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UMD-led Study Finds Ancient Earth’s Fingerprints in Young Volcanic Rocks

April 7, 2017

Matthew Wright, 301-405-9267 

COLLEGE PARK, Md.-- Earth’s mantle is made of solid rock that nonetheless circulates slowly over millions of years. Some geologists assume that this slow circulation would have wiped away any geochemical traces of Earth’s early history long ago. But a new study led by University of Maryland geologists has found new evidence that could date back more than 4.5 billion years. 

Photo of a fountain of lava erupts from Hawaii’s Kilauea Iki craterThe authors of the research paper studied volcanic rocks that recently erupted from volcanoes in Hawaii and Samoa. The rocks contain surprising geochemical anomalies—the “fingerprints” of conditions that existed shortly after the planet formed. 

The researchers are not yet sure how Earth’s mantle preserved these anomalies. But the group’s results suggest that some of these rocks contain material that survived through all of Earth’s history—and that the planet’s interior may not be well mixed after all. 

“We found geochemical signatures that must have been created nearly 4.5 billion years ago,” said Andrea Mundl, a postdoctoral researcher in geology at UMD and the lead author of the study. “It was especially exciting to find these anomalies in such young rocks. We don’t yet know how these signatures survived for so long, but we have some ideas.” 

The anomalous signatures are found in the ratios of key isotopes of two elements: tungsten and helium. 

In the case of tungsten, which has many isotopes, the important ratio is tungsten-182 to tungsten-184. The heavier isotope, tungsten-184, is stable and has existed since the planet first formed. Tungsten-182, on the other hand, results from the decay of hafnium-182, which is highly unstable. All naturally occurring hafnium-182 decayed within the first 50 million years of Earth’s history, leaving tungsten-182 in its place. 

Tungsten and hafnium behaved very differently during the planet’s first 50 million years. Tungsten tends to associate with metals, so most of it migrated to Earth’s core, while hafnium, which tends to associate with silicate minerals, stayed in Earth’s mantle and crust. Most of the rocks on Earth have a similar ratio of tungsten-182 to tungsten-184, and this ratio serves as a global baseline. Geologists can learn a lot from rocks with an unusually high or low amount of tungsten-182—which indicates how much hafnium-182 was present in the rock long ago. 

“Nearly all of these anomalies formed within the first 50 million years after the solar system formed,” Mundl said. “Higher than normal levels of tungsten-182 are seen in very old rocks that most likely contained a lot of hafnium long ago. But lower levels of tungsten-182 are rare, and resemble what we might expect to see deep beneath the surface, in or near the planet’s metallic core.” 

Mundl and her colleagues observed an unusually low amount of tungsten-182 in some of the rocks from Hawaii and Samoa. On its own, the tungsten isotope ratio is interesting, but not enough to make any convincing conclusions. But the researchers also observed that the same rocks contain an unusual ratio of helium isotopes. 

Helium-3 is extremely rare on Earth, and tends to show up in samples of rock that have not been melted or otherwise recycled since the planet first formed. Helium-4, on the other hand, can form from the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium. A higher than normal ratio of helium-3 to helium-4 typically indicates very old rocks that have not been significantly altered since the planet formed. 

“Variations in the isotopic composition of helium have been long known, but have never been correlated with other geochemical parameters,” said Richard Walker, professor and department chair of geology at UMD and a co-author of the paper. “Rocks with high helium-3 to helium-4 ratios have commonly been speculated to contain ‘primitive’ mantle material, but how primitive was not known. Our tungsten data show that it is very primitive indeed, with the source region most likely forming within the first 50 million years of solar system history.” 

Mundl, Walker and their co-authors suggest a few different scenarios that could have produced the tungsten and helium anomalies they observed in volcanic rocks from Hawaii and Samoa. Perhaps the volcanoes are drawing material from Earth’s core, where the ratios are expected to favor low tungsten-182 and high helium-3. 

