MnDRIVE technologies move beyond the lab

Farmer (60s) standing next to old truck, using digital tablet.

Since its inception, MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy) has fueled a multitude of research projects, all with the common goal of finding innovative solutions for grand challenges that fall within four research areas.

Along the way, the cutting-edge technologies developed as part of these projects are moving beyond the lab to become actual inventions. To date, nearly 180 MnDRIVE-related intellectual property disclosures have been filed with the University of Minnesota’s technology commercialization office. These disclosures mark the first step in moving inventions beyond the lab. Included within these are 50 disclosures stemming from transdisciplinary research and 28 that have included graduate or undergraduate student researchers.

“The mission of MnDRIVE is to enhance quality of life and economic vitality in Minnesota and beyond,” said Brian Herman, Ph.D., the U’s vice president for research. “The program has proven effective in developing innovative, practical technologies, which have the potential to further Minnesota’s leadership in key industries and promote prosperity across the state.” Continue reading

U genomics, computing helps PepsiCo supercharge crop research

Stevia leaves

PepsiCo is exploring new ways to improve the flavor of foods and beverages sweetened with stevia. Recently, the company needed genetic data for the all-natural sweetener, but generating it would have taken their research and development labs up to two months.

Instead, they got the data in a few days.

The food and beverage company behind brands like Frito-Lay, Quaker Oats and Tropicana has supercharged its research to develop better agriculturally sourced ingredients, like oats, potatoes and oranges through an ongoing partnership with the University of Minnesota. Continue reading

With latest cold-hardy grape, U continues to help grow an industry

Itasca wine grape

The Itasca wine grape

At the University of Minnesota, grape research hasn’t just sprouted a few new vines — it’s spurred the growth of an industry.

Earlier this month, the University released Itasca, a low-acidity, high-sugar grape for making dry white wines. Itasca is the latest in a line of cold-hardy wine grapes developed by U researchers that have played a crucial role in building the winery industry in regions where low temperatures used to hinder grape growing.

“The grape and wine industries of the north are thriving,” said William Gartner, Ph.D., professor with the Department of Applied Economics in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. “Through its wine grape breeding program, the U of M has been primarily responsible for the emergence and growth of the northern grape wine industry.” Continue reading

U participates in national ‘smart’ fabrics initiative

MIT-AFFOA-Fink-2-Press - Post

The University of Minnesota is fast becoming a leader in the field of wearable technologies and smart fabrics. Pioneering researchers have been laying the groundwork in developing wearable electronics, including this recent multi-disciplinary collaboration to treat tinnitus, a vexing brain condition, with a flexible, electronic patch.

Now, the University of Minnesota is part of a $317 million public-private partnership to develop the next generation of “smart” fabrics and fibers that incorporate technology to create innovative new tools and products in a range of high tech fields, from medical devices to transportation to consumer products and smart clothing.

The partnership, named Advanced Functional Fibers of America (AFFOA), will be led by MIT and includes dozens of academic and industry partners. Mechanical engineering professor David Pui and assistant professor Julianna Abel from the U’s College of Science and Engineering are lead researchers for the initiative at the U of M. Abel was hired in the fall 2014 as part of the state-funded MnDRIVE, Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and Innovation Economy, initiative. One of the focus areas of MnDRIVE is robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing.

Read the press release

Patent roll call, spring 2016

Lightbulb drawing

Patents protect the ideas behind novel inventions. At the University of Minnesota, filing for a patent isn’t just a way to protect intellectual property — it’s often a crucial step toward moving breakthrough discoveries, like cutting-edge software and pharmaceutical therapies, from the laboratory to the market.

Congratulations to these U of M researchers who were recently awarded patents for their discoveries. To learn more about reporting an invention, contact the Office for Technology Commercialization at 612-624-0550 or umotc@umn.edu. Continue reading

How size and lifestyle rule the plant world

Papaver alpinum

University of Minnesota researcher Peter Reich, along with numerous colleagues around the world, have found what scientists have long suspected: that despite Earth’s rich diversity of plant life, only relatively few combinations of traits are successful.

Drawing on a data set of 46,085 plant species, the researchers gave each an identity based on its scheme for growing, surviving and reproducing. Describing plants this way gives scientists a way to predict how different vegetation will respond to climate change, most crucially by the amount of carbon it can scrub from the atmosphere.

“This paper tells you about constraints on evolution,” says Reich, a Regents Professor of forest resources. “We need better models to understand and predict how vegetation globally will change with climate change. To do that, knowing more about the small number of ways plants vary can help us build more predictive models.”

The study appears in the journal Nature.

Continue reading

U startup Andamio designs educational biology game

Students using tablets

Students will soon have a more interactive and engaging way to learn the fundamentals of cell biology.

University of Minnesota startup Andamio Games has partnered with Sehoya Cortner, Ph.D., professor with the College of Biological Sciences, and Barbara Billington, Ph.D., professor of STEM education with the College of Education and Human Development, to develop a tablet-based educational game to teach the concepts of cell respiration and photosynthesis. The project, funded by a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, will conduct pilot tests of the game at classrooms this summer and ultimately provide the game to schools across the country free of charge.

