Anthrax-Killing Virus Holds Promise for Treatment

Vultures gather at a zebra carcass in Etosha National Park in Namibia. Anthrax is caused by a bacterium that invades and kills its animal host. PHOTO: Holly Ganz

From a zebra carcass on the plains of Namibia in Southern Africa, an international team of researchers has isolated a new, giant bacteriophage—a type of virus that invades and kills a bacterial host—that specifically infects the bacterium that causes anthrax. The discovery could open up new ways to detect, treat, or decontaminate the anthrax bacterium, Bacillus anthracis, and its relatives that cause food poisoning.

The anthrax bacterium forms spores that survive in soil for long periods of time. Zebras are infected when they pick up the spores while grazing. The bacteria multiply, and when the animal dies, they form spores that return to the soil as the carcass decomposes.

The first thing the team noticed was that the bacteriophage, or phage, was a voracious predator of B. anthracis, said Holly Ganz, a research scientist at the UC Davis Genome Center and first author on the study. She began the work as a postdoctoral scientist on a team led by Wayne Getz, professor of environmental science, policy, and management (ESPM).

Bacteriophages are often highly specific to a particular strain of bacteria. When they were first discovered in the early 20th century, there was strong interest in using them as antimicrobial agents. But the discovery of penicillin and other antibiotics eclipsed phage treatments in most of the world. “With growing concerns about antibiotic resistance and superbugs, people are coming back to look at phages,” Ganz said.

Christina Law ’10 and molecular and cell biology professor Richard Calendar contributed to the National Institutes of Health–sponsored study, which was published on January 27 in PLOS One.

— Adapted from a story by Andy Fell on Egghead, a UC Davis research blog

Key Process in Photosynthesis Likely Evolved Before Oxygen

PHOTO: Chris German, courtesy of NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory

Scientists studying methane-producing microbes, like the ones found in deep-sea hydrothermal vents, discovered that a process critical to contemporary photosynthesis likely developed on Earth 2.5 billion years ago, long before oxygen became available. The research, led by professor emeritus of plant and microbial biology Bob B. Buchanan, with Virginia Tech colleague Biswarup Mukhopadhyay, opens new scientific areas in the fields of evolutionary biology and microbiology and has broad societal implications as it can shed light on natural gas production, climate change, and related fields. The findings were described in the February 7 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

African American Voices in Entomology

Left: Rakim Turnipseed is a second-year ESPM PhD candidate with an emphasis in entomology. Right: Cooperative Extension specialist Vernard Lewis is an expert on bed bugs. PHOTOS: Left, Kenyetta Turnipseed; right, Robin Tabuchi

Genealogy of African-American Entomologists
1955–2013, UC Berkeley

10 earned PhDs
2 earned MS degrees
2 appointed to faculty (one adjunct)
2 took undergraduate courses (graduated in other majors)
1 current PhD student

ESPM Cooperative Extension specialist Vernard Lewis was invited to give a presentation on African Americans in entomology for the symposium, “Connecting with the World’s Best Talent: Attracting and Retaining Diverse Entomologists.” Nine other speakers at the November 2013 Entomology

Society of America meeting covered a wide array of underrepresented groups in the field.

Lewis dug into a case study of UC Berkeley. No other university had attempted this type of research exercise at their home institution, he later learned at the symposium. Expecting to be able to count his results on one hand, Lewis was surprised that his research turned up 15 individuals over 60 years who self-identified as African Americans and had taken undergrad courses in entomology, with most graduating. Two on the list held faculty positions. The list skewed mostly male, but two women had taken courses and had gone on to receive PhDs.

At least half of the people on the list went on to have careers in entomology. But Lewis thinks the numbers have a clear message. “Obviously, a lot more needs to be done to attract and retain diverse and talented individuals in entomology, as well as for science and math in general.”

