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content | Director’s Message

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NEWS

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We welcome Dr. Matthew Hulver as the new Executive Director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. COVID-19

Researcher receives NIH grant to study biomolecular interactions in hopes of informing drug design

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Researchers develop predictive tools to tackle childhood diarrheal disease outbreaks in Botswana

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6 Virginia Tech professor receives $1.85 million NIH grant to study sepsis

An update on the COVID-19 response and how the Fralin Life Sciences Institute is helping.

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New research finds ranchers consider diverse factors in managing their land

Virginia Tech launches the Center for Coastal Studies to address complex issues in the coastal zone


Providing resources to Virginia Tech’s life sciences

community supporting innovative research,

education, and outreach.

FEATURES

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Five flagship buildings of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute

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Researchers collaborate to address water and health issues in rural China and Appalachia

Fralin Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows

36 About Fralin

Researchers study the mechanisms behind learning and long-term memory in the brain

Virginia Tech’s molecular and cellular biology graduate program is thriving in 2020

Editor: Kristin Rose Jutras Art Director: Alex Crookshanks Writers: Kristin Rose Jutras, Kendall Daniels, and Rasha Aridi Photography: Alex Crookshanks, Kristin Rose Jutras, and Kendall Daniels

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Cover illustrations: Front cover: Researchers from the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. Back cover: The 5 flagship buildings of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. Front cover and back cover illustrations by: Alex Crookshanks

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explorer | DIRECTOR’S MESSAGE

Dear Fralin Life Sciences Institute Community, I am thrilled to join the Institute as your new Executive Director. The Fralin Life Sciences Institute has played an integral role in my personal academic development, and I can’t thank Dennis Dean enough for his mentorship over the years, and for his outstanding leadership of the Institute over the past 12 years. I also offer a heartfelt thank you to Sally Morton for her efforts as Interim Director, and her important role in transitioning the Institute through its recent evolution. I am tremendously grateful for the guidance that Sally and Dennis have provided me and all that they have both done to help shape the Institute. Please know that the Fralin Life Sciences Institute’s leadership team and I are here to help you navigate the 4

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unprecedented developments we are all experiencing due to COVID-19. These are tremendously challenging times; we have been asked to move our courses to an online format, we have had to scale back or shutdown our research programs, we are forced to work from home, and we are learning how to homeschool our children. These are unprecedented events, but we will come out the other side of this through strength and perseverance. I can assure you that the Institute is here to support you now and during our recovery as we ramp our academic, research, and outreach programing back up. Every day, I am truly impressed with how our community has come together to tackle these challenges. Please take a look at page 6 to see how our faculty and community are coming together to handle this crisis.


Your health is of primary concern, so please continue to practice social distancing strategies, eliminate faceto-face meetings, stay home if you are feeling ill, and be overzealous about washing your hands. Please also take care of yourself and your peers, colleagues, students, family, etc. We are all in this together.

Photo credit: Alex Crookshanks.

In my new role, I am not letting COVID-19 halt the forward progress of shaping the vision and programs of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. I have been meeting with leaders of academic units, research centers, and various organized research groups to gain a more thorough understanding of the existing partnerships and our robust research portfolio. I am excited to have the opportunity to lead an organization focused on some of the most pressing global challenges of our time along with the Institute’s talented faculty and staff. I look forward to capitalizing on existing strengths, developing new strengths, and working to elevate the reputation of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute at Virginia Tech as a premier life sciences institution. As most of you are already aware, research initiatives within the life sciences receiving ongoing support include global change, coastal studies, and translational plant sciences. These are high impact programs making important contributions to their respective fields, and are offering outstanding academic programs shaping future leaderas. Other cohesive groups making tremendous strides include ecological forecasting and infectious disease, and I

am looking forward to the Institute partnering with these up-and-coming thrust areas to help them realize their exciting potential. Other areas of enthusiastic partnership include drug discovery, molecular and cellular biology, invasive species, microbial systems, and cancer biology. I will continue to meet with faculty from all of these areas to learn more about their programs and how the Institute can help identify and support cutting-edge research areas and build a thriving research enterprise. To this end, once we start to settle into our new normal, I hope to convene some virtual town hall meetings to hear from the life sciences community directly, listen to your feedback, and answer questions as we strategically plan for the future. My specific duties will include overseeing investments, including recruitment and start-up support for new faculty members, retention and recognition of established faculty members, investments in thematic research areas and centers, seed funds for new research projects, equipment purchases, graduate student recruitment and support, undergraduate research support, and support for outreach activities. I will also be actively engaged in cooperative partnerships with colleges, departments, and other institutes that support the life science community. Faculty who take part in Institute-sponsored activities — including participation in Institutefunded centers and focus areas, use of core facilities housed and supported by the Institute, and involvement in Institute-supported graduate and undergraduate programs — are invited to become affiliated faculty members. I look forward to tackling some of the most pressing global challenges of our time with you. Please take care and stay safe.

Sincerely, Matt Hulver

Executive Director, Fralin Life Sciences Institute

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WE’RE ALL IN TOGETHER: Carla Finkielstein & Rich Helm

When it comes to processing COVID-19 tests, hospitals and private testing facilities across the country are at their limit. To help alleviate some of the pressure, Virginia Tech worked with many of its researchers to gain the necessary

Photo credit: Barbara Wise

certifications and approvals to process COVID-19 testing samples. The Finkielstein lab, led by Carla Finkielstein from the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science, is one of

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many Virginia Tech labs that are stepping up to help. Using human samples that are provided by hospital facilities, researchers, such as Finkielstein and Rich Helm, a professor of biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who leads Core Services and the Genomics Sequencing Center, have collaborated on the novel assays to identify the virus, using a quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction protocol to test for RNA of the coronavirus in patient samples. In addition to serving the community, Virginia Tech’s new testing capability will provide health officials a better idea of the spread of COVID-19 in the Blacksburg and Roanoke areas. “Everyone is helping anyway they can from their position in the university. To be honest, it amazes me; it is a true team effort,” said Finkielstein.


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How the Fralin Life Sciences Institute is tackling COVID-19 Photo courtesy of Michelle Stocker

Michelle Stocker

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Michelle Stocker, an assistant professor of geobiology in the College of Science, would examine bones with her Morphology of the Vertebrates class during big blocks of lab time on Mondays and Wednesdays. But now that classes have moved online, Stocker has enlisted the help of video conferencing and oVert, a multi-institutional project that aims to make available CT scans of all genera of vertebrates. With this technology, the Fralin Life Sciences

Institute and Global Change Center affiliate is able to keep the class as tactile as possible. “We want to take care of the students and make sure they’re learning what you want them to learn, but also in times like this we want to make sure they have some sense of normalcy,” Stocker said. “For the group right now, every Monday and Wednesday, we come in and look at skeletons together. We’re keeping that going.”

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WE’RE ALL IN THIS

Both Marr and the NIH say that’s a crucial argument for understanding the importance of social distancing since droplets will be much more concentrated close to someone who is infected. “If you imagine someone who is smoking and you’re close to them, you’re right in that puff of smoke,” Marr said. “But if you’re farther away, you’re much more dilute so that’s the idea of kind of staying away from someone, that things will get more dilute. But of course, if you’re in a small, confined space then those aerosols can be more concentrated and I think there’s a higher risk in that system.”

What materials should I use to make my own face mask? What conditions are optimal for viral transmission? Is six feet of social distancing enough?

Linsey Marr Over the past couple of weeks, Linsey Marr, an expert in the airborne transmission of viruses and the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Photo credit: Cassandra Hockman Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering, has been weighing in on many COVID-19 questions, like these, through various news outlets and social media. Just recently, Marr took part in a special edition of “Science on Tap”, a monthly event that has gone virtual to follow social distancing guidelines, to answer the burning questions that are spreading throughout the New River Valley region. While some people have suggested using a bandanna, the fabric is typically so thin and flimsy that it would likely offer little protection. Double or triple the bandanna fabric if that’s all you have. “I’ve been saying some protection is better than none,” said Dr. Marr, who noted that local health departments had been asking aerosol scientists for guidance on potential mask materials to deal with supply shortages. She said her team would have results soon with more specific recommendations for materials to use in masks.

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TOGETHER: How the Fralin Life Sciences Institute is tackling COVID-19

Linsey Marr, an expert on aerosol transmission at Virginia Tech, also told The New York Times in March that in general, an aerosol released at a height of about 6 feet should fall to the ground after 34 minutes. Plus, she added, the amount of the virus that lingers in the air as an aerosol is likely too small to infect someone anyway. “It sounds scary,” Marr said. “But unless you’re close to someone, the amount you’ve been exposed to is very low.”

You could tie yourself in knots gaming out the various scenarios that might pose a risk outdoors, but Marr recommends a simple technique. “When I go out now, I imagine that everyone is smoking, and I pick my path to get the least exposure to that smoke,” she told me. If that’s the case, I asked her, is it irrational to hold your breath when another person walks past you and you don’t have enough space to move away? “It’s not irrational; I do that myself,” she said. “I don’t know if it makes a difference, but in theory it could. It’s like when you walk through a cigarette plume.”

Weger-Lucarelli Lab The Weger-Lucarelli lab will develop molecular tools and mouse models to study COVID-19. Molecular tools are essential to understand why the virus causes disease, why transmission occurs so readily, and to develop weakened forms of the virus for use as vaccines. A mouse model to study COVID-19 is necessary to determine why the immune response is so strong and how the lung pathology occurs. Finally, we seek to understand the role of obesity in COVID-19. Obesity affects 42 percent of Americans and is a risk factor for severe COVID-19. Building off of our earlier research with mosquito-borne viruses, we will try to determine why disease severity is worse in obese people.

