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Government transparency limited when it comes to America’s conserved private lands  external link

Photo: Houses near hillside conservation easement

Conserved private land purchased for an easement on this southern California hillslope serves as mitigation for neighboring urban development. Courtesy of Adena Rissman

American taxpayers spend millions of dollars each year to conserve privately owned lands. These lands provide public benefits like timber, water quality protection and food. Yet, information about conserved private lands — including where they are and what protections are in place — can be hard to find, impeding the effectiveness of conservation efforts and taxpayer investments.

A new study led by researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison examined why private-land conservation data is sometimes inaccessible and found that limited capacity within some federal agencies as well as laws prohibiting others from disclosing certain information are to blame.

“It’s difficult or impossible to advance planning, monitoring and evaluation without good information about where private land conservation is happening,” says lead author Adena Rissman, an associate professor of environmental policy and management in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology.

Photo: Adena Rissman

Adena Rissman

The money Americans spend on private land conservation often takes the form of subsidies or tax breaks to landowners for stewardship practices, like conservation farming or saving habitat for wildlife. Without access to good data, it is harder for government agencies and nonprofits to target these public investments efficiently and ensure taxpayers are getting the most bang for their buck.

“There is limited funding for conservation, so we want to use conservation dollars in the places where they can make the biggest difference,” says Rissman.

Additionally, says co-author Jessica Owley, the public often gives up the protection of environmental amenities, like wetlands, to allow development because it’s told other lands are being protected in return. The research suggests it may be hard to confirm that such protection actually takes place.

“When we forgo both tax dollars and ecosystem services, we should be able to understand what the tradeoffs are and make sure they are worthwhile,” says Owley, a law professor at the University at Buffalo (State University of New York).

The authors’ own difficulty accessing data for previous research inspired their investigation, which examined four conservation programs focused on private land.

For example, they found the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the Endangered Species Act, lacks the personnel and capacity to collect and maintain records on private lands set aside for endangered species as compensation for permitted development that harms habitat.

“When we forgo both tax dollars and ecosystem services, we should be able to understand what the tradeoffs are and make sure they are worthwhile.”

Jessica Owley

“If they don’t even know where mitigation lands are, how can they ensure the persistence of species and verify that the terms of those permit agreements are being upheld over time?” Rissman asks.

The researchers also uncovered restricted access to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to convert highly erodible farmland into natural space to protect water and soil health.

While the USDA has accurate data on the locations of CRP-enrolled land, a revision to the 2008 Farm Bill – following a court case where private-land geospatial records were released to an agricultural vendor – prohibits it from sharing those records, leaving no way for the public to know what land is entering or leaving the program.

While it’s important to balance the public’s right to know with the privacy concerns of landowners, Rissman says, managers and researchers need such information to track trends in water quality and soil health, for example. The return of thousands of CRP-enrolled acres back to row crops in the past decade, spurred by farmers’ desire to reap the benefits of high corn prices, highlights the need for the data to monitor the effects of these conversions.

“It’s difficult or impossible to advance planning, monitoring and evaluation without good information about where private land conservation is happening.”

Adena Rissman

To solve the inaccessibility problem, Rissman says addressing capacity shortfalls in agencies like the Fish and Wildlife Service with increases in funding for staffing, data collection and technical training could certainly help.

She adds that, while it is still unclear what the next federal budget will mean for conservation programs, overall cuts will make it more difficult for agencies to have the capacity they need to be accountable to the public.

Policy revisions can help in other cases. The next Farm Bill revision, set for 2018, presents an opportunity to re-examine the data-restricting language and make it easier for researchers, local governments and the public to access maps of CRP-enrolled lands.

“Transparency can be complicated, because information can be used in sometimes unintended ways,” says Rissman, acknowledging concerns raised by the agricultural industry over breaches of privacy and increased regulation. “On the other hand, access to this information can help us plan strategically to protect both agriculture and the environment, as well as account for the funds the federal government spends.”

The study was published in the journal Ecology and Society and was funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Knobloch Family Foundation and the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy.

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Cultural value of natural world doesn’t depend only on species diversity  external link

Photo: Blue Ridge Parkway research site

This research site at Blue Ridge Parkway outside Asheville, North Carolina, is where a UW-Madison researcher studied the cultural ties people have to wildlife populations. Photo: Rose Graves

What is the value of a sunset overlooking a wildflower field in the Appalachian Mountains? Or of ice skating on a frozen lake in central Wisconsin?

The natural world might most often be counted and measured through the resources we extract from it, or the intrinsic worth of biodiversity itself. But University of Wisconsin–Madison zoology Ph.D. student Rose Graves has focused her research on uncovering a hidden value — people’s cultural ties to a landscape.

Graves, who recently completed her doctorate in UW–Madison zoology Professor Monica Turner’s lab, wants to understand how cultural resources shift throughout time and how this affects people’s interactions with their environment. Graves has turned to a hub of biodiversity known for attracting nature enthusiasts, the southern Appalachians outside of Asheville, North Carolina. There, she has surveyed the bird and wildflower populations — and the humans, too — to test long-held assumptions about what drives the cultural value of the natural world.

Photo: Rose Graves

Rose Graves

Her work in North Carolina has implications for other regions with deep ties to nature, such as lake- and forest-filled Wisconsin.