Alternatively, the rocky outer surface of the Earth might have formed in patches, with vast magma oceans in between. Parts of these magma oceans may have crystallized and sunk to the boundary between the mantle and the core, preserving the ancient tungsten and helium signatures. 

“Each of these scenarios contain some inconsistencies that we can’t yet explain,” Mundl said. “But this is an exciting result that is sure to generate lots of interesting new research questions.”

*In addition to Mundl and Walker, this paper includes contributions from Vedran Lekic, assistant professor of geology at UMD. The research study was published April 7 in the journal Science. 

Photo caption: A fountain of lava erupts from Hawaii’s Kilauea Iki crater on December 5, 1959. Two rock samples from this eruption contain geochemical anomalies that could date back 4.5 billion years, shortly after the Earth first formed. Photo credit: USGS/J.P. Eaton.

UMD Researcher Awarded NSF Grant to Advance Diversity in STEM Fields

April 6, 2017

Audrey Hill, 301-405-3468

COLLEGE PARK, Md.-- A University of Maryland researcher won a National Science Foundation grant to investigate how social capital and social networks influence the academic and career outcomes of college students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). The grant award, which is expected to total about $500,000 during the three-year research period, will help identify factors that affect an individual’s ability to leverage connections in ways that support achievement and advance equity in STEM fields.

Photo of Julie Park

Led by Julie J. Park, assistant professor in the UMD College of Education, the research will address a NSF goal of broadening participation of underrepresented groups in STEM fields. According to a 2017 NSF biannual report on STEM field representation, women, persons with disabilities, and people of color remain underrepresented in STEM education and employment. The research is designed to help advance diversity in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

“Our study will examine how social connections affect key outcomes for STEM students, including retention in STEM majors, GPA, and job placement,” Dr. Park explained. “It will also shed light on areas of inequality that affect persistence in STEM, helping educators understand barriers that affect different populations.”

The research team, comprised of Dr. Park, Mark Kevin Eagan of University of California, Los Angeles, and Young K. Kim of Azusa Pacific University, seeks to understand how STEM students move from having social ties to accessing critical information and resources exchanged within networks of social ties. They will examine this link in three STEM higher education settings: student-faculty interaction, friendships and study partners, and information networks that influence post-graduate plans.

For this project, the team of researchers will also analyze data on STEM student peer groups, student-faculty interactions, and information networks. Researchers will also conduct interviews with STEM majors in their senior year and STEM field employees on how their social and professional networks influenced their academic and career paths.

The study will explore diversity and participation in the STEM field by examining a variety of issues, including the role of race/ethnicity and gender in study partners and peer groups and the likelihood of STEM students of certain backgrounds experiencing discrimination from faculty.

“By identifying inequalities in students’ abilities to turn social ties into support that facilitates success, this research could help educators design interventions that aid success for STEM students of diverse backgrounds,” said Dr. Park.


Twenty-four UMD Students and Alumni Named NSF Graduate Research Fellows

April 4, 2017

Natifia Mullings, 301-405-4076

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Twenty-four undergraduate students, graduate students and alumni from the University of Maryland have been selected for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, along with 31 honorable mentions. The prestigious award, which recognizes exceptional graduate students who are pursuing research-based Master's and doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), as well as social and behavioral science, is the country’s oldest graduate fellowship program. 

“We are proud of our students for receiving such a highly-competitive award, and are excited about the future contributions they will make in their fields through extensive research, innovation, and thoughtful leadership,” said Dr. Francis DuVinage, director of national scholarships office and Maryland Center for Undergraduate Research.

The National Science Foundation received over 13,000 applications this year and selected 2,000 students for the award. Recipients will receive a three-year annual stipend of $34,000 and a $12,000 cost of education allowance. They will also have the opportunity to participate in international research and professional development through the organization’s various initiatives. 

