OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

college of science

Floods are necessary for maintaining healthy river ecosystems

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Flooding rivers can wreak havoc on homes and roads but are necessary for healthy ecosystems, research at Oregon State University suggests.

The study shows that alterations to rivers’ natural flow patterns – because of dams, diversions and changes in precipitation – cause damage to riparian plant communities and river ecosystems in general.

Even minor shifts in temporal flow patterns harm networks of competing vegetation, said the study’s corresponding author, Jonathan Tonkin of the OSU College of Science.

The most severe effects, he said, occur when cyclical flooding is removed from the equation.

“We think of floods as being these damaging forces because of what they can do to human infrastructure,” said Tonkin, a postdoctoral scholar in integrative biology. “But flooding has benefits across the board, for both organisms and habitats in and around rivers.”

Findings were published today in Nature Ecology and Evolution.

Researchers used models to explore how a variety of possible flow scenarios could affect the diversity and integrity of riparian forests along major rivers and looked at five tree and shrub guilds common to rivers worldwide. The guilds were groupings of species with similar responses to water availability and river flow disturbance.

The scientists used detailed species biology and 83 years of flow data from Colorado’s Yampa River, an undammed, 250-mile waterway, to build a computer model to predict future flows and to quantify the effects of flow changes on riparian plant communities.

Results showed that even modest alterations in the historical patterns of flood and drought can have negative effects on ecological networks, in this case, competing plant guilds, and that network “connectance” decreased as flow regime alteration increased; connectance is a measure of just how linked species in a network are to one another.

Study results also indicate that river flow homogenization, a result of damming, may be just as detrimental as drought to riparian communities.

“Connectance plays a fundamental role in maintaining biodiversity,” Tonkin said. “Evidence suggests that highly connected communities are better able to deal with species losses in food webs and are more resistant to invasion by non-native species. The simplification of these networks, including because of drought conditions that are predicted to increase widely over the next century, may predispose networks to collapse.”

Thus, preserving or restoring key components of natural flow regimes, which enhance connectance, should be a priority for river managers, he said.

“River-dependent communities have evolved over millennia and have been tailored by natural selection to the volume and seasonal variability of the flows,” he said. “Maintenance of flooding is fundamentally important for ecosystem health. Flooding is a vital driver of the ecology of rivers.”

One of the effects of reduced flooding is a change regarding which riparian guild plays the keystone role; keystone refers to having the single largest effect on the ecological network in terms of influences on other species.

“Removing floods, in particular, led to a loss of keystone status of hydroriparian pioneer trees, which are species like cottonwoods, alders, and river red gum,” Tonkin said. “Loss of keystone guilds leads to changes in fundamentally important ecosystem services.”

Those include habitat provision for wildlife, flood mitigation and bank stability, microclimatic regulation, and nutrient cycling.

“Because different guilds have different soil requirements and ecological roles, it is important to predict which ones will function in a keystone role under future flow regime scenarios,” he said.

Supporting this study were the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Forest Service and Dinosaur National Monument.

Collaborators included David Lytle of the OSU College of Science as well as researchers from the University of Washington and the Forest Service.

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Bill Williams River in Arizona.

Bill Williams River

Another danger sign for coral reefs: Substitute symbiont falls short

CORVALLIS, Ore. – For reef-building corals, not just any symbiotic algae will do, new research shows.

The findings are important because they amount to another danger sign for the world’s coral reefs, which rely on a partnership with the millions of phototrophic algae they host to obtain food.

Global climate change is threatening the reefs in part because the symbionts, dinoflagellates of the genus Symbiodinium, can be stressed by warming oceans to the point of dysbiosis – a collapse of the host-symbiont partnership, which results in a phenomenon known as coral bleaching.

Earlier studies had suggested the more heat-tolerant Symbiodinium trenchii might be able to take the place of other, more sensitive species of Symbiodinium.

But an international research group that included Virginia Weis, Eli Meyer and Camerron Crowder of Oregon State University found that likely won’t be the case.

“Our research suggests that while S. trenchii might be able to establish a population in a host, it’s not correct to say it will be a beneficial partnership for the coral,” said Weis, professor of integrative biology in OSU’s College of Science.

Findings were published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Weis and collaborators at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, the University of Melbourne and Stanford University worked with the sea anemone Exaiptasia pallida, commonly called Aiptasia, an established model for studying the type of symbiosis upon which coral reefs rely.

