Pasture partnership supports organic dairy farmers across Wisconsin

Not all pastures are created equal. Some have a diverse mix of grasses and legumes. Others can be dominated by a single grass species or overrun with weeds.

In an effort to help improve the health of pastures owned by dairy farmers across Wisconsin and beyond, University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers have established a partnership with Organic Valley, the nation’s largest organic farming cooperative, to study how to make pastures as productive, nutritious and sustainable as possible.

The project was sparked by changes made in 2010 to federal regulations governing organic dairy operations, which put more emphasis on the role of pasture in the dairy cow diet.

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Erin Silva. Banner photo: Grazing dairy cows at Organic Valley sponsored pasture walk. Photo courtesy of Anders Gurda.

“The regulation states that at least 30 percent of the animals’ dry matter intake during the grazing season has to come from pasture. That was a significant shift for some farmers,” says Erin Silva, UW-Madison assistant professor of plant pathology and UW-Extension organic production systems specialist.

The new rules are particularly relevant to Wisconsin. The state ranks first in the nation for the number of organic dairy farms. It is also the home of Organic Valley, headquartered in La Farge, which generated over $1 billion in sales last year and has more than 640 farmer-members in the state and another 1,160 across the nation.

“Because we as a co-op are about 80 percent dairy producers, we are very pasture-centric,” says Logan Peterman, farm resource manager for Organic Valley. “So the new regulations gave us a big incentive to improve pasture productivity per acre.”

To help address this need, Peterman reached out to Silva, head of the university’s Organic and Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Program. In that role, Silva leads an ever-expanding research and outreach program that includes vegetables, row crops and pastures.

“Pasture is a whole new world for me,” she says, “but dairy is such an important part of the organic industry in the state — in terms of economic value and impact — that it makes sense I would get pulled into this area.”

In response to Peterman’s request, Silva assembled a large, multidisciplinary team of UW-Madison experts with experience in dairy grazing, agronomy, weeds, plant diseases, soil fertility and more to help develop a research plan. In a 2012 gathering that Silva dubbed the “organic pasture summit,” the UW team met with Peterman and some of his Organic Valley colleagues to discuss approaches and make sure the results would be helpful to farmers.

“It’s great to be connected to an industry partner to make sure where we’re going is relevant,” notes Silva.

The group decided to start by conducting a survey to get a current snapshot of pasture health on Organic Valley farms, since the baseline information would be valuable to the university and the cooperative alike. With funding from the Ceres Trust, Silva’s team surveyed 20 Organic Valley farms recruited with Peterman’s help. While the numbers are still in the process of being crunched, some preliminary trends have already emerged.

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A public pasture walk sponsored by Organic Valley. Photo courtesy of Anders Gurda.

“We found there was a significant degree of diversity with respect to pasture quality, as well as soil quality, on these farms,” says Silva. “The results highlight the importance of soil testing and managing the pasture soil fertility appropriately,” something that can be as easy as adding a soil fertility amendment or increasing the diversity of pasture plants growing in a field.

The findings have also revealed some expected and some unexpected connections between various pasture management practices and pasture health, says Peterman, “whereas in the past, we only had anecdotal information from farmers.”

The results will soon be used by Peterman and Organic Valley field advisors to help the cooperative’s dairy farmers get more out of their pastures in a sustainable way, with the goal of helping to improve the productivity of their dairy operations — and their bottom lines.

“Now, when my team is out visiting farms, we can make assessments on the spot,” says Peterman. “Change is hard, and benchmarks are a good way to help farmers discern whether improving their pasture is worth their time and effort.”

The benefits of this work will extend to organic dairy producers across the state and beyond, through Silva’s various extension activities. “The issues that Organic Valley farmers face are similar, if not identical, to those faced by other farmers across Wisconsin and the upper Midwest,” she says. “So the best management practices that come from this work will apply quite broadly.”

Meet Jessica Cederquist, CALS’ new dairy herd manager

CALS has a new dairy herd manager. Jessica Cederquist, who joined the Department of Dairy Science in March, is the administrator in charge of the college’s 750+ cows and 600+ growing heifers, which are housed at three sites: campus, the Arlington Ag Research Station and the Marshfield Ag Research Station. As she described in this recent podCALS interview, Cederquist is excited about her new position, particularly the aspect of incorporating the college’s research and teaching mission into her work.

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Jessica Cederquist

Cederquist was kind enough to answer a few questions from eCALS about the path that led her to her current position at CALS.

eCALS: Where did you grow up?