For a complete of list of 2017 NSF recipients, please visit FastLane

Safer Batteries Made With Wood

March 31, 2017

Martha Heil626-354-5613 

COLLEGE PARK, Md.-- Inspired by the structure of wood, engineers at the University of Maryland have used modified wood as a unique architecture for the negative electrode of a lithium metal battery, seeking to prevent some of the key factors that lead to battery failure.

Photo of Wood HotelLithium ion shuttling in rechargeable batteries provides energy to power phones, laptops, and even light bulbs. When the battery is charged, the lithium metal expands; and when it is discharged, the lithium metal deflates. This rapid change in size can lead to an undesirable side-effect, branch-like growths of lithium on the surface of the lithium metal. The damage builds up over time and pose safety hazards, such as overheating or fire. This novel design for a safer lithium metal battery, created by Ying Zhang, a UMD Ph.D. student in the department of materials science and engineering, can be used to boost the energy density of a battery-- increasing the power available for portable electronics and electric vehicles, while reducing the risk of the battery overheating. 

In this new type of battery, the engineers store lithium in the natural channels of carbonized wood, channels that were once used to carry water and nutrients, instead of storing lithium particles (ions) in a metal block.

The wood acts as a “hotel” to provide lots of rooms (channels) to accommodate many guests (lithium metal). As the lithium metal “guests” enter the wood hotel, it accommodates them all and stores them comfortably and securely in each room, while maintaining the wood’s rigid exterior structure. The number of lithium particles (guests) can increase and decrease within each room, but the overall structure will not be damaged or collapse.

A battery made this way can operate safely even with fast charge and discharge rates. Metric engineers use current density of a battery to describe how quickly the lithium metal is deposited at the surface. A high current density is equivalent to having excessive guests flow into and out of the wood “hotel,” which can cause issues when pile-ups occur at the door. These pile-ups can be avoided by simply increasing the number of doors available to the lithium ions as they enter the wood “hotel”-- the approach the engineers at UMD used. If the overall number of lithium metal “guests” entering at one time remains the same, only a small number of “guests” are passing through any door at a given time. This is known as the local current density. By using the large surface area provided by the walls of each channel in the wood host, the local current density can be minimized, facilitating the controlled movement of lithium metal. 

Batteries that use bulk lithium metal foil, which is the conventional alternative, can be compared to an unstable hotel with only one door for guests to enter and exit. When the battery is put to the test under high current density conditions, its single door cannot manage the large flow of guests, making it easier to crack, which can lead to hazards within the battery. On the other hand, the wood “hotel” design, with its many straight channels, provides plenty of doors for guests so the lithium metal can be corralled into individual channels, behaving in an orderly, predictable manner even under high current density (3 mA/cm2) and avoiding branch-like structures of lithium that can cause battery failure. Something that had its start as natural wood helps engineers build stronger, more stable batteries for the future.

“This is part of our ongoing research to use natural materials to improve batteries,” said senior research group leader Liangbing Hu, an Associate Professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and a member of the University’s Energy Research Center (UMERC). “Using nature’s bio-structure, we can find inspiration to create new ways of storing energy, and we can use renewable materials too.”

This research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on March 20, 2017, in a paper entitled, “High-capacity, low-tortuosity and channel-guided lithium metal anode.” To read the paper in its entirety, please follow this link. 


Center for Research and Exploration in Space Science & Technology Signs $87.5M Cooperative Agreement with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

March 30, 2017

Matthew Wright, 301-405-9267

COLLEGE PARK, Md. --The Center for Research and Exploration in Space Science & Technology (CRESST II), a five-year, $87.5 million cooperative agreement with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, has been awarded to the University of Maryland, College Park, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and their three partners: the Catholic University of America, Howard University and the Southeastern Universities Research Association.

First created as CRESST with an initial ten-year cooperative agreement in 2006, CRESST II will continue to facilitate collaborations between researchers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and space scientists from CRESST II partner institutions. CRESST II’s science priorities will be to carry out observational, experimental and theoretical research in support of NASA Goddard’s Sciences and Exploration Directorate, including the study of the solar system, stars, galaxies and the universe at large.