“Corals are really hard to grow in a lab,” Weis said. “They’re very fussy, they’re slow growing, and many of them are endangered. But this anemone grows very fast and is easy to manipulate.”

Aiptasia anemones were colonized separately with S. trenchii and their native symbionts, S. minutum.

S. trenchii has been observed to invade corals after bleaching – when the corals become stressed and lose their algae.

“When we challenged Aiptasia with the regular symbiont, it went as expected,” Weis said. “There was no immune system response, and there was productivity – we could see signs of the host getting sugars and nutrients from its symbiont.”

But with the introduction of S. trenchii, it was a much different story.

“We got a completely different set of signals,” she said. “The hosts’ immune system went on alert, mounting a response to try to eject this invader, and we saw signs of catabolism – instead of growing and putting carbon away for a rainy day, the host was having to break down its own tissues because it wasn’t getting enough food. So it was quite a dramatically different set of responses.”

Understanding as much as possible about the symbiosis corals require, and the biology that underlies it, is a key to the “grave and existential threat” they face from climate change, Weis said.

“We’re at the point now where coral reefs as we know them will in fact largely disappear, and what we’re hoping is to get carbon emissions more under control and bring global temperatures back down so we can manage their reappearance as a dominant ecosystem,” she said. “One approach to mitigate the problem would be to shift the host to a symbiont population that can develop corals that are more robust to climate change. One of the hopes had centered on S. trenchii, but what studies show in the model system is that it’s unlikely that combination would result in an ecologically healthy partnership that could last. It’s a cautionary tale to those who think we can willy-nilly make symbiont switches and have healthy corals be the result.”

The Royal Society of New Zealand supported this research. The photo at the top of this page was provided by globalcoralbleaching.org.

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Exaiptasia pallida

Aiptasia

Panel discussion on superbugs, art and music set for Nov. 15

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A panel will discuss drug-resistant bacteria from the standpoints of science, art and music from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 15, at the Corvallis Arts Center, 700 S.W. Madison Ave.

Hosted by Oregon State University’s colleges of Science and Liberal Arts, “Superbugs & Antibiotic Resistance: An Interdisciplinary Conversation” will focus on how a Harvard researcher’s “giant petri dish experiment” has inspired artists and helped scientists visualize the evolution of antibiotic resistance in E. coli.

Panelists for the free event include Michael Baym, professor of biomedical informatics at Harvard Medical School; Oregon artist Bets Cole; and composer Dana Reason of the OSU School of Arts and Communication.

Baym will talk about his research along with Cole, who will describe how that work inspired her charcoal drawing, “Evolution of a Superbug/11days 1000x Antibiotic Solution.” After learning about the drawing via a tweet from renowned science writer Ed Yong, Baym purchased it, and it now hangs outside his office.

Coincidentally, last spring Yong spoke at Oregon State as part of SPARK, a yearlong celebration of the interplay between art and science.

“It was very cool that I had created something that inspired someone else to do something so lovely,” Baym said.

Baym’s research had demonstrated how bacteria, as they reproduce across a giant petri dish, mutate over the course of 11 days to withstand antibiotics at 1,000 times the concentration normally used to fight infection.

The third panelist, Reason, will discuss how she is taking data from Baym’s research and converting it into sound. Her hope is to generate a new creative work that both stands alone and prompts insights into the data based on how it translates into sound patterns.

The back story behind Baym’s giant petri dish experiment is an example of how art can spark science. The impetus for the research was the film “Contagion,” which told the story of a deadly viral pandemic.

Baym and collaborators spent six months developing their Microbial Evolution and Growth Arena (MEGA-plate), a novel platform for microbial experimentation beyond the classic petri dish.

Not only has the MEGA-plate proved a highly effective teaching mechanism, the visualization tool has also yielded key insights into the behavior of bacteria.

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Superbug

Drawing by Bets Cole

Nanofiber sutures promote production of infection-thwarting peptide

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Loading nanofiber sutures with vitamin D induces the production of an infection-fighting peptide, new research shows.

The discovery could represent an important advance in the prevention of surgical site infections, a multibillion-dollar challenge each year in the United States alone.

A collaboration that included Adrian Gombart of the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University used coaxial electrospinning deposition and rolling to fabricate sutures that contained 25-hydroxyvitamin D3 and the pam3CSK4 peptide.