The idea of cultural ecosystem services — the benefits a landscape provides through people’s enjoyment of the land — only began to be outlined in the 1990s. Unlike the value extracted from natural resources through timber harvesting or mining, the value of cultural services, in dollars and otherwise, has proven much harder to quantify. Ecologists have long assumed that diversity drives the cultural value of a landscape. More species lead to richer interactions, or so the thinking has gone.

“There’s often an implicit assumption that the number of species, or species richness, is a suitable proxy for mapping cultural ecosystem services,” says Turner. “So, we started talking about which of these services directly depend on biodiversity, and whether we can test some of those relationships.”

The answer lay in old-fashioned footwork. Graves traversed the difficult terrain surrounding Asheville to visit 63 sites regularly throughout the spring and summer, documenting the changes in bird and wildflower populations. By layering this data on top of information about temperature, precipitation, building density and other factors, Graves was able to produce a model of where flowers were most prolific and where specific birds might be found.

Unlike a static map, Graves’ models reflect the dynamics of bird and flower populations over time.

Photo: Wildflowers at the Black Balsam Knob in western North Carolina outside Asheville.

Wildflowers at the Black Balsam Knob in western North Carolina outside Asheville. Photo: Rose Graves

To really get at the cultural values provided by these wild populations, Graves needed to understand what people appreciated about their time among the birds and flowers. Armed with altered photographs of wildflower fields, Graves surveyed hundreds of forest visitors on what they preferred. Lots of blooms? Many colors? Unique species?

In contrast to the old assumptions, Graves and Turner found that the number of different species alone could not predict how much hikers enjoyed a field of wildflowers. Rather, people are drawn to fields brimming with differently colored flowers, which isn’t fully captured by species richness. Using data from the citizen science birdwatching app eBird, Graves has also seen that birdwatchers change their behavior over the summer but don’t always favor locations based on diversity.

“Species richness was always the lowest predictor of cultural value even across different categories of people, which was surprising to me,” says Graves. “Until we can really integrate people’s social preferences, we’re missing a piece of the landscape’s value.”

In contrast to the old assumptions, Graves and Turner found that the number of different species alone could not predict how much hikers enjoyed a field of wildflowers.

Graves’ work was supported by the Coweeta Long Term Ecological Research grant from the National Science Foundation, which has been funding studies of the southern Appalachian Mountains ecosystem for more than 30 years. Turner is also a member of another LTER project based at the UW–Madison Center for Limnology studying the ecology of Wisconsin’s lake-filled landscape. For all the differences between central Wisconsin and the southern Appalachians, the true value of both environments goes beyond farming and fishing.

By challenging assumptions and asking fundamental questions about how people interact with their environment, Graves’ and Turner’s research looks to develop a full account of the natural world and all that it provides.

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Mindfulness-focused childbirth education leads to less depression, better birth experiences  external link

Mindfulness may be good for new moms.

A study this month from researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) shows mindfulness training that addresses fear and pain during childbirth can improve women’s childbirth experiences and reduce their depression symptoms during pregnancy and the early postpartum period.

“Fear of the unknown affects us all, and perhaps none more so than pregnant women,” says lead author Larissa Duncan, UW-Madison professor of human development and family studies. “With mindfulness skills, women in our study reported feeling better able to cope with childbirth and they experienced improved mental well-being critical for healthy mother-infant adjustment in the first year of life.”

Larissa Duncan

Larissa Duncan UW-Madison

The study also suggests that pregnant women who practice mindfulness may use less medication for pain during labor. Many women and their healthcare providers are concerned about the use of medications during pregnancy, labor and while breastfeeding because of the potential risks to infants. Yet, left untreated, maternal mental health problems also pose a significant risk to infants.

“A mindfulness approach offers the possibility of decreasing the need for these medications and can reach women who may not know they are at risk for perinatal depression or can’t access mental health services,” Duncan says.

The new study, published in the journal BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, is a randomized, controlled trial called Prenatal Education About Reducing Labor Stress (PEARLS), that compares mainstream childbirth education with childbirth education that includes mindfulness skills focused on reducing fear among first-time mothers. Fear of childbirth has been shown in previous studies to be linked to poorer labor-and-delivery outcomes and to depression.

While many consider childbirth education classes a primary resource for pregnant women and their partners to learn information and strategies for the birthing process and remedies for coping with labor pain, there is limited data that demonstrates they achieve these goals for the more than 2 million pregnant women who attend them each year in the United States.

In fact, Duncan says, “sometimes women report that the information in childbirth education actually increases their fear of childbirth.”

For the study, considered a pilot because funding limited participation to 30 women and their partners, first-time mothers late in their third trimester of pregnancy were offered either a standard childbirth preparation course lacking a mind-body focus or an intensive weekend workshop called Mind in Labor: Working with Pain in Childbirth.

The workshop was based on the Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting education course developed by study co-author, Nancy Bardacke, a certified nurse-midwife and senior mindfulness teacher at UCSF. It focused on practices like mindful movement, walking meditation, and pain coping strategies. Previous research shows that mindfulness training can be an effective way to manage both chronic and acute pain.

Participants represented a diversity of ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. They completed self-reported assessments before and after taking part in a childbirth education course and after giving birth. The mindfulness group also received handouts and guided audio materials so they could practice mindfulness on their own. The study team collected medical record data from each woman.

The researchers found a reduction in depression symptoms in the mindfulness group, which continued through their post-birth follow up at approximately six weeks. In contrast, depression symptoms worsened among women who participated in the standard childbirth education courses.

