Highlights from a year of excellence in research

Collage of Annual Report story images

Last month, the University of Minnesota’s annual State of Research report highlighted a research enterprise that continues to grow, driven by greater diversification of funding sources and enhanced public-private partnership.

The report, produced by the Office of the Vice President for Research, also highlighted several ongoing research projects that are advancing knowledge across a wide variety of fields. These efforts are shedding light on youth brain function, boosting computing technology, exploring new mining processes and improving transportation systems.

Below, Inquiry explores each of these projects and their potential to benefit society. Continue reading

Mapping gene “social networks” may improve disease treatments

Genes under a microscope

Genetic interaction maps, like the ones above, provide a computer model to show how the functions of different genes in a yeast cell connect. Credit: University of Minnesota

Studying the way genes “socialize” could ultimately help scientists develop better treatments for diseases.

In a recent study, researchers from the University of Minnesota and University of Toronto collaborated to investigate the way genes function — not as independent actors, but as part of larger social networks. The team created the first complete genetic interaction network of a yeast cell, which begins to explain how thousands of genes within the cell coordinate with one another to orchestrate life at a cellular level. The study established a set of principles that scientists can use in creating genetic interaction maps across many different species, including humans, to learn more about how genes behave.

This technology may ultimately help scientists understand the genetic roots of diseases and aid in developing treatments to counter those diseases. For example, scientists could use gene interaction maps to develop cancer therapies that target only sick cells in the body, leaving the healthy ones untouched. Continue reading

Lab tests structural strength against earthquakes, other natural forces

Building destroyed by earthquake

In late August, a magnitude 6.2 earthquake devastated Central Italy, killing hundreds and injuring hundreds more. The quake also demolished many structures, destroying homes and buildings of historic and cultural importance.

When it comes to earthquakes and other natural disasters, designing structures to be resilient against environmental forces can help limit the resulting damage. Researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Multi-Axial Subassemblage Testing (MAST) Lab can test how structures and building components hold up against the strain of enormous natural forces, from simulated earthquakes to tornadoes to soil pressure. The lab, originally supported for 15 years by grants through the National Science Foundation, is part of the College of Science and Engineering’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-Engineering.

Mounted at the top of the MAST Lab’s testing area is a steel crosshead that precisely twists, compresses and stretches large structures through six components of movement or forces. The equipment, driven by specialized software, allows researchers to simulate the many forms of stress that building materials and components might experience not only from natural forces, but from the weight of the structure itself. The lab can test structural components nearly 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide, and exert up to 1.3 million pounds of vertical force — enough to lift an Airbus A380 jet airliner, plus its passengers and cargo, off the ground.

Continue reading

Two U startups named among “Best University Startups 2016”

Sun shining over city street

Two University of Minnesota startups received national recognition today for their potential to create jobs, advance technology and meet societal challenges in industry and the environment.

Innotronics and Minnepura, both launched by the U’s Venture Center, were named among the 35 “Best University Startups 2016” by the National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer (NCET2), an association of university startup officers. The startups were chosen from a group of 200 submitted companies launched by universities across the U.S.

Continue reading

Improved method will enhance microbiome research

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have developed an improved method for analyzing the communities of bacteria and other microorganisms that live on or inside humans, animals and the environment.

Understanding how these communities, called microbiomes, affect the way a body or ecosystem functions can lead to innovations in a wide variety of fields, including new treatments for antibiotic-resistant diseases, eco-friendly fertilizers for agriculture and natural methods for removing contaminants like sulfates from local waterways. More accurate ways to detect different types and concentrations of microorganisms will lead to better, more reliable data in the rapidly expanding field of microbiome research.

The research team, led by U of M Genomics Center Director Kenneth Beckman, Ph.D., highlighted in a study published in Nature Biotechnology that better methodology will lead to more results that can be reproduced and that translate across studies, along with fewer misleading conclusions. Continue reading

Industry experts, public invited to tour U research labs

Interested in exploring a few of the University of Minnesota’s world-class research facilities?

Next week, the U’s College of Science and Engineering and Office of University Economic Development will hold an open house of 10 research facilities specializing in materials analysis, molecular analysis and device fabrication. Register now to tour research facilities, speak with subject matter experts, discover ways to connect with collaborators, and learn about access to services and research equipment.

