Current News

Global demand for forest products such as pulp for paper, saw timber and wood pellets for fuel is expected to increase in coming years. To meet this need, UMass Amherst plant geneticist Sam Hazen, whose research has led to higher biomass yield in grasses, recently received a grant to demonstrate that his new technology can be translated to grow trees that produce more wood than conventional trees.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Hazen a three-year, $713,000 grant to study gene regulation of cell wall growth in the model grass species Brachypodium. His experiments will advance understanding of the transcription networks that regulate secondary cell wall biosynthesis in grasses. Understanding the cell wall, which is a complex blend of polysaccharides, proteins and lignin, plus the processes and genes that regulate them, could have a big impact on commercial agriculture, he points out.

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Madelaine Bartlett, biology, and plant genome scientist colleagues elsewhere have received a four-year, $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation ($812,000 to Bartlett) to study the genes that regulate plant stem cell biology and the role they play in yielding more and bigger fruit. One goal is to experimentally speed up the mutation process, she says. “Instead of waiting for the next thousand years to see what new mutations arise in these genes, we will accelerate evolution in a very controlled and intelligent way to create genetic diversity for use by traditional plant breeders.”

The evolutionary biologist adds, “All the plants we eat have been domesticated, that is, selected by ancient farmers to be more convenient to grow and to yield more food. Because of all we know about how evolution works, we’ll use the same tools that nature does to create new genetic diversity.”

The research collaboration, which will focus on tomatoes, corn and the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, is led by principal investigator David Jackson of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, N.Y. Others on the team are colleague Zachary Lippman at Cold Spring, Bartlett and Zachary Nimchuk of the University of North Carolina. In earlier studies by the Jackson lab published in Nature Genetics with Bartlett as a co-author, the researchers showed that weak alleles of a gene in the CLAVATA gene network can enhance fruit yield in corn. The researchers plan to build on that success.

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Jennifer Olins '17 Junior biology major Jennifer Olins has been a research assistant in Associate Professor Samuel Hazen’s regulatory genomics lab since she enrolled at the University in September 2013. She is one of a few talented students admitted into the campus’s competitive First-Year Research Experience program and the Biology Talent Advanced Program (BioTAP). Since joining the Hazen group, Olins has been awarded two competitive Commonwealth College Research Assistant Fellowships and received honorable mention for her application to the American Society of Plant Biology Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program.

During her time in lab, Olins has become an independent scientist executing her own experiments. Highly skilled at the bench, she has mastered a number of scientific techniques including polymerase chain reaction (PCR), gel electrophoresis, and yeast and bacteria genetic transformation. When Olins expressed a strong desire to learn microscopy, Hazen had her do so by having her conduct an experiment he needed for an article to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. “The outcome was excellent,” says Hazen, “and because of her contribution Jenny is now recognized as a co-author on the article.”

Hazen was also impressed with Olins when the student that was performing many of the laboratory managerial duties recently departed for graduate school and Olins stepped in to fill the void. “Jenny is a clear leader within my group and a dedicated and thoughtful scientist,” says Hazen. “Her academic performance is also extraordinary.”

Olins, will be honored for her achievements at a spring luncheon with the Chancellor.

Geng-Lin Li, biology, recently was awarded a five-year, $1.6 million grant by the National Institutes of Health to study auditory signal processing in the inner ear. His findings will expand basic understanding of hearing and could lead to better hearing protection.

He says, “Our inner ear can process sensory signals with remarkable precision, but it comes with the cost of vulnerability, making it very easily damaged by noise and by aging. As we advance our basic understanding of hearing and satisfy our curiosity, new approaches could arise, allowing us to design better protection for people who work in a noisy environment.”