"This vital partnership will keep all of us at the forefront of space science research,” said University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh. “Our researchers will study the inner workings of the galaxy, and take our students to unimaginable heights. It is hard to imagine a more exciting endeavor.”

As a part of its mission, CRESST II will work to increase the involvement of minority and women scientists in space science research and to facilitate undergraduate and graduate student participation in active research projects.

"I am pleased that NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center will continue to operate CRESST in collaboration with the University of Maryland and University of Maryland Baltimore County," said Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer. "I am also glad that their work will expand to Howard University, the Catholic University of America, and the Southeastern Universities Research Association. This renewed and expanded partnership will not only strengthen the critical work done at Goddard, but will further promote diversity within the space science workforce by supporting the recruitment of underrepresented minorities and women. I look forward to the work produced through this important partnership, and I am confident CRESST will continue to serve as a leader in the space science industry in Maryland and across the nation."

CRESST II will continue to support access to critical space science data archives and the analysis of data from current and past NASA missions. CRESST II scientists will be involved in the construction and testing of instrumentation for missions, the planning of future missions and the development of new technology to enable future missions. The close association between NASA Goddard and the CRESST II partner institutions will enhance STEM education and diversity, creating opportunities to train a new generation of leaders in space science.

"This unique partnership allows Maryland students to get the very best education and creates a pipeline of new talent for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and the scientific community,” said Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen. “It has worked well for a decade, and it’s exciting that the University of Maryland has decided not only to renew it, but to expand it. This partnership serves as a valuable model as we work to create good-paying jobs in our state and across the country, and to ensure we have the schools and training programs needed to fill those jobs with qualified Marylanders."

Going forward, CRESST II will work to achieve NASA’s strategic goals in space science while building on the capabilities and strengths of each partner institution. By combining NASA Goddard’s expertise and infrastructure with the educational capacity and demographic reach of partner institutions, CRESST II will provide unique opportunities for students and early career space scientists to be involved in active research and instrument development projects.

Over the past decade, CRESST—the predecessor to CRESST II—enabled university scientists and students to be involved in NASA missions including the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope, the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission and the Cassini Mission to Saturn.

“CRESST II continues a partnership that strengthens the ability of NASA Goddard and the universities to achieve their core missions and to foster the future of space science and science in general,” said Lee Mundy, professor of astronomy at UMD and Director of CRESST II. “It is terrific to be able to engage the diverse next generation in the exciting science enabled by NASA.”


Arbor Day Foundation Honors UMD with Tree Campus USA Recognition

March 30, 2017

Karen Petroff, 301-405-8952

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The University of Maryland was once again recognized by the Arbor Day Foundation as a 2016 Tree Campus USA for its commitment to effective urban forest management. 

Tree Campus USA is a national program created in 2008 by the Arbor Day Foundation to honor colleges and universities for effective campus forest management and for engaging staff and students in conservation goals. University of Maryland achieved the title by meeting Tree Campus USA’s five standards, which include maintaining a tree advisory committee, a campus tree-care plan, dedicated annual expenditures for its campus tree program, an Arbor Day observance and student service-learning project.

"The University of Maryland is honored to be recognized as a ninth-year Tree Campus USA, reflecting our commitment to the campus tree canopy, its environmental and academic benefits, and to the student engagement on our Do Good campus that inspires us year after year," said UMD’s Charles Robert Reuning, associate vice president, chief facilities officer.

In observance of Maryland’s Arbor Day on Wednesday, April 5, UMD will host a tree planting ceremony at 1:30 p.m. on McKeldin Mall at Symons Hall. This ceremonial planting will be the seventh tree planted as part of the university’s effort to plant 30 trees in 30 days. The effort will culminate with another ceremonial willow oak planting on Saturday, April 29 on Maryland Day, which occurs just after National Arbor Day.

The Arbor Day Foundation has helped campuses throughout the country plant thousands of trees, and Tree Campus USA colleges and universities invested more than $46.7 million in campus forest management last year.

