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Gene improves plant growth and conversion to biofuels

A research team led by the University of Georgia has discovered that manipulation of the same gene in poplar trees and switchgrass produced plants that grow better and are more efficiently converted to biofuels. In a paper published in February 2018 in Nature Biotechnology, the researchers report that reducing the activity of a specific gene called GAUT4 leads to lower levels of pectin, a component of plant cell walls responsible for their resistance to deconstruction.

“It’s expensive to produce biofuels,” said lead author Debra Mohnen, a member of UGA’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center and professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. “It takes a lot of energy to break open plant biomass, with a pretreatment process involving chemicals, high temperatures and enzymes that break complex polymers into smaller sugars that can be turned into fuels. Even relatively modest increases in the efficiency of deconstruction can be important on an industrial scale.”

Mohnen and a team of researchers at six institutions found that reducing the expression of GAUT4 in poplar and switchgrass led to a 70 percent reduction in pectin content and produced a 15 percent increase in sugar release. Unexpectedly, it also led to an increase in the growth of both plant species, an added benefit. The increase in plant yield and sugar release—demonstrated in both greenhouse and field trials for switchgrass—bodes well for creating biofuels, an important alternative to fossil fuels. Switchgrass and poplar previously were identified by the U.S. Department of Energy as two biofuel feedstocks that can be grown on land that would not profitably support food crops.

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University group will develop grand challenges program and team-based learning initiative

The University of Georgia is moving forward with two recommendations made by the Task Force on Student Learning and Success: a university-wide grand challenges initiative and a pilot program to emphasize team-based learning.

President Jere W. Morehead has charged a committee with developing a grand challenges initiative to encourage students and faculty to collaborate around big ideas aligned with the institution’s areas of academic strength. The committee will explore the creation of a year-long series of events—potentially including campus speakers, research competitions, service-learning activities and other engagement opportunities—around selected grand challenge topics. The committee is chaired by Jennifer Frum, vice president for public service and outreach.

A pilot program to teach students to work in teams to solve real-world problems will be introduced through the Honors Program this fall. David S. Williams, associate provost and director of the Honors Program, will introduce the program. Team-based learning has been shown to foster critical competencies, such as critical thinking, problem-solving and collaboration skills—which are essential for success in today’s evolving global economy.

“I am pleased to see these two recommendations moving forward to enhance the learning environment for our students,” said Morehead. “I am grateful to Dr. Frum, Dr. Williams and everyone involved in leading these important efforts.”

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$5.7 billion - UGA's economic impact grows

The latest annual study on the University of Georgia’s economic impact on the state of Georgia shows that the institutions teaching, research and service generate $5.7 billion in economic activity across the state.

The study, conducted by UGA economist Jeffrey Dorfman, quantified variables such as the increase in earnings that graduates of the university’s schools and colleges receive, the economic impact generated by externally funded research activity, and the creation of business and jobs that result from the universitys public service and outreach units.

“This news is important because it means the University of Georgia is expanding its positive impact on lives and communities across this great state,” said President Jere W. Morehead. Our mission to serve Georgia remains—and will always remain—central to everything we do at this institution.

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Magnet-based drug delivery system shows promise for cancer treatment

A team of researchers at the University of Georgia has developed a non-invasive method of delivering drugs directly to cancerous tissue using magnetic forces, a form of treatment that could significantly reduce the toxic side effects of chemotherapy.

“We showed that we can deliver anti-cancer drugs exactly in the area where they are needed and they can kill cancer cells,” said Andrey Zakharchenko, a graduate student in the Nanostructured Materials Lab in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences who led the study.

The researchers from UGA and Clarkson University in New York first created very fine nanoparticles that acted as drug carriers, one a substrate base carrying the drugs, and the other loaded with enzymes.

Upon application of a relatively weak magnetic field, the two nanoparticles merge, forcing a reaction that releases the drugs at a specific location.

By controlling the timing of the interaction, researchers could pinpoint delivery of the drug to a precise location, thus preventing side common side effects of chemotherapy, such as hair loss or cardiac toxicity.

Researchers performed the proof of concept study in vitro using chemotherapy drugs and cancer cells. The next step would be to develop an animal model, Zakharchenko said.

The article appears in the January issue of the journal Nature Catalysis and is the result of a three-year research collaboration between UGA and Clarkson University that was funded by the National Science Foundation. A link to the paper can be found here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41929-017-0003-3

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UGA-Griffin named Good Corporate Citizen of the Year

The University of Georgia Griffin campus was named the Good Corporate Citizen of the Year at the 105th Annual Dinner of the Griffin-Spalding Chamber of Commerce on Jan. 25. The award recognizes an organization that has made a commitment to improving the quality of life for all in Griffin-Spalding County.

Cindi Shaddix of BB&T, sponsor of the award, praised the university for its support of the community over the years.

“This organization has supported the Griffin-Spalding Chamber of Commerce and the Griffin Spalding County United Way for many years,” Shaddix said. “They are consistently recognized by United Way as a Pacesetter organization for their significant economic contribution to our community. As we all know, money raised in our county by United Way is reinvested in our county which provides services to our citizens of greatest need.”

She also said employees of UGA-Griffin can always be counted on to volunteer on boards and organizations within the community.

