Rolf Weberg came to the University’s Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) in Duluth in the spring of 2014 following a successful 25-year career at DuPont in global research and development. His graduation from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1982 led to a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1986 before he launched his career.
Weberg has tremendous enthusiasm for NRRI’s unique mission of sustainable natural resource management and economic development for resilient communities. And that enthusiasm is reaching out across the University of Minnesota, the state, even the globe. Fresh from a trip to Germany with Minnesota legislators to learn about new energy opportunities, Weberg effuses about NRRI’s opportunities.
What does wild rice mean to Minnesotans?
For some, the crop is a food source. Others see it as an economic value to the state, which is among the nation’s leading producers. The crop is also a cultural resource for the state’s tribal communities, and it’s a habitat for the region’s waterfowl.
Despite its important and iconic role in the state, however, wild rice crops are threatened in regions where Minnesota’s water contains too much sulfate from natural sources and from industrial sources like mining, road building, water treatment and agriculture.
A team of University of Minnesota researchers from the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses are now working together to design and develop smart technology that will more efficiently and cost-effectively lower those sulfate concentrations, helping keep the water clear of pollutants and providing a clean, healthy environment for wild rice to grow. The systems, which will use naturally occurring bacteria and operate on renewable energy, will function year-round to clean Minnesota’s water and protect this critical natural resource even in remote locations.
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. Continue reading
In Minnesota, an emerging industry is starting to capture the attention of crop growers, fish processors, distributors, restaurants and many others. Aquaponics — a year-round way to grow aquatic animals and plants in the same system — lets growers produce food locally and sustainably, and it’s on the rise. There are now more than 40 aquaponics producers in the state, up from only three in 2010.
There’s just one problem with growing aquaponically: Even the growers themselves aren’t sure how best to do it.
In response to the need for more knowledge in aquaponics, a team of University of Minnesota faculty developed a new undergraduate course called “Aquaponics: Integrated fish and plant food systems,” which set students to work discovering industry challenges and researching solutions. The course debuted in spring semester this year as part of a larger collaborative effort, which includes research projects and continuing education opportunities, to position Minnesota as a national leader in the field of aquaponics. Backed by funds from the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy), the effort brought together experts from fisheries and wildlife, veterinary medicine and aquaculture, horticulture and plant sciences to form a team of experts to help inform and guide an emerging industry. Continue reading
Medical research brings about the breakthroughs in technology that allow people around the world to lead longer, healthier lives.
This year’s Minnesota Futures grants include two projects that are pushing to improve human health by developing new approaches to disease treatment. The two-year grants, provided by the University of Minnesota’s Office of the Vice President for Research, fund research opportunities that cross disciplinary and professional boundaries and support in-depth research that aims to address society’s grand challenges.
Here are the 2015 award recipients. Continue reading
A layer of cells that have no power to regenerate themselves is emerging as a key site of damage in age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of blindness in elderly people in the developed world. AMD robs people of their central vision, and with it the ability to read, drive and even recognize faces.
By pinpointing damage that occurs before any sight is lost, U of M researchers have identified a target for therapies to slow the progression of the disease. This would blunt the impact of AMD, which is poised to double in prevalence over the next 20 years as the bulk of baby boomers reach age 65.
Research led by ophthalmology professor Deborah Ferrington shows that damage is already detectable early in the disease, and is localized to a non-dividing layer of cells called the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE). The work is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
In Minnesota, animal diseases are a looming threat. A recent outbreak of avian flu has already cost the state an estimated $310 million, and future outbreaks of other diseases could jeopardize still more of the state’s livestock. At the end of 2012, livestock values totaled $3.78 billion across the state, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
At the University of Minnesota, researchers are forming a new approach to curbing contagious animal diseases and the threat they pose to Minnesota’s economy. The project — referred to as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics for Minnesota Advancement, or STEMMA — 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.
The comprehensive approach of this project includes developing better technology for quickly and accurately diagnosing illnesses, better modeling to predict how the illnesses spread within and between herds of animals, and outreach efforts to educate the next generation of farmers, environmentalists and veterinary experts. The findings will inform policies that can help Minnesota react to and contain outbreaks faster, limiting the economic damage caused by these pathogens. Ultimately, researchers aim to develop a system for handling animal diseases that will promote the strength of Minnesota’s economy, protect its environment and meet the food supply needs of its people. Continue reading
Minnesota’s population is aging. According to the Minnesota State Demographic Center, the number of adults age 65 or older is anticipated to double between 2010 and 2030. As this portion of the population grows larger, Minnesota will have to prepare for its growing needs, from transportation to nursing homes.