Photo credit: James Weger-Lucarelli

“The development of molecular tools to study SARS-CoV-2 will aid in the development of a vaccine and a better understanding of the virus. Determining why obesity leads to more severe disease will identify therapeutic targets that can decrease the burden of COVID-19.” 9

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explorer | NEWS Biomolecules — carbohydrates, proteins, nucleic acids, and lipids — form the foundation of life and are responsible for carrying out every process that occurs in our bodies. Miniscule changes in how these biomolecules fold and interact can lead to severe consequences, such as the development of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. But, how and why this occurs continues to puzzle scientists.

Researcher receives NIH grant to study biomolecular interactions in hopes of informing drug design Written by Rasha Aridi Justin Lemkul, an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, received a $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study how biomolecules fold and interact in an effort to inform better drug design for life-threatening diseases, especially neurodegenerative diseases.

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The NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences encourages applicants to submit a “vision for research” instead of specific aims, allowing researchers to address questions holistically instead of in smaller topics. Spread over five years, this unique grant enables Lemkul to study proteins, nucleic acids, and lipids all together under the umbrella of biomolecular folding and interactions. Ex

“All of this work is designed to answer fundamental questions of how biomolecules behave so that we can understand them better for designing drugs against horrible diseases,” said Lemkul, an affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “That’s sort of what I view my mission in life as being.” The Lemkul Lab doesn’t look like a typical biochemistry lab — instead of test tubes and beakers, the lab has rows of computers. Lemkul and his team of Ph.D., master’s, and undergraduate students combine computer programming with biochemistry to answer challenging and theoretical questions. “Computational biochemistry is a somewhat new field, but it is really promising in providing new insights

into a lot of human diseases and a lot of fundamental sciences. Harnessing high-performance computing for research is really promising for the future,” said Alexa Salsbury, a thirdyear Ph.D. candidate. “Looking at ways to integrate computation into research or collaborating with computational researchers can really push the field of scientific research.” The lab focuses on theoretical approaches to biochemistry and biophysics. Using molecular dynamics simulations, Lemkul and his students study how proteins, nucleic acids, and lipids move and interact with each other to provide insight into how diseases, especially neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, might arise.


Assistant professor Justin Lemkul works with master’s student Brian Ratnasinghe. Photo courtesy of Rasha Aridi.

“If you can understand how the atoms interact with one another and move around, that tells you how life works. So, we try to model that: How do proteins fold? Why do certain proteins unfold in disease states, like Alzheimer’s disease or diabetes? These are all diseases that are linked to a protein doing something bad and then sticking together and interacting with other things in the cell in a negative way.”

This grant features three separate, but connected, research initiatives. The first project aims to better understand the folding of amyloidogenic proteins, aggregates of proteins that fold into specific forms. When these proteins unfold or are misfolded, they lose the ability to do their job. The amyloid betapeptide, for example, is linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. If a single amino acid in the protein is changed, it can lead to more severe manifestations of the disease such as cerebral hemorrhage and greater memory loss at a much earlier age. Lemkul studies how the amyloid beta-

peptide is involved in the pathology of the disease and why a single amino acid can cause such drastic results. By studying how this happens, Lemkul and his students hope to come closer to figuring out how to prevent it from happening, in theory stopping the development of the disease. “There’s so much that’s not known about Alzheimer’s disease in general. By studying it systematically, we can get a better idea of how the disease has changed,” said Darcy Davidson, a third-year Ph.D. candidate. “We’re a very small part of a really big puzzle, so if we all work together to get a greater understanding of the disease and hopefully find a cure or treatment.” The second research project focuses on the formation of G-quadruplexes – highly stable and unique DNA and RNA structures with various conformations that regulate gene expression. When their stability is altered, diseases such as cancer or various neurodegenerative diseases can develop. G-quadruplexes are targets for drug design because they tell transcription, or translation, processes involved with the production of proteins, to turn on or off. For example, cancer is caused by a hyper-expression of a gene that tells cells to keep

multiplying. If a drug can destabilize the G-quadruplex that controls gene expression, it will be able to turn that gene off to resume normal cell growth. Using computational models, the researchers scale down to the nucleic acid level to understand what causes these G-quadruplexes to form and which ions are involved in that process. Drugs and cancer treatments can alter gene expression, but proteins mutate so rapidly that a drug in one patient can be ineffective in another. By identifying which protein is overexpressed, drugs can target the specific region of the protein instead of the protein itself. The third goal of this research is directly related to computer-aided drug design. Running computer simulations allows the team to study thermodynamic properties and the effects of polarization. These are crucial for developing a drug that can effectively enter a cell and do what it is designed for, like destabilizing a G-quadruplex or preventing an amyloidogenic protein from changing its structure. This type of modeling is largely applicable to studying other diseases, particularly neurodegenerative ones. The ultimate goal of Lemkul’s work is to contribute to drug design that can prevent diseases from developing by going to the source: biomolecules. “There’s just something really amazing when you see a simulation outcome for the first time. No one else in the world is attacking the same problems that we are. So, my students are the first people to see the things they’re seeing — that’s thrilling,” Lemkul said. 11

Left to right: Alexa Salsbury, Brian Ratnasinghe, Karlie Wysong, Darcy Davidson, Joshua Kraus, Tanner Dean, and Justin Lemkul. Photo courtesy of Justin Lemkul.

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explorer | NEWS

Caroline Jones (right), assistant professor and Brittany Boribong (left), Ph.D. candidate Photo credit: Alex Crookshanks.

One drop of blood contains 5,000 neutrophils, the most abundant type of white blood cell that is deployed by the human immune system. Throughout the entire body, a human has 25 billion of these foot soldiers that are relentlessly patrolling to fight invading pathogens. But, sometimes, this cellular army misinterprets signals and becomes confused. Imagine the widespread damage these soldiers could cause if they stepped out of line and attacked the very organs that our lives depend on. Sadly, this is a reality that 1.7 million Americans face every year. This condition is called sepsis. Sepsis occurs when the body’s immune system over responds to an infection. If the condition is not diagnosed early enough, it can 12

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Virginia Tech professor receives $1.85 million NIH grant to study sepsis Written by Kendall Daniels lead to organ failure and death. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, sepsis is responsible for the deaths of 270,000 Americans every year - and it is the number one killer in U.S. hospitals. “It’s like you are having this war inside your body. We want to understand how we can tune the immune cells so that they can fight infections without this huge overreaction that leads to sepsis,” said Caroline Jones, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science. Jones received a $1.85 million MIRA R35 grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to study the factors that underlie the decision-making processes that

determine immune cell migration, differentiation, and activation in response to sepsis. Last March, Jones published a paper in Frontiers in Immunology with Liwu Li, a professor of biological sciences in the College of Science, and Brittany Boribong, a graduate student in genetics, bioinformatics, and computational biology, who was the first author. Acting as a stepping stone to their current research, the paper showed that the decision-making process of neutrophils becomes faulty when immune cells are exposed to very low levels of inflammation. Researchers observed that these low levels of inflammation primed the immune system for an excessively violent response to an invader. They also noticed that the cells


migrated spontaneously through the microenvironment, instead of heading to the site of infection. “Sometimes neutrophils get lost when they are exposed to super low levels of inflammation. And you can imagine that a person that is unhealthy, like if they have leaky gut syndrome or an unhealthy diet, would have this low level of inflammation. And then when they get an infection, their immune cells make the wrong decisions, and they respond in the wrong way,” said Jones. “It’s that secondary hit where they get sepsis. They were predisposed to that earlier on because of the programming of the cells.” By monitoring inflammation, Jones hopes that this research can help doctors and patients nip sepsis in the bud. Popular literature has shown that there are certain diets and lifestyle changes that can help patients regulate their inflammation levels. If researchers can find a way to closely monitor cellular functions in a medical setting, patients will be able to see if they are predisposed to not only sepsis, but other inflammatory diseases as well.

“We will take a reductionist approach with the in vitro microfluidic chip, where we can precisely control certain variables. And then in the in vivo situation, we can then confirm what we are observing and that what we are looking at are the most important factors or variables.” Jones and her team will begin by taking cells from septic patients. Using a microfluidic chip, they will manipulate the microenvironment to see under what conditions cells can migrate properly and fight pathogens effectively. Although using this method provides researchers with a large amount of data, this doesn’t exactly mirror the processes that are going on inside of a living organism. To take things to the next level, researchers will implant hydrogels into mouse models to visualize how cells will migrate and fight in a whole organism. These hydrogels will also allow researchers to tune what signals a cell receives. Most scientists would agree that having too much data is never a bad thing. For Jones, she needs an extra

set of hands to make sense of these large data sets and modelling. So, Stanca Ciupe, Lauren Childs, and Matthias Chung, all in Virginia Tech’s Department of Mathematics in the College of Science, will be pitching in to help Jones and her efforts. “We have to have mathematicians on board to be able to make sense of it. It’s not just yes and no. It gets much more complicated than that. When you are taking patient samples, there are tons of variables and there are a lot of phenotypes that we are looking at.” If researchers are able to understand the basic mechanisms behind inflammation and sepsis, Jones would next want to explore how sepsis affects brain function. In addition to Li’s immunology group and Boribong, Jones is collaborating with Susanti Ie, a specialist in critical care medicine and associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, who will assist with the identification and collection of patient samples for this research.

“Inflammation can play a role in basically every disease, and controlling your inflammatory levels is highly important,” said Jones. Using in vitro and in vivo models, Jones and her team will be able to ensure that their research is effective from bench to bedside. Above: Caroline Jones (left). Ph.D. student Udaya Sree Datla (back). Ph.D. student Brittany Boribong 13 Ex (front) focuses the microscope on her microfluidic competitive chemotaxis-chip. Photo credit: Alex Crookshanks.


explorer | NEWS

New research finds ranchers consider diverse factors in managing their land Written by Rasha Aridi

Flood irrigation creates wetland habitats when the water flows over the landscape. Photo courtesy of Ryan Scavo.