Cederquist: I was born and raised in Traverse City, Michigan. I graduated high school in 2001. Growing up I was actively involved in 4-H, showing dairy feeders and beef steers, but had very limited involvement with actual farm work. I took a semester off following high school to spend the summer and part of the fall working on a dude ranch in Montana, before starting school the following January at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

eCALS: What was your college experience like?

Cederquist: During my undergraduate degree program, I worked full time for a small animal vet clinic, but always dreamed of working with cows. I did a summer internship at Shamrock Dairy Farm in Stanfield, Arizona. The farm had approximately 10,000 milking cows – more cows than a small town girl like myself could ever imagine. It was at this point that I knew my life would be in the dairy industry. I graduated with my bachelor’s of science in veterinary science in May of 2005, and began a master’s degree program in Arizona that fall. I did my master’s work under Dr. Lance Baumgard, who is now at Iowa State University, studying the effects of heat stress and rBST on glucose metabolism in lactating cows. I graduated with my master’s degree in summer of 2008.

eCALS: What came next?

Cederquist: From there I took a job as an assistant manager on a 6000 cow dairy in Kirkman, Iowa. Due to a car accident, my time there was cut short in April 2009, when I returned to Michigan for recovery and spent 2.5 years out of the industry. I returned to the industry in August 2011 when I accepted a job as a dairy nutrition consultant in Chandler, Arizona. I worked as a consultant until August 2013 when I was offered a position as a general manager of a large Jersey dairy farm in Maricopa, Arizona, just a couple miles down the road from where I got my start at Shamrock Dairy. I worked there until November of last year, when I took some time off to have my second child before starting this position here at UW.

eCALS: How are you settling into life in Madison?

Cederquist: I moved here with my husband Chuck and our daughters Blaine, who’s two, and Molly, who’s five months old now. We are extremely excited to be here in Madison and part of the UW family. I am really excited about my new job because it gives me an opportunity to combine my knowledge of the commercial dairy industry with the science behind it all, and to be involved in educating the students that will become the future of our industry.

Landscape architecture student develops idea for interactive Ho-Chunk park trail

Amanda Depagter and Bill Quackenbush at McCarthy park.

Amanda Depagter and Bill Quackenbush at McCarthy park.

Inspired by the prairie-lined boundaries of a Dane County park, a UW student had the vision to create an interactive trail focusing on the local history of the Ho-Chunk Nation.

Amanda Depagter, a senior majoring in landscape architecture, developed the idea for the interpretive trail and brought it to the attention of the Dane County Parks Division.

“This will add a little twist on your typical park planning,” Depagter said. “It is intended to be a resource for the community that encompasses everything about the Ho-Chunk tribes.”

McCarthy Park Youth and Conservation Park contains 220 acres of land. The park, located in Cottage Grove, currently has areas for horseback riding, hiking and group camping areas, according to the Dane County Parks website. The interpretive Ho-Chunk trails will be incorporated into these existing trails.

The park will incorporate a self-guided tour. The tour consists of signs throughout the park that have a specific phone number listed. When the number is called, the listener is provided with an oral story specific to that location. The Ho-Chunk people pass down their traditions and history orally, so incorporating this idea within McCarthy Park is a culturally accurate way to provide information to visitors.

Traditional recreations of Ho-Chunk seasonal villages are being planned for the park, such as the large domed buildings called “wigwams.” The Ho-Chunk’s close relationship with the land will be modeled both through the incorporation of these villages and information provided about the native plants they frequently used, said Christopher James, park planner for the Dane County Parks Division.

“In Dane County, there is a need for something more because there is an incredible amount of history here,” James said.

McCarthy Park is intended to be used by the public and the Ho-Chunk nation, instead of just being set up as an exhibit. The interactive elements are designed to encourage a better appreciation for the native customs of the land.

Bill Quackenbush, a tribal heritage preservationist with the Ho-Chunk tribe, has played a large role in the park’s development so far, Depagter said. Quackenbush’s knowledge about the land and its connection with the Ho-Chunk people has been instrumental to the interactive trails’ completion, James said.

“What we’re hoping it’s going to be for the Ho-Chunk nation is a place where they can bring their youth for many years to come to learn about the past lifestyle,” James said.

The park is home to the annual McCarthy Park Snow Day, which consists of various activities and games designed for public participation. This year’s snow day took place in early February and included the first introduction of Ho-Chunk history to McCarthy park. A ciporoke, a lodge specific to the Ho-Chunk tribe, was built for guests to experience during the snow day, Depagter said.

