Top Picks, OSU Science 2019

OSU Scientific Research: Our Review for 2019
Discoveries in Where We’ve Been, and Where We’re Going

In September of last year, OSU was named the most innovative school in the Pacific Northwest by US News & World Report. President Ed Ray, who is retiring this year, was quoted saying, “Innovation at Oregon State extends throughout everything we do.”

The crop of scientific research in 2019 alone certainly supports his statement. OSU published over 110 articles throughout the year, concerning topics across multiple disciplines. To celebrate these accomplishments, we have selected 10 of the best research projects of 2019 for your enjoyment.

Changing Forests in the Pacific Northwest

View of conifer forest from the top of Mary’s Peak, the highest point on Oregon’s Coast Range. Photo by Lessa Clayton.

Simulations run by OSU and the Conservation Biology Institute reveal that the future will see a significant shift from predominantly conifer forests to mixed forests in Oregon and Washington, due to climate change.

The study used the MC2 Dynamic Global Vegetation Model to simulate climate conditions from 1895-2100, focusing on forests west of the Cascades. Four types of vegetation were recognized: conifer forest, temperate mixed conifer/broadleaf forest, subtropical mixed conifer/broadleaf forest, and “other.” Simulations were run with and without wildfires and CO2 fertilization. According to Tim Sheehan, lead author of the study, no matter the variables, the outcome was always the same. It was also noted that wildfires had no appreciable impact.

The authors note that this could have a significant impact on the lumber industry, with coniferous evergreens being replaced by hardwoods and increased plant mortality. It is also likely that forests will become more vulnerable to pests and disease.

Still, there is a silver lining. Co-author Dominique Bachelet is quoted by OSU (our source for all the quotes in this article), saying, “The Pacific Northwest is the area of the United States that has the least amount of change simulated for the future. Yes, we’re going to have longer, drier summers, and yes, we’re going to have extreme precipitation events in the fall. But it’s not likely we’re going to become a desert anytime soon, so the potential to adapt is great.”

Humboldt Martens

A male Humboldt marten in the Oregon Dunes wears a radio collar attached by researchers. Photo by Mark Linnell, U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station.

Thought to be extinct until 1996, less than 300 Humboldt martens are known to exist in the wild, roughly one-third of which can be found in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. Findings from a scat study by OSU and the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station have revealed what makes the area attractive to the rare species.

Through a technique called metabarcoding, researchers were able to identify the DNA of the marten’s favored prey – 12 species of birds, 10 species of mammals, five orders of insects, three amphibian species, and three plant species. Analysis revealed that its primary food sources are voles, birds, and berries, which are more commonly found in coastal shrub forest than inland.

Furthermore, the Humboldt marten’s primary predator, the bobcat, is encountered less frequently in coastal forests, as is their competitor, the Western spotted skunk.

According to the study’s co-author Katie Moriarty, this still doesn’t provide a definitive answer to why Humboldt martens live in the Dunes. “But we were able to provide additional evidence to better understand where and why these martens might be there,” she told OSU’s newsroom. “It would be great to have a longer study.”

Global Hemp Innovation Center

Jay Noller and Lloyd Nackley

On June 12, the university announced the establishment of the Global Hemp Innovation Center under the auspices of the College of Agricultural Sciences. Consisting of 40 faculty from across 19 disciplines, with research partners in Asia and Europe, it’s the largest hub for hemp research in the country.

“Bringing the center to Oregon we can also think of as we’re returning it home,” said Dr. Jay Noller, the center’s director, “because this was the site of national research on hemp back in the 1880s all the way up until about 1932.”

The university already boasted 10 experiment stations for hemp cultivation throughout the state, providing a variety of growing conditions, and this year saw its third crop of hemp planted. It’s also become one of the nation’s few hemp seed certifiers, alongside the Colorado, North Dakota, and Tennessee departments of agriculture.

While the market for hemp-derived CBD is expected to reach $22 billion by 2022, Noller believes the plant holds even more potential.

“We want to understand how to efficiently and sustainably grow hemp for seeds, for hemp fiber materials that can be used in textiles and construction materials, including as an alternate to gravel in concrete, for hemp essential oils that have popular health and wellness uses, and for hemp grain for use in foods and feed. Multi-use hemp is what we are excited about globally.”