Wetlands in the Intermountain West, a region nestled between the Rocky Mountains, the Cascade Range, and the Sierra Nevada, are home to a diverse range of flora and fauna. Wetlands may only make up two percent of the region, but 80 percent of wildlife rely on the rich habitat they provide. The majority of these wetlands are located on private ranchlands. While the persistence of these “working wetlands” depends on the management decisions of ranchers, their perspectives are often missing from conservation and policy-making discussions.

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In a new study published in Rangeland Ecology and Management, Ashley Dayer, an assistant professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech, explores the diverse factors that influence how ranchers manage their land. Ex

In collaboration with the Intermountain West Joint Venture, an organization committed to bird habitat conservation by fostering public-private partnerships, and the University of Montana, Dayer and her graduate student Mary Sketch (M.S. ’18) hosted two landownerlistening workshops, one in southern Oregon and another in southwestern Wyoming, and invited various landowners and conservation professionals to encourage dialogue between the two parties. Partners for Conservation, a landowner-led conservation organization, played a key role in successful implementation of the workshops. “In order to have effective conservation in the west, where ranchers own huge tracts of land, the conservation community is keen to work together with them. Ranchers can make choices to manage their land for the benefits of wildlife or they can make choices that don’t

prioritize wildlife,” said Dayer, an affiliated faculty member of the Global Change Center, housed within the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. “We aimed to facilitate a better understanding of how conservation professionals could work with ranchers toward conservation and wildlife management goals.” The relationships between conservationists and ranchers can be complicated. People are quick to assume that ranchers are solely concerned with profit, but Virginia Tech researchers find that ranchers’ decisions are more complex than that. This complexity needs to be taken into consideration when developing programs and policies to foster private lands conservation. “The workshops created an open, trusting space where there was social learning and social exchange happening. It was important for ranchers to know the researchers


and the conservation professionals alike were there to hear them,” said Mary Sketch, who was the lead author on this paper and another previously published in Society and Natural Resources on the method itself. Dayer and Sketch evaluated the complex decision-making process of how ranchers choose to manage their land, more specifically how they choose to irrigate their land and why. They found that various reasons go into deciding how land is managed — not just money. This study specifically focused on choices about flood irrigation — a traditional method involving complex ditch systems that spread water across a field, recharging areas once sustained by natural flooding. When the water flows from the ditches, saturates the field, and seeps into the groundwater, it provides forage for cattle to graze on while providing rich habitat for migrating and breeding waterbirds, like ducks and cranes, as well as sage-grouse, an iconic ground-dwelling bird in decline. “Flood irrigation is often vilified for not being water efficient. The numbers don’t always add up when it comes to saving water because there’s so much more in the game of land management and conservation, like creating wildlife habitat. This traditional definition of efficiency doesn’t grasp that socialecological complexity,” Sketch said. “Our work suggests an expanded definition that considers how flood irrigation provides bird habitat on working wet meadows, recharges the groundwater for communities downstream, creates

in-stream flow for fish, and keeps ranchers ranching.”

about how land is used and whether to contribute to conservation.”

Ranchers described the factors that either help or hinder the use of flood irrigation on private lands. The study identified cultural considerations as a key enabler for continuing flood irrigation. “Ranchers have strong ties with the ranching lifestyle, so many choose to continue flood irrigation because of its history and their personal connection to it,” explained Sketch. “It’s something they do every year, the generation of ranchers before them did it, and want to maintain that tradition.” “What stands out to me in this work is that there are a group of ranchers committed to the future of their

To keep ranches both environmentally and economically sustainable, both workshops highlighted key areas where conservation professionals can increase rancher engagement and ensure working wetlands continue to benefit both landowners and wildlife. Ranchers identified partnerships and open communications with conservation professionals and policymakers as critical to maintaining successful operations in addition to effective, long-lasting conservation practices. Central to strong partnerships is building trust and “honest people

Above: Local ranchers speak with partners. Photo courtesy of Intermountain West Joint Venture.

land. They rely on that land for their livelihood; they’re closely tied to it; they spend every day outside. It’s something that they’re very passionate about,” Dayer said. “I think that’s just a critical thing for the majority of the U.S. public living far from ranches to keep in mind — our food isn’t just coming from grocery stores. It’s coming from people who are making choices

sitting around, getting over their biases, their agendas, and listening to one another,” said one rancher. Listening turned out to be an effective conservation tool, and Dayer and Sketch hope that this work continues to change how conservation professionals and ranchers work together. 15

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Students in the CARACAL education program work with researchers studying the Chobe River. Photo courtesy of CARACAL.

explorer | NEWS

Researchers develop predictive tools to tackle childhood diarrheal disease outbreaks in Botswana Written by Kendall Daniels

In 2006, more than 400 children under the age of 5 died during an outbreak of diarrheal disease in Botswana. In what was a 25-fold increase in diarrheal disease mortality for this age group, citizens of the country were devastated. For more than 10 years, Kathleen Alexander, a professor of Fish and Wildlife Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech and the co-founder of Conservation of African Resources: Animals, Communities, and Land Use (CARACAL), has been researching similar diarrheal disease outbreaks across Botswana to determine if there are correlations between certain atmospheric conditions, local environmental variables, and diarrhea rates. Together with Jeffrey Shaman, of Columbia University, and Alexandra Heaney, of the University of California Berkeley, Alexander discovered a critical link between environmental dynamics and human health. With this knowledge, researchers will have the capacity 16

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to begin to predict when diarrheal disease outbreaks will reoccur. Their findings were recently published in Nature Communications. Botswana is a dry country with only three sources of surface water. Alexander and her collaborators focused their work in the Chobe District, which is home to the Chobe River, the only permanent surface water that can be found in 12,000 square kilometers. Notably, it is also the only source of drinking water for eight villages, making it a critical region to study the additional influence of surface water on diarrheal disease. Diarrheal disease remains a critical threat to children under 5 years of age across Africa but particularly in Chobe District. With case reports peaking annually in the wet season and again in the dry season, researchers were able to determine that certain meteorological conditions were directly responsible for these outbreaks.

El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is an ocean-atmosphere system that causes temperature and precipitation fluctuations across the world. El Niño and La Niña are the two extremes of ENSO conditions, which alternate every three to seven years. During La Niña, researchers found that the combination of cooler conditions and above-average rainfall contributed to increased flooding, which, in turn, increased the concentrations of organic material and diarrhea-causing pathogens within the Chobe River. El Niño conditions had the opposite effect on the climate and precipitation of the region. “Human health is intimately connected to the landscape and the environmental conditions that prevail - connections that cross scales from local hydrometeorology and water quality dynamics to global atmospheric conditions,” said Alexander, who is also an affiliated


Kathleen Alexander, professor of fish and wildlife conservation and College of Natural Resources and Environment graduate student Carol Anne Nichols conducting a water quality study. Photo courtesy of Jim Stroup.

faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute at Virginia Tech.

In a previous paper, Alexander and her team concluded that Chobe’s elephant populations, which happen to be the highest in the world, may have a critical influence on water quality in the region and, perhaps, diarrheal disease. In the dry season, large herds of elephants move to the Chobe River, the only surface water to be found in the region.With such a large density of wildlife, sediment and fecal matter are carried downstream toward the district’s water treatment plants. “Landscape degradation and significant fluxes in sediment levels can influence the ability of water treatment plants to remove diarrheacausing pathogens. These treatment plants work but not well in these highly dynamic systems. This is a clear example of how important it is to maintain protected areas – they are so central to human health,” said Alexander. Alexander is an advocate of “One Health,” a concept that recognizes that human health is directly linked to the health of the environment. One Health also focuses on taking a bottom-up approach and puts education at the forefront. Alexander has an educational program in 12 schools within the Chobe District, teaching children exactly how important it is to take care

African elephants in the Chobe River. Photo courtesy of Kaitlin Joos Vandewalle.

of their environment ultimately, themselves.

and,

Alexander maintains that working actively and intimately within grassroots environments provides a different perspective, and it is also the best way to collect data, gain novel insights, and develop solutions that work for the people who need them. “It was a humbling experience in that you remember that no matter how much education you have, no matter how many degrees you have, you really need to stay connected to the people who have the problem,” said Alexander. “What is their experience? What is their problem definition? What is the solution that they see? What do they understand is the issue?” Overall, Alexander sees a long journey ahead. With its many facets,

conquering childhood diarrhea is not an easy task. Although Botswana is committed to improving public health and dedicates significant resources to the aim, the country is still hit hard by diarrheal disease biannually. One of the first steps of disease eradication involves awareness and understanding cultural and social perceptions, which can turn the tide significantly. “Diarrhea is not a complicated issue,” Alexander explained. “But it is in so many ways in these low resource environments when you’re trying to integrate cultural practices and beliefs with existing infrastructure limitations. If you’ve got five doctors and 20,000 people, how much can you really do? What are the tools that you can use in those environments? Where do you focus with what little you have? That’s what we are really working toward trying to figure out.” 17

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explorer | NEWS

Virginia Tech launches the Center for Coastal Studies to address complex issues in the coastal zone Written by Kristin Rose Jutras

Coastal flooding in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Photo courtesy of Anamaria Bukvic.

Ensuring a vibrant and thriving coastal zone is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Today, 60 percent of Virginia’s 8 million people live in the coastal zone. By 2045, the commonwealth’s population is projected to exceed 10 million people, with about 80 percent of Virginians living at the coast. Accelerating sea-level rise, coastal hazards, and ocean acidification threaten livelihoods, health, and fish and wildlife species throughout the commonwealth and the world. At the same time, rapid economic development presents an opportunity in the face of these challenges. “The cascading impacts of these stressors represent a formidable problem that can only be addressed by coordinated investment in research, teaching, outreach, and creating a community of action,” said Robert Weiss, director of the newly formed Center for Coastal Studies and professor of natural hazards in the Department of Geosciences in the College of Science. “This coordination is part of the Center for Coastal Studies’ mission to nurture coastal-zone related research and education and to create a better understanding of the processes that govern complex issues regarding sustainable solutions in the coastal zone.”