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Magdalena Bezanilla appears in three iBiology videos . iBiology's mission is to convey, in the form of open-access free videos, the excitement of modern biology and the process by which scientific discoveries are made. iBiology aims to let you meet the leading scientists in biology, so that you can find out how they think about scientific questions and conduct their research, and can get a sense of their personalities, opinions, and perspectives. Bezanilla’s videos describe the research in her lab. The first video is a more general introduction to one of the major research topics in her lab: (video 1) polarized plant cell growth and the role of the cytoskeleton. The second and third videos dig deeper into two major findings: (video 2) using reverse genetics to functionally dissect an entire gene family, and (video 3) how plant cell division is steered.

Biology Major Nick Mucci profiled in the Daily Hampshire Gazette:

Though the Institute for Applied Life Sciences “officially” opened Friday with a ribbon-cutting, dozens of research projects have been taking place inside the 275,000-square-foot building on the flagship campus for some time. State and campus leaders say the research is already helping drive the regional economy and promote public health.

Nick Mucci is one of those researchers. The senior biology major at UMass, Mucci is studying how some types of bacteria evolve and possibly jeopardize cardiovascular health.

“If we can stop them at the microscopic levels, we’re hopeful we can make advancements in personalized medicine” to reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes, Mucci said.

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Orett Burke and Jennifer Normanly explore newly-purchased equipment in the Intro Biology laboratories.

These systems allow students to run gels to explore molecular biology.

The Chancellor and Provost look for results.

Vinisha Patel and Orett Burke explain how the newly purchased equipment supports learning in the Intro Biology laboratories.

Kate Doyle demonstrates a specimen black-billed magpie Pica hudsonia from the Natural History Collections.

Biology Chair Elizabeth Connor and Caleb Rounds, coordinator of Intro Biology, discuss ways the new equipment can support student learning.

Alex Gerson, a new faculty member in Biology, describes his research program to the Chancellor and Provost.

Al Richmond, Curator of Reptiles, demonstrates a renovated teaching lab.

Steve Goodwin, Dean of the College of Natural Science visits newly renovated space in Morrill Science Center.

When biologist Duncan J. Irschick worked with sharks in Florida last spring, he longed for a simple, quick tool for creating 3-dimensional models of them, as well as the geckos he studies. So, he and colleagues developed a multi-armed platform that integrates several cameras plus a computer system to produce 3-D images. They call it the “Beastcam.”

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R. Thomas Zoeller, professor in the Department of Biology, is one of seven faculty members from across five colleges and schools that have been named Public Engagement Faculty Fellows by the Public Engagement Project (PEP). They will draw on their substantial research record to impact policy, the work of practitioners and public debates. The fellows, who will receive a stipend and technical training in communicating with non-academic audiences, will also travel to Beacon Hill to share their research with lawmakers.

“Last spring’s inaugural fellows were very successful in getting their research into the hands of the media, policymakers and practitioner groups” said Amy Schalet, director of the Public Engagement Project. “And we are excited to be working with another accomplished group of scholars this year.”.

Zoeller studies the role of thyroid hormone and brain development and the ability of environmental chemicals to interfere with thyroid hormones to produce cognitive deficits in children. During his fellowship, Zoeller will develop tools and strategies to better communicate with non-science audiences including policymakers, health care professionals and the public.

The Public Engagement Project is a faculty-driven initiative building on a collaboration of the Center for Research on Families (CRF), Center for Public Policy and Administration (CPPA), and Institute for Social Science Research, (ISSR). The Public Engagement Faculty Fellowship has been made possible with funding from the College of Natural Sciences, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Provost’s Office and University Relations, as well as the collaborating centers and institutes.

Biology professor Benjamin Normark was recently selected as a Fulbright scholar and will spend the fall 2016 semester in Mexico documenting the spread of the insect, cycad aulacaspis scale. It is an invasive species that threatens the country’s cycads, plants sometimes called “living fossils” because they have changed little in the last 280 million years.

Globally, says Normark, “Cycads are under unprecedented assault from armored scale insects and from the global nursery trade that sees cycads as commercially valuable ornamentals.” The plants superficially resemble palms, and are sometimes called ‘sago palms,’ but they constitute their own ancient branch of the plant family tree.

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