Andamio Games, launched in summer 2015 and based in Minneapolis, creates interactive games that help educators in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields teach core concepts to students through individualized learning and collaborative problem solving. Continue reading

A ray of light on climate change

Sunbeams in a forest

Trees are a vital resource for pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it as plant tissue.

As temperatures rise, however, so does the rate of respiration—the process of breaking down stored sugars for energy, releasing CO2. Scientists have feared that a warming climate will prompt a jump in trees’ respiration rates big enough to flip them from carbon sinks to carbon sources, and climate change will accelerate.

But in a new study of 10 boreal and temperate tree species led by U of M researcher Peter Reich, trees grown at 6 degrees F above ambient temperatures—a level of increase expected this century—showed only a 5 percent average increase in respiration rate, compared to a 23 percent increase for trees suddenly exposed to the higher temperature. In other words, the trees that had the chance to acclimate to the higher temperatures responded by dampening their respiration by nearly 80 percent compared to trees that had no such chance. Continue reading

Picturing research: Historical labs and equipment

Tate Laboratory of Physics

Over the years, the Tate Laboratory of Physics has been remodeled and improved to meet the University of Minnesota’s research and education needs. Left: Construction workers add a new addition to Tate in 1951. Right: Today, Tate is being remodeled to improve lab space, lecture halls and interior accessibility.

A new Plant Growth Research Facility. A Chemistry and Advanced Materials Science Building. Renovations for research and learning spaces in iconic Pillsbury Hall. These are a few of the building projects highlighted in the University of Minnesota’s recent capital request to the Minnesota Legislature.

If funded, these projects will be the latest additions to a long history of cutting-edge research infrastructure at the U of M. In the course of the University’s 165-year history, researchers have used a wide range of laboratories and research equipment in fields ranging from aerospace engineering to disease prevention to advance knowledge and make discoveries that improve our health and quality of life.

In the gallery below, Inquiry takes a walk back through the research spaces of yore to highlight a small slice of the specialized equipment and laboratories that helped University researchers push forward in their fields of study. Continue reading

Boosting bioreactor technology to limit farm runoff

Kansas Creek

Some farmers across the Midwest have installed bioreactors to help stop nutrients in agricultural runoff from washing into nearby lakes, rivers and streams. By filtering drainage water through a trench filled with woodchips or a similar material, these systems take advantage of naturally occurring microbes to break down nitrogen compounds and improve regional water quality.

There’s just one problem with this low-cost, easy-to-maintain technology: It isn’t very efficient, and scientists do not understand it well enough to improve it.

A team of University of Minnesota researchers is now studying the microbial mechanisms behind bioreactors to discover how to make them more efficient at removing nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff. Led by principal investigator Carl Rosen, Ph.D., head of the U’s Department of Soil, Water and Climate, the team has constructed a 360-foot-long, field-scale bioreactor in Willmar, Minn., to measure the way different variables affect the system’s efficiency. The project’s initial funding came from the MnDRIVE Advancing Industry, Conserving Our Environment research area, with additional support from Discovery Farms Minnesota. Continue reading

Exploring gut bacteria’s role in disease and human health

Family having a meal

For as long as humans have been around, the normal function of their intestinal tract has relied on the complex interplay of trillions of microscopic organisms, which in turn thrived off of the food we ate. Now, through pressure from modern diets and medicines, that longstanding partnership may be falling out of balance.

Dr. Alexander Khoruts, medical director of the University of Minnesota Microbiota Therapeutics Program, highlighted at a recent lecture how some of the growing health challenges we face today could stem from the changing composition of the microbes in our intestines. Microbes constitute an integral part of the human body and interact with it in complex ways. Recent research suggests that the diversity of microbes in people is shrinking and this may be causing significant health problems in our population. “The Evolving Human Microbiome,” hosted by the U’s Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment and the Life Sciences on Feb. 17, explored the ramifications of our bodies’ changing microbial communities.

“We’re discovering that these microbes are important for our health and for disease,” Khoruts said. “For the most part, it has been a mutualist relationship — what’s good for them [the bacteria] is good for us. But these relationships can go wrong.” Continue reading

Lecture series reviews regulations for human participants research

Lecture Hall-Large

The Center for Bioethics is hosting a series of lectures on the policies, regulations and practices researchers need to know before beginning a study that involves human participants.

Standards for Research with Human Participants, led by Dr. Steven Miles, professor of medicine and Maas Family Endowed Chair in Bioethics, explores the most critical and timely topics in the field and boils down policy jargon to clarify what researchers need to know.

The lectures inform researchers on topics such as the purpose of an institutional review board, the regulations that govern informed consent and the difference between confidentiality and privacy. Knowing this information will help anyone involved in research with human participants, including faculty, graduate students, staff and other health care professionals, conduct ethical studies as well as comply with national regulations, state policies and the publication standards of academic journals. Continue reading