A peptide is a compound consisting of two or more amino acids linked in a chain; pam3CSK4’s function is to activate a cell’s toll-like receptor, which in turn triggers immune responses, in which vitamin D plays a key role.

The research showed the sutures released 25D3 – the same form of the vitamin that’s measured in the blood when a patient’s vitamin D levels are tested – on a sustained basis over four weeks. The sutures released pam3CSK4 via an initial burst followed by a four-week prolonged release.

“When the toll-like receptor is activated, you induce a particular enzyme to convert 25D3 to its bioactive form, known as 1,25-dihydroxy vitamin D3, that activates the vitamin D receptor,” Gombart said. “When activity increases, that increases expression of vitamin D receptor target genes, one of which produces the LL-37 peptide, which kills microbes by disrupting their membranes.

“The idea is, if you were to have an infection, the sutures would activate the toll-like receptors and start increasing production of 1,25D3 from the 25D3 that’s being released from sutures – so you get both local induction and an increase in the production of the antimicrobial peptide.”

The study’s corresponding author, Jingwei Xie of the University of Nebraska Medical Center, notes that the anti-infective sutures currently in use contain triclosan, an antibacterial and antifungal agent also found in a variety of consumer products.

“However, the frequent use has resulted in bacterial resistance,” Xie said. “Triclosan also shows a wide range of health risks including endocrine disruption, impaired muscle function, liver damage and the development of cancerous tumors. Compared to the currently available products and treatment options, the anti-infective sutures we develop could circumvent the selection for multidrug resistance and other health-associated shortcomings. The new sutures are also highly configurable and can deliver a variety of bioactive compounds to minimize infection risk, optimize healing and minimize scarring. None of the currently available sutures has this level of function.”

Gombart adds that the vitamin D delivered by the sutures could also affect additional genes involved in the immune response as well as LL-37.

“So a compound like vitamin D not only targets bacteria via the antimicrobial peptide, but other immune responses can also be modulated to help combat infection,” he said. “Targeting on multiple fronts helps minimize the chance of resistance.”

The University of Nebraska Medical Center, the National Institutes of Health, and the Otis Glebe Medical Research Foundation supported this research.

Also involved in the collaboration were researchers from the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, and the Chongqing Academy of Animal Sciences & Key Laboratory of Pig Industry Sciences in Chongqing, China.

Findings were recently published in Nanomedicine.

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How the sutures work

Assessment shows metagenomics software has much room for improvement

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A recent critical assessment of software tools represents a key step toward taming the “Wild West” nature of the burgeoning field of metagenomics, said an Oregon State University mathematical biologist who took part in the research.

Metagenomics refers to the science of genetically studying whole communities of microorganisms, as opposed to sequencing single species grown in culture.

“Microbes are ridiculously important to life,” said David Koslicki, assistant professor of mathematics in the OSU College of Science. “They not only can cause terrible things to happen, like blight and disease, but in general, overwhelmingly, microbes are our friends. Without them doing their jobs, crops couldn’t grow as well, it would be hard to digest our food, we might not get sleepy at appropriate times. Microbes are so fundamental to life, to health, we really need to know as much as we can about them.”

Koslicki, a leader in a university-wide research and education program known as OMBI – the OSU Microbiome Initiative – described the findings, published recently in Nature Methods, as “sobering." 

“There are not a lot of well-established, well-characterized computational techniques and tools that biologists can use,” he said. “And the assessment showed that a lot of the tools being used do not do nearly as well as had been initially thought, so there’s definitely room for improvement there.

“That said, depending on the situation that a biologist is interested in, there are definitely different tools that have proven to be the best so far.”

Metagenomics is a relatively new field that developed quickly once next-generation sequencing grew inexpensive enough that looking at entire microbial communities became economically feasible, said Koslicki.

“The typical view of biology is a wet lab and everything like that, but a whole other facet has to do with these high-throughput ways of accessing genetic material,” he said. “You end up with a ton of data, and when you end up with a ton of data, you introduce new problem: How do I get the important information out of it? You have to come up with an algorithm that allows biologists to answer the questions they find important: What critters are there, how many are there, what are they doing, are there any viruses? We need to answer those questions and not just answer them quickly but also have some sort of idea how accurate the answer is.”

