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Interns gain experience while serving the community

Each summer, Virginia Cooperative Extension offers more than 40 college students and recent graduates the opportunity to work on a team that changes people’s lives and betters communities.

Aldyn Abell, a 2015 Extension intern, spent her summer at the Extension office in Orange County. Among her numerous responsibilities, she helped plan and deliver ocean-themed lessons at 4-H Cloverbud Day Camp.

Aldyn Abell, a 2015 Extension intern, spent her summer at the Extension office in Orange County. Among her numerous responsibilities, she helped plan and deliver ocean-themed lessons at 4-H Cloverbud Day Camp.

Through the 10-week program, interns work alongside Extension faculty members gaining experience in youth development, agriculture and natural resources, and family and consumer sciences.

Thomas Vasilopoulos, a 2015 intern, spent his summer with the Extension office in Arlington County. Although he was double majoring in integrated science and technology and Spanish, he found himself doing all sorts of tasks within the office, including helping to design programs and teach children at three different schools.

“They didn’t really hesitate to give me a lot of responsibilities,” Vasilopoulos said. “Extension hired me to make a positive impact in this office, and that’s what I wanted to do.”

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Tracking and stopping human and agricultural viruses

Viruses are molecular thieves that take from their hosts under the cloak of darkness. But now a Virginia Tech scientist has found a way to not only track viral hijackers, but also to potentially stop them from replicating.

Xiaofeng Wang, assistant professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science

Xiaofeng Wang, assistant professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science

The discovery has broad-ranging applications in stopping viral outbreaks such as hepatitis C in humans and a number of viruses in plants and animals because it applies to many viruses in the largest category of viral classes — positive-strand RNA viruses.

“Even though these viruses infect very different hosts, they all replicate similarly across the board, so what we learn from one virus can potentially be translated to control viruses in agricultural production as well as human health,” said Xiaofeng Wang, an assistant professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Wang’s findings could target any number of plant viruses by developing sprays to halt the virus, which would save the agricultural sectors millions of dollars.

Wang used the brome mosaic virus to study how viral infections start. He found that by inhibiting host lipid cell synthesis, the viral replication stopped.

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Growing energy production from the ground up

In the future, the move toward renewable energy produced in the commonwealth could be a boon for farmers, help industries cut costs, and assist in the battle against climate change. Despite the downturn in fossil energy prices, colleges, hospitals, and companies around the state are tapping into the supplies of biofuels, and researchers at Virginia Tech want businesses and farmers to be able to capitalize on this market.

John Fike, associate professor of crop and soil environmental sciences and an Extension specialist, studies crops such as miscanthus to determine their feasibility as sources of biofuel.

John Fike, associate professor of crop and soil environmental sciences and an Extension specialist, studies crops such as miscanthus to determine their feasibility as sources of biofuel.

“We have the opportunity to grow a number of plant species — both existing crops and new species — that could be used for everything from chemicals and fuel to paper. Dedicated biomass crops may also enhance our existing natural resources portfolio by conserving soil and reducing runoff,” said John Fike, an associate professor of crop and soil environmental sciences and Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist who has been conducting studies on the feasibility and costs of biofuels.

Although the cheap price of oil and natural gas in recent years has slowed development of bioenergy and bioproduct systems, the industry continues to push ahead.

Ken Moss, CEO of Piedmont BioProducts in Gretna, Virginia, notes that earlier business models that were based on fuel production alone don’t work well in today’s economic climate. Piedmont BioProducts has taken a different path and is investigating advanced engineering systems to extract high-value chemicals from plants before turning the post-process residues into fuel oil and soil amendments. Others are going old school, using the biomass as a replacement for traditional sources of boiler fuel.

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Communities working together

Communities in the Northern Neck knew they had a problem. Young people were leaving because of a lack of jobs, the current workforce needed additional education, and there were few opportunities for those who wanted to stay in the area.

Furniture-maker Andrew Pitts is a member of the Northern Neck Artisan Trail.

Furniture-maker Andrew Pitts is a member of the Northern Neck Artisan Trail.

Four years ago these communities took steps to improve the situation by participating in the Stronger Economies Together program, which has allowed them to build a blueprint for regional economic success.

Today, the Northern Neck is putting its plan into action by engaging partners and leveraging the strengths of this diverse region. Communities have come together to form the Northern Neck Artisan Trail, which highlights the creative talents, foods, and agricultural products of the region, and to participate in the emerging Virginia Oyster Trail. The new trail offers visitors a way to enjoy Virginia’s seven different oyster regions, as well as to experience the unique culture of watermen in the Chesapeake Bay.

The region has received grant support from the USDA and the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development to create the Northern Neck Loan Fund to help emerging entrepreneurs and small businesses gain access to capital. The USDA recognized the Northern Neck Economic Development Plan for its commitment to strengthening the area’s economies and identified it as a model plan for the program.

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Building a better soybean

Soybeans are one of Virginia’s top crops, ranking sixth out of the commonwealth’s top 10 agricultural commodities.

Faculty members such as M.A. Saghai-Maroof, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences (front), are making agriculture more profitable in the commonwealth by building a soybean that can be grown in Virginia and digested easily by nonruminants.

Faculty members such as M.A. Saghai-Maroof, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences (front), are making agriculture more profitable in the commonwealth by building a soybean that can be grown in Virginia and digested easily by nonruminants.

The vast majority of the crop is processed as feed for farm animals — including cows, pigs, and chickens — which are also top products for the state.

Soybeans contain high levels of phytic acid, which stores phosphorous. When animals ingest soybeans, the phytate is broken down in the gut.

While ruminants such as cows can break down soybeans with ease, nonruminants like pigs and chickens have difficulty breaking down the high-phytate content in a traditional soybean. In addition, the waste produced by animals who consume soybeans is also high in phosphorous, which has far-reaching ramifications for bodies of water like the Chesapeake Bay that are overburdened with phosphorous runoff.

M.A. Saghai-Maroof, professor of crop and soil environmental sciences, is one of several researchers in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences helping to produce new soybean varieties with lower levels of phytate, which in turn is more easily digested and produces less phosphorous.

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