricultural insecticide in its “capsule suspension” formulation—with molecules of the active ingredient encapsulated in tiny, inert plastic pellets—was more toxic than the same amount of active ingredient delivered straight up in water.

Their study appeared in this month’s edition of the journal Environment International.

Harper, an associate professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences and the College of Engineering, and her doctoral student Alicea Meredith studied a commercial pyrethroid-type insecticide with an encapsulated active ingredient, lambda-cyhalothrin. The product is a broad-spectrum insecticide approved for use in many field and row crops. Its label warns that it is toxic to fish and other water-dwelling organisms.

The capsules encasing the product’s active ingredient range from micron-sized (a red blood cell is about 8 microns in diameter; a human hair is 40-75 microns thick), to nanometer-sized, a thousand times smaller.

“We set out to see whether the size of the capsule made any difference in toxicity or environmental fate,” Harper said. She hypothesized that the tinier capsules would be more toxic than the bigger ones, because they would be able to penetrate cells more readily.

The researchers spun the off-the-shelf product in a centrifuge and sorted its capsules into two size classes. There was a wide range of sizes; most capsules were in the neighborhood of micron-sized, but some were nanometer-sized.

They exposed the embryos of zebrafish to six successively stronger doses of the pesticide’s active ingredient. One group got it in micron-sized capsules, and another group got the same dose in nanometer-sized capsules. As a control, a third group of embryos got the same dose of active ingredient, but it was not encapsulated.

In all cases, the lowest dose administered (20 micrograms of active ingredient per liter of water) was higher than any likely to be used in a commercial spray. “We started with a dose we knew to be toxic because we wanted to compare the toxicity of these two capsule sizes,” Harper said.

Zebrafish, a fast-growing species common in home aquariums, are useful for toxicology testing, Harper said, because their bodies are transparent as they grow, enabling researchers to spot developmental anomalies from exposure to toxic chemicals.

Over five days the embryos showed the effects of pesticide poisoning, including physical malformations, tremoring, paralysis and death. But the pesticide in the smaller capsules was no more toxic than the pesticide in the larger ones, Harper said—the higher doses were more toxic across the board, regardless of capsule size.

“What was more surprising,” she said, “was that the active ingredient alone was significantly less toxic than either of the encapsulated formulations. We didn’t set out to test this, but it’s what we found.”

Chemical manufacturers have offered encapsulated formulations of pesticides for more than 50 years, Harper said, because encapsulation is thought to improve the product’s dispersal and durability. “Our findings indicate that these formulations may be affecting where a chemical spreads through an environment and how it interacts with biological systems,” she said.  

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires pesticide manufacturers to test a product’s active ingredient for toxicity, it doesn’t require testing of commercial formulations of the product, which are usually trade secrets. This means toxicity screening may underestimate—or perhaps overestimate—the actual environmental hazard of a chemical when it’s used in real-life situations, said Harper.

“The testing assumes that the encapsulation makes no difference in the toxicity,” she said, “but in this case, at least, it does. So it’s important to figure out how the carrier of a chemical product affects its toxicity in order to determine whether our current risk assessments offer enough protection against products that incorporate this encapsulation technology.”

Harper, also an environmental engineer, studies the environmental effects of human-made nanoparticles—microscopic bits of matter engineered to have commercially useful properties. Nanoparticles are widely used in pharmaceuticals, pesticides and personal care products, but little is known about their long-term environmental or health effects.

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture and by OSU’s Agricultural Research Foundation.

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Stacey Harper, 541-737-2791, stacey.harper@oregonstate.edu

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Zebrafish are used to test toxicity of environmental chemicals. Photo by Stephen Ward

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Stacey Harper. Photo by Frank Miller

Stacey Harper, OSU environmental toxicologist

OSU awards $68,000 in agricultural scholarships

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences has awarded 34 undergraduates $68,000 in scholarships for the 2015-2016 school year.

The scholarships are made possible by gifts to the college.