To tie in Ho-Chunk history with modern viewers, McCarthy park will take the interpretive trail a step further than other cultural exhibits in the area by including an interpretation of what it is like to be a Ho-Chunk person in today’s society, James said.

“We’re pretty excited about it,”  James said. “It’s a great opportunity for our park system, and is something that is long overdue.”

This story was originally published on The Badger Herald’s website here

For CALS senior, a small idea becomes the Wisconsin Idea

The power of the Wisconsin Idea lies not in the solitary action of a single person, but in the collective action of many. Kayla Sippl knows this well.

When the University of Wisconsin-Madison senior interned at a hospital in Kianjokoma, Kenya, in spring 2013 on study abroad, she found it odd that there was no soap in the patient bathrooms.

The leading cause of death in children globally is diseases that could be prevented with soap, according to international nonprofit Global Soap. Kayla, a CALS biology major from Seymour, Wis., saw a public health crisis. But she also saw a solution.

“I figured I wouldn’t be able to single-handedly tackle the problem,” Kayla says. “But maybe introducing how easy it is to make soap to some communities would help.”

As it turned out, Kayla wouldn’t be tackling the problem single-handedly.

There was her mom, who had been making homemade soap using simple ingredients for years and taught Kayla the techniques.

There was entomology professor Susan Paskewitz who encouraged Kayla, an undergraduate assistant in her lab, to pursue the soap-making project. And there was Nelson Institute faculty associate Catherine Woodward who had coordinated previous soap-making efforts in South America and served as a valuable resource for Kayla.

There was Kayla’s study abroad advisor, Simon Sakudah, who connected her with his brother James Sakuda, the executive director for Indigenous People in Action—who became Kayla’s most important on-the-ground community partner.

And there was the community of Ngong, Kenya, who embraced Kayla’s idea.

With a network in place, Kayla applied for a Wisconsin Idea Undergraduate Fellowship through the Morgridge Center for Public Service. Her proposal to run soap-making workshops in Kenya was one of the nine undergraduate projects chosen for funding for the 2014-15 academic year.

“Once she had the idea, she pursued it with passion and creativity,” says Paskewitz, who served as faculty mentor for the project. “She followed up on every conceivable connection that was suggested and found both US and Kenya-based partners for the work.”

Women produce a batch of soap while others observe and learn. Photos: Kayla Sippl.

Women produce a batch of soap while others observe and learn. Photos courtesy of Kayla Sippl.

Following the fall 2014 semester, Kayla’s vision became reality as she returned to Kenya over winter break. On the ground, Kayla worked closely with community leaders in Ngong, Kenya, to organize demonstrations of the soap making process so they could then go out to share the knowledge with the people they worked with.

Funding secured, Kayla set to work experimenting with soap-making techniques in her Madison apartment. Animal fat was her primary ingredient of choice, knowing she could find it locally sourced once in Kenya. She then designed trainings and coordinated potential workshops with her community partners in Kenya.

Kayla says her main goal was teaching communities how to make the soap and then letting them decide what they wanted to do with that knowledge. Those who Kayla taught soon began teaching others.

“And I really liked that it was expanding without me because then I could step back and let them do what they wanted,” Kayla says.

In March of this year, Kayla was invited to Clinton Global Initiative University, a 3-day event in Coral Gables, Fla., hosted by President Bill Clinton to bring together college students passionate about solving pressing global challenges.

Kayla had the opportunity to present her soap project at the event, which she says gave her a boost to keep the project expanding.

“The motivation—that was really helpful just being around people who all want to do something,” Kayla says.

With additional funding, Kayla says the project could expand to hospitals and schools in Kenya. She also envisions the potential of marketing the homemade soap for sale in tourist markets and hotels in Kenya, providing new economic opportunities—particularly for local women.

“I think the project has had a large impact on Kayla, in terms of her development as a leader and her growing confidence in her own abilities,” Paskewitz says. “I am also heartened by the positive response she received from the communities and the indications that they will continue to explore this as a way for women to create and market income-generating products.”

Kayla, who graduates from UW-Madison in May, plans to take a year or two to explore global health opportunities around the world. Eventually, she hopes to pursue a master’s degree in global health.

Two years ago, Kayla Sippl saw a problem in a hospital nearly 8,000 miles from the UW-Madison campus. And she chose not to ignore the problem, but instead built a network in Wisconsin and in Kenya that allowed a community to come together to solve a pressing issue.