While mothers in the mindfulness group sought epidurals at similar rates to those in the control group and retrospectively reported similar levels of perceived pain during labor, the study did see a trend toward lower use of opioid-based pain medication during labor.  While these results were not statistically significant, the rate of narcotic use during labor was around 62 percent in the control group and just 31 percent in the mindfulness group. A larger study is needed to better understand this effect.

“The encouraging results of this small study point to the possibility that mindfulness skills can transform the way expectant parents prepare for this profound life change,” says Bardacke. “In addition to supporting moms and babies, we may also be benefiting fathers, who are themselves experiencing the birth of their child and becoming parents. While more research is clearly needed, the larger public health implications of this work are motivating.”

The study was funded through a grant from the Mount Zion Health Fund administered by the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine and U.S. National Institute of Health/National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health grants K01 AT005270 and K01 AT006545. 

Disclosure: Larissa Duncan holds an unpaid position as board member of the Mindful Birthing and Parenting Foundation. Nancy Bardacke receives royalties from the sale of a book related to the intervention tested in the study as well as related CD/mp3 audio materials and an app. Through the not-for-profit Mindful Birthing and Parenting Foundation, she also receives payments for professional trainings and mindfulness workshops for pregnant women and their partners.

 

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Annual UW–Madison study shows Wisconsin poverty fell in 2015 as the economy improved  external link

Researchers studying the economic and policy forces that affect Wisconsin poverty released their latest results, which show that Wisconsin gained 70,000 jobs, leading to a modest, but statistically significant reduction in poverty as measured by the Wisconsin Poverty Measure (WPM).

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30-year collaboration earns UW climatologist China’s top science honor  external link

John Kutzbach, UW–Madison professor emeritus of atmospheric, oceanic and environmental sciences, is the former director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Science Center for Climatic Research. This was taken in 1992.

John Kutzbach, UW–Madison professor emeritus of atmospheric, oceanic and environmental sciences, is the former director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Science Center for Climatic Research. This was taken in 1992. UW-Madison archives

University of Wisconsin–Madison climatologist John Kutzbach has been awarded China’s highest scientific honor for foreigners in recognition of 30 years of collaboration that has advanced both American and Chinese climate science.

Kutzbach, an emeritus professor of atmospheric, oceanic and environmental sciences and the former director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies Center for Climatic Research, received the International Science and Technological Cooperation Award in a ceremony at the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. in May.

The scientific collaboration that led to this award began in 1987, when Kutzbach was approached by Chinese geologist and geochemist An Zhisheng about his work studying prehistoric shifts of monsoons in the region. An invited Kutzbach to study the Xi’an loess, where wisps of dust sweeping across the Tibetan plateau settled in thin layers over millions of years, embedding subtle information about ancient climates in the sediment.

“It’s like the pages of a book,” says Kutzbach. “As the sediments accumulate, they also reflect the climate of the time when they were formed.”

John Kutzbach, UW–Madison climatologist and professor emeritus, received China’s top scientific honor for foreigners in a ceremony at the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C.

John Kutzbach, UW–Madison climatologist and professor emeritus, received China’s top scientific honor for foreigners in a ceremony at the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy John Kutzbach

Kutzbach uses models of the Earth’s climate to both better understand previous climates and more accurately predict future ones. He recognized the loess deposits as an opportunity to test the accuracy of his monsoon model. As climate models advanced over the decades, Kutzbach returned to the Xi’an loess to test and refine increasingly detailed simulations of Earth’s climate.

During that time, Kutzbach came to mentor several young Chinese scientists studying at UW–Madison and extended his collaboration to include a dozen senior researchers on both sides of the Pacific, including UW–Madison climatologist Liu Zhengyu.

Enduring records of past climates, like the Xi’an loess, are critical to testing the accuracy of climate models. By running the models back in time, and comparing the results to records from land, ocean sediments, and ice cores, our confidence in models to accurately predict future climates may increase. Throughout his research career, Kutzbach sought as many independent lines of evidence to test his climate models as he could find. Beyond China, Kutzbach turned to records in Africa, Europe, Australia and other locations to test his simulations.

A native of Reedsburg, Wisconsin, Kutzbach received his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and graduate degrees in meteorology from UW–Madison before joining the faculty in 1966. In 1970, he became the director of the Center for Climatic Research within the newly formed Institute for Environmental Studies, now the Nelson Institute. The Center for Climatic Research, which recently celebrated its 50th year, was one of the first interdisciplinary centers dedicated to advancing climate science.

The climate models Kutzbach has used, developed at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, have been used by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to predict the climate several decades out as it continues to change in response to greenhouse gas increases.

Kutzbach says that continuous funding by the National Science Foundation was crucial to maintaining such a long-lasting research partnership. The Chinese Academy of Sciences also funded joint research ventures throughout the 30-year collaboration, including travel to China. Through both visits to China and mentoring Chinese scientists at home, Kutzbach developed strong relationships with his collaborators.

“The other huge aspect of this is the cultural exchange,” says Kutzbach. “Over 30 years you develop lasting friendships.”

Kutzbach, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, was elected an honorary professor of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 2009. In a fitting symmetry, An was elected as a foreign associate of the National Academy of Sciences last year. The long-time collaborators see their research relationship and international standing as an opportunity to extend scientific cooperation between the two countries.

