Two CALS research teams win WARF Innovation Awards

Aurelie Rakotondrafara and Jincan Zhang

A discovery that could transform drug production and a fresh strategy for feeding a hungry world have claimed top honors from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. One of the winning teams is led by Aurelie Rakotondrafara, the other by Richard Vierstra.

This year’s prizewinners included a special genetic sequence that could enable researchers to produce multiple proteins from a single strand of mRNA. The sequence, a type of internal ribosome entry site (IRES), was discovered in a wheat virus by UW–Madison plant pathologist Aurelie Rakotondrafara and collaborator Jincan Zhang.

“The new IRES is the first of its kind that can be exploited in plant systems, with far reaching implications,” says Rakotondrafara. “The power to express multiple genes at once could lead to better biofuel crops and new drugs.”

The researchers found the special sequence in the Triticum mosaic virus, which can express its protein at a higher efficiency from its single mRNA strand. Their discovery could change how biopharmaceuticals are made, like the antibody cocktail produced in tobacco plants currently being used to treat Ebola victims.

A team led by genetics professor Richard Vierstra also received accolades for its work on light-sensing plant proteins called phytochromes. These photoreceptors play a key role in how plants respond to shade, triggering developments such as lanky stalks and immature fruit.

But phytochrome mutations created by Vierstra, Ernest Burgie, Adam Bussell and Joseph Walker may alter how plants react to their environment. That could mean smaller crops capable of flourishing in dense, low-light conditions, or making plants flower and produce fruits and seeds at times of the year when the weather might be better.

“To feed a surging world population we’ll have to rethink how we grow food,” says Vierstra. “This research could be a major boon to agricultural productivity.”

An independent panel of judges selected the winners from a field of six finalists. These finalists were drawn from among more than 400 invention disclosures submitted to WARF over the past 12 months. The winning inventions each receive an award of $5,000, with the funds going to the UW–Madison inventors named on the breakthroughs.

The other finalists included:

  • Nader Behdad, Susan Hagness and Hung Luyen for minimally invasive antennas to treat tumors;
  • Nam Sung Kim and Hao Wang for a hybrid memory system that boosts bandwidth;
  • Kyoung-Shin Choi and Tae Woo Kim for new water-splitting cells to produce hydrogen; and
  • Ronald Raines and Ismet Tanrikulu for collagen mimics that could help heal wounds.

WARF leaders also announced the winners of the third annual Discovery Challenge Awards, granted to teams of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to carry out exceptional collaborative work.

This year’s winners included: Bingming Chen (pharmacy), Ross W. Cheloha (chemistry) and Niyanta Kumar (pharmacy); and Ashok Sundramoorthy (biological systems engineering) and Gerald Brady (materials science engineering). Both groups will receive $7,500 to advance their research through these newly formed interdisciplinary collaborations.

The WARF Discovery Challenge winners were selected from among more than two dozen graduate students and postdoctoral researchers who participated in a research symposium and research award competition to develop cutting-edge, interdisciplinary ideas. The WARF Discovery Challenge is a program pioneered by the WARF student ambassadors with the goal of encouraging graduate students and postdoctoral researchers from across the entire campus to learn from each other and expand their research vision.