Recipients of the 2015 scholarships are:

ALBANY: Michael Perkins, agricultural business management major, received the $1,000 Savery Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 John W. DeMuth, Jr. Agricultural Sciences Scholarship.

BLODGETT: Andrew Damitio, environmental economics and policy major, received the $1,000 Charles E. and Clara Marie Eckelman Scholarship, and the $1,000 Ursula Bolt Knaus Scholarship.

CENTRAL POINT: Elizabeth Puttman, animal sciences major, received the $1,000 Grange Co-op Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 Ursula Bolt Knaus Scholarship.

CORVALLIS: Nicole Barrett, fisheries and wildlife major, received the $1,000 Lawrence E. and Marguerite Kaseberg Memorial Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 John W. DeMuth, Jr. Agricultural Sciences Scholarship.

CORVALLIS: Holly Omoto, animal sciences major, received the $1,000 Savery Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 John W. DeMuth, Jr. Agricultural Sciences Scholarship.

DAMASCUS: Matthew Crouser, agricultural business management major, received the $1,000 Frank Burlingham Memorial Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 Ursula Bolt Knaus Scholarship.

DAYTON: Joanna Kubes, agricultural business management major, received the $1,000 Frank Burlingham Memorial Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 Ursula Bolt Knaus Scholarship.

EDMONDS, Washington: Hanna Lee, animal sciences major, received the $1,000 Eugene H. Fisher Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 Ursula Bolt Knaus Scholarship.

EL CAJON, California: Alessia Azevedo, fisheries and wildlife major, received the $1,000 Charles E. and Clara Marie Eckelman Scholarship, and the $1,000 Ursula Bolt Knaus Scholarship.

GOLD BEACH: Hannah Hooker, animal sciences major, received the $1,000 Karla S. Chambers Leadership Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 John W. DeMuth, Jr. Agricultural Sciences Scholarship.

HILLSBORO: Rachel Wirachman, food science and technology major, received the $1,000 Paul and Frances Montecucco Beginning Venture Scholarship, and the $1,000 John W. DeMuth, Jr. Agricultural Sciences Scholarship.

HILLSBORO: Lindy Yoder, horticulture major, received the $1,000 Paul and Frances Montecucco Beginning Venture Scholarship, and the $1,000 John W. DeMuth, Jr. Agricultural Sciences Scholarship.

INDEPENDENCE: Courtney Chase, animal sciences major, received the $1,000 Naumes Family Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 John W. DeMuth, Jr. Agricultural Sciences Scholarship.

KENT, Ohio: Costanza Fantoni, environmental sciences and sustainability majors, received the $1,000 Frank Burlingham Memorial Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 Ursula Bolt Knaus Scholarship.

LAKE OSWEGO: Anya Britvan, animal sciences major, received the $1,000 John & Florence Scharff Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 John W. DeMuth, Jr. Agricultural Sciences Scholarship.

LAKE OSWEGO: Annelise Jahraus, animal sciences major, received the $1,000 Eugene H. Fisher Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 Ursula Bolt Knaus Scholarship.

LAKE OSWEGO: Hannah Karimi, animal sciences major, received the $1,000 Loren J. Smith Memorial Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 John W. DeMuth, Jr. Agricultural Sciences Scholarship.

LONGVIEW: Cara Caldwell, animal sciences major, received the $1,000 John & Florence Scharff Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 John W. DeMuth, Jr. Agricultural Sciences Scholarship.

MEDFORD: Alyssa Ettinger, animal sciences major, received $1,000 Tillamook County Creamery Association Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 Ursula Bolt Knaus Scholarship.

NEWBERG: Kearsten Friedrich, animal sciences major, received the $1,000 Summers Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 John W. DeMuth, Jr. Agricultural Sciences Scholarship.

NEWBERG: Margaret Halstead, crop and soil science major, received the $1,000 Loren J. Smith Memorial Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 John W. DeMuth, Jr. Agricultural Sciences Scholarship.

OAKLAND: Kayla Rushing, animal sciences major, received the $1,000 Jernstedt Family Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 John W. DeMuth, Jr. Agricultural Sciences Scholarship.