Magnetic Nanoclusters

cancer-fighting magnetic nanoclusters Diagram

An experimental cancer treatment known as magnetic hyperthermia was refined by Professors Oleh and Olena Taratula of the College of Pharmacy.

The process sounds like something out of science fiction: affected areas are injected with magnetic nanoparticles, which are then heated by an alternating magnetic field, consequently killing any cancer cells. However, in the treatment’s current form, the target area needs to be accessible by syringe, excluding its use for prostate or ovarian cancer.

The Taratulas’ solution? Bundle hexagonal iron oxide nanoparticles laced with cobalt and manganese together into nanoclusters. Tests on mice with grafted ovarian tumors proved that the nanoclusters were nontoxic and could reach the necessary temperatures.

“There had been many attempts to develop nanoparticles that could be administered systemically in safe doses and still allow for hot enough temperatures inside the tumor,” said Olena Taratula. “Our new nanoplatform is a milestone for treating difficult-to-access tumors with magnetic hyperthermia. This is a proof of concept, and the nanoclusters could potentially be optimized for even greater heating efficiency.”

She added that, “To advance this technology, future studies need to use orthotopic animal models – models where deep-seated tumors are studied in the location they would actually occur in the body. In addition, to minimize the heating of healthy tissue, current AMF systems need to be optimized, or new ones developed.”

Green Glue

KaichangLi

The latest concoction from award-winning chemical engineer Dr. Kaichang Li is an eco-friendly alternative to petroleum-based adhesives.

Pressure-sensitive adhesives, or PSAs, are used in a variety of products including bandages, sticky notes, postage stamps, and most of all, shipping labels and packing tape. Dr. Li, who has been developing plant-based adhesives for over a decade, crafted a vegetable-oil-based PSA that only takes a second under ultraviolet light to cure. He was aided in this task by postdoctoral research associate Anlong Li.

“Our novel PSAs are the only vegetable-oil-based, biodegradable, and commercially viable PSAs in the world,” said Dr. Li. “Biodegradable PSAs can alleviate the pollution of solid waste. The processes of producing and using petrochemical-based PSAs are time consuming and energy consuming and may require the use of organic solvents. Our PSAs use renewable materials, and manufacturing processes are simple and fast, as well as requiring much less energy than petrochemical-based PSAs.”

Peroxynitrite
While studying a genetic condition called neurofibromatosis II (NF2), researchers from OSU, the University of Central Florida, and New York University identified a key component in the growth of tumors: an oxidant called peroxynitrite.

“This opens up the exciting possibility of targeting peroxynitrite production exclusively in tumor cells as a new therapeutic strategy for the treatment of tumors of the nervous system, with minimal to no side effects on normal tissues,” said Dr. Maria Franco of the College of Science.

The team found that schwannomas, a type of neural tumor produced by NF2, uses peroxynitrite to modify proteins. This changes the tumor’s metabolism, allowing it to grow. Dr. Franco reported that “pathological conditions” like tumors produce much higher amounts of peroxynitrite than healthy tissue.

“We are uncovering a completely new category of targets for the treatment of solid tumors, and not only tumors of the nervous system – it may have broader implications for the treatment of several cancer types,” said Dr. Franco. “We can go after proteins that usually aren’t modified in normal cells; we can target those modified proteins with inhibitors that don’t affect normal cells, hopefully developing a treatment with minimal side effects.”

Native Food Education

A depiction of 13 Moons materials, including a cedar bentwood box and traditional medicines. Photo by Myk Heidt.

A $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation was awarded to Jamie Donatuto of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and Dr. Diana Rohlman of OSU. The funds will be used to expand their environmental education program centered around first foods.

The two had previously collaborated in 2015 to create an environmental health program for tribal communities, using the Swinomish’s 13 Moons calendar as a basis. Each moon represents a different resource available depending on the time of year. That cultural context is vital, Rohlman insists.

“The focus is on the traditional foods and traditional practices, but in tribal communities, everything is connected,” she said in a release. “Thinking about the environment is not just thinking about the quality of the water. It’s about the health of the salmon in the water, the people who fish for the salmon and the bear who eat the salmon.”

