Expanding MnDRIVE research at the U

MnDRIVE slider

Over the past two years, MnDRIVE—Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and Innovation Economy—has allowed the University of Minnesota to further develop areas of research strength and work directly with industry partners to advance innovation. The $36 million recurring investment by the state of Minnesota targets four key research areas (brain conditions, robotics, environment and global food) that address grand societal challenges.

Each of the four research areas has had significant successes across the University system and has also worked collaboratively with the other areas through transdisciplinary projects. Notable accomplishments by participating faculty and staff across all areas include:

  • Leveraged $76 million in external funding from private, public and nonprofit sources
  • Submitted disclosures for 143 new inventions and launched three startup companies
  • Engaged more than 225 external partners, including 3M, Boston Scientific, Syngenta, Tonka Waters and Toro
  • Hired 442 faculty, students, fellows and staff
  • Published 1,500 research papers Continue reading

Citizen science evolves to engage new projects, participants


As a physicist and astronomer, Lucy Fortson, Ph.D., never imagined she would find herself involved in a study to analyze half a million ancient Greek writing fragments found on Egyptian papyri. Helping orchestrate an effort to code over a million pictures documenting animal behavior in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park wasn’t high among her expectations, either.

But now, delving into such wide-ranging projects is business-as-usual for Fortson, associate head of the University of Minnesota’s School of Physics and Astronomy. In her other role as the head of Zooniverse@UMN, the U’s citizen science initiative, Fortson helps researchers in fields ranging from anthropology to zoology connect their studies to volunteers who can contribute to data collection or analysis. So far, the Zooniverse project has led to over 100 peer-reviewed research articles.

At the U and beyond, citizen science continues to evolve to fit the new tools available to it, calling upon volunteers from across the world. NASA’s CosmoQuest project, for example, provides volunteers with a way to investigate high-resolution images taken by spacecraft for signs of impact craters on the surfaces of Mars, Mercury and the moon. Closer to home, there are projects like that of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which has been rallying residents for 20 years to help monitor the population of loons across the state.

Recent changes in citizen science have been spurred in part by a dramatic increase in the amount of data that scientists are generating. Where citizen scientists once only collected data and recorded observations, they now also play a role in making sense out of the mountain of information collected through newer technologies like cell phones, drones, telescopes and satellites.

“We live today in a world that is just flooded with data,” Fortson said. “It’s difficult for even computers to keep up. Humans, however, have this excellent ability to recognize patterns, making them better than computers at certain forms of analysis.”

Emerging trends in citizen science were central to the latest Convergence Colloquia event, which brought together experts from local government, nonprofit organizations, environmental groups and the University of Minnesota earlier this month to discover opportunities for new partnerships and programs that can take advantage of this research technique.

Colloquium participants discussed how to create more effective citizen science-based studies, including how best to convey the goal of the project, train participants and provide reports that keep participants invested in the project’s progress.

Participants also discussed the way citizen science impacts its participants, including what motivates people to volunteer their time for such studies, as most of the current projects rely on altruism — the good feeling people get from helping others.

“Citizen science is a unique research method that not only fuels scientific discovery but expands the public’s understanding of — and appreciation for and engagement with — science,” said Carissa Slotterback, Ph.D., director of Research Engagement and convener of the Convergence Colloquia events. “This event allowed participants to explore new techniques for generating, analyzing and sharing data through citizen science and engaging the public across age demographics and regions.”

As new approaches and tools make citizen science a promising tool for analyzing data in an expanding number of fields, interest has been high among U researchers, especially those in agriculture, astronomy, biology, ecology and the humanities.

Tracking the changing habitats of flora and fauna

One new U-based project will use a collection of 750,000 wildlife, plant and fungi specimens from the Mississippi River headwaters, curated by the U’s Bell Museum over the past 125 years, for the Mapping Change in the Heartland project.

Led by George Weiblen, Ph.D., professor of plant biology and Keith Barker, Ph.D., associate professor of ecology, evolution and behavior in the College of Biological Sciences, the project will recruit citizen scientists to log information on these specimens, many of which were collected before extensive development and alteration of the land, into a digital system.