In anticipation of these upcoming challenges, University of Minnesota researchers gathered with experts from industry, community groups and nonprofits Tuesday to explore “Big Ideas and Compelling Issues in Aging,” the second event in the University of Minnesota’s Convergence Colloquia series. Over 80 experts from across disciplines and sectors came together to identify some of the most pressing issues related to aging and discover opportunities for new partnerships and programs that can meet those needs.
“Bringing people of different expertise and backgrounds together creates fertile ground for the type of serendipitous thinking that leads to innovation,” said Brian Herman, Ph.D., the U’s vice president for research. “By combining university research expertise with the practical knowledge of industry, nonprofits and community groups, we can create partnerships that have the ingenuity and capacity needed to make a difference.” Continue reading
In February, experts, practitioners and community leaders from across Minnesota came together to discuss how their collective knowledge and resources could create more intelligent, efficient and livable communities.
The event, Smart Cities and Infrastructure, was the first of the University of Minnesota’s Convergence Colloquia, which are designed to bring together U researchers and private, public and nonprofit stakeholders to discuss emerging issues in society. These transdisciplinary collaborations aim to engineer the type of serendipity that can only occur when experts from different fields work together to solve a common problem. The colloquia advance cutting-edge research, develop innovative solutions and build long-term partnerships that improve our world.
Throughout the Smart Cities and Infrastructure event, participants worked to identify priorities in research and opportunities for collaboration that could improve the communities in which we live. See the Smart Cities and Infrastructure report for more about the event’s outcomes and next steps. Continue reading
Minnepura Technologies Inc. uses bacteria-based biotechnology to purify water that has been contaminated by chemicals from industrial processes. The company is based on scientific discoveries by University of Minnesota researchers Alptekin Aksan, Ph.D., of the College of Science and Engineering and BioTechnology Institute, and Larry Wackett, Ph.D., of the College of Biological Sciences and also of the BioTechnology Institute.
The U of M-patented technology behind Minnepura uses small, sponge-like silica beads to trap certain types of bacteria in place. The beads, once placed in water, allow the bacteria to eat away potentially dangerous chemicals, naturally breaking these compounds down into harmless, environmentally friendly byproducts. And because the bacteria are contained within silica, scientists can ensure they stay alive and effective for months. Minnepura’s team identifies which bacteria are best suited for removing specific problematic chemicals in water, and then designs silica beads with the right type of bacteria inside to remove those contaminants. The company manufactures these beads for use in industrial and municipal water purification needs.
From industrial waste to agricultural runoff, there are numerous forms of chemical pollution that end up contaminating lakes, streams and groundwater, creating health risks for humans and animals alike. While there is a growing need to remove these chemicals, traditional methods are complex, costly and unsustainable, requiring condensed chemicals to be stored in a landfill as hazardous waste or pumped into injection wells deep inside the Earth. Minnepura’s silica beads provide a natural, low-cost alternative that can be custom-designed for specific chemicals from a wide range of industrial operations. The technology is also flexible enough to use in existing water treatment systems. Continue reading
An emerging trend in research is lending a few extra sets of eyes to researchers in the humanities, astronomy and more.
Crowdsourcing — where volunteers help analyze enormous collections of writing samples, images or videos — is helping researchers understand quantities of data too large for them to handle on their own. At the University of Minnesota, researchers are crowdsourcing select research projects through Zooniverse.org, a platform started by the Citizen Science Alliance in 2009 to orchestrate the contributions of a growing global community of volunteer scientists who help with ongoing research projects.
Lucy Fortson, Ph.D., one of the cofounders of Zooniverse, brought the platform to the U of M after she became a physics professor with the U’s College of Science and Engineering in 2010. Now, Fortson leads a team from across the U to identify and promote the research projects that stand to benefit from the help of Zooniverse’s volunteers. Continue reading
An artist’s conception of the HR 8799 system. Gemini Observatory/AURA illustration by Lynette Cook.
The extraordinary sensitivity of the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in southeastern Arizona has revealed the architecture of a young stellar system whose structure promises to shed light on how our own solar system formed and help answer questions about the number and locations of Earth-like planets.
An international team of astrophysicists, including Professor Chick Woodward of the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics, studied the planetary system called HR 8799, which is only 30 million years old and 130 light-years away, in the northern constellation Pegasus. The findings are the first results from the LEECH (LBT Exozodi Exoplanet Common Hunt) survey and were published April 20, 2015, in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.
The stellar system has four known giant planets similar to Jupiter. Similarly, our solar system has four “gas giants”: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The HR 8799 system may also have smaller planets closer to its central star.