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Friday, February 23, 2024
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Spring into research: Noteworthy science to watch this semester

Explore new scientific advances taking place on campus.

As the spring semester begins, research continues at full force. If you need more exciting and inspiring science in your life, check out some of these recent projects around the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. 

NIH funding for Alzeheimer’s study

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded funding to the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health at the start of the new year to support a five-year study on the neurobiology of Alzheimer’s and related dementias. The $150 million grant is the largest NIH funding award in UW-Madison’s history. 

The study, Clarity in Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias Research Through Imaging (CLARiTI), will utilize MRI scans, PET scans and blood plasma tests to investigate factors that may cause dementias. Researchers hope their work will lead to new advancements in the treatment of dementias, specifically Alzheimer’s.

From neural ‘rosettes’ to understanding Autism risks

A recent study led by Giorgio Quadrato, a stem cell biologist at the University of Southern California, sought to investigate mutations of the SYNGAP1 gene. When SYNGAP1 is mutated, it often presents higher risk levels for autism spectrum disorder, epilepsy and neurodevelopmental disability. 

However, the study wouldn’t have been possible without RosetteArray technology developed at UW-Madison by biomedical engineering professor Randolph Ashton and Wisconsin Institute of Discovery scientist Gavin Knight. 

RosetteArray uses stem cells to generate neural “rosettes,” the precursor to stem cell-derived organoids. The technology allows neural studies to be completed on a human model rather than just rodent models and is expected to be useful for commercial screening applications as well as clinical treatment applications. 

Ancient ice sheets predict future climate

The early Miocene was a geological epoch about 19 million years ago. During this time, major ice sheets in Antarctica cyclically grew and receded at a much faster rate than could be explained by regular periodic shifts to Earth’s rotational axis and orbit. 

Recent UW-Madison PhD graduate Nick Sullivan and geoscience professor Stephen Meyers wondered what caused these rapid fluctuations in Antarctica’s ice sheets. While they concluded there were likely several factors at play, it seems changes to ice sheets during the Miocene can be used to predict rapid and unexpected changes to these massive ice sheets that may occur in the future, should carbon dioxide emissions and global temperatures continue to rise. 

Epigenetic aging following childhood deprivation

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Lauren Schmitz, a professor at the UW-Madison La Follette School of Public Affairs led a study on how threat and deprivation in childhood are associated with accelerated biological aging in older adults. 

Using data from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, Schmitz’s study found threats in early childhood relate to epigenetic age acceleration during childhood but did not persist to adulthood, whereas deprivation in early childhood relates to accelerated aging later on in life. 

Put simply, Schmitz found that mortality risk may be associated with experiences from a person’s childhood. 

Schmitz’s paper may have strong effects on research in the rapidly advancing field of epigenetics and biological aging in the near future. 

Doubling products for more sustainable biofuels

Tim Donahue, UW-Madison professor of bacteriology and director of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Resource Center (GLBRC), and his team of researchers have been studying the bacterium Novosphingobium aromaticivorans (Novo) for years. 

A common barrier to successful biofuel alternatives is lignin, a compound extremely abundant in carbon but structurally very difficult to break into useful parts. Novo is able to digest most parts of lignin and is relatively easy to be genetically modified. 

Recently, researchers were able to combine genetic changes on Novo to simultaneously produce PDC, a key ingredient of plastics and carotenoids, organic pigments with large market values. 

These products alone are valuable, but the results also open the door for the possibility of other two-product yields from microbes. Two-product solutions lower energy costs and emissions to make biofuel production more sustainable and utilize typically wasted parts of the plant. 

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