“The University of Georgia Griffin campus remains a proud member of the Griffin-Spalding Chamber of Commerce and we are deeply appreciative of this honor,” said UGA-Griffin Assistant Provost and Campus Director Lew Hunnicutt. “To all of Griffin and Spalding County, I would say two words about our presence here … expect more!”

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Georgia Museum of Art wins three statewide awards

The Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia received three awards at the Georgia Association of Museums and Galleries annual conference for its exemplary work.

GAMG presented the museum with awards for the exhibition “Modern Living: Giò Ponti and the 20th-Century Aesthetics of Design,” its studio workshop educational program and museum professional of the year, to Hillary Brown, the museum’s director of communications. The awards ceremony took place in Rome, Georgia, on Jan. 19.

“Modern Living” was on view at the museum from June 10 to Sept. 17 and celebrated Giò Ponti (1891–1979), the father of modern Italian design. Christy Crisp, chair of the GAMG awards committee, praised the exhibition for “providing extensive opportunities for community members of all ages (and a variety of interests) to engage with both exceptional examples of the decorative arts and personal art-making activities.”

The museum’s studio workshop series is aimed at developing artistic skills with a variety of media and techniques, including abstraction, drawing and acrylics, and is offered at a cost of materials only. The award committee recognized the series for its focus on adult learners within museums and its dedication to connecting active local artists both with the content of museum exhibitions and with members of the community who participate in the program.

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UGA grad student named Cross Scholar

Rishi Masalia, a doctoral candidate in the plant biology department of UGA’s Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, has been named one of seven K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders for 2018 by the American Association of Colleges and Universities for his commitment to teaching and learning, as well as his involvement in science outreach in the Athens community. Masalia is the fifth UGA student to win the award.

A biologist and bioinformatician by training, his area of expertise is candidate gene identification through genetic mapping and RNA expression techniques using cultivated sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.) as a model. Hailing from the Arizona desert, Masalia chose to focus his research efforts on understanding the genetic mechanisms governing crop-water relations, specifically identifying candidate genes conveying an increase in drought resistance while minimizing growth or yield penalties.

He serves an ambassador with the American Society of Plant Biologists and is a co-founder of the Athens Science Cafe, the Athens Science Observer, UGA SPEAR and Science Athens. 

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UGA law school creates Benham Scholars Program

The University of Georgia School of Law has created a Benham Scholars Program, which will focus on helping to maintain and increase diversity in the legal profession.

The program is named in honor of Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham, who was a first-year law student 50 years ago and became the law school’s second African-American graduate in 1970.

The Benham Scholars Program is funded as part of the New Approaches in Diversity and Inclusion initiative announced by UGA President Jere W. Morehead last semester. Private donations received from the Office of the President will be matched by private law school funding to support the program, which will focus on four key areas: recruitment, preparation for law school, academic support and career planning.

The first Benham Scholars will be admitted to the law school for the 2018-19 academic year.

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UGA scientists help map genetic code of peanuts

An international group of agricultural scientists, including University of Georgia and USDA scientists based in Georgia, have mapped the genetic code of the peanut. Results of the five-year research project give scientists around the world a map with which to unlock some of the genetic potential of the peanut plant.

This discovery by the Peanut Genome Consortium, a group of scientists from the U.S., China, Japan, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, India, Israel and several countries in Africa, gives scientists the capability to find beneficial genes in cultivated and wild peanuts to use in breeding new peanut varieties. These traits can lead to greater yields, lower production costs, lower losses to disease, improved processing traits, improved nutrition, improved safety, better flavor and virtually anything that is genetically determined by the peanut plant.

In 2012, the U.S. peanut industry urged The Peanut Foundation to initiate a research program to map the genetic code of the peanut plant. The resulting International Peanut Genome Initiative is the largest research project ever funded by the industry, with the $6 million cost shared equally among growers, shellers and manufacturers. Peanuts are a staple in diets across the globe, from the Americas to Africa and Asia. They are also a key ingredient in Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods that treat severe acute malnutrition and a crop that farmers in developing countries rely on for personal and community economic well being.

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UGA professor named to most recent class of NAI Fellows

The National Academy of Inventors has named a University of Georgia faculty member who is a leading researcher in regenerative medicine to the 2017 class of NAI Fellows.

Steven Stice, Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar and director of the UGA Regenerative Bioscience Center, joins an elite group of 912 innovators representing more than 250 prestigious research universities and governmental and nonprofit research institutions.

Election to NAI Fellow status is a professional distinction accorded to academic inventors who have demonstrated a prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on quality of life, economic development and the welfare of society. Six UGA faculty members have been named NAI Fellows since the honor was established in 2013, and an additional Fellow joined the faculty last year.

Stice, the D.W. Brooks Distinguished Professor in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, has led industry and academic research teams in the area of pluripotent stem cells for over 25 years. At UGA he has conducted pioneering work in developmental biology and genetics to advance animal and human medicine. His group derived some of the original human pluripotent stem cell lines placed on the first National Institutes of Health human embryonic stem cell registry. Stice was a key member of the team that produced the first cloned rabbit in 1989 and the first cloned transgenic calves in 1998 (George and Charlie), for which he was granted the first U.S. patent in cloning animals. He has produced the first genetically modified pluripotent stem cells derived from pigs and cattle and, more recently, in avian species. His research has led to 16 U.S. patents in stem cells, cloning and regenerative medicine, including the first U.S. patent on animal cloning and therapeutic cloning from adult animal cells.