“It’s our hope that this is not an end, but that we can lay the seeds for an even broader collaboration in a global exchange of science between our two countries and perhaps between the Chinese Academy and National Academy of Sciences,” says Kutzbach.

 

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UW, GE Healthcare team up to improve medical imaging, patient outcomes  external link

Sara John, an MRI research technologist at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, at work with an MR scanner in the Wisconsin Institute of Medical Research on campus.

Sara John, an MRI research technologist at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, reviews research images from a GE MR scanner, in the Wisconsin Institute of Medical Research on campus. Patient names have been blurred on the screen in this photo. David Tenenbaum

The first time John Wiley passed out, in 2013, he fell flat on his face in a welding shop. He figured he’d tripped on the gas hoses, but his doctor disagreed: “You were unconscious before you hit the ground. Otherwise, you would have put your hands out for protection.”

After his second fall, Thomas Grist, a physician and professor of radiology at the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, saw Wiley and began to suspect “subclavian artery steal,” meaning that an artery was hijacking blood destined for the brain. “John is a hobby welder, and he’d been working on a sculpture, with his arms overhead, which is a classic scenario for this syndrome,” Grist said. “The blood goes to the arms; it’s stolen from the brain, and that causes fainting.”

The syndrome was difficult to diagnose, but Grist had a trick up his sleeve, one that he’d helped to invent decades before. Called 3D TRICKS, it is a technique that tracks blood flow in a magnetic resonance machine.

Like a good number of medical imaging inventions from UW-Madison, TRICKS has been licensed to GE Healthcare. This giant in the world of medical imaging is an $18-billion division of GE that designs and makes some of the world’s most advanced scanners at its operations in Waukesha.

Former chancellor John Wiley at Sector 67, a makerspace on Madison’s East Side.

Former chancellor John Wiley at Sector 67, a makerspace on Madison’s East Side. David Tenenbaum

Since the 1980s, GE has supported research into imaging technologies at UW-Madison. The latest agreement, a 10-year, $34-million contract, began in 2012 to fund radiology and medical physics researchers, who work on campus with the company’s newest CT (computed tomography), PET (positron emission tomography) and MR (magnetic resonance) scanners.

“We have relationships globally, but UW-Madison is practically in a class of its own in those relationships,” says Jörg Debatin, vice-president, chief medical officer, and chief technology officer at GE Healthcare.

In addition, GE hires a lot of Badger graduates. UW-Madison has historically been one of the top ten global universities in total number of alumni working at GE, according to company officials.

3D TRICKS is one of a long stream of inventions – for X-ray, MR, and CT and PET scanners, that have emerged from the world’s largest department of medical physics, and its parent, the department of radiology.   A multi-decade relationship between UW-Madison and Wisconsin businesses like GE has created a stream of medical imaging inventions that look inside the human body with increasing accuracy to diagnose tumors, heart disease, osteoporosis and countless other conditions.

Frank Korosec, a professor of radiology, with a combination MR-PET scanner that is used for patient diagnosis in the morning and research in the afternoon.

Frank Korosec, a professor of radiology, with a combination MR-PET scanner that is used for patient diagnosis in the morning and research in the afternoon. David Tenenbaum

For patient Wiley, the 3D TRICKS results were clear, Grist says. “We saw that the flow in the artery was backward.”  After a stent was inserted to expand the subclavian artery, the fainting disappeared, and Wiley, who maintains his passion for welding, left the problem in the rear-view.

It’s fitting that Wiley benefited from the partnership. As chancellor (2001 to 2008), Wiley ardently espoused the University’s role in advanced technology, and indeed, was co-inventor of a technology used in essentially all high-speed computer chips. This spring, Wiley learned with satisfaction that the diagnostic trick that Grist had used to catch the felonious artery was invented at the School of Medicine and Public Health about 25 years ago. The inventors included Charles Mistretta of medical physics, and two professor of radiology: Frank Korosec and Thomas Grist.

3D TRICKS joins a long procession of health-giving, profitable inventions from Radiology and Medical Physics, and it elaborated on a major UW-Madison imaging advance called digital subtraction angiography. Invented in the late-1970s by Mistretta and his students, DSA makes a lucid picture of blood vessels and any abnormalities by subtracting a normal X-ray from one taken with an opaque tracer in the bloodstream.

By now, the process “has been used millions of times worldwide,” to diagnose blood-flow problems in the brain, kidney, liver and limbs, says Mistretta. “It’s now taken for granted. I don’t know if people even remember how important that was.”

DSA’s real-time images supported a wide range of procedures to correct blood vessel problems. More broadly, Mistretta says, “It was probably the major stimulus for the development of interventional radiology,” the medical specialty that uses various types of images to guide internal surgery, speeding recovery for treatment of stroke, cancer and kidney disease, among many others. “Clearly you could not do this without real-time capability to see where you were going inside the body,” says Mistretta.

The advance in digital subtraction angiography added up to cascading benefits, says David Ende, a cardiologist at UW Health.  “You end up with an image of exactly what you want to see without any interference. And subtraction requires less dye, which can be toxic to the kidney, and less radiation, so it is safer for patients, while still producing a much clearer image in essentially real time. DSA was certainly a significant step in interventional radiology, and a major safety step for patients.”

Moving beyond subtraction

3D TRICKS, like many other UW-Madison inventions, was licensed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. “GE took it and disseminated it throughout the world,” Grist says.