Globally, the coastal zone hosts nearly half of the human population, large ports vital to the global economy, and military installations important to national and global security. “The problems of sea-level rise and other coastal threats are complicated and multifaceted,” said Sally C. Morton, interim director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and dean of the College of Science. “Virginia Tech’s Center for Coastal Studies will coalesce the expertise of our renowned researchers to provide viable solutions to communities here in Virginia and around the world.” The Center for Coastal Studies, housed under the Fralin Life Sciences Institute at Virginia Tech, will engage with a diverse set of stakeholders, create a collaborative space for difficult conversations with the public around coastal-zone issues, and establish a Coastal Zone Observatory. This observatory will be a clearinghouse for data that is collected in the commonwealth and in collaboration with other researchers throughout the state, nation, and world. The data will be made availabletolocal,state,federalgovernments and collaborators in the private sector. “The formalized center will continue to raise our visibility and create opportunities for strategic and transdisciplinary

partnerships to concentrate on coastal resilience and prosperity with the private sector, public sector, and academia,” said Jennifer Irish, a professor of coastal engineering in the Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech and leadership team member of the Center for Coastal Studies. Anamaria Bukvic, assistant professor of geography from the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and Marie Paretti, professor of engineering education in the College of Engineering, round out the leadership team for the Center for Coastal Studies. The center comprises 40 junior and senior faculty participants from six different colleges and various scientific disciplines at Virginia Tech. They bring a diverse range of expertise to coastal-zone research, including, but not limited to, geoscience, engineering, geography, urban planning, public health, governance and public policy, fish and wildlife conservation, business information technology, and applied economics. The Center for Coastal Studies faculty are applying innovative and holistic approaches and utilizing skills and technology to interpret data and solve problems. “This center is an exemplar of the university strategic plan to support areas


of excellence to develop Virginia Tech as a ‘Destination’ for talent in targeted areas. The Fralin Life Sciences Institute is very pleased to support and provide an administrative home for the Center but we also want to emphasize and acknowledge the broad university support from the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science; the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment; several colleges; and the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation that has made implementation a reality,” said Dennis Dean, associate director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. The Center for Coastal Studies emerged from the Coastal@VT initiative, which manifested through the Destination Areas and a National Science Foundation Research Traineeship grant (NRT). The Coastal@VT group was initially situated

Area initiative. The center’s efforts are prime examples of the valuable work that can be done when faculty from multiple disciplines and external agencies come together to work toward solutions for complex problems. The center will also yield opportunities for students to gain hands-on problemsolving skills, a key component of the curricular experiences that are part of the Destination Areas,” said Catherine Amelink, acting vice provost for learning systems innovation and effectiveness. The Center for Coastal Studies at Virginia Tech is an international program office of the Future Earth Coasts Program, a global program to support sustainability and adaptation to global change in the coastal zone with additional hubs throughout Europe, Asia, and Australia.

people live requires collaboration among experts and stakeholders from a wide range of different disciplines. To promote resiliency, the Center for Coastal Studies will engage in a program that educates future leaders, practitioners, and researchers in disaster resilience and risk management with support from a National Science Foundation Research Traineeship grant (NRT). This inclusive program, also referred to as Disaster Resilience and Risk Management at Virginia Tech (DRRMVT), invites graduate students from all Virginia Tech colleges and departments to learn important interdisciplinary skills while strengthening their knowledge of disaster resilience and risk management. Elements of this program are available to any graduate student in a Virginia Tech degree or non-degree program. The center is also developing collaborative undergraduate majors and minors with various colleges across Virginia Tech for undergraduates who are interested in focusing on coastal studies.

in the Global Systems Science Destination Area, with its relationship to themes of food, infectious disease, and water. As the transdisciplinary effort grew, it also interacted with faculty in other areas, such as Data and Decisions, Intelligent Infrastructure for Human-Centered Communities, and Integrated Security. Collaboration across these Destination Areas was vital to the development of new methodologies, such as advanced quantitative techniques and scenario planning, new technologies, and new virtual interactive tools, to communicate more effectively about hazards, risk, adaptation, and resilience to stakeholders in coastal areas.

To support its faculty and ensure that their research is aligned with the Center for Coastal Studies’ mission, the center will offer seed grants to fund interdisciplinary research and organize various events to facilitate knowledge exchange, new partnerships, and collaboration between researchers and the public and private sector. The Center for Coastal Studies places great emphasis on generating useful data and policy-relevant research. Coastal disasters affect people from all walks of life. Improving the resilience of the communities in which these

The Center for Coastal Studies will continue to build upon the outreach and education efforts developed by the Coastal@VT group. The center has created a partnership with the Virginia Seafood Agriculture Research and Extension Center (Virginia Tech Coastal Collaborator) and will continue participating in the Rotating Resilience Roundtables. “We are excited to go into the community as equal stakeholders with the citizens of Virginia and the world to collaborate and solve these complex coastal problems,” said Weiss.

“The Center for Coastal studies will play an important role in the transdisciplinary learning and research efforts of the university and will continue to be an integral part of the Destination 19 The Rotating Resilience Roundtable event on the Blacksburg campus. Photo courtesy of Kristin Rose Jutras.

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explorer | COVER STORY

FIVE FLAGSHIP FLAGSHIP BUILDINGS BUILDINGS OF THE THEFRALIN FRALIN LIFE SCIENCES SCIENCES INSTITUTE WRITTEN BY

KRISTIN ROSE JUTRAS & KENDALL DANIELS

Faculty that actively participate in Institute sponsored activities, including participation in Institute funded Centers and focus areas, use of core facilities housed and supported by the Institute, and participation in Institute supported graduate

and

undergraduate


The Fralin Life Sciences Institute at Virginia Tech is an instrument of strategic university investment committed and

to

enhancing

competitiveness

education,

and

of

outreach

the

life across

quality,

sciences

quantity, research,

Virginia

Tech.

Residents of the institute’s five flagship buildings are automatically considered affiliated faculty members:

STEGER HALL, FRALIN HALL, STEGER HALL LATHAM HALL, LIFE SCIENCES 1, FRALIN HALL & INTEGRATED LIFE SCIENCES BUILDING

LATHAM HALL LIFE SCIENCES 1 INTEGRATED LIFE SCIENCES BUILDING

programs are invited to become affiliated

Institute serves as a meeting point

faculty members. Affiliated faculty members

for progressive ideas involving

are given resources necessary to explore new,

multidisciplinary research.

innovative science that benefits people in the New River Valley, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the world.

Through seminars,

conferences and research group support, the

We’ll now take a closer look at the five flagship buildings of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute...


STEGER HALL Steger Hall is the newest building to join the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. Located within the Virginia Tech Life Sciences Corridor, Steger Hall was constructed in two phases; the first phase was completed in 2003 and the second phase was completed in 2004. The name of Steger Hall honors Virginia Tech President Emeritus Charles W. Steger, who served as university president from 2000 to 2014. Steger Hall is home to a number of faculty from the College of Science and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Their research covers a variety of topics including, but not limited 22

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Photo credit: Alex Crookshanks.

to, protein signaling, genetics and molecular biology, cancer biology, circadian rhythm biochemistry and physiology, epigenetics, and neuroscience. Two shared research facilities can be found in Steger Hall: the Genomics Sequencing Center (GSC) and the Mass Spectrometry Research Incubator (VT-MSI). The GSC houses an Illumina NovaSeq 6000 and NextSeq, MiSeq, library prep and liquid dispensing robots, ABI 3730XL for Sanger sequencing, and ABI’s ViiA7 for qPCR. The VT-MSI is an open facility that is designed to provide the tools and skills needed for both funded research and proposal development efforts, with a

strong emphasis in the fields of mass spectrometry-based proteomics and metabolomics. Staffed by expert technicians and guided by user needs, these facilities will support the life sciences by driving efficiencies and promote collaborations across many departments and disciplines at Virginia Tech. The three-floor, 130,000 sq. ft. building is also home to the Steger Hall Conference Center, which offers a 176-person capacity, tiered, theater-style auditorium that serves as a space for large meetings, seminars, and presentations. It is available to the VT community to reserve.


explorer | COVER STORY

Photo credit: Alex Crookshanks.

Matt Hulver, Executive Director of the Fralin Life Sciences is the principal scientist responsible for the general oversight and coordination of Steger Hall. 23 Photo credit: Ivan Morozov

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explorer | COVER STORY

FRALIN HALL Fralin Hall was constructed in 1995 with funds provided by the United States Department of Agriculture and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Its operations are supported by a $5.3 million endowment provided by Horace G. Fralin. The initial design, construction, and operation of the building was led by Tracy D. Wilkins, a former director and Virginia Tech faculty member, and his legacy continues through endowment support of outreach and undergraduate research activities. One of the most popular outreach efforts that are housed within the Institute is the Biotechin-a-Box program, which provides instructional opportunities to high school and community college instructors throughout the Commonwealth.

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Photo credit: Alex Crookshanks.

Located on West Campus Drive, the 44,324 sq. ft. building is home of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute’s administrative staff, as well as faculty researchers from the department of entomology and biochemistry. Resources in the building include a facility for confocal microscopy, a fermentation and protein purification laboratoryconfocal microscopy, an insectary, and a containment laboratory. Two teaching laboratories designed to support molecular biology, microbiology, and cell biology instruction can accommodate up to 30 students each. The Fralin Atrium and the 100-seat Fralin Hall Auditorium provide venues for a variety of seminar series, selected classes, and science-related symposia and receptions. A board room is located on the first floor

and provides space for small group meetings and an environment for social and scientific interaction.

