Researchers supercharge rice yields to meet growing global demand

Planting Rice Seedlings

Rice production is projected to fall almost 400 million tons short of demand by 2050. With half the world’s population relying on this staple crop, the shortfall is a serious threat.

Now, a consortium of researchers from 12 laboratories across eight countries has successfully tweaked the genetic code of rice in the first step toward creating a species that can grow higher yields without any additional water. MIT Technology Review recently recognized the accomplishment as one of its ten Breakthrough Technologies of 2015. Among the researchers was Daniel Voytas, Ph.D., director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Genome Engineering and a professor in the College of Biological Sciences. Voytas is an expert on targeted genome modification in plants — the practice of altering a specific part of a plant’s genetic code to change its physical characteristics.

Through its research, the consortium engineered rice to use a form of super-efficient photosynthesis — the process that lets plants draw energy from sunlight — in addition to its normal, less efficient version. This form, called C4 photosynthesis,  boosts plant growth by better capturing and concentrating carbon dioxide in the leaves’ cells.

Building off the discovery, researchers hope to continue to modify the rice genome so that it exclusively uses C4 photosynthesis, leading to higher yields at the cost of no additional growing resources. Scientists also hope to engineer this type of photosynthesis into many other crops, including wheat, potatoes and soybeans.

See more about the breakthrough in MIT Technology Review.

Design thinking and the future of informatics

Archive Boxes

By Claudia Neuhauser

Back in the days when index cards and laboratory notebooks were the primary places to record data, data acquisition was much more deliberate and slow. Hours in the library or at the bench yielded small data sets that became immensely valuable to the researcher who acquired them. Decisions about what to keep or discard were made at the time of acquisition.

Today, high throughput technologies, sensors, digitization of large collections of literary and artistic works have made data “big.” Inexpensive data storage solutions no longer require careful considerations of what to keep and what to discard. Data are no longer solely collected to address a specific hypothesis but are increasingly reused and integrated to explore new hypotheses. Novel analysis and visualization tools open new paths of inquiry.

To respond to the needs emerging from this data-rich environment and to increase informatics capabilities, OVPR established the University of Minnesota Informatics Institute (UMII) in 2014. UMII’s mission is to foster and accelerate data-intensive research across the university system in fields as diverse as agriculture, arts, design, engineering, environment, health, humanities and social sciences. Throughout the past year, UMII has built up capacity in data analysis, established a number of competitive grants programs, and brought people together within the university and with outside organization. UMII was also involved in writing a new policy on research data management that clarifies responsibilities around all aspects of data management across the university. Highlights of the policy can be found here.

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Tiny technology to deliver big disease treatments

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For the next 40 years, Minnesota’s older demographic will make up the largest part of the state’s population. During this period, neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and brain cancer, more prevalent in older adults, will pose a growing concern for the state. The number of people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias is expected to grow dramatically in the near future, affecting more than 200,000 Minnesotans by 2050 at an annual cost of $20 billion, according to a report prepared for the Alzheimer’s Association. Meanwhile, there are about 75,000 new cases of brain cancer each year in the U.S., which is also more common in older adults.

A team of University of Minnesota researchers spanning many academic disciplines has set out to improve treatments for these two diseases through the use of DNA nanotechnology — microscopic structures that are built from DNA. The structures — so tiny that 3,300 of them side by side would match the width of a human hair — have been used as containers for carrying drug treatments to specific parts of the body. When it comes to treating the brain, however, they fall short, getting stopped by white blood cells that guard the blood-brain barrier — a wall between the circulatory system and brain cells.

Lead researcher Efie Kokkoli, Ph.D., is developing a type of tube-shaped DNA structure that more effectively carries drug therapies past the blood-brain barrier, allowing drug treatments developed by her fellow researchers to more effectively reach the brain and treat those with neurological diseases. The project is part of the state-funded MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Research Program, where researchers from different departments work beyond the limits of their disciplines to address complex challenges.

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2015 Research Infrastructure Investment Program

The Office of the Vice President for Research is pleased to announce a Request for Proposals to fund research infrastructure at the University of Minnesota.

In keeping with its strategic plan, the OVPR is committed to facilitating strong core facilities as the backbone for research excellence and to encourage cross disciplinary collaboration. To ensure the viability of existing, critical facilities and research support services, the funding available for this RFP will be directed toward new or existing facilities, service centers or other shared resources across the university system.

Key dates include:

Letter of intent: Mar. 9, 2015
Full proposal: Apr. 13, 2015
Award notification: June, 2015
Project state date: July 1, 2015

Past recipients range from the Driven to Discover building (a dedicated research resource at the Minnesota State Fair) to developing mass cytometry capabilities to creating a centralized repository for bio-specimens and associated data to support interdisciplinary research. See a list of 2014 recipients.

Learn more and apply

Questions? Please contact facgrant@umn or 612-625-2356.

Industry, university deal moves novel cancer treatment forward

Chemistry Background

What happens when you put two great biomedical discoveries together? An innovative approach to fighting a major disease.

The University of Minnesota has combined its own patented gene delivery technology with cancer therapies discovered by the University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center to create a first-of-its kind nonviral gene therapy treatment that targets cancer by supercharging a patient’s immune system. The collaborative approach of pooling separate intellectual property underlying two distinct sets of technologies created by two institutions is uncommon for research universities, representing a strong commitment in working together to tackle the grand challenge of cancer.

