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Archives for October 14, 2016

With designer lignin, biofuels researchers reproduced evolutionary path University of Wisconsin-Madison

MADISON, Wis. — When scientists reported in 2014 that they had successfully engineered a poplar plant “designed for deconstruction,” the finding made international news. The highly degradable poplar, the first of its kind, could substantially reduce the energy use and cost of converting biomass to a number of products, including biofuels, pulp and paper.

Now, some of those same researchers are reporting a surprising new revelation. As University of Wisconsin-Madison biochemistry Professor John Ralph puts it, “Nature was already doing what we thought we’d laboriously taught her to do.”

To make the hybrid poplar, Ralph, Shawn Mansfield, Curtis Wilkerson, and other Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) researchers had incorporated an exotic gene conferring weak bonds into the plant’s lignin, the hard-to-process compound that gives plant cell walls their sturdiness but makes them difficult to process in an industrial setting. The resulting lignin, dubbed zip-lignin, readily breaks down under simple chemical conditions.

This new GLBRC-led study, published Friday (Oct. 14, 2016) in Science Advances, shows that those poplar trees and many other plants from all over the phylogenetic tree have actually evolved to naturally produce zip-lignin. In other words, not only can we potentially breed for degradability in plants, but humans may have been doing just that — selecting certain plants for easier processing — for thousands of years.

“We didn’t know the plants were making the native zip because we couldn’t detect it,” says Steve Karlen, a research scientist at UW-Madison and the paper’s lead author. “When we added the new gene we thought we were adding functionality, but we were actually increasing what was already there.”

Even though the team couldn’t at first detect native zip-lignin in poplar trees or in angelica, the Chinese herb from which the group had taken the gene, its absence did raise some questions. Ralph had long suspected that some plant somewhere was naturally creating zip-lignin. And Karlen wondered how angelica, or any plant for that matter, could be making the molecules that confer weak bonds in lignin but not incorporate them.

Using a method that Ralph’s group had developed decades ago, plus a new and highly sensitive mass spectrometer, Karlen sharpened his focus, finding a way to detect low levels of native zip-lignin in poplar trees. With the help of Philip Harris, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, Karlen began a full-scale phylogenic study, seeking to determine what other plants might contain native zip-lignin.

Karlen was soon elbow-deep in greenhouses, gardens and landscaping beds all over the UW-Madison campus. Examining the more than 60 plant samples brought back to the lab revealed that zip-lignin is found in an exceptionally diverse array of plants: in balsa, in birds of paradise, in all the grasses he sampled, and in about half of the hardwoods, to name just a few.

With collaborator Laura Bartley, an associate professor of microbiology and plant biology at the University of Oklahoma, Karlen also found zip-lignin in rice. Since an entirely different gene was responsible for making this lignin, the team determined that plants have independently evolved to make zip-lignin, essentially developing a common feature through entirely different means.

Although Karlen and his collaborators don’t yet know what the evolutionary advantage of native zip-lignin might be for plants, its widespread presence broadens the scope of their research and holds out the possibility of increasing, either through engineering or breeding, the degradability of a surprisingly vast array of plants.

“The fact that natural plants are already doing this means there are a lot more genes available for doing this than we knew about,” says Ralph. “And that means a much broader opportunity to learn from and take advantage of what these natural plants are already doing.”


Krista Eastman, (608) 890-2168,

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Make A Difference: Cemetery project continues

The Marietta Times

Marietta College students are stepping up and making a difference in one of Marietta’s historic cemeteries as a preview to this year’s national Make A Difference Day.

On Sunday, 12 students are teaming up with Marietta Cemeteries Coming Alive to continue the renovations of the century old chapel in Oak Grove Cemetery.

Then, on Oct. 22 that project and many others will take place around town as part of Make A Difference Day.

City Councilman Roger Kalter said the cemetery project is continuing from last year when students cleaned the 150-year-old damaged storm drains.

This year students will  be replacing the broken windows of the historic chapel, along with general maintenance of the cemetery as well.

“We will also be going in and getting the rest of the rotted paneling out of the chapel,” said Kalter. “We are also going to be cleaning up around the area and removing damaged parts of the ceiling.”