Dennis R. Dean, professor of biochemistry and associate director of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute is the Fralin Life Sciences Institute principal scientist responsible for the general oversight and coordination of Fralin Hall.


Construction of Latham Hall was funded by Virginia Higher Education bonds and the building officially opened in 2006.

LATHAM HALL The five-floor, 85,000 sq. ft. building houses researchers from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Natural Resources and Environment, and the College of Science. A $5 million endowment pledged by William and Elizabeth Latham, co-chairs of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Campaign Steering Committee, will provide research equipment and financial support for undergraduate and graduate students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Building equipment includes multiple reach-in growth chambers, eight walk-in growth chambers, an insectary, and resources supporting mass spectrometry, liquid chromatography, and flow cytometry. A bioinformatics/computational biology suite was opened recently. A 40-person seminar room, a conference room, and several smaller meeting rooms are available for researcher interaction and informal gatherings. Approximately 39 scientists operate laboratories in Latham Hall. Their research interests include bio-design, bioprocessing, fisheries, wildlife, geography, forestry, water, soils, infectious diseases, plant metabolism

Photo credit: Alex Crookshanks.

and metabolic engineering, plantpathogen interactions, plant responses to environmental stress, and plant genomics. In addition, the Translational Plant Sciences graduate program is headquartered in Latham Hall, and is supported by the Fralin Life Sciences Institute as well as the VTIGEP. The program, which allows Ph.D. candidates to work in a wide variety of research areas such as plant genomics, disease resistance, bioproduction, bioprocessing, and forest biotechnology, is an example of the synergy and teamwork that distinguishes the building. Latham faculty and students are also major participants in other interdisciplinary programs such as the Global

Change Center and the Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology IGEP. John McDowell, J.B. Stroobants Professor of Biotechnology and faculty in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, is the Fralin Life Sciences Institute principal scientist responsible for the general oversight and coordination of Latham Hall.

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explorer | COVER STORY Life Sciences I (LS1) was constructed in 2007 and is adjacent to Steger Hall, within the Life Sciences Corridor.

LIFE SCIENCES 1 The three-story, 72,000 sq. ft. building houses faculty members from the College of Science, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and the College of Veterinary Medicine, with specializations in microbiology, neurobiology, and immunology. The second and third floors include offices, a core of specialized research laboratories, and a flexible laboratory bench area that can accommodate changing floor space needs of individual investigators. On the lower floor of the building, there is a

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Photo credit: Alex Crookshanks.

26,000 sq. ft. animal vivarium, which provides state-of-the-art animal housing and procedure space for rodents. The facility includes 19 animal housing rooms, 8 procedure/ rodent surgery rooms, a necropsy room, quarantine space with 3 Horsfal cubicles for animal isolation, and other necessary support spaces. The facility includes a space dedicated for imaging. Mice and rats are housed in automatic watering Allentown individually ventilated cages (IVC) that are positive and negative capable (PNC). All animal cages are changed in either a biological safety cabinet or a mobile animal transfer station, as appropriate for project containment. All animal rooms are served by an Edstrom chlorinated reverse osmosis (RO) auto-water distribution

system backed by a Watch DogŽ monitoring system. Other resources within LS1 include a Deltavision Deconvolution Microscope, a protein purification suite, a containment laboratory, and multiple common equipment rooms. A 50-person conference room and two smaller meeting spaces provide venues for seminars, presentations, and graduate level courses and meetings. Birgit Scharf, an associate professor of Biological Sciences, is the Fralin Life Sciences Institute’s principal scientist responsible for general oversight and coordination of the LSI building.


The Integrated Life Sciences Building (ILSB) was built in 2008 in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center and houses faculty from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Natural Resources and Environment, the College of Science, and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

INTEGRATED LIFE SCIENCES BUILDING ILSB faculty conduct research in cardiovascular disease, cancer, muscle physiology, virology, neuroscience, aquaculture, metabolism, obesity, healthy ecosystems, and community health. Within ILSB is a 11,000-square-foot state-of-the-art laboratory animal facility with housing and procedure space for rodents. The facility includes 7 animal housing rooms, 5 procedure/rodent surgery rooms, quarantine, and other necessary support spaces. There is also a rodent phenotyping core that includes metabolic phenotyping, operant chambers, wheel running cages, and an NMR body composition analyzer. Other resources within ILSB include the Virginia Tech Crystallography Lab and the Virginia Tech Metabolism Core. The Virginia Tech Crystallography Lab was formed by combining the resources of the Departments of Chemistry, Geosciences, and Biology with support from the College of Science. The Crystallography Lab operates

Photo credit: Alex Crookshanks.

five diffractometers and is able to collect data on a broad range of singlecrystal samples (e.g. small molecules, frameworks, minerals and proteins). The Virginia Tech Metabolism Core offers a comprehensive testing platform to measure metabolism and bioenergetics in mitochondria, cells, tissues, and whole animals. Services offered by the Metabolism Core include respiration assays, whole body calorimetry, substrate metabolism, muscle function, and histology. These services are available to both internal and external investigators.

Eva Schmelz, an associate professor of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, is the Fralin Life Sciences Institute principal scientist responsible for general oversight and coordination of the ILSB.

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explorer | FEATURE

When we first purchase a smartphone, all of our settings and applications are the same. But as time passes, everyone’s phones will begin to change drastically as we adapt them to our own individual needs and preferences. The same goes for our memories and life experiences, which are constantly being uploaded into our brains, making one person unique from another.

RESEARCHERS STUDY THE MECHANISMS BEHIND

LEARNING & LONG-TERM MEMORY IN THE BRAIN Even the simplest experiences are altering our brains on a cellular level. Every time that we learn something new, our brain changes. Exactly how this information gets stored into our brains is still largely unknown — until now.

(from left to right) Hehuang “David” Xie, associate professor; Xiguang Xu, graduate student; Alexander Murray, graduate student. Photo credit: Alex Crookshanks.


WRITTEN BY KENDALL DANIELS

In a recent study published in the journal Nature Communications, Hehuang “David” Xie, associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, and his research team elucidated transcription factors and enzymes that control certain processes in the brain through the methylation of DNA. With this new information, researchers will be able to learn more about longterm memory storage and the implications this may have for understanding Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders that result in memory loss. “With each experience and learning processes, you have become programmed to become different people. It is fascinating to begin to understand how the


EXPLORER | FEATURE learning process happens in the brain and how each new bit of information learned will make you a different you tomorrow,” said Xie, who is also an affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

Egr1 plays a vital role in long-term memory formation, and previous research has shown that when the transcription factor is knocked out of a mouse, memory loss results.

This research is a collaboration across many laboratories at Virginia Tech, including Liwu Li, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science; Jinsong Zhu, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Alexei Morozov, an assistant professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics in the College of Engineering; Alicia Pickrell, an assistant professor in the School of Neuroscience in the College of Science; and Michelle Theus, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences and Pathobiology in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

TET1 is an enzyme that is involved in active DNA demethylation. DNA methylation occurs when a methyl group is added to a DNA molecule, which then inhibits the promoter region of a gene. In other words, when DNA is methylated, genes cannot be expressed or activated.

Xie and his colleagues are meticulously looking at two components, Egr1 and TET1, which hypothetically team up to help us learn new things and form long-term memory. “Egr1 and the TET1 enzyme, it’s like a program that takes an input and stores it in your iPhone,” said Xie. In this case, the “input” is external sensory information and the “iPhone” is your brain.

Egr1 and TET1 are tasked with removing this methyl group so that gene expression can be activated and memories can be stored. “There’s basically an ‘on’ or ‘off’ switch that controls our gene expression, or increases or decreases our expression levels. EGR1 is helping us to use this switching system so that when you receive an external stimulus, the genes will be expressed — and expressed more quickly.

“IT IS FASCINATING TO BEGIN TO UNDERSTAND HOW THE LEARNING PROCESS HAPPENS IN THE BRAIN AND HOW EACH NEW BIT OF INFORMATION LEARNED WILL MAKE YOU A DIFFERENT YOU TOMORROW.” Using mouse models, Xie looked at their frontal cortices, the primary brain region where learning is stored and where the brain is the slowest to mature. The researchers used a mouse model to do more-striking observations like the knockout of genes. Egr1 is a transcription factor, which is a protein that helps transcribe DNA into RNA. 30

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Now you’ve learned it; it’s already unmethylated, and now you can respond accordingly.” Researchers are seeing that this Egr1-TET1 teamup could be a mechanism for learning that extends past the brain. For instance, there are similar “family members” to Egr1 and TET1 in the blood. In the immune system, memory B cells and memory T cells are key for creating and maintaining immunological memory. They have the ability to remember the antigens of past invaders so that the next time they are under attack, they can initiate a rapid immunological response. This process points to the possibility that other organs theoretically may be able to form memories. The gravity of this finding is significant in terms of learning. Is there a possibility that learning can change for the better? Can we change the education system to enhance learning?

“There are a lot of these fundamental things that we don’t know. For example, the markers and the gene switches: How can we identify them, and can we use these switches? Can that be used to monitor disease? Can that be used to monitor specific events? I think there are so many things that are coming to us, and we just need to think about what we can do right now,” said Xie.

For future research, Xie is interested in learning more about how different types of neurons use different mechanisms to respond to external stimuli.

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Those questions are for Xie and his research team to explore.