A surprising portion of the radiology-medical physics story at UW-Madison returns to GE. For example, medical physics professor Richard Mazess invented scanners to detect osteoporosis in the 1970s. In 2000, he sold his spinoff, called Lunar Radiation, Inc. to GE Healthcare. The bone-density scanners are still branded Lunar and still made in Madison.

An engineer at work in GE Healthcare's Waukesha headquarters. The company maintains dozens of instruments in test bays that resemble the normal clinical installation. Customers visit on some days; on others, engineers refine and troubleshoot software.

An engineer at work in GE Healthcare’s Waukesha headquarters. The company maintains dozens of instruments in test bays that resemble the normal clinical installation. Customers visit on some days; on others, engineers refine and troubleshoot software. David Tenenbaum

GE Healthcare has more than 46,000 employees worldwide, including 5,900 in Wisconsin. In Waukesha, GE makes a wide range of scanners that detect x-rays, magnetic resonance and tracer chemicals using PET.

Funding academic researchers is a straightforward business decision, says Debatin, who was a diagnostic radiologist before being chosen to head technology development at GE Healthcare in Waukesha. “If we want to drive innovation, we need input from the outside, which is particularly true for something as dynamic as medical physics.”

Grist, who now chairs radiology, got in on the ground floor when the revolutionary ability of magnetic resonance to image “soft tissue” like brains, muscles and cartilage was being developed for the clinic.  In the summer of 1982, Grist worked at GE Healthcare while a medical student at Marquette University. When he asked a company friend about MR, Grist recalls his response: “Yesterday, I was appointed head of system engineering for MR. What do you know about it?”

Grist spent part of the next year with GE’s fast-growing MR business, which, he says, “started a professional career in development of MR,” which included co-inventing TRICKS.

Today, in partnership with GE and other manufacturers of diagnostic instruments, researcher in UW-Madison’s medical physics and radiology departments continue to invent new ways for patients to benefit from high-tech medical machines:

  • Magnetic resonance and breast cancer: Studying changes over time may open a new way to diagnose breast tumors, says Korosec, who, as chief of imaging sciences at radiology, is helping develop that approach. A succession of images taken after the injection of a compound visible to MR shows how quickly the agent enters and leaves breast tissue. A quick wash-out signals a malignant tumor.
  • Video digital subtraction angiography: Mistretta is working on a movie version of DSA that can analyze arterial venous malformations, fast-changing connections between arteries and veins that lack the usual capillaries. “You need to know about the feeder and exit vessels to plan an intervention, but a still image does not show the changes over time,” Mistretta says.
  • Thin-slice, low-dose computed tomography (CT): Guang-Hong Chen, a professor of medical physics, has developed a technique to show more detail using less radiation. “GE has licensed our dose-reduction method and is disseminating it to 400-plus sites around the world,” Grist says.
  • New tracers: PET (positron emission tomography) can identify vanishingly tiny amounts of tracers that are designed to latch onto molecules associated with abnormalities like cancer. Specialists like Jon Engle at the PET Drug Production Laboratory in Medical Physics are investigating new tracers.
  • MR “calipers”: Scott Reeder, a professor of radiology, has developed software to detect fatty liver disease, a major cause of liver transplant. The condition is currently diagnosed by biopsy, but MR views the entire liver, leading to greater accuracy without tissue damage. Under license from WARF, GE is distributing the software worldwide.
About 4,000 people work at GE Healthcare’s corporate headquarters in Waukesha, Wisconsin. The company has a total of 5,900 employees in the state.

About 4,000 people work at GE Healthcare’s corporate headquarters in Waukesha, Wisconsin. The company has a total of 5,900 employees in the state. David Tenenbaum

UW-Madison experts are also studying new combination scanners. For example, the PET/MR scanner, which looks at soft tissue (MR) and cells marked with tracers (PET). With the combination, “You can get information about a tumor (or other disease) that you would not be able to get with MRI or PET scanners alone,” says Korosec.

The new devices are keeping UW-Madison researcher at the forefront of medical imaging. Researchers invent hardware and software, and demonstrate whether and how these technological advances bring real benefits to patients. “Sites with this cutting-edge equipment have to blaze the trail, to show why this equipment is important,” says Alan McMillan, an associate scientist in radiology.

Some of the latest, greatest medical imaging devices in the world actually “live” in University Hospital; serving today’s patients in the morning while helping researchers invent and evaluate new ways to benefit tomorrow’s patients in the afternoon.

These instruments “may be purchased at a steep discount, and some equipment is provided to us in exchange for access to our intellectual property and research effort,” says Grist.  “There is always a negotiated fair exchange of value between the involved parties.”

And the benefits of these inventions to people can’t be forgotten. John Wiley, after all, rose to assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering to provost to chancellor, and all along he remained a firm believer in the University’s role in developing technology to benefit individuals and society. “When John was provost,’ says Grist, “he made some decisions to support our research program. So you could say he indirectly supported this work, long before he benefited as a patient. These developments take a long time, and the benefits can’t be predicted. But they are real.”

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Triple play boosting value of renewable fuel could tip market in favor of biomass  external link

UW–Madison engineers, from left, David Martin Alonso, James Dumesic and Ali Hussain Motagamwala, examine a vial of furfural, one of a group of valuable products the researchers can now create as part of the biofuel refining process.