Capturing the information digitally will allow researchers to better understand where plants and animals have been and predict how a changing climate may affect them going in the future.

Startup contributes to growing statewide gene editing industry


The science of gene editing is exploding, propelled by transformational new technology and the diminishing cost of sequencing genomes. But there are limitations. Right now, it’s difficult for scientists to make more than a few genetic changes to a cell at once. In the future, however, scientists may need to be able to make hundreds of changes — and they will need a tool capable of doing so.

In much the same way faster computers can run more complex software, a University of Minnesota startup is developing a better gene editing “processor” to make more complex genome engineering techniques a reality. B-MoGen Biotechnologies Inc., launched in February by the Venture Center at the U’s Office for Technology Commercialization, develops and markets advanced gene editing products and services for academia and industry. B-MoGen is led by CEO Jeff Liter and U Medical School researchers Branden Moriarity, Ph.D., and David Largaespada, Ph.D.

B-MoGen’s tools are platform technologies, meaning they can be broadly applied across a wide variety of genetics-related research, from cancer and metabolic diseases to agriculture and livestock. The company focuses on lower cost, faster and safer methods for precisely delivering genes to targeted cells and altering cell’s existing genes. Continue reading

2016 Minnesota Futures awards explore health and the environment


The University of Minnesota continues to research innovative solutions in major areas of study and impact. This year, The Office of the Vice President for Research awarded a total of $491,990 to two projects for the Minnesota Futures grant program, an internal funding opportunity that promotes novel research to advance new ideas that cross disciplinary boundaries. The two winning projects, selected out of 55 proposals submitted, address significant challenges in health and the environment while encouraging collaboration on emerging research opportunities.

Continue reading

‘Dirty’ mice may be better models of human biology


Researchers have long noted disparities between the functioning of the human immune system and that of laboratory mice. Could it be because, unlike us, they live in antiseptic cages, shielded from exposure to infectious organisms?

A landmark, University of Minnesota-led study lends credence to that idea. It has found that immune cells of lab mice bear relatively little resemblance to those of adult humans. Instead, they resemble the immature immune cells of newborn babies, who also have been sheltered from the unhygienic real world. But when lab mice were cohoused with less pampered “dirty” mice from pet shops, their immune systems matured to a state much more like that of adult humans.

While not discounting any previous work with lab mice, the researchers make the case that studying cohoused mice “could provide a relevant tool for modeling immunological events in free-living organisms, including humans.” The work is published in Nature.

Continue reading

White House OSTP recognizes U microbiome research

Test Tubes and Pipette

The University of Minnesota’s commitment to developing better microbiome methods for use in translational medicine, industry and agriculture research was recognized today by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The recognition comes as part of the White House OSTP’s announcement of the National Microbiome Initiative, an effort to advance understanding of microbiome, the communities of microorganisms that live on and in people, plants, soil, oceans and the atmosphere and are essential to the health of the planet. The U of M, a participant in the new initiative, has recently committed more than $5 million to advance microbiome research.

“The University of Minnesota is on the cutting edge of microbiome research,” said Brian Herman, Ph.D., the University’s vice president for research. “The University has remarkable strengths in and across the academic disciplines involved in this rapidly growing field, including medicine, agriculture, industry, the environment and informatics, just to name a few.”

See the press release for more information.

Core facilities drive research forward

Center for Magnetic Resonance Research

An ultra-powerful supercomputer that works 3,864 times faster than a typical laptop? Check. One of the world’s largest magnetic resonance imaging magnets, operating at 10.5 Tesla? Check. A high-resolution transmission electron microscope that collects elemental composition maps 10 times faster than previous systems? Check.

At the University of Minnesota, core research facilities provide the resources faculty, staff and students need to accelerate their research. These facilities’ state-of-the-art equipment, training and expertise are open to all qualified users within the University community, with projects that span a wide range of disciplines, from food safety to cancer research to computational chemistry. Many of them are also available to industry partners, giving companies of all sizes a way to access infrastructure that can boost their research and development efforts.

Here is a list of the U’s core research facilities, with links to more information.

Continue reading

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