“It’s something I wouldn’t get out of just the classroom.”

That’s the power of the Wisconsin Idea.

This story was originally published on the Morgridge Center for Public Service website.

CALS hosts inaugural World Food Prize – Wisconsin Youth Institute event for teens

This past Friday, 10 high school students from across the state and Chicago spent the day on the CALS campus discussing issues of global hunger and poverty with CALS experts as part of the first-ever World Food Prize – Wisconsin Youth Institute event.

The full-day program, organized by CALS student services coordinator Cindy Fendrick with the help of World Food Prize staff, brought together a group of highly-motivated teens who completed a rigorous application process in order to participate in the event, including submitting a research paper on food security.

Participants started the day with immersion sessions, visiting with professors and hearing about how their work related to agriculture and food. After lunch, students broke into smaller discussion groups, and each student was given time to talk about his or her research paper and answer questions from faulty mentors.

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As students presented their research and took part in the discussions, observers listened in to evaluate each student. The top students will be invited to attend a three-day experience held in conjunction with the World Food Prize International Symposium in Iowa in October. All students who attended Friday’s institute, now Borlaug Scholars, will also have the opportunity to apply for internships and fellowships across the country and around the world.

At the closing ceremony, Dean Kate VandenBosch thanked the students for being part of the first year of the Wisconsin Youth Institute. “If Norman Borlaug were alive today, he would be so inspired to see that there are young people like you who are interested in learning more about agriculture, health, the environment and how those things are linked together,” she said.

This inaugural institute will pave the way for future institutes at UW-Madison. Fendrick hopes to increase the number of participating students going forward and draw students from more areas of the state and region.

Citizen scientists wanted: SquirrelMapper project seeks Wisconsin contributors

SquirrelMapper, a citizen science project to gather information about the distribution of black vs. grey squirrels that originated in New York, is now active in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin portion of the project was launched this past March by Ben Zuckerberg, an assistant professor in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, with the assistance of Alyse Krueger, an undergraduate researcher in his lab. The duo are now actively seeking the support of citizen scientists to help gather data.

What will the information be used for? A good explanation can be found on the Zuckerberg lab webpage for Krueger, who is leading the effort to publicize the project and will use the data to answer a number of research questions:

My research will center around the melanistic, or black morph, of the eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). Historical accounts show that around 150 years ago, many more eastern gray squirrels were melanistic. At that time, old growth forests were much more common and provided shadowy refuges for melanistic squirrels.

Photo courtesy of SquirrelMapper website.

Photo from SquirrelMapper website.

Some research has suggested that now melanistic squirrels tend to be found only in urban communities, where the shadows from buildings and trees provide them a similar advantage over lighter-colored squirrels. In order to test this hypothesis, we will be studying known populations of melanistic squirrels around Wisconsin and the east coast and comparing the size of each melanistic population relative to the gray morph population, the size of the urban/suburban community, and the land cover types associated with these areas. I am also interested in determining whether or not the eastern gray squirrel is sensitive to forest fragmentation. In southern Wisconsin, our landscape consists mainly of vast agricultural lands interspersed with forest, providing us an ideal location to test for this sensitivity.

Want to participate? Just sign up for SquirrelMapper and start logging your squirrel sightings. Sign up is fast, easy and free: http://squirrelmapper.org/.

It’s also easy to connect with Wisconsin’s SquirrelMapper team via social media. Krueger set up a SquirrelMapper WI Facebook Page and a SquirrelMapper WI Twitter account.

For questions, contact Alyse Krueger at ajkrueger4@wisc.edu.

CALS labs field three Cool Science Image Contest winners

From among a record setting number of entries, three winners of the 2015 Cool Science Image Contest came from CALS laboratories. For information about the 11 winning images, read this UW news release or go straight to this Flickr album to view them.

The winning entries from CALS are:

A portrait of a leafcutter ant in the lab of bacteriology professor Cameron Currie, a photo taken by volunteer photographer Don Parsons.

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A micrograph of thyme plant floral trichromes, taken by zoology graduate student Hilary Bultman, a member of Rick Lindroth’s lab in the Department of Entomology.

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A time-lapse video of germinating seedlings, produced by Jackson Hetue of the Wisconsin Fast Plants Program in the Department of Plant Pathology.

The kits are back: Baby foxes seen emerging from campus den

It’s official: Adorable little kits have been spotted venturing from a campus fox den. The UW Urban Canid Project has been documenting this activity and sharing some great photos through their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Follow these accounts for updates as the kits grow and explore their surroundings.