ONTARIO: Nathan Andersen, crop and soil science major, received the $1,000 Charles E. and Clara Marie Eckelman Scholarship, and the $1,000 Ursula Bolt Knaus Scholarship.

ONTARIO: Brecklin Milton, agricultural business management major, received the $1,000 Charles E. and Clara Marie Eckelman Scholarship, and the $1,000 Ursula Bolt Knaus Scholarship.

ONTARIO: Breanna Panages, animal sciences major, received the $1,000 Summers Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 John W. DeMuth, Jr. Agricultural Sciences Scholarship.

PENDLETON: Nels Swenson, agricultural sciences major, received the $1,000 Savery Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 John W. DeMuth, Jr. Agricultural Sciences Scholarship.

PLACENTIA, California: Lauren Lerch, botany major, received the $1,000 Loren J. Smith Memorial Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 John W. DeMuth, Jr. Agricultural Sciences Scholarship.

PORTLAND: Amita Kashyap, bioresource research major, received the $1,000 Clifford Smith Memorial Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 Ursula Bolt Knaus Scholarship.

RENO, Nevada: Elizabeth Nicholas, food science and technology major, received the $1,000 Clifford Smith Memorial Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 Ursula Bolt Knaus Scholarship.

SALEM: Kelsi Limbach, horticulture major, received the $1,000 Jernstedt Family Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 Ursula Bolt Knaus Scholarship.

SCIO: Marcel Ortiz, agricultural sciences major, received the $1,000 Frank Burlingham Memorial Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 Ursula Bolt Knaus Scholarship.

SPRINGFIELD: Connor Mackenzie, agricultural sciences major, received the $1,000 Frank Burlingham Memorial Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 Ursula Bolt Knaus Scholarship.

TWIN FALLS, Idaho: Kelsey Rogers, animal sciences major, received the $1,000 Savery Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 John W. DeMuth, Jr. Agricultural Sciences Scholarship.

WEST LINN: Jessica Chadwick, biological and ecological engineering major, received the $1,000 Jernstedt Family Agricultural Honors Scholarship, and the $1,000 John W. DeMuth, Jr. Agricultural Sciences Scholarship.

OSU offers more grant and scholarship dollars than any other college or university in Oregon. A significant portion of this is provided by donors to the OSU Foundation, who have contributed more than $185 million over the last decade to support scholarships, fellowships and other awards for students.

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Paul Dorres, 541-737-5655, paul.dorres@oregonstate.edu

British chemist and whiskey expert to head OSU’s new distilled-spirits program

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University has hired a whiskey expert from Great Britain to lead its new research and teaching program in distilled spirits.

Chemist Paul Hughes, who spent the past 10 years teaching and conducting research in brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, joined OSU in October. He will develop and teach classes and conduct research on producing, aging, packaging and marketing of whisky, brandy, gin, vodka and other distilled spirits. He’ll also teach the laws and rules governing the making and selling of liquor.

Distilling is the newest option in OSU’s popular fermentation sciences undergraduate program, housed in the Food Science and Technology department.

“We have well-established fermentation courses in wine, beer and cheese,” said Robert McGorrin, head of the department. “With distilled spirits, we’ve filled a key niche in our overall program.”

A big part of Hughes’s job will be to forge ties with Oregon’s growing distilling industry. He hopes to partner with Oregon distilling companies on research and internship opportunities for faculty and students. “My intent is to get around to all of Oregon’s distilleries by next June,” said Hughes.

Oregon’s approximately 80 distilling companies produced more than 400 products in 2015 and generated $69 million in gross sales, almost 13 percent of Oregon’s total liquor revenue, according to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

The teaching program, still being formed, will include undergraduate courses in chemistry, microbiology and other fermentation-related topics, similar to those that are already part of the curriculum, McGorrin said.

It will likely also include courses from the agricultural sciences and engineering, Hughes said.

“There’s a lot of commonality around the fermenting techniques used in brewing, winemaking and distilled spirits production,” he said, “but distilling requires additional steps. So there will be need for additional courses about those techniques.”