“Students are eager to volunteer in their communities and become better stewards of the environment,” said Matt Harris, chief executive of the Arbor Day Foundation. “Participating in Tree Campus USA sets a fine example for other colleges and universities, while helping to create a healthier planet for us all.”

UMD Study Finds that Napping Flies Have Higher Resistance to Deadly Human Pathogen

March 29, 2017

Leon Tune, 301-405-4679

COLLEGE PARK, MD. -- A new University of Maryland study has found that fruit flies genetically coded to take frequent naps had the strongest resistance to both a fungal infection and bacteria that the World Health Organization says is one of the world’s most dangerous superbugs for humans. 

Researchers study the common fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, because these tiny flies provide a great model system for studying issues important to human health. More than 70 percent of human disease-causing genes have a corresponding disease gene in this reproductively prolific and short-lived fly. Researchers can study traits across many generations of fruit flies to understand the genetic basis for specific and general immune system factors involved in individual differences in resistance to disease. In many cases, later human research has shown that what applies to flies also applies to humans. 

Such fly research also may inform efforts to develop new methods to control other insects, such as mosquitoes, which have been called the most dangerous animals on Earth because they are vectors for major human diseases such as malaria, encephalitis and Zika.

The current study, recently published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS Pathogens, looked at how some 72,000 individual fruit flies varied in resistance to a fungus and to the deadly pathogenic bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa. The study found significant genetic variation among fruit flies in their resistance to the specialist insect pathogenic fungus Metarhizium anisopliae and that this resistance generally correlated with resistance to the bacteria. The research found a number of different genetically-determined traits accounted for this increased resistance. These included both disease-specific genetic variations and variations in traits -- like sleep patterns or reduced sensitivity to stress or starvation -- that confer greater generalized immune system resistance to disease. 

“We found that flies resistant to the fungus were also resistant to the Pseudomonas bacteria and that the most resistant flies were those that tend to take lots of naps,” said senior author Raymond St. Leger, a Distinguished University Professor in UMD’s department of Entomology, which is part of both the university’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and its College of Computer Mathematical and Natural Sciences. “We speculate that frequent naps charge up the immune system allowing the fly to meet new disease challenges when it’s awake.”

St. Leger and his two UMD colleagues, graduate student and first author of the paper Jonathan Wang, and post-doctoral associate Hsiao-Ling Lu also found some of the flies carried variants of genes that greatly increased resistance to either the fungus or the bacteria. However, these disease resistance variants were rare, indicating that they also carried negative consequences that kept them from being evolutionarily advantageous enough to increase in the overall population over time.

“The finding that flies resistant to the fungus were also resistant to the bacteria was surprising, because some components of the fly immune system tackle bacteria while other components tackle fungi, just as it happens in humans,” said Wang. “We had assumed before the study began that there might be a tradeoff so that resistance to the fungus might be at the expense of resistance to the bacteria. The finding of dual resistance to the two different pathogens indicates that the genes regulating generalized physiological factors played a bigger role in overall resistance than did the genes conferring disease-specific resistance.” 

The authors write that their new findings provide a “starting point for further research on these important traits.”

This work was supported by grants from UMD’s Department of Entomology and the Maryland Agricultural Experimental Station.

 See a recent New York Times article and video "Rachel Carson, DDT and the Fight Against Malaria" featuring Professor St. Leger and his research on mosquitoes here.

Multi-year Satellite Study Finds “Hotspots” of Airborne Ammonia over World’s Major Agricultural Areas

March 27, 2017

Matthew E. Wright, 301-405-9267

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The first global, long-term satellite study of airborne ammonia gas has revealed “hotspots” of the pollutant over four of the world’s most productive agricultural regions. Using data from NASA’s Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) satellite instrument, a University of Maryland-led research team discovered steadily increasing ammonia concentrations from 2002 to 2016 over agricultural centers in the United States, Europe, China and India. Increased atmospheric ammonia has been linked to poor air and water quality.   