Leaders of the project have a gentle reminder for fox fans: If you see the fox family on campus, please give them plenty of space, observing them from a distance to keep yourself and the foxes safe and happy.

The project’s social media accounts also contain informative photos showing the project’s fox and coyote trap-collar-and-release efforts.

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Graduate student Marcus Mueller works to collar a coyote in February. Photo: UW Urban Canid Project

Exploring bugs and bioenergy: Gina Lewin’s path to the Currie Lab

For many college students, summer provides a chance to test-drive future career paths. When Gina Lewin took advantage of such an opportunity, her test drive hit the jackpot.

In the summer of 2009, Lewin participated in a National Science Foundation-funded program called Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), which invites college juniors and seniors to join research projects around the country.

At the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Lewin worked in the lab of chemical and biological engineering professor Brian Pfleger. She was tasked with coaxing a bacterium to produce diesel fuel compounds.

As summer progressed, Lewin’s interest in bioenergy and microbiology grew, but she also found herself falling in love with the big research campus of UW–Madison and the city that surrounds it.

“The REU was my first time doing microbiology research,” Lewin says. “I had been thinking about going to graduate school since the end of my freshman year, but being here definitely cemented that interest.”

She applied for graduate school and joined UW–Madison’s microbiology doctoral training program in the fall of 2010.

Lewin, the daughter of two lawyers, grew up in a semi-rural part of central New Jersey. One of her favorite childhood memories is attending summer nature camps at a nearby environmental education center where she learned to identify the bugs she caught in the woods and streams.

After graduating from high school in 2006, Lewin moved across the country to Pomona College, some thirty miles east of Los Angeles, where she was drawn to science and majored in molecular biology.

But it was not until her REU at UW–Madison that Lewin discovered a connection between her childhood interest in bugs and bioenergy research.

In the lab of GLBRC researcher Cameron Currie, Lewin now studies how insects use microbes to break down cellulose, the sugars found in the cell walls of woody plants, in order to procure nutrient-enriched food. Understanding the insects’ process for breaking down cellulose could ultimately inform GLBRC’s own efforts to convert biomass to ethanol and other biofuels.

Lewin’s particular focus is on the insects’ powerful ability to partner with a community of microbes.

“Scientists have long studied how a single microbe in a flask degrades cellulose,” Lewin says. “But in the environment, organisms don’t exist in isolation; they have evolved to be part of a community. Our goal is to apply the power of these symbiotic relationships to biofuel production.”

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Gina Lewin and thesis advisor Cameron Currie present their research to then-Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. Photo: Matthew Wisniewski

Leaf-cutter ants found in tropical rainforests are a particularly impressive example of these mutually beneficial relationships.

Living as a highly organized society in colonies that can grow large enough to be visible from space, the vast majority of leaf-cutter ants work to support their queen. In return, the queen maintains the colony by laying up to 20,000 eggs a day for up to twenty years in the lab.

What is perhaps most remarkable, however, is that the leaf-cutter ants are miniature farmers who have perfected their agricultural activities — deconstructing biomass and cultivating a fungus — over the course of ten million years. Humans, in contrast, have spent a mere 12,000 years developing and fine-tuning their agricultural expertise.

Leaf-cutter ants collect and degrade large amounts of fresh leaves that the fungus converts to food.

“The fungus makes a fuzzy pearl-like structure that contains the nutrients the ants need,” Lewin says. “The larvae and the queen only eat these fungal structures, while the adult workers also feed on leaf sap and fruits.” Some species of leaf-cutter ants even grow a bacterium on their body that protects the fungus from pathogens.

Each colony’s fungus farm consists of a garden, where the plant material is first deposited and partially degraded, and a dump, a dedicated waste management site that may be located under- or aboveground, depending on the ant species.

“Seventy percent of the leaves’ cellulose is carried to the dump for final degradation. It turns out that the dump’s microbial community is much more efficient at degrading cellulose than any individual strain we have studied thus far,” Lewin summarizes her dissertation findings.

Currie, Lewin’s advisor, is as pleased with these results as with Lewin’s success in obtaining external funding for her work.

“I teased Gina that the offer letter for the National Science Foundation’s predoctoral fellowship [dated around April 1, 2012] was probably an April Fool’s joke,” Currie recalls. “These fellowships are incredibly competitive. I’ve never even heard of anyone getting one in their second year.”