He also stressed the importance of business knowledge, especially in an up-and-coming craft industry like distilling. “Making distilled spirits is costly,” he said. “It’s important for someone starting out in the field to have a good awareness of the business aspects – raising capital, procuring raw materials, process control, marketing, regulations, those kinds of things.”

Hughes will also acquire modern equipment for OSU’s pilot distilling lab, including instruments to monitor the distillation progress and gauge the quality and purity of the final product. OSU’s distilling pilot plant now consists of a new copper brandy still donated by King Estate Winery.

He sees an opportunity to lend a regional flavor to Oregon-made distilled spirits by using home-grown ingredients.

“For example, most fruit-flavored spirits, raspberry vodka and the like, often get their flavor from syrups added in afterward,” he said. “But there are techniques you can use to distill the flavors right into the product.”

He also noted OSU’s strengths in flavor chemistry and sensory analysis. “I’m looking forward to working with my colleagues in Food Science and Technology to do some fantastic flavor work, enhancing the subtlety and complexity of some of these distilled spirits,” he said.

Hughes was raised in England, receiving bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry from the University of London, a master’s in business administration from the University of Surrey and a diploma in brewing from London’s Institute of Brewing and Distilling. He has published more than 60 papers on chemistry, flavor science, brewing, distilling and hops. He is coauthor of the 2014 book “The Science and Commerce of Whisky.”

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OSU researchers join WSU, UI on $2.7 million grant to combat potato disease

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University are teaming with colleagues in Washington and Idaho to help farmers combat an insect-transmitted disease that could devastate the Pacific Northwest’s $9 billion potato crop.

Silvia Rondon, an OSU Extension entomologist, and Oregon State colleagues Stuart Reitz and Molly Engle, are collaborating with Northwest university and industry partners on a five-year, $2.7 million study of zebra chip disease, which discolors the flesh of potatoes and makes them unmarketable.

The disease is caused by a bacterium carried by a tiny flying insect called the potato psyllid. It has caused serious problems in the southwestern United States, severely damaging the potato crop and causing millions of dollars in losses, according to Washington State University entomologist Bill Snyder, the study’s co-leader.

For the new study, Rondon’s team will step up ongoing trapping and monitoring of potato psyllids and coordinate these efforts in all three states. Others on the study will probe the DNA of the psyllids and the bacteria they carry.

The researchers will map in detail where each genetic variety of psyllid is coming from, which strain of the zebra chip bacterium the insects are carrying, how they are moving across the landscape, and how their activity is affected by weather, topography and presence of alternate host plants.

From this information they will develop predictive models and integrated pest management (IPM) guidelines, delivered through a mobile-friendly website that will enable farmers to evaluate their disease risk and spray only when and where they need to.

Zebra chip disease was unknown in the Northwest until 2011, when a surprise outbreak sent tremors through growers of the Northwest’s most valuable vegetable crop.

“It was in only a handful of fields in 2011,” said Rondon, a College of Agricultural Sciences researcher based at OSU’s Hermiston Agricultural Research and Experiment Station, “but it was severe enough to cause significant economic damage.”

The following year the disease spread widely through the potato-growing areas of northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington.

Psyllid adults and immature nymphs land on potato leaves and feed on them, transmitting the bacterium into the leaves through their mouthparts. The infection makes its way down into the developing tuber and interferes with its processing of sugars. An early-season infestation can kill the plant; a mid- to late-season one can ruin the crop.

Potatoes affected by zebra chip disease are safe to eat, Rondon said, but they’re unappetizing – the flesh is mottled with brown streaks that caramelize and turn bitter-tasting when the potatoes are fried – so they can’t be used for chips or French fries, two of the highest-value potato products.

To protect their crop, growers typically spray insecticides weekly from June through harvest, even if they don’t know whether the psyllids are present or are carrying the disease.

“These sprays are not only expensive, but they run the risk of inducing pesticide resistance,” said Rondon.  “But right now they feel they have no choice. We want to develop effective integrated pest management programs, and to do that, we have to be able to predict how the disease spreads.”