UW–Madison engineers, from left, David Martin Alonso, James Dumesic and Ali Hussain Motagamwala, examine a vial of furfural, one of a group of valuable products the researchers can now create as part of the biofuel refining process. Stephanie Precourt/UW-Madison Engineering

Technologies for converting non-edible biomass into chemicals and fuels traditionally made from petroleum exist aplenty. But when it comes to attracting commercial interest, these technologies compete financially with a petroleum-based production pipeline that has been perfected over the course of decades.

Winning that competition — or at least leveling the economic playing field — requires a leap forward. And by developing a new process for obtaining not one, but three high-value products from biomass in one fell swoop, University of Wisconsin–Madison engineers and their collaborators have now made that leap.

The researchers, led by James Dumesic, professor of chemical and biological engineering, published their results today (May 19, 2017) in the journal Science Advances.

Their new process tripled the fraction of biomass converted to high-value products to nearly 80 percent, also tripling the expected rate of return for an investment in the technology from roughly 10 percent (for one end product) to 30 percent.

UW–Madison researchers and collaborators have developed a new “green” technology for converting non-edible biomass into three high-value chemicals that are the basis for products traditionally made from petroleum.

UW–Madison researchers and collaborators have developed a new “green” technology for converting non-edible biomass into three high-value chemicals that are the basis for products traditionally made from petroleum. Graphic courtesy UW–Madison/Phil Biebl

“When a technology is new and risky, proving its economic feasibility and profit potential is critical for attracting investors,” says David Martin Alonso, the study’s first author and a researcher in chemical and biological engineering at UW–Madison. “That’s why we are very excited about its 30-percent internal rate of return.”

Alonso is also director of research and development at Glucan Biorenewables, a UW–Madison spinoff company co-founded in 2012 by biomass conversion technology pioneer Dumesic.

The magic key for turning all three components — cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin — of lignocellulosic (non-edible) biomass into distinct high-value products is gamma valerolactone (GVL), a solvent that is derived from plant material and has several highly appealing properties.

“GVL is very effective at fractionating the biomass,” Alonso says. “But it is also much more stable than other solvents, allowing us to reuse 99 percent of it in a closed-loop process. Until now, solvent loss had been a major bottleneck for making a renewable and carbon-efficient bio-refinery economically feasible.”

It also explains why the new technology is so “green.” It starts with renewable biomass, has a very high solvent-recycling rate, needs miniscule amounts of acid, and uses all three fractions of biomass, minimizing waste. And the list of GVL’s advantages goes on.

“GVL is also feedstock-agnostic,” says Ali Hussain Motagamwala, Dumesic’s doctoral student and a co-author on the paper. “We have demonstrated that it works on corn stover, switchgrass, hardwood trees like white birch and poplar, and softwood trees like loblolly pine. In fact, we have shown that it is an effective solvent for more than 30 types of biomass.”

Several industry sectors may benefit from the new technology. Pulp and paper mills can turn two currently unused biomass fractions — hemicellulose and lignin — into commercial products, in addition to making paper from cellulose. With an additional step that increases its purity, they can also spin cellulose into fibers to produce textiles.

Car manufacturers can convert plant-derived lignin into carbon foam and fibers, avoiding the sulfur smell that reduces the appeal of lignin derived from other sources. Scientists at the University of Tennessee, who are co-authors on the study, demonstrated that lignin can also be used to make battery anodes, traditionally made from more expensive graphite.

Last, but not least, the new technology converts hemicellulose into furfural, a chemical intermediate that is the basis for a variety of plastics, polymers and fuels. Too expensive to be produced by U.S. companies, furfural is imported from China.

“Depending on furfural from China, and on petroleum from OPEC countries, means that the market is volatile,” Motagamwala says. “But since biomass is something every country has, bio-refineries may create a more stable market.”

Dumesic says the next challenge is to de-risk the technology.

“Now that we have proven that GVL is very effective at separating the three biomass fractions without diminishing their value, we see a path forward to becoming cost-competitive with a petroleum refinery,” he says. “Our next goal is to demonstrate that this new kind of bio-refinery can deliver a wide range of advanced biofuels and commodity chemicals as end products.”

Larry Clarke, Glucan Biorenewables CEO, will use his company’s platform to scale up the process and help realize its market potential.

“Since this simple, yet elegant and robust technology provides multiple value chain options, I believe it has the potential to transform the global biomass industry,” he says.

Study collaborators include Troy Runge, a UW–Madison professor of biological systems engineering and an expert in biomass fractionation; Christos Maravelias, a UW–Madison professor of chemical and biological engineering who performed the techno-economic modeling; the U.S. Forest Service; and the University of Tennessee’s Center for Renewable Carbon.

Dumesic and several study collaborators are authors on patents related to this work held by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation and Glucan Biorenewables.

This study was funded in part by the National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research Program, and is based in part on work supported by U.S. Department of Energy (DE-FC02-07ER64494).

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UW-Madison biochemist wins Shaw Scientist Award  external link

Ophelia Venturelli, assistant professor of biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is one of two researchers in the University of Wisconsin System to earn seed funding from the Greater Milwaukee Foundation’s Shaw Scientist Program to pursue innovative approaches to advancing human health while supporting their career development.

Photo: Ophelia Venturelli

Ophelia Venturelli

Venturelli joins Ionel Popa, an assistant professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, in receiving a 2017 Shaw Scientist Award. Each researcher will be given a $200,000 grant to further their projects. For more than 30 years, the program has supported early career investigators seeking innovative solutions in biochemistry, biological sciences and cancer research.