The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, also describes the probable causes for increased airborne ammonia in each region. Although the specifics vary between areas, the increases in ammonia are broadly tied to crop fertilizers, livestock animal wastes, changes to atmospheric chemistry and warming soils that retain less ammonia. The results could help illuminate strategies to control pollution from ammonia and ammonia byproducts near agricultural areas.

“Our study reports the first global, long-term trends of atmospheric ammonia from space,” said Juying Warner, an associate research scientist in atmospheric and oceanic science at UMD. “Measuring ammonia from the ground is difficult, but the satellite-based method we have developed allows us to track ammonia efficiently and accurately. We hope that our results will help guide better management of ammonia emissions.”

Gaseous ammonia is a natural part of Earth’s nitrogen cycle, but excess ammonia is harmful to plants and reduces air and water quality. In the troposphere—the lowest, densest part of the atmosphere where all weather takes place and where people live—ammonia gas reacts with nitric and sulfuric acids to form nitrate-containing particles that contribute to aerosol pollution that is damaging to human health. Ammonia gas can also fall back to Earth and enter lakes, streams and oceans, where it contributes to harmful algal blooms and “dead zones” with dangerously low oxygen levels. 

“Little ammonia comes from tailpipes or smokestacks. It’s mainly agricultural, from fertilizer and animal husbandry,” said Russell Dickerson, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic science at UMD. “It has a profound effect on air and water quality—and ecosystems. In Maryland, ammonia from the atmosphere contributes as much as a quarter of the nitrogen pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, causing eutrophication and leading to dead zones that make life very difficult for oysters, blue crabs and other wildlife.”

Each major agricultural region highlighted in the study experienced a slightly different combination of factors that correlate with increased ammonia in the air from 2002 to 2016.

The United States, for example, has not experienced a dramatic increase in fertilizer use or major changes in fertilizer application practices. But Warner, Dickerson and their colleagues found that successful legislation to reduce acid rain in the early 1990s most likely had the unintended effect of increasing gaseous ammonia. The acids that cause acid rain also scrub ammonia gas from the atmosphere, and so the sharp decrease in these acids in the atmosphere is the most plausible explanation for the increase in ammonia over the same time frame.

Europe experienced the least dramatic increase in atmospheric ammonia of the four major agricultural areas highlighted by the study. The researchers suggest this is due in part to successful limits on ammonia-rich fertilizers and improved practices for treating animal waste. Much like the United States, a major potential cause for increased ammonia traces back to reductions in atmospheric acids that would normally remove ammonia from the atmosphere.

“The decrease in acid rain is a good thing. Aerosol loading has plummeted—a substantial benefit to us all,” Dickerson said. “But it has also increased gaseous ammonia loading, which we can see from space.”

In China, a complex interaction of factors is tied to increased atmospheric ammonia. The study’s authors suggest that efforts to limit sulfur dioxide—a key precursor of sulfuric acid, one of the acids that scrubs ammonia from the atmosphere—could be partially responsible. But China has also greatly expanded agricultural activities since 2002, widening its use of ammonia-containing fertilizers and increasing ammonia emissions from animal waste. Warming of agricultural soils, due at least in part to global climate change, could also contribute.

“The increase in ammonia has spiked aerosol loading in China. This is a major contributor to the thick haze seen in Beijing during the winter, for example,” Warner said. “Also, meat is becoming a more popular component of the Chinese diet. As people shift from a vegetarian to a meat-based diet, ammonia emissions will continue to go up.”

In India, a broad increase in fertilizer use coupled with large contributions from livestock waste have resulted in the world’s highest concentrations of atmospheric ammonia. But the researchers note that ammonia concentrations have not increased nearly as quickly as over other regions. The study’s authors suggest that this is most likely due to increased emissions of acid rain precursors and, consequently, some increased scrubbing of ammonia from the atmosphere.  This leads to increased levels of haze, a dangerous trend confirmed by other NASA satellite instruments, Dickerson said. 