According to Kalter, the team has donated $150 to help buy new, heavy duty plexi glass to replace the long-broken out windows.

Last year Kalter said there were a total of 29 volunteers consisting of students and city employees.

“Anyone can come,” he said. “We just ask that all volunteers wear shoes, gloves, and bring water bottles.”

Kalter said the project allows students to work together to improve the local community.

“It gives the college students the opportunity to really work together on a real project,” he said. “It’s easy to sit in a room and talk, but it’s different to actually go out and do it.”

Kalter expressed the importance of maintaining and caring for the historic cemetery.

“We are trying to supplement the cemeteries and the city,” he said. “People love these cemeteries and it’s our history and where we come from, and they need all the help they can get.”

On Make A Difference Day Oct. 22 Marietta College students will be assisting several other community partners as well.

According to Maribeth Saleem-Tanner, director of civic engagement at Marietta College, students have been coming together for the national day for 10 years.

Saleem-Tanner said there is even a class dedicated to leading these types of projects at the college called Leadership 101.

“Students are put into student teams for projects such as this one and their job is to recruit and promote and spread the word about these community projects,” said Tanner.

The college students will be working with Marietta in Bloom, Ely Chapman Education Foundation, Marietta Cemeteries Coming Alive, The Castle, Harvest of Hope and the Boys and Girls Club in Parkersburg.

Saleem-Tanner said students will be doing everything from weeding gardens and landscaping to organizing books and cleaning old artifacts.

According to Saleem-Tanner the students are always eager to help their community.

“This is their community too for the time they’re here,” she said. “It’s just neat for them to be a part of this larger thing where people can come together and improve their community.”

Community members can also join the projects. Registration is from 8 to 8:45 a.m. in the Great Room at Andrews Hall on the Marietta College campus.

If you go

¯Marietta Cemeteries Coming Alive is teaming up with Marietta College students on Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m. and Oct. 22 from 9 a.m. to noon as a part of national Make A Difference Day at the Oak Grove Cemetery located at Eighth and Washington streets.

¯For more information or to volunteer contact Roger Kalter at 740-373-1784.

¯National Make A Difference day is on Oct. 22 from 9 a.m. to noon.

¯ Registration is from 8 to 8:45 a.m. in the Great Room at Andrews Hall on the Marietta College campus and is open to the public.


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Tips for carving the perfect pumpkin

Halloween is fast approaching. The pumpkins have been picked and are ready to carve into a sculpture worthy of Rodin or Michelangelo.

If you’re like me, carving a basic Jack-O-Lantern face can be a enough of a challenge. So I decided to head out to Linvilla Orchards in Media and talk to their expert, Laurie, for easy tips on how to carve the perfect pumpkin.

Linvilla Orchards is a 300 acre family-owned farm loaded with fun activities for the entire family with hayrides, corn and straw bale mazes.

Since it was my first time visiting the farm I couldn’t believe they had so many varieties of pumpkins and gourds from which to choose.

You can’t pick just one, at least I couldn’t, not without Laurie’s help.

Choosing the perfect pumpkin is simple, but first there are a few things that you need to know.

“You want to look for a pumpkin that is lightweight,” Laurie said. A heavy pumpkin has more meat inside making it harder to clean out the membrane and seeds. She also recommends cutting the bottom out instead of the top, this makes it easier to light up the inside. Of course this idea depends on what design you are planning to do.

Designs range from the simple Jack-O-Lantern to more advanced and spooky designs.

Stencil kits are available to purchase with a variety of spooky faces, along with a set of carving tools safe to use for children too. Another great tip from Laurie is to use the stem for a cool nose or carve pieces from another pumpkin to make a cute set of ears.

Laurie works from her imagination, and advises against drawing directly on the pumpkin, “because it’s hard to clean the outlines off, even with a wax pencil,” she said.

Once you have your design you are ready to carve. Using the right tools can make all the difference. Something as simple as a drywall knife can make cutting into a pumpkin a lot easier. Wood carving and pottery tools are great for smoothing and carving out details for more intricate designs. If you want to have the kids carve their own pumpkins, consider using a carving kit that comes with a set of tools safe for kids.

For me, I think I’ll stick to the basic Jack-O-Lantern face this year. Thanks to Laurie and her expert tips, I’m ready to go this Halloween.