“Being named a Shaw Scientist is a signature recognition for investigators in the initial stages of their careers. Selections are made by a distinguished panel of scientists, so the research is held to a very high standard. And the funding is discretionary, so recipients can choose how to use it for greatest impact in their field,” says Ellen Gilligan, Greater Milwaukee Foundation president and CEO. “Exploring new frontiers in science and health honors the intent of Dorothy Shaw, the philanthropist who made this award possible.”

Venturelli’s lab seeks to understand how diverse networks of microorganisms living in the human gut communicate to realize key functions that impact health. Her goal is to determine how these microbes process information in response to environmental pressures and, in turn, function collectively as a community.

The research may lead to the ability to engineer behaviors among beneficial microbes in the gut ecosystem, which could be used to enhance their resilience to invasion by pathogens or unintended impairment from antibiotics.

“Today’s funding climate for scientific research is highly competitive, and the likelihood of funding depends on preliminary results,” Venturelli says. “The Shaw Scientist Award will allow us to explore new research directions, including high-risk experiments, that will be used to attract external funding and for publications.”

Venturelli’s research may lead to the ability to engineer behaviors among beneficial microbes in the gut ecosystem, which could be used to enhance their resilience to invasion by pathogens or unintended impairment from antibiotics.

Venturelli earned her doctorate in 2013 from the California Institute of Technology, followed by postdoctoral training at the University of California, Berkeley. She received her bachelor’s degree from Stanford University in 2006.

Popa is investigating the process by which proteins in the body fold and function under force, and how these processes are used by cells to adapt to their local environment, which may help him develop new diagnostic tools and therapeutics for cancer, muscular dystrophy and inflammatory bowel disease.

The Shaw Scientist Awards program began in 1982 thanks to a $4.3 million bequest from Dorothy Shaw, widow of James Shaw, a prominent Milwaukee attorney. In addition to $2 million in special grants, the Shaws’ fund has awarded about $14 million in grants to 73 scientists from UW–Madison and UW–Milwaukee. An advisory panel including scientists representing major U.S. research institutions recommends the winners.

Founded more than a century ago, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation is the region’s largest community foundation, and was among the first established in the world.

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As continents continue moving, study suggests effects on biodiversity  external link

UW-Madison geoscientist Andrew Zaffos explains the link between moving continents and changing numbers of marine species. Data from thousands of studies was assembled to paint a broad picture of biodiversity. Video: Andrew Zaffos and Shanan Peters

Continental drift and plate tectonics — the notion that large chunks of Earth’s crust slowly but inexorably shift positions — was proposed in 1912 but not accepted until the 1960s. These movements changed the face of the planet — pieces of the continents congealed into the “supercontinent” Pangaea about 335 million years ago and then separated about 175 million ago.

Scientists began to speculate about how these alterations would affect the formation and extinction of species and thus, what we call biodiversity. In 1970, James Valentine and Eldridge Moores of the University of California suggested that broken-up continents would create more ecological niches and promote favorable climate and environmental conditions that are conducive to biodiversity.

In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week (May 15, 2017), two University of Wisconsin-Madison geoscientists have plumbed some of the broadest databases in geology and paleontology to show that their predecessors were on the right track: Marine species tend to become more numerous when the continents divide, and to stabilize — maybe even decline — when continents congeal.

Photo: Shanan Peters

Shanan Peters

Photo: Andrew Zaffos

Andrew Zaffos

Their report focused on fossilized marine species in sedimentary rock, which are more numerous and easier to study than species that lived on land.

Shanan Peters, a professor of geoscience, Andrew Zaffos, a postdoctoral researcher, and collaborator Seth Finnegan at the University of California, Berkeley, correlated the degree of continental fragmentation through time, starting 541 million years ago, with the diversity of multicellular life, which expanded during the “Cambrian explosion.”

The researchers created an index to show relative continental fragmentation and then compared that index to global fossil data in the Paleobiology Database.

The result was as originally predicted, with a few twists. During and after periods of fragmentation, marine diversity increases. During consolidation, the brakes seem to be put on diversification and marine biodiversity tends to plateau.

The study was unable to determine exactly why the movement of continents affected biodiversity, but plate tectonics has both direct and indirect effects, Peters says.

Conventional ecological theory says that an isolated population will diverge from the original population, forming new species as organisms enter empty niches and as an increasing number of generations separate them from their common ancestor. This is one reason why modern islands have so many unique species.

Graphic: Graph of biodiversity during different eras


Top line shows diversity of marine organisms, starting 541 million years ago, when multicellular life began the “Cambrian explosion.” Bottom line shows an index relating fragmentation and consolidation of continents, with greater fragmentation at top of graph. World maps represent condition of continents at different eras. Andrew Zaffos

But the indirect effects could also be dramatic, Peters says. “People don’t think about it too much, but the arrangement of continents on Earth has a huge effect on ocean currents, atmospheric circulation, how strong the seasons are. A whole range of things about how Earth works is determined by the crust, and that crust moves on geological time scales.”

There is logic behind the idea that a consolidated continent would have lower diversity, says Zaffos. “The vast majority of marine diversity is on continental edges, in shallow seas. Before India slammed into Asia, there was more area of continental margin that could be occupied by marine life.” Fragmented continents also have more isolated animal populations and tend to have different climate regimes because the ocean, the source of water vapor, is closer.

