Madagascar: Fossil Skull Offers Clue to Mammals’ Evolution

The surprise discovery of the fossilized skull of a 66- to 70-million-year-old, groundhog-like creature on Madagascar has led to new analyses of the lifestyle of the largest known mammal of its time by a team of specialists including Biologist Elizabeth Dumont from UMass Amherst.

Dumont is an expert in jaw structure and bite mechanics. Dumont and her assistant Dan Pulaski reconstructed the cranium of this mammal from CT scans by painstakingly moving bone fragments back into place and filling in missing bone with mirror images of the same bone from the other side of the skull. Dumont reconstructed the chewing muscles based on comparison to living rodents and used engineering-based models to predict how the jaws moved and how hard the animal could bite.

Dumont and lead author, paleontologist David Krause of Stony Brook University, agree that the discovery shakes up evolutionary biologists’ views of the mammalian “family tree.” Krause says Vintana “reshapes some major branches” of that tree, grouping gondwanatherians with others that have been “very difficult to place.” Dumont adds, “This work is a real tour de force thanks to the collaboration of many different specialists.”

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society.

The UMass News & Media article, is available here.

Riley Delivers Address in Beijing on Antibiotic Resistance

Biology professor Margaret Riley was an invited speaker at the 18th Beijing International Healthcare Industry Forum in China’s capital on Oct. 23, where her topic was “Strategic development of novel narrow-spectrum bacteriocin antimicrobials.”

During her address she told the audience that antibiotic resistance is becoming a global health crisis, and there is no simple solution at present to deal with it. “The traditional paradigm for antibiotic discovery, development and therapy is not capable of responding to the rapid evolution and shifting ecology of our most virulent pathogens,” she said. “We must act now to search for alternative solutions to this fundamental challenge to human health. Our research program, based on sound ecological principles, begins with lead compounds.

Riley's research focuses on exploring the potential of naturally occurring bacteria-killing toxins created by fellow bacteria as the entry point for developing new antimicrobials. She was a co-founder in 2009 of the biopharmaceutical company Bacteriotix, with a mission to provide proof of concept for this new drug development paradigm. In 2009, she co-founded the Institute for Drug Resistance to facilitate new, multidisciplinary approaches to addressing drug resistance. She also created a new Gordon Research Conference on Drug Resistance.

The UMass News & Media article, is available here.

Riley's Presentation at the IOM: "Antimicrobial Resistance: A Problem Without Borders"

Professor Margaret Riley presented a talk at The Institute of Medicines 2014 Richard & Hinda Rosenthal Symposium, in Washington DC. The Symposium explored the current and future impact of antimicrobial resistance, implications for our nation's health and that of the world, and obstacles and successes in the development of solutions and steps to mitigate this global public health challenge.

The Symposium was presented by The Institute of Medicine's Executive Office Board and covered a range of topics from: Health Care Workforce, Health Services, Coverage, Access, Public Health, Quality and Patient Safety.

Using UTI (urinary tract infection) as a model case, Riley and colleagues investigated the use of bacteriocin toxins as a potential treatment method. These antimicrobial molecules have been found to be effective against UTI-causing bacteria while being non-toxic to human cells.

The full video presentation appearing on The Institute of Medicines, of The National Academies, can be accessed here.

Dumont Named Vice Provost for Academic Affairs

Biology professor Elizabeth (Betsy) Dumont has been named vice provost for Academic Affairs by Provost Katherine Newman, who announced the appointment in a Sept. 25 broadcast e-mail. The appointment is effective immediately.

“She will be joining my team to work on a wide range of important projects, ranging from critical aspects of faculty development, to streamlining the process of laboratory renovation/hiring/budget alignment, to leading the AQUAD review process, and representing our campus to the Five College Consortium,” said Newman.

A member of the biology faculty since 2001, Dumont leads a lab that focuses on the evolution of form and function in mammals, particularly as it is expressed in the dietary adaptations of bats. She also undertakes field studies of feeding behavior in the wild. Since 2010, Dumont has directed the graduate program in organismic and evolutionary biology.

“In keeping with my taste in scholar/administrators as key partners, she will continue to run her lab and her impressive research agenda,” added Newman. “Moreover, she will complete the work she began on the leadership side in the College of Natural Sciences, working to enhance the interdisciplinary doctoral programs. But she will quickly ramp up to the many organizational reforms we are working on in the Provost’s Office.”

The UMass News & Media article, is available here.

Richmond Honored with Meritorious Teaching Award in Herpetology

Alan Richmond, senior lecturer in the biology department, received the Meritorious Teaching Award in Herpetology from the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists during the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists held July 30 to Aug. 3 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The national award recognizes sustained commitment to superior teaching effectiveness and mentoring of students in the area of herpetology. Richmond has taught herpetology to scores of students, several of whom have gone on to successful careers in the field. One former student said Richmond’s “talents as an inspiring teacher extend beyond the classroom, and those students that have taken the opportunity to work with him as work-study students or on independent study or honor projects have found the experience to be professionally rewarding.”

In addition to herpetology, Richmond teaches courses on the “Biology of Marine Vertebrates,” “Comparative Anatomy” and “Vertebrate Collections Management.”

Outside of the classroom Richmond is widely recognized as an expert on New England frogs, salamanders, snakes and turtles and was instrumental in creating the Massachusetts Herpetological Atlas. He is also the curator of herpetology for the campus’ Natural History Collections.

The UMass News & Media article, written by Daniel J. Fitzgibbons, is available here.