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5 garden tips for the week starting Oct. 8 – Whittier Daily News

• Cooling trend: Daytime temperatures will soon be getting cooler (believe it or not) as days grow shorter, and plants will require less water. Hopefully within the next couple of weeks you can start gradually reducing the amount of water you put on the lawn and other shrubbery and then stop watering completely for the winter.

• Pomegranate season: Pomegranates are beginning to ripen now. Harvest one or two to check for sweetness. Beware of overwatering — just kidding. However, too much moisture from irrigation or rain causes ripe fruits to split. When whole, undamaged mature pomegranates are picked off the tree and refrigerated, they will keep for over six months.

• Pest control: To prevent nocturnal rodents from eating your maturing avocados and oranges before you can enjoy them, keep the trees trimmed away from power lines, the house and shrubbery, and even up several feet from the ground. Also try wrapping the trunks of the trees 3 to 4 feet high with aluminum sheeting available from local hardware and home-improvement stores, secured in place with wire (only at the top and bottom). Rats can’t climb up the slippery metal. Reposition the sheet metal at least once a year to allow the trunk to grow.

• Prime-time for primroses: Primroses don’t like the heat, but they will get a strong foothold if planted soon, and they will provide wonderful color throughout winter and spring. Choose from the billowy, pinkish fairy primroses (Primula malacoides), or the bolder English primroses (P. polyantha). These come in brilliant colors including yellows, blues and reds. Plant primroses in partial shade incorporating plenty of compost or mulch. Feed lightly with liquid fertilizer about two weeks after planting.

• Root of the issue: Horseradish roots may be harvested from now through spring. Dig pieces of horseradish root from the outer parts of the root clump as you need them. Peel, grate and mix with vinegar or cream to make horseradish sauce. New starts may be planted in late winter or early spring. Easy to grow with regular watering, especially in rich soils.

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Relax, pick up tips at fall garden festival

With fall weather finally giving us a break from the heat of summer, this is the perfect time for Leon County residents to get outside and try their hands at gardening. Not only is gardening rewarding for the beautiful flowers or tasty vegetables produced, but just getting outside and spending time with nature is good for the body and soul.

The idea that being outside and gardening is good for you isn’t just anecdotal or common sense information, but scientific research shows that people who spend time outdoors are more healthful. Some of the documented case studies go way back. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, showed that gardening improved the well-being of mentally ill patients. One of the most famous and more recent studies was done by Roger Ulrich in the 1980’s. This study demonstrated that patients with views of trees spent less time in the hospital and requested less pain medication than patients without such a view. Both groups had the same ailment, nurses, and room setup.

It has been shown that physical, social, psychological, and cognitive health factors can all be improved through gardening. Improving psychological health is one of the major benefits of gardening and can be especially useful as we near the end of the election cycle or watch too many TV news programs. Gardening has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and tension which can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and generally feeling miserable. More information regarding the health benefits of gardening can be found in the EDIS Publication Horticultural Therapy (

If you would like to de-stress through gardening but you are not sure how to get started, if you are new to the area, or need a little extra explanation about something you would like to try, the folks at the UF/IFAS Leon County Extension Office are here for you. On Oct. 22, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., we will be having our Fall Garden Festival where you can learn more about the following gardening topics:

How to Plant a Tree
    Fall Vegetable Gardening and How to Cook What you Harvest
    Installing a Rain Barrel
    Installing a Rain Garden
    How to Plant a Wildflower Meadow from Seed
    How to Make a Dried Flower Wreath
    How to Attract Bats and Bluebirds to Your Yard

As you can see, there are topics for the new gardener as well as the experienced green thumbs. Tours of our award-winning sustainable building features may inspire you to implement some of those features at your own home. There will also be light refreshments, music, and, of course, tours of our beautiful demonstration gardens, maintained by our stress-free Master Gardeners.

In addition to helping you relax through gardening, the topics that will be discussed at the Fall Garden Festival can help you save money, eat healthier, and help conserve our natural resources. So not only will you feel better but you could also make the Earth feel better. That helps us all out!

Mark Tancig is the Horticulture Extension Agent with UF/IFAS Leon County Extension. For gardening questions, email us at

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