There were plenty of complications in a study covering more than a half-billion years: The consolidation-fragmentation-consolidation cycle ran only one-and-a-half times; the asteroid impacts and climate changes that contributed to several mass extinctions also affected the number of marine species; and the increasing biodiversity in recent geologic times could be a reflection of better fossil preservation. However, Peters and Zaffos examined a database Peters spearheaded called Macrostrat that collates a vast number of geological studies of North America. “The North American sedimentary record provided a sanity check on our study, allowing us to control for potential rock record-related sampling effects,” says Zaffos.

“I was delighted,” says Valentine, first author of the 1970 study, who read a draft of the PNAS paper. “And by the way, the new study is a really fine paper, which adds satisfaction because those authors have put the concept on a very firm scientific basis and it seems unlikely that the basic idea can be successfully challenged now.”

The study found that marine species tend to become more numerous when the continents divide, and to stabilize — maybe even decline — when continents congeal.

Ironically, the study of marine fossils was a major springboard when Alfred Wegener developed the theory of plate tectonics early in the 20th century. In a delightful about-face, plate tectonics has now been used to explain changes in the diversity of marine animals over the last half-billion years.

When the linkage between tectonics and biodiversity was made in 1970, “it was largely a thought experiment,” says Peters. “There was some general information about the history of biodiversity, but there was very little data to test the idea. Only in the past decade or so have all the data come together in a way that makes a somewhat rigorous analysis possible.”

The trend in marine biodiversity started to fall a few million years ago, says Peters, who takes the long view of a geoscientist. “The fossil record of biodiversity seems to indicate that diversity has been decreasing for the past few million years, and that trend could continue. India has already collided with Asia, and Africa is impinging on Eurasia, so eventually the Mediterranean will close. If we lose a lot of species today, for whatever reason, on a geological time scale, it’s going to be harder to recover.”

This work was primarily supported by National Science Foundation Grant EAR 1150082.

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New clues to healthy bones for those with PKU  external link

Certain kinds of foods prescribed to manage the rare metabolic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU) could contribute to skeletal fragility seen in many PKU patients, according to a new study by University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers.

Led by Waisman Center and College of Agricultural and Life Sciences investigator Denise Ney and her graduate student Bridget Stroup, the study represents the first human clinical trial to compare how different PKU-specific diets affect the bone health of people living with the disease. Skeletal fragility affects 40-to-50 percent of adults with PKU and 33 percent of children with the disease.

Individuals with PKU must adhere to a lifelong diet of medical foods that contain protein but are low in the amino acid phenylalanine. Their bodies are unable to metabolize phenylalanine, so without careful, lifelong nutritional management initiated in infancy, it accumulates at high levels in their blood, leading to intellectual disabilities, seizures and other serious health problems.

Photo: Denise Ney

Denise Ney

Photo: Bridget Stroup

Bridget Stroup

However, almost all naturally occurring proteins contain phenylalanine, so in order to get enough protein, people with PKU have traditionally eaten medical foods containing synthetic protein substitutes made from amino acids. Still, they often struggle to maintain adequate bone health.

Just over a decade ago, Ney helped develop foods for PKU patients made from a protein called glycomacropeptide (GMP), a natural byproduct found in the whey extracted during cheese production. In one study, Ney showed that mice fed GMP-based diets had larger and stronger bones than mice on amino acid-based diets.

“It was a vital clue that there could be a link between amino acid medical foods and the skeletal fragility seen in many PKU patients,” says Ney.

For the current study, published in the Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism, Ney and her research team assigned eight individuals with PKU to a diet of amino acid-based medical foods. Then, these same patients switched to a GMP-based diet.

The researchers found that, compared to when on the GMP diet, PKU patients had higher amounts of calcium and magnesium in their urine while on the amino acid-based diet, which indicated that their bones were leaching elements critical for bone health.

“The amino acid medical foods have high acid loads, which can change the overall acid-base balance within the body,” says Stroup. Bones are able to buffer high acid loads in the body, but over time this leads to a breakdown and release of minerals. GMP medical foods, on the other hand, do not have high acid loads.

Individuals with PKU are unable to metabolize phenylalanine, so it accumulates at high levels in their blood, leading to intellectual disabilities, seizures and other serious health problems.

Although the researchers did not directly measure bone breakdown and density in this study, other studies have found that reducing the acid content of diets leads to lower urine-calcium excretion and increased bone density. The findings, Ney says, could help patients with other kinds of metabolic disorders, like maple syrup urine disease. And though the sample size of the study was relatively small, it is typical of rare diseases. Ney hopes to secure additional funding for further study.

Her work carries on a legacy of PKU research at the Waisman Center and at UW-Madison. Harry Waisman, after whom the center is named, championed mandatory newborn screening for PKU and dedicated his life to developing treatments for the disorder. Waisman was among the first to show that PKU can be managed by strictly adhering to a low-phenylalanine diet.

Today, Ney is working on a larger clinical trial to study the metabolism of calcium and other minerals in PKU patients consuming amino acid­ or GMP medical foods. “We will be looking at bone health, but also other physiological aspects, such as the gut microbiota,” says Ney.

The current study was supported by funding from the FDA Office of Orphan Products Development, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. Other authors include Emily Sawin, Sangita Murali, Neil Binkley and Karen Hansen, all at UW–Madison.

Disclosure: Denise Ney is a co-inventor of GMP medicals foods, which are licensed to Cambrooke Therapeutics through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. Cambrooke donated the GMP medical foods used in the study.

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