After the 2011 outbreak, Rondon, Reitz, and others began intensively monitoring potato psyllids across the inland Northwest, trapping the bugs in and around potato fields and tracking where they were coming from and how they moved.

Researchers have so far identified five genetically distinct types of potato psyllids, Rondon said. One, the northwestern type, lives year-round in the region. It overwinters in bittersweet nightshade, a weed that grows around potato fields planted near canals and ditches. The insect may also take refuge in other wild plants such as bindweed, or in piles of culled potatoes.

Another psyllid type, the western type, probably comes in from California in late winter, Rondon said. All psyllid biotypes can carry the zebra chip bacterium. All appear to travel over long distances, possibly carried by the wind or hitching a ride on transported plants.

The study is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Collaborators besides OSU are Washington State University, University of Idaho and the Potato Research Consortium, which is composed of industry representatives from each Northwest state.

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Silvia Rondon, 541-567-8321 ext. 108, silvia.rondon@oregonstate.edu

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Zebra chip disease discolors the flesh of potatoes, often making them unmarketable. Photo by Silvia Rondon.

Zebra chip disease

OSU study: Silicone breast implants may absorb harmful pollutants from body tissues

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Silicone breast implants may absorb environmental pollutants from surrounding tissues and possibly reduce their concentrations within the body, according to a new study by Oregon State University.

OSU environmental chemist Kim Anderson and her colleagues found that silicone implants are a “sink” for environmental chemicals that build up in the fatty tissues of humans and animals. Over time they can become a long-term record of a person’s exposure to environmental toxins.

The study, which appeared in the journal Environmental International, was partly inspired by recent studies showing that silicone implants may reduce risk of breast cancer by as much as 50 percent, Anderson said. “That research piqued our interest in looking at implants as a potential sink for contaminants,” she said. She cautioned that her findings don’t prove that breast implants protect against cancer or any other disease.

In a two-part experiment, Anderson, a professor in OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences, and her colleagues screened eight discarded silicone breast implants—surgically removed from women for medical or personal reasons—for some 1,400 environmental chemicals. For controls, they also screened unused silicone “sizers,” used in fitting breast implants or prostheses.

The implants contained 14 common compounds used in foods and personal-care products, commercial and industrial products, and pesticides. The most common one detected was caffeine, found in all eight samples. Next was p,p’-DDE, a suspected cancer-causing agent that results from the breakdown of the now-banned insecticide DDT. It was found in five of the samples.

Nine of the chemicals showed up in only one sample. That was not surprising, said Anderson, because individual exposure to environmental chemicals varies widely depending on where a person lives and what kind of work he or she does. “People are exposed to different chemicals in Burns, Oregon, than in Portland,” she said, “and there are differences even between neighborhoods in Portland.”

In the second phase of the study, to determine how silicone implants respond to a known chemical exposure, the researchers surgically implanted tiny silicone disks into anesthetized laboratory mice. The mice received as much silicone, in proportion to their body mass, as would be used in a range of typical human breast implants or reconstructions.

The mice then were given injections of two compounds: p,p’-DDE and also PCB 118, which belongs to a class of once widely used industrial chemicals and is also a probable carcinogen. These two substances are known to accumulate in fatty tissues. A group of control mice received surgical implants but no chemicals; another control group received chemicals and surgery but no implants.

After nine days, the researchers analyzed the silicone that had been implanted in the mice along with the surrounding fatty tissue. They found that the silicon and the tissue contained both chemicals. This, said Anderson, indicated that the chemicals had passed from the tissue into the silicone until the concentrations may have reached a balance.

Silicone is known to absorb organic-based pollutants in much the same way human cells do. “Silicone is lipophilic—meaning it loves fat,” Anderson explained. “Our bodies’ cells are also lipophilic. In order for a chemical to do us harm, it has to cross our cell barriers. So silicone is a good surrogate for an organism’s cell.”

