Also In This Issue

Lab Work: Research Developments

From Pest to Protector

Scientists from Texas A&M University and The University of Texas at Austin are investigating a new way to protect crops from pathogens, thanks to an agreement awarded through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Insect Allies Program.

The team will attempt to turn a traditional crop pest—the aphid—into a delivery vehicle for plant gene therapies. Aphids suck on the sap of plants, destroying crops and creating headaches for farmers. But through this project, scientists plan to genetically modify bacteria living inside the aphids so that when they feed on plants, they act like a syringe to deliver a kind of genetic vaccine that enables the plant to wipe out or resist a specific pathogen.

Biocontrol measures are crucial to the translation of this experiment to real-world application. These include strategies for ensuring that modified aphids do not reproduce in the wild or release genes into nontarget plants, and that modified plants cannot pass on the new traits to future generations.

“While this is a high-risk project, the potential payoff is extraordinary,” said Dr. Thomas McKnight, Texas A&M biology department head. “Our success in this endeavor could solve big challenges in food security and agriculture.”

Dining on the High Seas

Seventeenth-century sailors defied the odds—and the physical limitations of the human body—by surviving off limited and unhealthy diets while at sea. Texas A&M University doctoral candidate Grace Tsai ’18 is trying to find out what made this phenomenon possible with her Ship Biscuit and Salted Beef Research Project.

Using a team of Texas A&M students and an assortment of 17th-century recipes obtained from cookbooks of the time, Tsai prepared salted beef, pork and cod as well as ship biscuits, beer, peas and oatmeal to be placed in barrels aboard Elissa, a 19th-century ship docked in Galveston, to observe how the food degrades over time.

Her team analyzed the food's microbes to understand how sailors lived under such unhealthy conditions. “Our nutritional analysis found three entirely new species of microbes that were previously unknown," Tsai said. "This helps us get a bigger picture of how health has changed based on peoples' diets."

Electrifying Agriculture

Alfredo Costilla-Reyes ’18 is revolutionizing indoor farming. The senior electrical and computer engineering major launched a startup company, Bit Grange, that is engineering a water-based plant system that can be sustained without soil or natural sunlight.

Growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions in water, without soil—known as hydroponics—is not a new concept, but Costilla-Reyes has designed a novel prototype that incorporates electrical components and LED lights in the plant growing process.

His technology uses sensors to collect data from plants, including variables such as light and temperature. Meanwhile, a software system evaluates these variables in real time and notifies users through BitGrange’s iPhone app to take necessary actions, such as adding more water or plant food. “This technology can not only greatly impact indoor, urban and small-scale local farming, but also has the potential to solve sustainability issues surrounding modern agricultural practices,” he said.

The prototype currently focuses on vegetable and fruit crops, but Costilla-Reyes has begun testing varieties of flowering plants as well. He also hopes that his technology, which is inexpensive and easy to use, will be used as a tool in classrooms to educate children on agriculture, engineering and science. In recognition of his achievements, he was named recipient of the Mexico National Youth Award.

Zealandia: Earth’s Underwater Continent

A team of international researchers led by Texas A&M University scientist Peter Blum returned last fall after two months at sea exploring the underwater continent of Zealandia.

The birth of Zealandia, a continent the size of India, occurred 80 million years ago when it broke off from Australia and Antarctica. Later, a tectonic shift further submerged the continent and lifted a ring of volcanoes to the surface, creating The Ring of Fire in the Pacific Ocean. Ninety-four percent of Zealandia now lies beneath the Tasman Sea, separating Australia and New Zealand.

Using the JOIDES Resolution, a drillship affiliated with the College of Geosciences, scientists collected 2,506 meters of sediment cores from beneath the seafloor to learn more about this mysterious land mass. “Studying these sediment layers will reveal how the geography, volcanism and climate of Zealandia have changed over the last 65 million years,” said Blum. “We’ll also learn more about how Earth’s tectonic plates move and how the global climate system works.”

Additionally, roughly 8,000 fossils were found, some from land-based animals and plant pollen spores, proving that Zealandia used to be much shallower. This will provide new clues for how plants and animals crossed between continents and migrated throughout the South Pacific.

  • For the Love of Salamanders

    Texas A&M University biologist Dr. Joseph Bernardo is part of a research team that identified a new species of salamander among what was thought to be a common population of the small amphibians located in the Louisiana-Mississippi region. The new species is named the Valentine’s Southern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus valentinei).
  • Space Dryer

    Even astronauts have to do laundry. In collaboration with NASA, mechanical engineering students are working to develop a clothes dryer that astronauts can use in space. The team of five seniors had to contend with multiple challenges: Their technology had to function in zero gravity and use only 150 watts.
  • The Brain Under Fire

    Can anti-DUI posters embedded in video games help prevent drunk driving? While it might seem like a contradiction of influences, studies conducted by social psychologists Hart Blanton and Christopher Burrows of the College of Liberal Arts showed that participants had a reduced willingness to drive under the influence of alcohol after playing video games that contained anti-DUI messages.

Dunae Reader '15

Assistant Director of Marketing & Communications/Spirit Editor/Maroon Co-Editor