The dizzying array of tools biologists are using to try to answer those questions is “kind of like the Wild West,” Koslicki said. “If you want to learn what bacteria are in a sample, there are no less than three or four dozen different tools people have come up with, and in a rather disjointed manner. You have teams of statisticians, mathematicians, biologists, microbiologists, engineers all looking at this from their own perspectives and coming up with their own tools. Then the end-user biologist comes along and is faced with 40 different tools, and how do they know how good they are at answering the questions they need answered?”

Koslicki’s research, known as the CAMI challenge – critical assessment of metagenome interpretation –was aimed at ranking those tools to provide a road map for biologists.

“The challenge engaged the global developer community to benchmark their programs on highly complex and realistic data sets, generated from roughly 700 newly sequenced microorganisms and about 600 novel viruses and plasmids and representing common experimental setups,” he said. “This was an independent initiative. Typically when tools are compared, it’s attached to the publication of a new method that’s compared to other tools that do worse, so the new method looks good. There hasn’t been a lot of independent research into which tools actually work, how well they work, what kind of data do they well on, etc.”

The UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Cluster of Excellence on Plant Sciences, the Australian Research Council, the European Research Council, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research Singapore, the Lundbeck Foundation, and the National Science Foundation supported this research.

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Gamma-ray burst detection just what OSU researchers exclusively predicted

CORVALLIS, Ore. – More than a month before a game-changing detection of a short gamma-ray burst – a finding announced today – scientists at Oregon State University predicted such a discovery would occur.

Scientists from U.S. and European collaborations converged on the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., today to say they’ve detected an X-ray/gamma-ray flash that coincided with a burst of gravitational waves, followed by visible light from a new cosmic explosion called a kilonova.

Gravitational waves were first detected in September 2015, and that too was a red-letter event in physics and astronomy; it confirmed one of the main predictions of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and earned a Nobel prize for the scientists who discovered them.

“A simultaneous detection of gamma rays and gravitational waves from the same place in the sky is a major milestone in our understanding of the universe,” said Davide Lazzati, a theoretical astrophysicist in the OSU College of Science. “The gamma rays allow for a precise localization of where the gravitational waves are coming from, and the combined information from gravitational and electromagnetic radiation allows scientists to probe the binary neutron star system that’s responsible in unprecedented ways. We can tell things like which galaxy the waves come from, if there are other stars nearby, and whether or not the gravitational waves are followed by visible radiation after a few hours or days.”

Collaborators from the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, known as LIGO, and the European Gravitational Observatory’s Virgo team on Aug. 17, 2017, detected gravitational waves – ripples in the fabric of space-time – produced by the coalescence of two neutron stars.

Roughly two seconds later, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope detected a short flash of X- and gamma rays from the same location in the sky.

“The Fermi transient is more than 1,000 times weaker than a ‘normal’ short gamma-ray burst and has the characteristics that we predicted,” Lazzati said. “No other prediction of such flashes had been made. Just by pen and paper almost, we could say hey, we might see the bursts, even if they’re not in a configuration that makes them obvious.”

On July 6, Lazzati’s team of theorists had published a paper predicting that, contrary to earlier estimates by the astrophysics community, short gamma-ray bursts associated with the gravitational emission of binary neutron star coalescence could be detected – whether or not the gamma-ray burst was pointing at Earth.

The paper appeared in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

“X- and gamma rays are collimated, like the light of a lighthouse, and can be easily detected only if the beam points toward Earth,” Lazzati said. “Gravitational waves, on the other hand, are almost isotropic and can always be detected. We argued that the interaction of the short gamma-ray burst jet with its surroundings creates a secondary source of emission called the cocoon. The cocoon is much weaker than the main beam and is undetectable if the main beam points toward our instruments. However, it could be detected for nearby bursts whose beam points away from us.”

Since the first gravitational wave discovery, there have been three more confirmed detections, including the one from August that was jointly seen by scientists from the LIGO and Virgo groups.

“All observations until the last one were from the coalescence of binary black hole systems,” Lazzati said. “While these systems are interesting, they are dark in any other form of radiation and relatively little can be understood from them compared to binary neutron star systems.

“It’s a really lucky set of circumstances for a theorist, where you have a working theory to use to make predictions and new instruments such as LIGO and Virgo coming online to test them,” Lazzati said. “Scientists don’t make predictions because we want to be right – we make predictions because we want to test them. Even if we’re wrong, we’re still learning something – but it’s much more exciting to be right.”