All are welcome to attend, from industry R&D experts to those who just want to learn more about research at the U. After checking in at the Physics and Nanotechnology Building at 115 Union St. SE. on the East Bank Minneapolis campus, visitors are welcome to come and go as they please. 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 Fabrics 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

Gravitational waves rock the physics world

Black Hole_post

About 1.3 billion years ago, a pair of black holes suddenly spiraled in on each other and merged, creating a new spinning black hole—all in just one-fifth of a second. The immense energy released by this cosmic cataclysm generated waves that shook the very fabric of space and rippled out through the cosmos.

In 1916 Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity predicted that events like this would produce such ripples in the fabric of space, which he called gravitational waves. But they would be so weak that he thought they would never be detected.

So with today’s announcement that a team of some 1,000 scientists from the Advanced LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) project—including University of Minnesota researcher Vuk Mandic and his colleagues—has just detected gravitational waves, it doesn’t take an Einstein to see the excitement rippling through the scientific world. The waves stem from the black hole merger described above, and their discovery validates Einstein’s prediction and opens new avenues for understanding the Universe.

Continue reading

UAV flight system, used at NASA, getting major upgrade

GoldyUAVphoto1

For most people, testing out a computer system means pulling a chair up to a desk. For Brian Taylor, it means craning his neck upward and watching it soar through the skies.

That’s because Taylor and his team of aerospace researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Laboratory, which also includes the contributions of about 10 graduate students and 15 undergrads at any given time, are creating the next generation of research aircraft flight control system. The lab, part of the College of Science and Engineering, is continuing development on its “Goldy” system, which serves as the brain of professional-grade UAVs (or drones) used for scientific research and allows researchers to pilot the aircraft from the ground, collect data as it flies and process that data into useful information.

Continue reading

Fossil teeth point to early exodus from Africa

Dragon's Gate

What are unequivocally modern human teeth, 80,000-120,000 years old, doing in a cave in southeastern China?

They’re turning back the clock on modern humans’ exodus from the African cradle by at least 20,000 years, that’s what. They’re also bolstering the idea that some took a southern migration route to Asia.

The 47 fossil teeth turned up in an excavation of Fuyan Cave in China’s Hunan Province. University of Minnesota researcher R. Lawrence Edwards, along with Yan-jun Cai of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Hai Cheng of Xi’an Jiaotong University, dated the teeth, using methods Edwards and colleagues had developed.

Continue reading

Supercomputer fuels research to limit carbon emissions

Molecular Structure

Take a moment to picture a chemist’s research tools, and you might imagine microscopes, beakers and Bunsen burners. But when it comes to theoretical and computational chemistry, researchers prefer a different instrument: the supercomputer.

The University of Minnesota’s most powerful supercomputer is giving researchers new ways to simulate the way molecules move and interact — and in doing so, advance research around how matter behaves at the atomic scale. Mesabi, which arrived at the Minnesota Supercomputing Institute in April, opens up new possibilities for compute-intensive research. At a speed 3,864 times faster than a typical personal computer and with 8,700 times the memory, Mesabi is ideal for a wide variety of large, computationally intensive research projects.

These computing resources have allowed U chemistry researchers like Laura Gagliardi, Ph.D., a professor with the College of Science and Engineering, to conduct compute-intensive research using complex computer modeling programs. To simulate the behavior of molecules, researchers have developed software that can follow both the laws of classical mechanics — the normal laws of physics that explain how objects move — and quantum mechanics — the science that explains how matter behaves at the most microscopic levels. These programs require a fast system with large amounts of memory to compute, and even on a supercomputer like Mesabi can take several days to complete.

Continue reading

STARTUP guides medical entrepreneur in path to market

Blue Pills

Paul Hines knew his design for a high-tech pillbox could help caregivers better manage their loved ones’ medications.

So when Hines heard about the University of Minnesota’s STARTUP course in fall 2014, the then-U of M Medical School student saw an opportunity to find out how to bring his invention from prototype to market. The 14-week experiential learning course, offered through the MIN-Corps program, encourages undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D. students to test the commercial potential of their ideas by working with instructors and mentors to connect with potential customers, test their hypotheses and refine their business models.

“It’s one thing to have a feeling on your commercialization strategy, but it’s another to spell it out and be challenged on it,” said Hines, CEO and founder of DOSE Health, the company based around his high-tech pillbox. “Through STARTUP, we were able to go out to talk to potential customers and be face-to-face with those who were going to be affected by our invention.”

Continue reading