In all regions, the researchers attributed some of the increase in atmospheric ammonia to climate change, reflected in warmer air and soil temperatures. Ammonia vaporizes more readily from warmer soil, so as the soils in each region have warmed year by year, their contributions to atmospheric ammonia have also increased since 2002.

The study also ascribes some fluctuations in ammonia to wildfires, but these events are sporadic and unpredictable. As such, the researchers excluded wildfires in their current analysis.

“This analysis has provided the first evidence for some processes we suspected were happening in the atmosphere for some time,” Warner said. “We would like to incorporate data from other sources, such as the Joint Polar Satellite System, in future studies to build a clearer picture.”

Warner, Dickerson and their colleagues hope that a better understanding of atmospheric ammonia will help policymakers craft approaches that better balance the high demand for agriculture with the need for environmental protection.

“As the world’s population grows, so does the demand for food—especially meat,” Dickerson said. “This means farmers and ranchers need more fertilizer, which makes it harder to maintain clean air and water.  Wise agricultural practices and reduced greenhouse gas emissions can help avoid adverse effects.”

Photo: Map of global trends in atmospheric ammonia (NH3) as measured from space from 2002 to 2016. Hot colors represent increases due to a combination of increased fertilizer application, reduced scavenging by acid aerosols and climate warming. Cool colors represent decreases due to reduced agricultural burning or fewer wildfires. Photo credit: Juying Warner/GRL.


New Method Enables Creation of Better Therapeutic Antibodies

March 27, 2017

Matthew Wright, 301-405-9267

COLLEGE PARK, Md.-- Antibodies are the foot soldiers of our immune system. These specialized, Y-shaped proteins attach to bacteria and viruses, where they either block the pathogen’s activity directly, or signal the immune system’s cells to destroy the invader.  Not all antibodies are created equal, however. Due to subtle but important differences in the structure of their sugar groups, two otherwise identical antibodies that attack the same invader might not be equally good at recruiting immune cells to finish the job. Researchers from the University of Maryland and Rockefeller University have previously developed a method to modify an antibody’s sugar group structure, allowing biochemists to create antibodies with consistent sugar groups.

Photo of antibodies with identical protein structureThe researchers have now taken their method a step further, by determining which specific sugar combinations enhance—or suppress—an antibody’s ability to signal the immune system to attack an invader. Lai-Xi Wang, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UMD, states results, which are published in the March 13, 2017 early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are an important step toward the development of highly effective antibodies to fight cancer and other diseases.

Antibodies have the ability to target invaders for destruction, making them a tempting target for cancer and disease therapies. An antibody’s ability to send killer signals depends on the configuration of sugar chains attached to the protein. In naturally occurring antibodies, these sugar chains have a lot of variability. Even in antibodies currently used for disease therapy, a given dose might contain a wide variety of antibody variants, also known as “glycoforms,” distinguished by their sugar groups.

Although prior methods tried to sort out these glycoforms and collect the most effective ones, these methods are time-consuming, expensive and not 100 percent effective. The method used in the current study enables the researchers to create a given antibody with identical glycoforms using biochemical techniques. Each glycoform can then be tested independently to see whether it enhances or suppresses the immune response.

“Our first major step forward was to develop a method to produce homogeneous glycoforms,” said Wang. “With this, we can now look at how individual different sugars affect the properties of antibodies. Until this study, we didn’t have an efficient way to know how individual sugars in various glycoforms affect suppression or activation of the immune response.”

Most therapeutic antibodies on the market are designed to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases. For example, there is an antibody-based drug used to treat lymphoma, leukemia and rheumatoid arthritis. This and other similar antibody drugs are usually produced in cultured cell lines.

“These processes are not optimized at all. There is no easy way to control glycosylation,” Wang said. Glycosylation is the process by which sugar groups are added to a protein such as an antibody. “Our method could be used to improve antibodies already on the market because it modifies the antibodies directly instead of working at the genetic level.”