The term neutron star refers to the gravitationally collapsed core of a large star; neutron stars are the smallest, densest stars known. According to NASA, neutron stars’ matter is packed so tightly that a sugar-cube-sized amount of it weighs in excess of a billion tons.

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GRB computer simulation

‘Transformative’ research unrealistic to predict, scientists tell granting agencies

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Research-funding agencies that require scientists to declare at the proposal stage how their projects will be “transformative” may actually be hindering discovery, according to a study by Oregon State University ecologists.

The requirement can result in decreased funding for the “incremental” research that often paves the way for paradigm-shifting breakthroughs, the OSU scientists assert.

Their findings, as well as their recommendation for how to best foster transformative research, were published recently in Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Sarah Gravem, postdoctoral scholar in integrative biology in Oregon State’s College of Science, was the lead author on the paper, titled “Transformative Research is Not Easily Predicted.”

Gravem, integrative biology professor Bruce Menge and the other collaborators note that the National Science Foundation, which funds roughly one-quarter of the federally supported research at U.S. colleges and universities, “has made the pursuit of transformative research a top priority by asking for a transformative research statement in every major research proposal solicited.”

The NSF defines transformative research as being “driven by ideas that have the potential to radically change our understanding of an important existing scientific or engineering concept or leading to the creation of a new paradigm … . Such research is also characterized by its challenge to current understanding or its pathway to new frontiers.”

Gravem says asking scientists to attempt to create new paradigms or fields in every proposal is unrealistic and potentially harmful.

The OSU scientists argue that a better approach, and one that was suggested more than a decade ago by the board that oversees the National Science Foundation, would be to create a funding subset: a separate NSF-wide program to solicit and support transformational research proposals.

“The board had been concerned that the U.S. was lagging behind other countries in scientific advances, concerned that creative and risky research was not getting funding,” Menge said. “It concluded that what the NSF should do is set aside some funds for risky research proposals, those defined by reviewers as they may or may not work, the chances are sort of slim, but they could turn out to be pretty cool.”

What the NSF did instead, Menge said, was require all proposals to show how the research being proposed would be transformative.

“Instructions to reviewers include the expectation that the reviewer will comment on how transformative the proposed research is,” Menge added.

The problem, the Oregon State collaborators say, is that it’s rarely possible to know at the proposal stage whether a project will turn out to be transformative; their assertion follows interviews and surveys of 78 highly cited ecologists who began with incremental goals and only later realized the transformative potential of their work.

“To start out with that transformative question is a backward way of thinking,” Gravem said. “Surely you have to think big to come up with big answers, and everyone is striving for that, but truly transformative research is an unobtainable standard to place on people at the proposal stage. Trying to make every project paradigm shifting can mean ignoring the incremental and basic science that eventually goes into shifting paradigms. It’s a detriment to ignore the building blocks in favor of the building.”

Gravem said the necessity of incremental research was also explained recently on Freakonomics Radio.

“Economist Ed Glaeser noted that Nobel Prizes are not typically given for single transformative research papers but are often given for a body of incremental research,” she said. “If transformations arise from incremental research, then the transformative criterion is redundant with the solicitation of incremental research. This is reflected by mixed evidence that soliciting transformative research led to increases in transformative outcomes compared with the typical model.”

Expanding fields of knowledge, adding to bodies of evidence, and comparing two fields that haven’t been compared before are the types of gains researchers can reasonably predict, Gravem added. Being asked to forecast how a project will turn out to be transformative puts “researchers in an awkward position that nobody likes.”

“We’re being forced to hype our work at the beginning of a proposal, which doesn’t do anything to help science or to help build trust in science,” Gravem said. “And it turns the funding process into an essay competition that favors people who take more liberty in predicting what their research might show.”

Menge notes that NSF’s plan all along was to reassess the transformative research statement requirement at some point, “and now is the time.”

“Research funding is effectively decreasing, but the demand for funding is increasing, so they look for ways to prune the field of who gets funded – I recognize that as a problem,” he said. “But making artificial hurdles is just wrong. Funding agencies should concentrate on the goals of the research rather than the unknowable outcome.” 

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Bruce Menge, mengeb@oregonstate.edu; Sarah Gravem, sgravem@gmail.com

New blue pigment discovered at Oregon State earns EPA approval

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The vibrant YInMn blue pigment discovered at Oregon State University has been approved for commercial sale by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Shepherd Color Co., which licensed the pigment from OSU, announced that the EPA has granted the company a “low volume exemption” that paves the way for the pigment, commercially known as Blue 10G513, to be used in industrial coatings and plastics.

