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Research and Science

One-Stop Shopping for Federal Scientific Collections

Federal agencies act as custodians of hundreds of diverse scientific collections that contain everything from plant and animal specimens, tissues, and DNA to microbes, minerals, and moonrocks. These collections are part of the country’s science infrastructure, and support work in fields that include public health and safety, agriculture, trade, homeland security, medical research, trade, and environmental monitoring.

Agencies have been working to improve access to information about these collections and expand opportunities for their use. Now, through a joint effort between the USDA and Smithsonian Institution, an Interagency Working Group on Scientific Collections (IWGSC) has been cataloging them in a newly established Registry of U.S. Federal Scientific Collections (USFSC) managed by the Smithsonian.

Agriculture Gets an Aerodynamic Boost

Hitting your target—and only your target—is a top priority when spraying pesticides from an airplane. And the use of a small object could be a big help in making sure that happens.

That’s the focus of the research being conducted by Daniel Martin, an engineer with Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) Aerial Application Technology Research Unit in College Station, Texas. Martin has shown that attaching dime-sized metal clips to airplane wings—a technology known as “vortex generators”—can reduce pesticide drift.

Nanostructured Biosensors Detect Pesticide, Help Preserve Environment

When does too much of a good thing become a bad thing? That’s the question Dr. Jonathan Claussen, assistant professor at Iowa State University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and his team of researchers aim to help farmers answer when it comes to pesticide use. Underuse can harm farmers’ crops, while overuse can result in runoff into the soil or waterways.

Claussen and his team created a flexible, low cost and disposable biosensor that can detect pesticides in soil. This biosensor is made of graphene, a strong and stable nanoparticle, and provides instantaneous feedback, as opposed to the time and money it would otherwise take to send a sample to a lab and await results.

Small Town 4-H'er Reaches for the Stars

Many kids gaze up into the night’s sky and dream of touching the stars. Peggy Whitson, NASA astronaut and commander of the International Space Station, turned that dream into reality.

Whitson grew up in the small town of Beaconsfield, Iowa, completing standard chores like mowing the lawn and caring for animals, but never lost her determination to fly and eventually go to outer space. At the age of nine, Whitson became involved with the 4-H program. Her brothers and sisters were active with the local Ringgold County 4-H club and it was a natural fit for her. The program played a key role in helping her develop from a shy girl into an exceptional leader.

Racing for alternatives in the age of antibiotic resistance

This week is World Antibiotic Awareness week and ‘Get Smart About Antibiotics’ week. Learn more about how USDA works to ensure antibiotics remain effective to treat both people and animals when necessary and the alternatives available to traditional antibiotics.”

For billions of years, microbes such as bacteria and viruses have been in a struggle for survival in the face of naturally occurring antimicrobial substances. This struggle has continued in nature and into human society, where humans, plants, animals, and microbes themselves constantly ward off disease-causing microbes. The plight for adaptation and survival is not unlike the Red Queen’s race in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, where it takes all of the running one can do to remain in the same place. 

ERS Makes FoodAPS Purchase and Nutrition Data Easier to Access

USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) has developed a unique treasure trove of data from a survey on food purchases and acquisitions by U.S. households - USDA’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey FoodAPS. To protect individual survey respondents’ privacy, access to the data had been restricted to researchers from academic institutions and government agencies. Now, a modified version that aggregates information so individuals cannot be identified, but still provides valuable data for research and planning is available to everyone.

What can FoodAPS data tell us? USDA’s investment in FoodAPS was undertaken to fill a critical knowledge gap and encourage research that can support an evidence-based approach to Federal food assistance policies and programs. The data are being used to address a range of questions such as where households acquire food in a typical week, which foods they acquire, how much they pay for the food and how the acquired foods match recommendations for a healthy diet.

Washington State Lab Sows the Seeds of Tomorrow’s Scientists

Christos Galanopoulos, a rising senior from Virginia State University (VSU), recently interned with ARS under the guidance of Jinguo Hu and Brian Irish at ARS’s Plant Germplasm Introduction and Testing Research Unit in Pullman, Washington.  He conducted a range of projects directly related to his academic field of study, agriculture. Galanopoulos, along with fellow intern John Few, IV, participated as part of ARS’s partnership with VSU’s College of Agriculture

Galanopoulos spent the first week working with Clare Coyne, a geneticist who curates the USDA cool season food legumes (pea, chickpea, lentil, etc.) collection. Coyne also collaborates with breeders to develop new varieties of legume crops offering disease resistance, higher yield, and other desired traits.  

What's the Alternative?

We know that antibiotics are those miracle drugs Alexander Fleming stumbled upon in the 1920’s when his lab was left untidy. Since that happy accident, scientists have identified additional naturally-occurring antibiotics and developed synthetic drugs to add to our arsenal to combat bacterial infections.

So we’ve had bacteria, through their need to survive, learning how to develop resistance to naturally occurring antibiotics in the environment for eons; long before we started purposefully adding more antibiotics to the mix. So though we need antibiotics, it would be really nice if we could find ways to rely on them less.

NIFA, Agricultural Research Tackle Society’s ‘wicked’ problems

Our charge in the food and agricultural sciences is to move from evolutionary discoveries, which contribute to marginal changes over long periods of time, to revolutionary thinking to deal with ‘wicked’ problems by deploying transdisciplinary approaches that solve complex societal challenges. Similar to how the Internet-driven disruptive technologies have transformed America and the rest of the world, advances in data science, information science, biotechnology and nanotechnology can transform agriculture and our capacity to address societal challenges.

Advances in the field of genomics have helped breeders produce desirable varieties of crops and livestock and overcome challenges that had previously been undertaken via conventional breeding. For example, in the dairy industry, most cattle are mechanically or chemically dehorned early in life to protect against injury to other cattle and their handlers. To eliminate this bloody and painful process, a team of NIFA-funded researchers at Recombinetics have successfully used gene editing to introduce the hornless gene into the cells of horned bulls. While the majority of hornless cattle generated via conventional breeding produce low quality milk, gene editing offers a simple and rapid solution of generating hornless cattle that produce high quality milk.

A Root Beer-Based Discovery that Saved Lives

Science can do more than improve people’s lives; sometimes it can save them.

Consider the contributions of the late Allene Rosalind Jeanes, an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) chemist at what is now the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria, Illinois. Her efforts are particularly worth celebrating this Veteran’s Day.

Jeanes studied polymers (large molecules composed of many repeated subunits) found in corn, wheat and wood. She spent long hours investigating how bacteria could produce polymers in huge fermentation vats. Eventually, she found a way to mass produce dextran, a type of polymer, so that it could be used as a blood volume “expander” to sustain accident and trauma victims who have lost massive amounts of blood and need to get to a hospital for a transfusion.