Graduate school clearly suits Lewin well, whether she peers through the microscope, gathers fungal samples in Costa Rica, or applies for a research fellowship.

“In college, I had to choose between ecology and molecular biology,” Lewin remembers. “When I decided to major in molecular biology, I was a little sad to leave behind the outdoor activities we did in the ecology classes. But graduate school has allowed me to bring those two interests back together.”

Last but not least, Lewin has also contributed significantly to GLBRC’s education and outreach efforts.

In the summer of 2011, Lewin worked with high school science teacher Craig Kohn from Waterford, Wis., who participated in GLBRC’s Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program. Together they designed a classroom activity that adapted Lewin’s lab assay for demonstrating the breakdown of cellulose for a high school level.

“We figured out that Craig could make a cheap growth medium for microbes by mixing Miracle Gro fertilizer from a garden center with tap water,” Lewin explains.

To see if an environmental sample, such as a scoop of cow manure, contains microbes capable of growing on a piece of cellulosic filter paper, Kohn’s high school students put the sample, the paper, and the fertilizer in a test tube. The students then quantified cellulose degradation by counting the days until a complete tear was observed in the paper.

The following two summers, Lewin and John Greenler, director of GLBRC’s education and outreach program, presented the activity to teachers attending the Bioenergy Institute for Educators. And in the fall of 2014, the activity was expanded for UW–Madison freshmen and used in a First-Year Interest Group (FIG) course in bioenergy.

“In today’s world, just being a great researcher and doing teaching assistant duty for one semester is no longer enough to become a successful faculty member. Gina is a poster child for the importance of translating her research into engaging classroom material,” Greenler says.

“In the six years since her REU, Gina has grown into a real spokesperson for GLBRC,” Greenler adds.

The GLBRC is one of three Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Centers created to make transformational breakthroughs and build the foundation of new cellulosic biofuels technology. For more information on the GLBRC, visit www.glbrc.org.

Unpuzzling diabetes: Alan Attie tracks the internal mechanisms behind a fast-growing disease

The body makes it seem so simple.

You take a bite of supper, and the black-box machinery of metabolism hums into life, transforming food into fuel and building materials. It’s the most primal biology: Every living thing must find energy, and must regulate its consumption.

But for an alarming and ever-increasing number of people, the machinery breaks down. The diagnosis? Diabetes.

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Alan Attie; Banner photo above: This pancreatic islet contains healthy beta cells (stained red for insulin). It also contains a high number of cells producing glucagon (stained green), which raise the concentration of glucose in the bloodstream—indicating diabetes.

Alan Attie, a CALS professor of biochemistry, has been peering into the black box for two decades now, trying to identify the pathways in our bodies by which the disease is formed. “You can’t find a better excuse to study metabolic processes than diabetes,” he says. “It’s very, very rich.

Type 2 diabetes, caused by an inability to produce enough insulin to keep the body’s blood glucose at normal levels, is a global health crisis that has accelerated at a frightening speed over the last 20 years—roughly the same time Attie has been studying it.

It’s an enormously complex disease driven by both genetics and the environment. A DNA glitch here, an external variable there, and the body slides irretrievably out of balance. But only sometimes. Most people who develop type 2 diabetes are obese, yet most people who are obese don’t actually wind up diabetic.

Tracking this riddle has led Attie and his lab to several major discoveries, chief among them identifying two genes associated with diabetes: Sorcs1 and Tomosyn-2. Through years of elaborate experimentation, Attie and his team teased them from the genetic haystack and then relentlessly deciphered their role in metabolic malfunction.

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Why do some mice become diabetic when they are obese—like the mouse on the left—and others not? This pair carries a mutation in determining genes, such as Tomosyn-2 and Sorcs1, which Attie’s lab identified.

Science has uncovered more than 140 genes that play a role in diabetes, yet genetic screening still has little value for patients. As with any part of a large and complicated puzzle, it’s hard to see precisely how Sorcs1 and Tomosyn-2 fit in until we have more pieces. The biology of diabetes is so complex that we can’t be certain what the discoveries may ultimately mean. But both genes have shed light on critical stages in metabolism and offer intriguing targets for potential drugs.

Attie need not look far to replenish his motivation. His own mother suffers from diabetes, and she used to quiz him weekly about when he would cure her. “The painful answer is that translation of basic research into cures takes a long time,” Attie once told the American Diabetes Association. “The most important clues that can lead to cures do not necessarily come from targeted research or research initially thought to be relevant to the disease.”

Continue reading this story in the Spring 2015 issue of Grow magazine