YInMn refers to the elements yttrium, indium and manganese, which along with oxygen comprise the pigment. It features a unique chemical structure that allows the manganese ions to absorb red and green wavelengths of light while only reflecting blue.

The pigment, created in OSU’s College of Science, has sparked worldwide interest, including from crayon maker Crayola, which used the color as the inspiration for its new Bluetiful crayon.

The pigment is so durable, and its compounds are so stable – even in oil and water – that the color does not fade. Those characteristics make the pigment versatile for a variety of commercial products; used in paints, for example, they can help keep buildings cool by reflecting the infrared part of sunlight.

The EPA approval announced this week does not include making the pigment available for artists’ color materials, but Shepherd is in the process of seeking approval for its use in all applications and is confident that will happen, company spokesman Mark Ryan said.

YInMn blue was discovered by accident in 2009 when OSU chemist Mas Subramanian and his team were experimenting with new materials that could be used in electronics applications.

The researchers mixed manganese oxide – which is black in color – with other chemicals and heated them in a furnace to nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. One of their samples turned out to be a vivid blue. Oregon State graduate student Andrew Smith initially made these samples to study their electrical properties.

“This was a serendipitous discovery, a happy accident,” said Subramanian, the Milton Harris Chair of Materials Science at OSU. “But in fact, many breakthrough discoveries in science happen when one is not looking for it. As Louis Pasteur famously said, ‘In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.’

“Most pigments are discovered by chance,” Subramanian added. “The reason is because the origin of the color of a material depends not only on the chemical composition, but also on the intricate arrangement of atoms in the crystal structure. So someone has to make the material first, then study its crystal structure thoroughly to explain the color.”  

Subramanian notes that blue is associated with open spaces, freedom, intuition, imagination, expansiveness, inspiration and sensitivity.

“Blue also represents meanings of depth, trust, loyalty, sincerity, wisdom, confidence, stability, faith, heaven and intelligence,” he said. “Through much of human history, civilizations around the world have sought inorganic compounds that could be used to paint things blue but often had limited success. Most had environmental and/or durability issues. The YInMn blue pigment is very stable and durable. There is no change in the color when exposed to high temperatures, water, and mildly acidic and alkali conditions.”

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YInMn blue

Oregon State University students receive almost $40 million in scholarships

CORVALLIS, Ore. – More than $39.5 million in scholarship money has been awarded to students at Oregon State University for the 2017-18 academic year, a key component of OSU President Ed Ray’s Student Success Initiative.

Roughly $24.5 million of the total is spread among 7,271 scholarships to those who were students prior to this academic year. The rest is for awards to 2,532 incoming students, including 34 who received a $10,000-per-year Presidential Scholarship, OSU’s most prestigious undergraduate scholarship.

Approximately 35 percent of this year’s first-year students are receiving scholarship support.

The same percentage applies to the College of Engineering, whose students account for almost one-third of the $39.5 million total. Engineering students are receiving $12.7 million, with $7.9 million divided among 1,948 scholarships to students enrolled prior to this fall. Nineteen of the 804 incoming scholarship students are Presidential Scholars.

“Over the past decade, our total enrollment has increased by 150 percent, making us the 11th-largest engineering program in the United States,” said Scott Ashford, Kearney Professor and dean of the College of Engineering. “We need to make the OSU engineering degree financially accessible to every qualified Oregonian and underrepresented populations, and scholarships help us achieve that goal.”

More than $7.5 million in scholarship money is going to College of Science students, the college’s highest total ever, said Roy Haggerty, dean of the college. That is triple the amount awarded two years ago. Reasons for the jump include increases in university scholarships and in high-achieving students enrolling in the college.

Nearly $5 million is spread among 1,344 scholarships to students enrolled prior to fall term. The rest is for awards to 570 incoming students, including nine who received a Presidential Scholarship.

More than half of the college’s first-year students are receiving scholarship support.

“Scholarships enable the college to attract, retain and inspire top science students, most of whom go on to high-achieving careers in industry, graduate school, medical school and other professional programs after graduation,” Haggerty said. “Oregon State’s financial-need-based scholarships also help academically talented low-income and first-generation students from Oregon and elsewhere stay and excel in college.”