Anderson’s lab pioneered the use of silicone wristbands as passive samplers of environmental pollution in air and water. “However, those environments are hydrophilic—water-loving—which is the opposite of lipophilic,” she said. “We wanted to demonstrate that silicone would also pull contaminants out of a fat-rich environment.”

Anderson added that discarded breast implants could be a gold mine for public-health researchers. “Tens of thousands of implants are removed from women every year, and they’re typically burned as waste,” she said. “Instead, they could be an important resource for quantifying the types and amounts of environmental chemicals absorbed by the human body and for assessing long-term toxic exposure.”

The research was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and OSU's Food Safety and Environmental Stewardship Program.

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Kim Anderson, 541-737-8501, kim.anderson@oregonstate.edu

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Silicone breast implants may pick up chemical pollution from the body's tissues. Researcher Kim Anderson, environmental chemist at Oregon State University, wears a silicone pollution-sampling wristband. Photo by Stephen Ward.

Kim Anderson

OSU to lead $1.2 million food safety center to help farmers, processors

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University will administer a new $1.2 million center that aims to help small and midsized farms and food processors in 13 western states prevent foodborne illnesses.

The initiative was announced today by the federal government as part of an effort to help growers and processors of fruits, vegetables and nuts comply with requirements established under the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The center, which is not an actual building, is one of four new regional hubs across the country.

"It is critical that we provide relevant training and assistance to farmers, processors and wholesalers, especially to those who may struggle to meet the requirements,” said Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which awarded the $1.2 million.

OSU and its partners will use the funding – a third of which will go to OSU – to develop trainers to teach others how to conduct workshops for small and midsized farms, beginning farmers, small-scale food processors and wholesale produce vendors.

“Small farms and food processors have limited technical and financial means to comply with the FSMA rules, unlike large farming operations and food manufacturers," said Robert McGorrin, the center's lead director and head of OSU's Food Science and Technology Department. “This center will provide a large number of trainers across the region with the technical assistance to help them comply with the new rules.

The center will also leverage existing food safety training programs with Extension, community-based organizations and food hubs and cooperatives, he added.

The trainings can be customized to fit a specific crop whether it's hazelnuts, tree fruits, potatoes or onions, McGorrin noted. "Unlike large-scale commodity crops such as wheat and corn, crops grown at small and medium-scale farms often have their own unique production, harvesting and processing needs,” he said.

OSU and its partners will work with The Produce Safety Alliance and the Food Safety Preventive Control Alliance to develop trainers. The aim is to have at least two dozen lead trainers and about 200 other people as certified trainers, McGorrin said. He added that the trainers could include representatives from regulatory agencies, nongovernmental organizations and commodity group associations.

The center is a partnership with land-grant universities in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and Guam as well as American Samoa Community College.

OSU already has a robust educational outreach program for food safety. OSU food microbiologist Mark Daeschel fields calls and emails from Oregonians wanting to make and sell thermally processed acidified foods. He said he evaluated more than 500 products in 2014 to make sure they were processed properly. Also, the OSU Extension Service has published a 24-page guide for processors and regulators called Ensuring Food Safety in Specialty Foods Production, and its faculty helped create the Northwest Specialty Food Network website.

OSU faculty members also teach an annual class for businesses that produce acidified and low-acid foods. The government requires these companies to have a supervisor on site who completed such a course. Additionally, OSU conducts a workshop each year for food processors to help them comply with federal requirements for hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP).

The creation of the center, which was supported by U.S. Reps. Kurt Schrader, Earl Blumenauer and Greg Walden, comes after a 2011 outbreak of E. coli was caused by deer droppings on an Oregon strawberry farm. Seven people were hospitalized and one person died. That same year, eight people in the Midwest were infected with E. coli after eating hazelnuts, and a multistate Listeria outbreak associated with cantaloupe was traced to a Colorado farm; it sickened 147 people and killed 33.

The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that each year in the U.S., foodborne diseases sicken roughly one in six people and kill 3,000.

