Around the quad

periodiCALS, Vol. 8, Issue 1, 2018

From revolutionizing the management of diabetes to expanding cassava development in Africa, our researchers explain their groundbreaking work. 

Minglin Ma, back left, and his research team developed TRAFFIC, a polymer thread to manage type 1 diabetes.  Photo: Lindsay France

Removable implant may control type 1 diabetes

Device provides alternative to insulin therapy

Daily insulin injections are literally a matter of life and death for the more than 1 million Americans who live with type 1 diabetes. While there is no cure, our researchers have developed a device that could revolutionize management of the disease.

In Type 1 diabetes, insulin-producing pancreatic cell clusters (islets) are destroyed by the body’s immune system. A research team led by Minglin Ma, assistant professor in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering, has devised an ingenious method for implanting hundreds of thousands of islet cells into a patient. They are protected by a thin hydrogel coating and, more importantly, the coated cells are attached to a polymer thread—which the group has dubbed TRAFFIC (Thread-Reinforced Alginate Fiber For Islets enCapsulation)—and can be removed or replaced easily when they have outlived their usefulness.

The ability to remove the transplant is key because of the potential of tumors forming when stem cell-derived, insulin-producing cells—the most promising cell source for type 1 diabetes cell therapies—are used.
“When they fail or die, they need to come out,” Ma said. “You don’t want to put something in the body that you can’t take out. With our method, that’s not a problem.”

The Climate Change Demonstration Garden. Photo: Jay Potter

Climate Change Garden offers a lens into the future

Demonstration garden fast-forwards the impact of increased rain, temperature   

Raised beds at our Cornell Botanic Gardens are providing a living illustration of how future temperature conditions may affect plants.

“Climate change is one of the biggest challenges we’re facing,” said Sonja Skelly, director of education at the botanic gardens. “For the general public, climate change is something they hear about, but it can be out of sight, out of mind.”

The Climate Change Demonstration Garden features flowers as well as vegetable and grain plants grown in the present climate. Nearby, a controlled-environment high tunnel approximates upstate New York temperatures predicted for the 2050s. By that time, the average temperature may increase by more than 6 degrees Fahrenheit. The number of days with temperatures rising above 90 degrees could increase, with a greater frequency and duration of heat waves. And the region will likely receive increases in annual rainfall and experience more intense-precipitation events.

“Essentially we’re using plants as a lens into the future,” Skelly said. “Plants are good communicators of what we can expect to see, and these plants may have an impact on our visitors who see them."

Lab launches defense against invasive pest

Hemlock woolly adelgid threatens eastern forests

Eastern hemlock trees are among the oldest trees in New York, with some more than 700 years old. The trees often occupy shady, north-facing slopes and stream banks and help maintain erosion control and water quality. Shade from the trees cools streams that are home to many of New York’s freshwater fish, including brook trout.

But a tiny pest is putting these majestic trees in peril. Hemlock woolly adelgids, invasive insects native to the Pacific Northwest and East Asia, feed on young twigs and cause buds to die and needles to dry out and drop prematurely. 

A new $1.2 million lab, partly funded by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, will research and rear biological controls to slow the spread of hemlock woolly adelgids. Previous research has shown that Laricobius nigrinus beetles and silver flies, which both only prey on the pests, are effective biocontrol agents in the Pacific Northwest. The Cornell lab is researching how effective these predators will be on adelgids on the East Coast.

Chiedozie Egesi, right, and a field technician check cassava field plots for signs of disease. Photo: Provided

$35 million in new funding supports cassava development in Africa

Grant expands efforts to deliver improved varieties for farmers

Cassava is vital to the food security of millions of Africans who eat some form of the root crop daily. Although cassava breeders are making progress, they face significant challenges in developing disease-resistant varieties that also increase yield and respond to the needs of smallholder farmers and processors. We are expanding international efforts to deliver improved varieties of cassava to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa with $35 million in new funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK aid in the United Kingdom.

“This grant funds a second five-year phase that will allow us to build on previous work and focus on getting improved varieties into farmers’ fields,” said Ronnie Coffman, international plant breeder and director of International Programs-CALS, who leads the project.

Compared with other major staples like maize, rice and wheat, cassava has undergone few advances in productivity and yield over the last 50 years. During Phase 1 of the Next Generation Cassava Breeding project, researchers shortened the breeding cycle for new cassava varieties by improving flowering and using genomic selection. 

“Our focus for the next five years will be to translate this research into breeding practices to increase impact,” said Chiedozie Egesi, NextGen project director and adjunct professor of plant breeding and genetics at Cornell, who is based at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nigeria. A key goal in Phase 2 will be to identify traits preferred by farmers and end users and incorporate them into new cassava lines.

“Breeders must be able to more quickly develop cassava varieties that resist diseases, are climate resilient, and meet the needs of end users and consumers,” said Egesi.

Strengthening the capacity of national breeding programs will be critical in achieving self-sustaining breeding systems in sub-Saharan Africa. Over the next five years, NextGen researchers will continue to train the next generation of sub-Sahara African cassava breeders in modern plant breeding techniques like genomic selection and

Professors Maureen Hanson and Andrew Grimson inspect a high-throughput DNA sequencer in the Biotechnology Resource Center. Photo: Lindsay France

$9.4 million NIH grant funds chronic fatigue syndrome center

Cornell is one of three institutions nationwide to receive funding

Imagine living with debilitating fatigue that is not helped by rest. Along with prolonged and unexplained fatigue following mild physical exertion, you also experience body pain, headaches, trouble thinking clearly and difficulty sleeping.

That is the daily struggle for the more than one million people in the U.S. who suffer from myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). Yet despite its prevalence, causes and effective treatments for the disease remain a mystery. The Cornell Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Collaborative Research Center—established in the fall with a nearly $9.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health—is studying ways to remedy that situation. 

“Understanding the biological basis of the illness is essential to develop therapies that will allow those who are now trapped in their beds and homes to resume active lives,” said Maureen Hanson, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, who directs the center.

“The ultimate goal of all this is to find the fundamental disruptions, so that we can discover treatments to mitigate those disruptions and restore people to health,” she said.