The new grant will allow Donatuto and Rohlman to network with more of the Coast Salish peoples, and incorporate their teachings into the curriculum.

Moreover, Donatuto sees the grant as a symbolic victory for native peoples.

“Their knowledge, their indigenous knowledge, is science,” she told the Skagit Valley Herald. “What we know about traditional foods and medicines has been learned over countless generations of observations and trial, which are the exact same principles that are used in mainstream science.”

Agrivoltaics

Agrivoltaics 35th St SolarArray

By analyzing energy data from Tesla, researchers at the College of Agricultural Sciences have determined the optimal location for solar panel arrays: farmland. The idea of combining solar power and agriculture was first put forth by Adolf Goetzberger and Armin Zastrow in 1981, who dubbed the technique “agrivoltaics.”

The data was collected from the 35th Street Solar Array at OSU, and used to model photovoltaic efficiency across 17 different types of terrain. Croplands rated the highest, with ice and snow in last. Interestingly, deserts, a common location for solar development, rated only fifth.

Co-author Dr. Chad Higgins says that’s due to the heat.

“We found that when it’s cool outside the efficiency gets better,” Higgins said. “If it’s hot the efficiency gets worse. When it is dead calm the efficiency is worse, but some wind makes it better. As the conditions became more humid, the panels did worse. Solar panels are just like people and the weather, they are happier when it’s cool and breezy and dry.”

The study concludes that less than one percent of cropland would need to be converted to generate enough power to satisfy global demand.

According to Higgins, “There’s an old adage that agriculture can overproduce anything. That’s what we found in electricity, too. It turns out that 8,000 years ago, farmers found the best places to harvest solar energy on Earth.”

Copper’s Ferry Dig Site

Cooper’s Ferry Dig
Archaeological finds from the Cooper’s Ferry site in Idaho are challenging the established theory of the peopling of the Americas.

The dig is run by Dr. Loren Davis, professor of anthropology at OSU, who first studied the site for his PhD dissertation in 1997. He returned over a decade later to establish an archaeological field school there in collaboration with the Bureau of Land Management.

The last two years have yielded some of the oldest known artifacts in the US – including stone tools, charcoal, and bone fragments. Radiocarbon dating revealed that artifacts from the lowest layers of the dig range from 15,000-16,000 years old. Previously, the oldest known stone tools from the Americas came from the Clovis Paleoindian civilization, which dates back only 13,000 years, comparatively.

The “Clovis First” theory holds that the first humans in America crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia, then passed through a gap in the interior ice sheets of the Pleistocene. These new finds suggest a different route, as the ice corridor is theorized to have opened around 14,800 years ago.

“The Cooper’s Ferry site is located along the Salmon River, which is a tributary of the larger Columbia River basin. Early peoples moving south along the Pacific coast would have encountered the Columbia River as the first place below the glaciers where they could easily walk and paddle in to North America,” Davis said. “Essentially, the Columbia River corridor was the first off-ramp of a Pacific coast migration route.”

Mold Pig

Mold Pigs
A hitherto unknown species of microorganism was discovered in a Dominican amber specimen by the College of Science’s George Poinar Jr.

Poinar, a courtesy professor at the Department of Integrative Biology, is a longtime expert on amber fossils. His work was one of the primary inspirations for Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park.”

His most recent discovery is known scientifically as Sialomorpha (Greek for “hog-shaped”) dominicana, informally titled “mold pigs.” The name was inspired by their vaguely porcine appearance, featuring stout bodies with four pairs of legs. It is also a reference to their diets, as the 200 micrometer long invertebrates subsisted primarily off of fungi. The creatures date back to the mid-Tertiary period, roughly 30 million years ago.

While they bear some resemblance to other microinvertebrates like tardigrades and mites, Poinar writes that the mold pig “clearly belongs to neither group,” and thus placed them in a whole new family and genus.

“No claws are present at the end of their legs as they are with tardigrades and mites,” Poinar said. “Based on what we know about extant and extinct microinvertebrates, S. dominicana appears to represent a new phylum. The structure and developmental patterns of these fossils illustrate a time period when certain traits appeared among these types of animals. But we don’t know when the Sialomorpha lineage originated, how long it lasted, or whether there are descendants living today.”

By Brandon Urey