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Robert McGorrin, 541-737-8737, robert.mcgorrin@oregonstate.edu

OSU-led team lands $2.5 million grant to probe how diseases become epidemics

CORVALLIS, Ore. – An Oregon State University scientist is heading a multinational team studying how to anticipate and curb the next disease outbreak before it blows up into a global epidemic.

Funded by a new $2.5 million grant, OSU plant pathologist Christopher Mundt and his team are probing infectious diseases of humans, animals and plants that have a distinctive trait in common:  the capability of the pathogen – whether virus, fungus or bacterium – to transmit itself over long distances. This pattern, he said, characterizes diseases like avian flu, which have produced continental-scale epidemics.

“Our goal is to develop rules of thumb for identifying and controlling diseases that have this long-distance dispersal capability,” said Mundt. “We don’t have the scientific manpower to create detailed models of every potential epidemic. So a generalized set of control strategies would be vital in policy planning during the early stages of an outbreak.”

Mundt, a professor in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences, is partnering with scientists from Kansas State University, North Carolina State University and two universities in England on the five-year project, which is being funded by several organizations.

As people and pathogens move freely around a warming world, pandemic diseases increasingly threaten public health and global economies, according to the National Science Foundation, one of the project’s funding agencies. The World Health Organization calls infectious-disease epidemics “contemporary health catastrophes.”

For 15 years Mundt and his OSU colleagues have been studying stripe rust, a fast-spreading fungal disease that damages wheat, in experiments on commercial farms in central Oregon’s Jefferson County.

The new study will incorporate findings from this ongoing work. Mundt and his team will also analyze data from two real-life 2001 epidemics: foot-and-mouth disease in Britain, caused by a virus; and sudden oak death, which started in California and spread to southern Oregon. That disease is transmitted by a water mold called Phytophthora ramorum.

The researchers will also study historical outbreaks of animal and human viral diseases spread by insects, such as West Nile, Rift Valley fever and Japanese encephalitis. Finally, they will use modeling and field experiments to test strategies for controlling epidemics, including vaccination, drug therapy, quarantines, and eradicating of host organisms around centers of infection.

Pathogens that can disperse over long distances are dubbed “fat-tailed” organisms, said Mundt – a reference to the shape of their spread pattern on a graph. A fat-tailed curve, he explained, looks like a hill with a long tapering slope off to the right. The taper represents the rapid movement of the disease “front” through space over time.

In contrast, the curve of a slower disease, like measles, looks more like a hill without the tapering slope. The downhill plunge represents the disease’s decline with distance at a constant, linear rate.

It’s been assumed, Mundt said, that most epidemics follow the same linear pattern as measles. “But that wasn’t what I was seeing in my stripe-rust experiments.” Instead, the outbreaks accelerated as they pushed out from the epicenter, and the larger the initial infection site, the faster the acceleration rate.

Mundt and his OSU team have also experimented with control techniques to curb the spread of stripe rust, including ring culling – eradicating the host organism (in this case, the wheat) in a ring around the infection to halt its spread.

“There’s been a lot of interest in how big that ring should be,” Mundt said. “Our field studies and modeling are both suggesting that what matters more is how quickly you get on it. That’s because of that accelerating disease front.”

The foot-and-mouth epidemic in Britain was halted by ring culling, he said, but it was a drastic and controversial measure, resulting in the slaughter of some 4 million head of livestock. Foresters in southern Oregon also used ring culling to slow the spread of sudden oak death, cutting and burning trees and shrubs around centers of infection.

“If what we’re seeing is correct,” Mundt said, “it tells us we will need to put more effort into initial surveillance and containment of these fat-tailed organisms, so we can perhaps avoid drastic measures later.”

The research is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture in collaboration with the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the U.K.’s Biotechnology and Biological Services Research Council.

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Christopher C. Mundt, 541-737-5256, mundtc@science.oregonstate.edu

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Chris Mundt, a plant pathologist at Oregon State University, shows off a diseased leaf of wheat at a field day at OSU's Hyslop Farm. Photo by Tiffany Woods

Chris Mundt