— Ann Brody Guy and Vernard Lewis

OUTREACH: A new alliance that includes Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA, and Caltech, funded by the National Science Foundation, will attempt to recruit more underrepresented minority PhD students in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Golden Rice: The Cost of Inaction

Field of golden rice

A large body of scientific evidence points to Vitamin A–enriched rice (golden rice) as a cost-efficient means to significantly improve nutrition—and thereby lower health costs—for the world’s hungry masses. Yet despite golden rice being available since early 2000, the crop has not been introduced in any country. Why the delay? Agricultural and resource economics (ARE) professor David Zilberman postulated that governments perceive that the added costs of addressing the public controversy around genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, will outweigh the crop’s social benefits.

Zilberman and co-author Justus Wesseler, a professor at the Technische Universität München in Germany, developed a model to quantify those “perceived costs.” The results, based on a case study of India, show the annual perceived costs of GMO adoption to be at least US$199 million per year for most of the past decade. “This is an indicator of the economic power of the opposition toward golden rice,” said Zilberman, citing this perceived cost as the explanation for the delayed approvals.

The researchers also calculated the human cost of delaying golden rice implementation to be approximately 1.4 million life years lost over the past decade, mainly due to hunger-related deaths or shortened lifespans. The perceived costs are 85 times larger than the actual costs of implementing a golden rice agricultural program, the researchers reported.

“These findings explain why it’s more difficult to convince regulators when a strong vocal opposition exists to a technology,” said Zilberman. “Having a better understanding of the political economy behind the perceived costs, and studying how to reduce them, seems to be economically much more important than conducting additional investigations into the costs of implementation planning, such as social marketing and maintenance breeding.” The study was published in January’s Environment and Development Economics.

In a related study, Zilberman documented the positive social impact that genetically modified foods have already had. While acknowledging that agricultural biotechnology warrants continued investigation, and that each new transgenic crop might bring new or bigger risks, the article, published in the Winter 2014 Journal of Economics, concludes that the “balance of scientific knowledge weighs in favor of continued adoption of genetically engineered seed.” ARE PhD student Geoffrey Barrows and Steven Sexton, assistant professor at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, are co-authors.

— Ann Brody Guy

Protecting Food Crops from Powdery Mildew

Mary Wildermuth, associate professor of plant and microbial biology, in her lab. PHOTO: Peg Skorpinski

It looks harmless enough—a light dusting like baby powder sprinkled on the leaves. But powdery mildew can cause billions of dollars of crop damage in California. For example, the fast-spreading fungus is the most significant disease affecting grapes in California. Borne by the wind, its spores race through fields, resulting in crop losses of 30 percent or more.

Growers combat powdery mildew with sulfur, fungicides, and other deterrents, but treatment is costly, and timing is difficult. But a much more precise strategy may be on the way. Using highly refined dissection of infected plant cells, coupled with genetic analysis, plant and microbial biology associate professor Mary Wildermuth identified genes critical to a plant’s response to mildew attack. Her research focuses on plant breeding strategies that can weaken powdery mildew’s grip.

Wildermuth is applying her discoveries to protect commer-cially valuable crops. She uses a plant in the mustard family popular with researchers for its small, sequenced genome and a short life cycle. “We’ve already identified the parallel genes in a number of important crops,” she said. “By targeted breeding to limit these genes’ powdery mildew–promoting effects, we should be able to protect plants without extensive chemical treatments.” Wildermuth’s work is funded from the Bakar Fellows Program, which supports early-career faculty conducting commercially promising research.

— adapted from an article by Wallace Ravven

TOP PAPER: ARE professor emeritus George Judge was a co-author, with colleagues in the United Kingdom and Russia, on the winning entry for the 2014 Best Paper Award from the journal Entropy, it was announced in February.

Cal Forestry Turns 100

Cal Forestry Centennial

North American Forestry Summit
May 7–9 (by invitation)Centennial Party
Sept. 19, UC Berkeley Faculty ClubCentennial Publication
Available beginning Sept. 19 (distributed free to Centennial Party guests)Support Forestry Camp
The S. Donald and Bernice Schwabacher Fund provides CNR with critical resources to preserve our forestry field class for future generations. See Save Our Only-at-Cal Forestry Camp, page 28, or go to and click the “Give Now” button.

