Tag Archives: agriculture

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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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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Looking for clues about disease affecting cattle and people

A Virginia Tech researcher is hoping to better understand a bacterium responsible for both spontaneous abortions in cattle and an inconsistent and sometimes fatal fever in humans.

Clay Caswell (left), assistant professor of bacteriology, seeks to better understand brucellosis with Ph.D. students James Budnick and Lauren Sheehan.

Clay Caswell (left), assistant professor of bacteriology, seeks to better understand brucellosis with Ph.D. students James Budnick and Lauren Sheehan.

Clay Caswell, assistant professor of bacteriology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and an affiliate of the Fralin Life Science Institute, has focused his attention on Brucella. While his colleagues at the veterinary college have spent years developing more-effective vaccines, Caswell is taking a different approach to better understand the molecular basis for Brucella infection.

Brucella lives inside a host immune cell called a ‘macrophage,’ “ said Caswell, who is studying how two small regulatory RNAs allow the bacterium to survive there. “The paradox is that it’s living inside the very cell that’s trying to destroy it.”

Caswell has received funding from the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station to characterize a novel genetic pathway linked to the bacterium’s virulence. He has also been awarded recent grants from the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health to develop the basic science needed to develop treatments in humans who are exposed through unpasteurized milk and other means.

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4-H builds communities around the world

In a Senegalese village, children grow vegetable seedlings and organize traditional wrestling events as fundraisers in a positive youth development initiative modeled after Virginia Cooperative Extension’s 4-H program.

Virginia Cooperative Extension senior 4-H youth development agent Ruth Wallace (left) poses with a group of children and adults in Senegal. In March of this year, Extension and the 4-H Positive Youth Development in Agriculture Program traveled to the West African nation to scale up programming in the region. Reggie Morris, 4-H youth development Extension agent in Alexandria, Virginia, is pictured in the second row, second from right.

Virginia Cooperative Extension senior 4-H youth development agent Ruth Wallace (left) poses with a group of children and adults in Senegal. In March of this year, Extension and the 4-H Positive Youth Development in Agriculture Program traveled to the West African nation to scale up programming in the region. Reggie Morris, 4-H youth development Extension agent in Alexandria, Virginia, is pictured in the second row, second from right.

At the Ndoumbouji primary school, the main focus is gardening.

“The teachers told us that every break they have, the students run to the garden,” said Ozzie Abaye, a Virginia Tech professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences. “The group wants to try to expand the garden project outside of the campus.”

Through activities such as gardening and leadership training, 4-H’s international programming has helped to improve thousands of lives around the globe.

Kathleen Jamison, professor emerita and 4-H youth development specialist, and her team completed training workshops in March designed to scale up the programs’ outreach efforts throughout Senegal.

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