Tag Archives: research

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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Research aids in the fight against invasive species

From soybean fields to hemlocks forests, experts from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Virginia Cooperative Extension are developing ways to deal with and control the hitchhikers, interlopers, and otherwise nasty pests known as invasive species.

Jacob Barney, assistant professor in the Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science, is just one of a team of faculty members studying invasive species and protecting Virginia producers from their destruction.

Jacob Barney, assistant professor in the Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science, is just one of a team of faculty members studying invasive species and protecting Virginia producers from their destruction.

“The top 10 pests that we deal with now are non-native, and we spend lots of money to control them,” said Eric Day, an entomologist with Virginia Cooperative Extension and manager of the Insect Identification Lab in the Department of Entomology.

Meanwhile Assistant Professor Jacob Barney in the Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science, collaboratively studies another invasive species — Johnsongrass — a weed that chokes out crops on farmland because of its fast-growing and extensive root structure.

Barney will study what makes Johnsongrass a globally successful weed and use the research to establish a model for studying other weeds and how to predict invasiveness.

Another most-wanted intruder, the brown marmorated stink bug, is an annoyance to homeowners, but the real problem is the millions of dollars in damage it causes to crops across the Mid-Atlantic region.

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Got high-quality milk?

Nothing is quite as satisfying as a tall, cold glass of milk, but odd flavors can be off-putting to consumers.milk

Researchers at Virginia Tech have traced what could be one indicator of contamination when milk’s flavor profile turns sour — too much iron in cows’ water sources.

A collaborative research effort involving the departments of dairy science, food science and technology, biochemistry, and civil and environmental engineering discovered that iron in bovine water sources was causing oxidized flavors, degraded milk proteins, and general poor stability of milk products. High iron content also decreased the cow’s ability to efficiently process some types of nutrients, which decreases production levels and makes the animals susceptible to a host of other health issues including mastitis and other bacterial infections.

“We found that when iron was present in the water or we added iron, we got a flavor profile that was less than ideal,” said Susan Duncan, professor of food science and technology and one of the lead authors in the iron study.

“While producers may not see the effects of iron in their milk quality immediately, over time this could pose a problem for producers who might notice a decline in quality and sales for no apparent reason.”

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