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explorer | FEATURE

RESEARCHERS COLLABORATE TO ADDRESS

water & heatlth

WRITTEN BY KENDALL DANIELS

IN RURAL CHINA AND APPALACHIA

In October 2019, the first-ever Water & Health in Rural China & Appalachia Conference kicked off at Virginia Tech on the Blacksburg campus. This event also marked the formal inclusion of Virginia Tech in a collaborative research program with researchers from UC Berkeley and China. Inadequate access to safe drinking water remains a substantial problem for low-income rural communities around the world. From central Appalachia to rural China, the causes and consequences of water contamination and unreliable access to safe water overlap considerably. 32

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Photo credit for all photos in this article: Alex Crookshanks.


Virginia Tech faculty and students collaborated with officials from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and researchers from UC Berkeley. Together, they shared their past, present, and upcoming research on water and healthrelated challenges and opportunities in low-income areas of rural Appalachia and China. The conference was also bookended by meetings and working sessions, which also served as planning platforms for new collaborative projects. Alasdair Cohen, an assistant professor of environmental epidemiology in the Department of Population Health Sciences and Virginia Tech Public Health Program, in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, organized the event. Previously, Cohen worked at UC Berkeley as a project scientist and research director for The Berkeley/China-CDC Program for Water & Health, which he helped create in 2016.

Opening remarks were given by Laura Hungerford, professor and department head of the Department of Population Health Sciences, and Tao Yong, the chief scientist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Rural Water Supply Technical Guidance and also the committee chairman of the Chinese Preventative Medicine Association’s Rural Drinking Water and Environment Professional Committee. For the rest of the day, talks covered a variety of topics, ranging from environmental health, economic change, reflections on failed and innovative drinking water technologies, and the exciting potential to form future collaborations. Isha Ray, co-director of the Berkeley Water Center and associate professor of water and development at UC Berkeley, discussed findings from her research on the challenges of access and accountability in the rural drinking systems of Mexico, Tanzania, India, and the United States.

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explorer | FEATURE

drinking water is expected to increase as water scarcity, climate change, and population growth put more stress onto water supply systems. Ray pointed out that low-income, overworked individuals do not always have the energy, time, and costs required to keep up with the many methods of water purification: “It’s not that they aren’t willing to do anything. It’s that they lack the financial resources.” She added that governments need to take more responsibility, otherwise their drinking water problems will never be solved and their constituents will continue to suffer. “If affordability becomes wrapped up with accountability at the very lowest stages of use, the chances that we will fail, and continue to fail, are high,” she said. According to the World Health Organization, 785 million people lack access to even basic drinking-water services, 144 million of whom are dependent on surface water. The lack of access to sufficient quantities of reliably safe 34

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“Water is the one resource for which there is no substitute,” said Stephen Schoenholtz, a professor of hydrology in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment and director of the Virginia Water Resources Research Center. He explained how tackling these issues requires an all-hands-on-deck effort. “You can’t look at water quality and supply in terms of one set of values. You have to take many things into account to solve these complex systems,” he said. Shu Tao, professor of environmental science in the College of Urban and Environmental Sciences at Peking University - Beijing, spoke about the cultural tradition, economics, and health implications of boiling water in rural China.


Tech. The newly expanded program is now called “The Berkeley / China / Virginia Tech Program for Water & Health.” “We’ve been discussing the expansion of our program to Virginia Tech for some time now, so it’s especially rewarding to be together here today to

“WATER IS THE ONE RESOURCE FOR WHICH THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE,” SAID STEPHEN SCHOENHOLTZ.

“Income appears to be the most important driver for when people transition from boiling with solid fuels to cleaner fuels like electricity,” said Tao. At the end of the event, faculty from Virginia Tech and Berkeley signed a memorandum of understanding to mark the restructuring and expansion of their water

reaffirm and formalize our collective commitment to this program and its goals of expanding safe water access and improving environmental health in China, the USA, and elsewhere around the world,” said Cohen, who is also a faculty member of the Global Change Center, housed in Virginia Tech’s Fralin Life Sciences Institute. Sponsors for this event included the Department of Population Health Sciences and the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, the Global Change Center, the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, and The Inn at Virginia Tech.

and health research program to now include Virginia

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explorer | FEATURE The molecular and cellular biology graduate program, or MCB, at Virginia Tech offers students the opportunity to get involved in research as diverse as how biological mechanisms contribute to mood disorders, such as anxiety and depression, or how circadian rhythms can provide insight into cancer treatment. Virginia Tech launched this new interdisciplinary doctoral program in 2018. The first and second cohort are made up of ten impressive students from diverse backgrounds with extensive research experience, and the program is now recruiting for its third cohort.

Photo credit: Kristin Rose Jutras.

Silke Hauf and Michelle Olsen, co-directors of MCB, have designed this program so that it offers students a broad foundation along with a strong research component.

V I R G I N I A T E C H ’ S

MOLECULAR AND CELLULAR BIOLOGY GRADUATE PROGRAM

THRIVING IN 2020

WRITTEN BY KRISTIN ROSE JUTRAS

The program, which has faculty members from 7 departments and research programs across the Blacksburg and Roanoke campuses, allows students to concentrate on one of four broad research categories: cell signaling and cancer, inflammation and immunity, microbiology, and neurobiology. 36

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“The MCB program continues to thrive in its second year. We have over 50 molecular and cellular biologists from diverse research areas who are invested in training and supporting our students. Students from our first


cohort have already published in high profile journals and have presented at several international meetings,’’ said Hauf, an associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Science and an affiliated faculty member of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute.

Students rotate through three labs during their first semester while completing introductory coursework and, at the end of the semester, they choose a research group to join. “One of the main things that drew me to both Virginia Tech and the MCB program was the emphasis on interdisciplinary studies and collaborations between different fields. Something I really appreciate now that I’m at Virginia Tech are the resources available to help me develop skills that will make me a better

“ONE OF THE MAIN THINGS THAT DREW ME TO BOTH VIRGINIA TECH AND THE MCB PROGRAM WAS THE EMPHASIS ON INTERDISCIPLINARY STUDIES AND COLLABORATIONS BETWEEN DIFFERENT FIELDS.” scientist as a whole, like opportunities to attend a variety of seminars, assistance with scientific writing, and learning how to communicate science to a variety of audiences,’’ said Becca Salgado, a first year graduate student in the program. The Fralin Life Sciences Institute provided seed funding to get the program off the ground and continues to provide support. The contributing departments and the College of Science are investing in the program as well. Approximately 50 faculty members with external funding from the National Institutes

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explorer | FEATURE of Health, National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Defense, and several private foundations are currently affiliated with the program. The student’s official degree will be in the department or college of the faculty member with whom they choose to work, which includes animal and poultry science; biochemistry; biological sciences; biomedical and veterinary sciences; human nutrition, foods, and exercise; and the School of Neuroscience.

“Our goal with MCB was to generate a community of trainees with a common interest in molecular and cellular biology across a range of disciplines. When we host a poster session, a ‘lunch and learn’ or science presentations, the MCB students often bring their entire lab - extending a sense of community beyond our program,’’ said Olsen, an associate professor in the School of Neuroscience in the College of Science. First year student Becca Salgado joined the lab of Nisha Duggal in the Department of Biomedical Sciences & Pathobiology in the Virginia-Maryland College

MCB COHORT

MEET THE NEW

Lata Chaunsali joined Mike Fox’s lab in Roanoke, Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC Hometown: Almora, India Education: B.Sc. - Biology & Chemistry (Kumaun University, Nainital, India); M.Sc.- Zoology (Kumaun University, Nainital, India); M.Phil.- Biophysics (NIMHANS, Bangalore, India) Research Interests: developmental neuroscience, immunology, molecular biology

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Becca Salgado joined Nisha Duggal’s lab, Department of Biomedical Sciences & Pathobiology, Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine Hometown: Lake Forest, California Education: B.S. in Biology from Point Loma Nazarene University (San Diego, CA) Research Interests: infectious disease, immunology, and global public health

Jing Ju joined Michelle Theus’s lab, Department of Biomedical Sciences & Pathobiology, Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine Hometown: Nanjing, China Education: B.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Nanjing Medical University; M.S. in Cancer Biology, Drexel University Research interests: cerebrovascular remodeling, neurogenesis, and regeneration medicine


of Veterinary Medicine. The Duggal lab focuses on West Nile, Zika, and Usutu virus research. Salgado joined the Duggal lab due to her interest in emerging infectious diseases, particularly flaviviruses, and her background in virology research. Salgado’s projects will focus primarily on the molecular basis of Usutu virus pathogenesis and the innate immune response to Usutu in an avian model. First year student Lata Chaunsali joined Mike Fox’s lab in Roanoke. She is the first MCB student to be based in Roanoke at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC. “I have been working at Virginia Tech for almost 4 years. I interacted with many scientists during that period and got inspiration from them to continue research. I joined the MCB program because I think the scientists at Virginia Tech are working on the most fundamental questions in different areas using the most cutting-edge techniques. I also liked the MCB curriculum which has a comparatively shorter rotation to other graduate programs, and was most suitable for me,’’ said Chaunsali. Researchers in the Fox Laboratory focus on the visual system in their efforts to uncover mechanisms that drive the initial targeting of synapses. The scientists are interested in understanding how synapses are formed between retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), the output neurons of the retina, and target neurons within the brain. First year student Jing Ju chose to join Michelle Theus’ lab in the Department of Biomedical Sciences & Pathobiology in the VirginiaMaryland College of Veterinary Medicine after his rotations. “Dr. Theus is a specialist in brain injury. Our laboratory employs a diverse range of molecular

and cellular techniques to investigate the mechanisms underlying remodeling of blood vessels after a stroke. And also, our research group is a supportive, professional and collaborative team. Thus, the Theus’ lab can give me a comprehensive scientific training for studying brain injury and neurogenesis,’’ said Ju. Hauf and Olsen have built a thriving community that includes summer research talks, monthly working lunches, and yearly poster symposia. The “Lunch and Learn’’ talks focus on various topics such as career development, scientific writing, stress management, and elevator pitches. “One of my favorite memories from my first year as an MCB student were the “Lunch and Learn’’ talks we had; it gave all the MCB students from different labs a chance to come together and learn something new. I really enjoyed the talk regarding opportunities for scientists outside academia, such as employment in industry and government research,’’ said Salgado. The program plans to rotate leadership positions in the future to stay innovative, as is usually done with other successful Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Programs on the Virginia Tech campus.