Wang’s group, which specializes in the biochemistry of protein glycosylation, developed the methodology to modify the antibody sugar groups. They partnered with Jeffrey Ravetch’s group at Rockefeller University, which specializes in immunology and animal models, to test the effects of various glycoforms on the immune response. The new findings can help guide the development of future antibody-based therapeutics.

“Our method would be generally applicable because it can be used on a wide variety of antibodies,” Wang said. “It’s an important step forward in the effort to engineer therapeutic antibodies that can target specific cancers, inflammation and other diseases. Soon we will be able to build customized antibodies.”

Photo: Antibodies with identical protein structures (Y-shaped center structures) often have naturally occurring differences in their attached sugar groups (left, inside green ovals). These differences result in enhanced or suppressed abilities to activate the immune response. A process designed at the University of Maryland and tested with help from Rockefeller University allows the engineering of antibodies with identical sugar groups (right, inside pink ovals), which can standardize the activity of the antibodies. Photo credit: Tiezheng Li/Lai-Xi Wang/UMD.


Washington Post–UMD Poll Shows Decline in Hogan’s Popularity

March 24, 2017

Laura Ours, 301-405-5722

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - While Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has been a popular governor since he first took office in 2015, a recent Washington Post–University of Maryland poll finds that his approval rating has slipped over the past six months.

Hogan’s job-approval rating in September was 71 percent; this latest poll shows Hogan holding a 65 percent job-approval rating. While this is a decline, Hogan’s approval still remains the highest in Post polls for each of the state’s three previous governors, who were affiliated with both parties.

Photo of Gov. HoganAmong the full sample of respondents, 39 percent said they would support Hogan for reelection in 2018, while 36 percent said they would prefer a Democrat. Among registered voters, 41 percent said they support Hogan for reelection, and 37 percent said they would prefer a Democrat. 

The researchers say the poll results underscore Hogan’s challenge as a Republican governor leading a state that went for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in September. 

“Even with such high approval ratings, he’s at risk of suffering from what’s going on with the Republican Party,” said Associate Professor Michael Hanmer, research director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship (CAPC). “His reelection is going to depend on who the Democrats put forward and how much they can attach Hogan to what’s going on in national politics.”

No Democrats have formally declared intention to run for Maryland governor in 2018.

“The election is still a long way off, but I think what happens in national politics and how Governor Hogan does or does not respond is going to matter. In a state with so many more Democrats than Republicans, a general backlash against the Republican Party could propel a Democrat over Governor Hogan, even if his approval rating remains high. This is going to remain very interesting to follow,” Hanmer said.

Read Washington Post Coverage

View Poll Results

About the Poll

This seventh iteration of The Washington Post–University of Maryland poll was conducted by telephone March 16-19, among a random sample of 914 adult residents of Maryland.

Interviews were conducted by live interviewers on both conventional and cellular phones; interviews were conducted in English and in Spanish. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus four percentage points. Sampling, data collection and tabulation were conducted by Abt-SRBI, Inc. of New York, NY.

The University of Maryland and The Washington Post first teamed up to present the poll in October 2014. Polls have focused on Maryland elections, national elections, desired priorities for elected officials and topics of interest to voters including immigration, taxes, education and healthcare.

The partnership combines the world-class reporting, polling and public engagement resources of The Post with rigorous academic analysis from the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences’ nationally-renowned Department of Government and Politics. The poll is designed to provide academics, students and members of the public with insight into both key races and the issues that matter to Maryland residents.

In addition to its impact as a public education tool, the poll also represents a unique research opportunity for UMD students. Hanmer and Associate Professor Stella Rouse, director of CAPC, work with students affiliated with the Center on the design of the poll questions and the analysis of its responses.

The poll is directed by Washington Post polling manager Scott Clement, UMD alumna Emily Guskin (GVPT ’06), polling analyst for The Post, and Hanmer for the University of Maryland.

Photo credit: The Washington Post



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