The institutions’ combined technology recently spurred a landmark $100 million exclusive licensing deal with biotech company Intrexon Corp. and pharmaceutical company Ziopharm Oncology. The deal, a key part in getting the treatment to market, paid the U of M and M.D. Anderson up front for use of the technology instead of designating royalties to be paid after product launch years in the future. A portion of the funds will be shared with the U of M, which will provide substantial support for future research. Continue reading

Startup Profile: MesoFlow

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MesoFlow manufactures a device that prepare biological cells for use in medical procedures like bone marrow transplants and to treat disease like sickle cell anemia. The company is based on scientific discoveries by the University of Minnesota’s Allison Hubel, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering with the College of Science and Engineering.


Technology

Blood cells and stem cells, generally obtained through donations, are an important resource for biotechnology, disease treatment and advancing medical research. After collection, cells are stored for future use by a freezing technique using chemicals to help cells survive the process. When the cells are later prepared for use, the chemicals have to be removed, as they can be harmful to humans.

MesoFlow’s technology uses a first-of-its-kind approach to remove these chemicals by funneling the cells through a saline wash. At a microscopic scale, the cells separate from the storage chemical as they flow through the device. The technology makes the process of cell preparation automated, disposable and inexpensive, while minimizing the number of cells lost in the process.

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Nature Biotech ranks U in top 5 for life sciences tech transfer

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Across the country, top universities are finding innovative ways to put their weight behind tech transfer, working to push cutting-edge research from the lab to the market.

The University of Minnesota is one of the institutions leading the charge. A Nature Biotechnology report of U.S. tech transfer offices in 2013 ranks the U’s Office for Technology Commercialization fifth overall in life sciences tech transfer and gives the office high rankings in individual areas like licensing income, patents awarded and startups launched.

The article also illustrates how the U of M is forging ahead in the growing trend of tech commercialization, building its efforts through programs, such as the Entrepreneurial Leave Program and Minnesota Innovation Partnerships Program (MN-IP), that help spur new industry partnerships and launch new startups.

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Global Operations: Reducing barriers to international research

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by Sandra Boone

How do I legally hire an employee in Colombia? What’s the best way to access cash in the Congo? Is it better to rent or purchase a car abroad?

These types of legal and compliance issues can easily delay or even derail international research projects. That’s where Global Operations comes in.

Launched in 2012, the University of Minnesota’s Global Operations brings together experts and resources from across the university system in the areas of tax, purchasing, legal, human resources and compliance.

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Apply now for Minnesota Futures

Applications are now being accepted for the Minnesota Futures grant program, administered by the Office of the Vice President for Research. The Minnesota Futures program promotes new research and scholarship that address societal challenges by fostering opportunities for researchers to advance new ideas and cross disciplinary boundaries.

Minnesota Futures provides grants of approximately $250,000 over two years. Letters of Intent are due Feb. 23 and full proposals are due Mar. 23. All applicants who submit an LOI are also invited to submit a full proposal, unless they are notified otherwise.

As with other institutional support at the University of Minnesota, Minnesota Futures awards not only advance important discoveries, they provide significant opportunities to leverage external funding for additional research. Since its first awards were granted in 2008, every $1 invested through Minnesota Futures has yielded an average of $7 coming in to the institution.

Learn more and apply

Convergence Colloquia: Cultivating serendipity for community action

Connection nodes

By Carissa Slotterback

Chance encounters and accidental inspirations have been responsible for many of the world’s greatest discoveries, from penicillin to the Post-it note. Throughout history, our greatest thinkers have advanced scientific understanding and improved our world as a result of being in the right place, at the right time and with the right combination of knowledge and inspiration.

Many researchers, including myself, tell stories of how casual meetings with colleagues have led to some of their most fruitful and long-lasting collaborations. The conversations, learning and opportunity to engage outside of one’s own comfort zone can lead to creativity and innovation.

Of course, there is no magic formula for serendipity, which by definition is unexpected. Yet forward-thinking organizations like Google, Facebook and AT&T are well known for their attempts to create work environments conducive to networking and collaboration in the hopes of generating new ideas and innovation.

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Building a framework for Parkinson’s research

patient care

Minnesota’s population continues to age, raising increasing concerns about chronic brain conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, that can affect older adults.

More than 20,000 Minnesotans are living with Parkinson’s — a degenerative brain disorder that causes shaking, balance problems and slow movements and can lead to other complications — according to the National Parkinson Foundation in Minnesota. The state has one of the highest rates of Parkinson’s in the U.S., and estimates show the disease could grow to affect 30,000 Minnesotans by 2040.1

At the University of Minnesota, researchers are developing a tool that may help turn the tide against Parkinson’s. Working across disciplines, researchers are establishing the first statewide registry of Minnesotans with Parkinson’s, a resource that could dramatically improve future studies on the disease and help reveal which genetic traits and environmental factors add to the risk of developing Parkinson’s.

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Startup Profile: Ninja Metrics

Social network

Ninja Metrics Inc. provides a social analytics tool that can measure how players in online games influence each other and assess the monetary worth of that influence. The company is based on a computer program developed by Jaideep Srivastava, Ph.D., professor of computer science and engineering with the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering.


Technology

Ninja Metrics centers on the Katana Analytics Engine, a software program based on U of M technology that uses complex algorithms to understand how users of online games behave and influence one another. Katana processes a wide range of information about players’ actions to predict their future behavior, such as how long they are likely to keep playing the game and the amount of money they are likely to spend on optional extra game content, like character upgrades and new playable environments. While many analytics engines track the users that spend the most money, the Katana engine is the first to identify and analyze the users that influence their peers the most. These players with high “social value” are the most likely to draw new players into the game and spur existing players to purchase content they otherwise would not buy.

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