Applications for the fall 2021 will be accepted through Dec. 1, 2020.

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WHERE ARE THEY SECOND YEAR NOW?MCB STUDENTS Aaron Brock | Jutras Lab Aaron joined the Jutras lab where he is studying the biology and pathogenesis of the causative agent of Lyme disease. Department of Biochemistry College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Kaiser Arndt (left) and Earl Gilbert (right) | English Lab They joined the English lab where they study the physiology of neural circuits in animals. School of Neuroscience College of Science

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Jessie Rogers | Hauf Lab Jessie joined the Hauf lab where she is working to understand how cells sense and control their size. Department of Biological Sciences College of Science


explorer | FEATURE

Beatriz Torres | Olsen Lab Beatriz joined the Olsen lab where she is researching Neuronal Synaptogenesis. School of Neuroscience College of Science

Elizabeth Shupe | Clinton Lab Elizabeth joined the Clinton lab where she is studying the interplay of genes, stress and neurodevelopment. School of Neuroscience College of Science

AnnaLin Woo | Sontheimer Lab AnnaLin joined the Sontheimer lab where she studies the role of astrocytes and perineuronal nets in excitotoxicity and epilepsy. School of Neuroscience College of Science

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SUM MER explorer | FEATURE

F R A L I N

S U M M E R

UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH FELLOWS


M R

The Fralin Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURF) program is a 10-week training program designed to give motivated Virginia Tech undergraduates the opportunity to engage in full time research (approximately 40 hours/week) and related professional development activities that mirror graduate training. The goal is to offer students experiences that will help them determine if they want to pursue a career in research while they develop skills for graduate school. The program includes weekly research and professional development seminars, periodic social events, and a final symposium during which students will present their research. Students selected to participate in this training program receive a $4,000 stipend and present their results at the Virginia Tech Summer Research Symposium. Although all Virginia Tech undergraduates considering a career in life science research are encouraged to apply, preference will be given to rising second and third-year undergraduates, students with a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher, and students who have yet to engage in full-time summer research experiences. Students must identify a faculty mentor working in the life sciences at Virginia Tech before applying to the program. SURF is sponsored by the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and Office of Undergraduate Research. More information can be found here: FralinLifeSci.vt.edu

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S P O T L I G H T

Tanner DeHart | Project: Molecular and Cellular Characterization of a Putative PBP2a homologue in Borrelia burgdorferi, the Lyme Disease Spirochete Major: Biochemistry | Mentor: Brandon Jutras

Tanner DeHart studied peptidoglycan and the enzymes that synthesize it in the

Lyme disease spirochete, Borrelia burgdorferi, under the mentorship of Brandon

J

Jutras. Like most bacteria, the cell wall of B. burgdorferi requires the biopolymer peptidoglycan (PG) to survive. Penicillin-binding proteins (PBPs) are central components of the PG synthesis machinery and are the targets of ß-lactam antibiotic

drugs. In fact, three of the four approved drugs to treat Lyme disease target PBPs, yet how or why they work is still unclear. Despite the importance of PG in cell growth,

to regulate growth and division; analysis of E. coli peptidoglycan demonstrated

division, and antibiotic susceptibility, virtually nothing is known about its production

BB_0718 functions as a transpeptidase. Using live-cell epifluorescent microscopy,

in the Lyme disease bacterium. DeHart used molecular, cellular, surrogate-host, and

DeHart discovered that BB_0718 has bipartite distribution— seemingly acting on

biochemical tools to evaluate the function of a seemingly essential PG synthesis

both the PG elongasome and divisome. Further studies of PBP2a will broaden the

enzyme. B. burgdorferi encodes a PBP2a homologue (BB_0718), which is of particular

understanding of PG synthesis and antibiotic resistance/susceptibility, which DeHart

interest since it has been shown to function in the presence of ß-lactams in other

hopes will resolve molecular structure/function relationship(s) and lead to novel

bacteria. In E. coli, expression of B. burgdorferi’s PBP2a resulted in an inability

therapies in the treatment of Lyme disease.

Jordan Heiman worked alongside mentors Elizabeth Gilbert and Mark Cline to determine the effects of transforming growth factor beta-3 (TGFß-3) on appetite and hypothalamic function in Japanese quail. This is the first report of the appetitestimulating effects of this factor in birds. Japanese quail serve as a great avian model for studying appetite because they are less selected than chickens (the most common model) for agricultural demands and are well adapted to a captive environment. TGFß-3 is produced throughout the body and regulates various aspects of cellular growth and survival. In an initial food and water intake study, Heiman identified that TGFß-3 increased food intake. He then measured hypothalamic mRNA quantity of some appetite-related factors, such as corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), and agouti-related peptide. Heiman observed that CRF mRNA was reduced at one-hour

Jordan Heiman | Project: Effects of transforming growth factor beta-3 on appetite and adiposity in chicks Major: Clinical Neuroscience Mentor: Elizabeth Gilbert, Mark Cline

post-injection in TGFß-3-injected birds. He conducted a comprehensive behavior analysis and concluded that the increase in food intake was a primary effect – not the result – of another behavior. Heiman hopes that measuring gene expression in specific hypothalamic areas will provide additional insights on the molecular mechanisms associated with the effects of TGFß-3, which has implications for understanding and treating eating disorders.

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explorer | FEATURE

Soonyoung Kim and her mentor Jorge Hernandez explored the predictability of individual factors related to job performance, such as cognitive ability and Big Five personality traits, based on the formatting of applicants’ résumés inferred by a computer. Employers typically emphasize the content of the résumé — such as education, work experience, and skills — when subjectively evaluating the applicant. Kim trained a computer program to learn the common visual features within a résumé to use visual features as predictors in a machine learning model to determine an applicant’s work-related traits from a sample of 435 résumés. She found that the visual features of a résumé could predict both people’s personality traits and their cognitive ability beyond chance levels. Kim then compared those predictions with the ratings made by two human raters, and the results showed that

Soonyoung Kim | Project: Deep selection: inferring employee traits from résumé style using neural networks Major: Psychology, Professional and Technical Writing Mentor: Jorge Hernandez

the computer program significantly improved the explanatory ability of the model compared to only using human ratings. The relationship between résumé style and people’s traits could not be explained by simple measures of visual appearance, such as the word count or darkness of content. Using this method, practitioners can extract additional information from their existing selection process to better identify qualified job candidates within large pools of applicants.

Taylan Tunckanat | Project: Characterization of enzymes in compatible solute biosynthesis in methanogenic archaea Major: Biochemistry | Mentor: Kylie Allen

Taylan Tunckanat and his mentor, Kylie Allen, studied methanogenic archaea

(methanogens) — ancient ubiquitous microorganisms capable of inhabiting extreme environments, similar to that of primordial Earth. The enzymes and mechanisms they use to cope with numerous stressors may provide insights into the origins of life. In high salinity environments, methanogens must synthesize or accumulate compatible solutes to prevent the dehydration of the cell. Although several mechanisms exist, the biosynthesis of Nε-acetyl-ß-lysine is a common method to combat osmotic stress in marine methanogens. The two-step process begins with the conversion of α-lysine to ß-lysine by lysine-2,3-aminomutase (LAM) and is followed by the acetylation of the product. LAM is of special interest as it belongs to the radical S-adenosyl-L-methionine (SAM) superfamily of enzymes which perform

diverse and complex chemistry. Although bacterial versions of LAM have been characterized, a methanogenic LAM has never been studied in vitro. Tunckanat’s study focused on understanding the properties of both compatible solutes and the mechanisms of their synthesis. His work in the expression, purification, and biochemical characterization of this LAM also serves to set the stage for future investigations of other diverse radical SAM aminomutases. 45

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Sophia Textoris worked with mentor Carolyn Shivers to better understand the

experiences of individuals with mental illness (MI) and their siblings. This study

was based on findings from a systematic review of the literature on siblings of individuals with MI. Most current literature on siblings of individuals with MI focuses

on siblings of individuals with schizophrenia, so there is very little known about

siblings of individuals with more prevalent MI, including anxiety and depression. Data

from Textoris’ study built on results from a systematic review of the literature to expand knowledge of how mental illness impacts individuals and their siblings, with

a focus on recruiting participants who have a wide range of MI diagnoses, such as

depression, anxiety, eating disorders, etc. This new information will help families, clinicians, and researchers better understand the relationship between siblings

Sophia Textoris | Project: Examining sibling experiences in families of individuals with mental illness Major: Psychology, Human Development Mentor: Carolyn Shivers

when one has an MI, thus providing information to support the development of interventions and strategies to encourage healthy sibling relationships throughout

the life course. Textoris hopes her research will help close the gaps in understanding of the experiences of MI-Sibs.

Julia Hudack | Project: Detoxifying poison ivy hairy roots using CRISPR genome editings Major: Biological Sciences | Mentor: John Jelesko Most of the poison ivy genome is unexplored, and very little is known about the

production and significance of urushiol, the chemical produced by poison ivy that

causes skin irritation in humans following contact. Furthermore, the ecological role

of urushiol in the native environment is not well understood. Julia Hudack and her mentor John Jelesko sought to gain a better understanding of urushiol biosynthesis. Hudack’s goal was to identify which of the four hypothesized PolyKetide Synthase (PKS) small gene families in poison ivy plants is necessary for urushiol biosynthesis. Genetic constructs containing CRISPR small-guide RNA genes, each designed to disrupt each of four PKS small genes families, were constructed using Golden Gate cloning. These four plasmids were transformed into Agrobacterium rhizogenes, a soil bacterium, that were then transformed into poison ivy seedlings via prick inoculation to induce PKS-CRISPR genome-edited transgenic hairy root lines. PKSCRISPR transgenic hairy root lines that show significantly reduced urushiol levels

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will identify PKS genes that are necessary for urushiol biosynthesis. Hudack hopes that understanding which PKS gene is essential for the biosynthesis of urushiol will provide specific insights into the first step of urushiol biosynthesis and enable focused studies on urushiol production in intact poison ivy plants from an ecological standpoint.