This year, forestry education at UC Berkeley turns 100. Over the past century, the Cal Forestry program has had an impact on every dimension of the field and has produced the profession’s most influential thinkers and doers.

Alumni of the program hold critical positions for the management of 95 percent of the industrial forestlands in California, and the research of our alumni and faculty has expanded knowledge in fire, remote sensing and geographic information systems, ecology, climate change, forest economics, the social sciences, and numerous other areas. For a forestry that crossed several of these disciplines, see Taming Sierra Flames, just in time for the fire season.

Cal Forestry is celebrating its centennial in style, with a party, a special publication highlighting faculty and alumni contributions to the field, and a conference that looks to the future of forestry education. The program is also holding a campaign to secure the future of the beloved summer field program in the Sierras, known as Forestry Camp.

ESPM TURNS 20: In a special anniversary Q&A section, Planet Earth interviews the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.

Golf Goes Green

Golf ball

Bay Area golf lovers can thank Stacey Baba ’77 and her cohorts in the Northern California Golf Association (NCGA) for making a local golf course more sustainable. The group owns Poppy Ridge in Livermore and Poppy Hills in Pebble Beach. “The Poppy Hills renovation project cut water consumption by reducing the area of irrigated turf from 82 to 66 acres, even though the course was lengthened,” said Baba, who is on NCGA’s board of directors. Poppy Hills reopened this spring after completing a year of renovations that include a new irrigation system that applies water—already ultra-filtered sewage runoff—more selectively, among other enhancements.

— Ann Brody Guy

Harrison Fraker Named Top 2014 Architecture Educator

Harrison Fraker

Harrison Fraker, an architecture professor known for his trailblazing work in sustainability, is the 2014 recipient of the Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education, the leading award in architectural education in the United States. Fraker currently serves as the chair of the Energy and Resources Group and is a former dean of the College of Environmental Design.

The Topaz Medallion honors an individual who has been involved in architecture education for more than a decade and whose teaching has influenced a broad range of students. The prize was announced December 17 by the Board of the American Institute of Architects and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, who commended Fraker for pushing the academic study of energy use in buildings to the forefront of the sustainability movement.

— Adapted from an article by Kathleen Maclay


María Fernández-Giménez

María Fernández-Giménez, MS ’92 Range Manage-ment, PhD ’97 Wildland Resource Science, received the Outstanding Achievement Award for Research at the Society for Range Management’s 67th annual meeting, held in February. Fernández-Giménez is a professor in the Forest and Rangeland Stewardship Department at Colorado State University.

Nicole Abreu

Plant and microbial biology (PMB) graduate student Nicole Abreu has been awarded the American Society for Microbiology’s prestigious Robert D. Watkins Graduate Research Fellowship and will receive up to $21,000 annually over the next three years to continue her work on how bacteria function at a cellular level.

Rebecca Peters

Rebecca Peters, a senior who focuses on water rights, has won a Marshall Scholarship, one of the nation’s top honors for undergraduates. Peters is a double major in society and environment and international development economics. The scholarship funds U.S. students with high leadership potential to pursue graduate studies in the United Kingdom.

Michael Gomez

CNR graduate students dominated the 2013 Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Awards, which rewards graduate students working on innovative, interdisciplinary, and sustainable solutions to world challenges in energy and climate change, water, food, housing, and human health. Grand prize winner Michael Gomez, a PhD candidate in PMB, won $10,000 for his efforts to engineer resistance to cassava brown streak disease, a serious threat to a vital food supply in Africa. Gavin McCormick and Dilek Uz, agricultural and resource economics PhD students, along with their biophysics and chemistry teammate Anna Schneider, were named runners-up for WattTime, a method for tuning electricity-consuming equipment to favor power from cleaner sources.

Go Bears! U.S. News & World Report has once again chosen Cal for the No. 1 spot on its 2013 ranking of public universities.