First-generation students typically have a greater financial need so scholarships are a crucial part of their educational equation, said Haggerty, who was the first in his family to attend college.

“In our college, the number of first-generation students has risen from 20 percent to 29 percent in the last five years,” he said. “Many scholarship students in the College of Science attest to the value of scholarships in easing the financial burden on their families and enabling them to focus on academics, research, volunteer activities and post-college career goals.”

At the College of Business, more than $3.7 million in scholarship money has been awarded, including roughly $2.3 million spread among 761 scholarships to students enrolled before fall term. The remainder is for awards to 276 incoming students, including one Presidential Scholar.

About 29 percent of this year’s first-year business students are receiving scholarship support.

“It’s very important for us to remove as many financial obstacles as possible for our students to help make their decision to attend college and return year after year easier,” said Mitzi Montoya, Sara Hart Kimball dean of the College of Business. “Our students are working hard in and outside the classroom, gaining experiences that are preparing them to be profession-ready. Scholarship support means they can focus more on being successful students and less on how they’ll pay for tuition or textbooks.”

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Groundbreaking investigative effort identifies gonorrhea vaccine candidates

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have identified a pair of proteins that show promise as the basis for a gonorrhea vaccine.

The findings are an important step toward a potential new weapon in the fight against a sexually transmitted disease that affects millions of people around the globe, with nearly 80 million new cases estimated each year.

The pathogen that causes the disease, Neisseria gonorrhoeae, is considered a “superbug” because of its resistance to all classes of antibiotics available for treating infections. 

Gonorrhea is highly damaging to reproductive and neonatal health if untreated or improperly treated. It can lead to endometritis, pelvic inflammatory disease, ectopic pregnancy, epididymitis and infertility. Also, babies born to infected mothers are at increased risk of blindness.

More than half of infected women don’t have symptoms, but those asymptomatic cases can still lead to severe consequences for the patient’s reproductive health, including miscarriage or premature delivery, said OSU College of Pharmacy researcher Aleksandra Sikora.

Subjecting N. gonorrhoeae to the phenotypic microarray screening method for the first time, Sikora’s team focused on seven proteins from the bacteria’s cell envelope, which consists of the outer membrane, the cell wall and the inner membrane. 

Phenotypic microarrays are a high-throughput system featuring plates with 96 wells per plate, each well representing a different condition under which to research the phenotypes – the observable characteristics – of the examined mutants.

The goal was to see which if any of the seven proteins would show strong potential as a vaccine antigen – a molecule that sends the immune system into action. Vaccines prevent disease because the antigens they contain trigger an immune response that allows antibodies to recognize and attack pathogens to prevent future infection.

“Proteins in the cell envelope play key roles in cell function and bacterial physiology,” Sikora said. “That and their location make them attractive candidates for developing vaccines. But a lot of them are hypothetical proteins – we know bacteria have them but we don’t know for sure how they function. Learning what they contribute to cell structure, permeability, membrane biogenesis and so on is important in vaccine research because antibodies against protein antigens can disable the protein’s function.”

In all, more than 1,000 conditions were used to study the effects of knocking out each of the seven proteins.

“It’s like a football coach trying to choose the top quarterback among seven candidates by looking at their performance on many different teams during many different games,” Sikora said. “Imagine being able to look at those seven quarterbacks in over a thousand different games simultaneously. Of course, that’s not possible with football, but this is what we are doing here to identify the most promising vaccine candidates.”

Researchers found 91 conditions that had uniquely positive or negative effects on one of the mutants, and a cluster analysis of 37 commonly beneficial compounds and 57 commonly detrimental compounds revealed three separate phenotype groups.

Two of the proteins, NGO1985 and NGO2121, showed extensive sensitivity to antimicrobial compounds and thus emerged as the most promising vaccine candidates. This study serves as a jumping-off point for further characterization of proteins in the cell envelope. 

“Neisseria gonorrhoeae is a difficult bacteria to work with, and it’s very diverse,” Sikora said. “It has great genome plasticity – there are huge variations between strains. Phenotypic screening allows us to see how similar and how different they are.”

The National Institutes of Health supported this research. Findings were recently published in the Journal of Bacteriology.

The study was designed by Sikora and performed by Ph.D. candidate Benjamin Baarda in collaboration with Philip Proteau, a colleague of Sikora in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Sarah Emerson in the Statistics Department of the OSU College of Science.

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