M explorer | FEATURE

Maria Villafuerte worked alongside Sarah Clinton, whose laboratory is broadly interested in biological and environmental factors that shape brain development, emotional behavior, and predispositions to disorders like anxiety and depression. Villafuerte’s project focused on the effects of alcohol on early brain development and later emotional behavior. One in 10 children are born to mothers who drank alcohol during pregnancy, and several studies show a variety of negative effects of such early life alcohol exposure, including cognitive deficits, social dysfunction, poor focus and attention, as well as an increased risk for depression and anxiety. Villafuerte’s project used a rat model in which mothers binged on alcohol for one night during pregnancy. She conducted multiple studies in the alcohol-exposed offspring to look at emotional behavioral alterations that were triggered by early life alcohol exposure, as well as

Maria Villafuerte Project: Neurodevelopmental consequences of acute early life ethanol exposure Major: Clinical Neuroscience | Mentor: Sarah Clinton

molecular changes in brain regions that regulate emotional behavior. Ultimately her research aims to understand how early life alcohol disrupts brain development and emotional behavior to help develop therapeutic interventions for affected children.

Kevin Williams Project: Discovery and documentation of complete genomes from various strains of Fusobacterium nucleatum Major: Biochemistry | Mentor: Daniel Slade Kevin Williams worked with Daniel Slade to study the bacteria of the genus

Fusobacterium — anaerobic bacteria that predominantly reside in the oral cavity. F. nucleatum has recently gained notoriety as an ‘oncomicrobe’ because of its correlations with oral, pancreatic, and colorectal cancers. To understand how these normally non-problematic bacteria participate in opportunistic infections and diseases, Williams sequenced bacterial genomes to predict the virulence

methyltransferase enzymes to protect DNA prior to bacterial transformation.

proteins that could be aiding in infection. These sequenced Fusobacterium strains

His experiments were instrumental in developing a deeper understanding of

were used to infect human cells to compare their predicted virulence capabilities

how Fusobacterium is involved in oral diseases and cancer. Williams hopes

to actual experimental results. Additionally, Williams participated in enhancing

that researchers can use this knowledge for improved treatments and

a bacterial genetic system for Fusobacterium by purifying Fusobacterium DNA

disease prevention.

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Rowan Wooldridge worked on isolating two of the eight proteins responsible for the bacteria Sinorhizobium meliloti’s targeted movement towards known symbiont alfalfa. He conducted his research under Birgit Scharf, who studies this targeted movement. Methyl Accepting Chemotaxis Proteins (or MCPs) sense the different molecules released by alfalfa, causing the bacteria to swim towards its roots. Once at the roots, S. meliloti fixes atmospheric nitrogen for alfalfa. In return, the bacteria

Rowan Wooldridge Project: In vitro characterization of Sinorhizobium meliloti methyl accepting chemotaxis proteins Major: Biochemistry | Mentor: Birgit Scharf

receive the nutrients they need to survive. Wooldridge worked to purify these two proteins by cloning the genes coding for both proteins into different vectors, expressing them in E. coli, and purifying them using affinity column chromatography.

Austin Murray Project: Understanding the roles of amphipathic alpha-helices in membrane association and viral genomic replication of Brome Mosaic Virus Protein 1a Major: Biochemistry | Mentor: Xiaofeng Wang

Austin Murray worked with his mentor, Xiaofeng Wang, to continue research that has been ongoing for two years. Murray examined the critical steps in the replication process of Brome Mosaic Virus, a (+)strand RNA virus that falls into the same category as Hepatitis C and Polio. By attaching fluorescent markers to various replication components within the genome of the virus, Murray was able to narrow down selected regions to a single component determined to be essential in binding the viral replication complexes (VRCs) to the cell wall. This sequence was cross48

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referenced with other viruses in the same family, like Hepatitis C, and was found to be highly conserved. This implied that this sequence is common to all viruses of this class. The implications of Murray’s study are not only a greater understanding of how these viruses replicate, but it potentially provides a specific target for theoretical broad-spectrum anti-virals further down the line.


A explorer | FEATURE

Addison Webster worked alongside mentor Mark Cline to study the hypothalamic

mechanism of neuropeptide S (NPS) induced satiety. NPS is a neurotransmitter with receptors thought to be distributed within hypothalamic regions that help

regulate appetite. Understanding this mechanism can provide insight into appetite

regulation, with implications for addressing obesity and eating disorders. Webster designed a project to explore the effect of NPS administration in Japanese quail. She

conducted an experiment to measure c-Fos immunohistochemistry, an indicator of neuronal activation, in NPS-injected quail. This stain indicated which regions

within the hypothalamus were active at the time of harvest. Next, she isolated the active hypothalamic region and performed real-time polymerase chain reaction to

Addison Webster | Project: Elucidating the hypothalamic effects of NPS in Japanese quail Major: Experimental Neuroscience | Mentor: Mark Cline

Erin Collins Project: Creating a database of PPARĂŽÂł partial agonists for virtual screening to treat Type II diabetes Major: Biochemistry, Chemistry Mentor: Anne Brown

reveal if any additional appetite-associated factors were at play. Lastly, Webster conducted a comprehensive behavioral analysis to further explore the behavioral effects of NPS. From this, she developed a model showing the mechanism mediating NPS-induced satiety.

Trenton Kite Project: Production and purification of IL-33 protein in Alternaria Major: Microbiology Mentor: Christopher Lawrence

Jiwoo Kim Project: Receptor stability in Sinorhizhobium meliloti altering putative proteolysis sites Major: Biochemistry Mentor: Birgit Scharf

Harveen Pantleay Project: Differences between parent and child measures Major: Psychology, Sociology Mentor: Lee Cooper

SURF is sponsored by the Fralin Life Sciences Institute and Office of Undergraduate Research. For more information:

FralinLifeSci.vt.edu


FRALIN LIFE SCIENCES INSTITUTE

affiliated faculty members:

Steger Hall Fralin Hall Latham Hall Integrated Life Science Building Life Sciences 1

Faculty that actively participate in Institute sponsored

research. The Institute is closely aligned with Virginia

activities, including participation in Institute funded

Tech’s other five research institutes, which include

Centers and focus areas, use of core facilities housed and

the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC,

supported by the Institute, and participation in Institute

Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, the Institute

supported graduate and undergraduate programs are

for Critical Technology and Applied Sciences, the

invited to become affiliated faculty members. Affiliated

Institute for Society, Culture and Environment, and

faculty members are given resources necessary to

the Institute for Creativity, Arts and Technology.

The Fralin Life Sciences Institute at Virginia Tech is an instrument of strategic university investment committed to enhancing the quality, quantity, and competitiveness of life sciences research, education, and outreach across Virginia Tech. Residents of the institute’s five flagship buildings are automatically considered

explore new, innovative science that benefits people in

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the New River Valley, the Commonwealth of Virginia,

The Fralin Life Sciences Institute at Virginia Tech

and the world. Through seminars, conferences and

strategically invests in targeted research areas within the

research group support, the Institute serves as a meeting

life sciences. Such investments include recruitment and

point for progressive ideas involving multidisciplinary

set-up support for new faculty members, retention and


explorer | ABOUT

h o r a c e  f r a l i n

Following his graduation in 1948 with a degree in electrical engineering, Horace Fralin forged a partnership in Fralin and Waldron Inc., a company that specializes in federal housing programs, health care facilities, and retirement centers. The company has also been involved with the revitalization of Roanoke. Mr. Fralin was a charter member of Virginia Tech’s Ut Prosim Society and was a Corporate Distinguished Benefactor, founding member of the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center Board of Directors, and served as president of the Virginia Tech Foundation. He served on the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors, College of Engineering Committee of 100 Advisory Board, Virginia Tech Foundation Executive and Finance Committee, and was chairman of the Hotel Roanoke Advisory Committee. The Virginia Tech Alumni Association recognized his leadership by honoring Fralin with the Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award, and in 1992 the university conferred upon him its most distinguished award for service, the William H. Ruffner Medal.

recognition of established faculty members, seed funds for new research projects, equipment purchases, graduate

Fralin’s bequest to Virginia Tech, valued at $8.6 million, is one of the largest gifts in university history. Four million dollars of his gift was, at his request, earmarked for the study and application of biotechnology. These funds have been used to create a permanent endowment for the institute. The proceeds from the endowment are used to match contributions and grants from other sources to continue the outreach, teaching, and research missions of the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. Through this endowment, Horace Fralin will continue to support research in the fields of human and animal health and agricultural productivity forever.

student recruitment and support, undergraduate research support, and support for outreach activities. Research initiatives within the life sciences receiving the highest priority for support include vector-borne disease, infectious disease, plant sciences, ecology and organismal biology, obesity, and cancer biology. The Fralin Life Sciences Institute is also actively engaged in cooperative partnerships with colleges, departments, and other institutes that also support the life science community. 51

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Fralin Life Sciences Institute Steger Hall 1015 Life Science Circle Blacksburg, VA 24061 540-231-6614

fralinlifesci.vt.edu

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Profile for Kristin Rose Jutras

Fralin Explorer Magazine, Spring 2020  

Editor: Kristin Rose Jutras

Fralin Explorer Magazine, Spring 2020  

Editor: Kristin Rose Jutras

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