Clemson researcher Antonio Baeza — with his marine biology students — has discovered a tiny parasite that has implications for a multibillion-dollar fishing industry and, in some ways, the future of our planet.
Postdoctoral award winner focuses on increasing yield of food crops
Rohit Kumar wants to help feed the world.
“My interest is to serve society by contributing to sustainable food security for the growing world population,” said College of Science postdoctoral fellow Rohit Kumar, who works in the laboratory of Rajandeep Sekhon, an associate professor of genetics and biochemistry.
Kumar’s overall research focuses on understanding complex traits that underlie nutritional value and stress tolerance to develop climate-resistant crop plants.
At Clemson, his research has focused on regulatory systems that govern senescence — the process of biological aging — and stalk lodging in corn, which refers to stalk breakage below the corn ear. Lodging reduces the U.S. corn crop by as much as 25 percent annually.
Sekhon said Kumar’s work could help improve yields for a wide range of annual crops, including corn, soybeans, rice and wheat. “These crops only survive for one season, and even then, their lifespan is limited,” Sekhon said. “During that lifespan, the most important thing the plants do for us is convert solar energy into chemical energy through photosynthesis, which is what basically sustains us. Our big idea is that if we can delay senescence, that can lead to the production of more chemical energy for human consumption.”
Since he came to Clemson in 2018, Kumar has authored or co-authored five peer-reviewed publications in various scholarly journals, including The Plant Cell and Plant, Cell & Environment. The Clemson University Postdoctoral Association named Kumar its 2021 Distinguished Postdoctoral Award for his efforts to understand how to extend the productive life of food crops.
In addition to his research, Kumar frequently serves as a reviewer of international journals and a judge in student-oriented competitions, including the Three-Minute Thesis program and the University’s Undergraduate Science Symposium.
“Dr. Kumar is an outstanding young scientist with a steady upward trajectory,” Sekhon said.
Older adults have become the fastest-growing demographic in the nation, and changes in health care and technology are required to meet the needs of this diverse group. But Lesley A. Ross, Clemson’s new SmartLIFE Endowed Chair in Aging and Cognition, says scholarship and research in the area of older adults can’t just be about a number.
“Longevity is easy to quantify, but older adults don’t focus as much on age as they do on quality of life,” Ross said. “My research, and the work of this position, focuses on keeping older adults happy and independent as long as possible while fighting the negative stereotypes associated with aging.”
The new endowed chair has been created specifically to research aging and its effects on issues related to brain function. Ross, who comes to Clemson from Penn State, will be a tenured faculty member in the Department of Psychology and will work collaboratively across the University on research related to aging and cognition. She will serve as associate director for the Clemson University Institute for Engaged Aging. SmartState centers were formed in 2002 as one of a series of legislative acts intended to accelerate South Carolina’s knowledge economy transformation.
As universities all over the country began scrambling to figure out what campus life would be like in a year of COVID-19, several Clemson professors got busy on parts of that puzzle that related to their own research.
One of those professors was David Freedman, chair of the University’s Department of Envionmental Engineering and Earth Sciences. In the spring of 2020, Freedman began testing coronavirus levels in wastewater on the University’s main campus and in the surrounding community to provide an early warning system that shows how fast the virus is spreading.
Freedman likened the tests to the “canary in the coal mine” that can help administrators make informed decisions about what they need to do to protect the public’s health even before COVID-19 case counts start to rise. In addition to campus, his testing covers the city of Clemson and the town of Pendleton, both home to many University students, faculty and staff.
Studies have shown that the virus starts showing up in wastewater as much as one to two weeks before clinical symptoms are reported.
Clemson City Council unanimously passed an ordinance on June 24 that mandated face coverings after Freedman found surprisingly high virus levels at the city’s Cochran Road wastewater treatment plant. The ordinance cited “elevated levels of virus in the community similar to levels in other cities in which an outbreak of the virus was about to occur or was well underway.”
Previous studies first done in Europe have shown that the virus starts showing up in wastewater as much as one to two weeks before clinical symptoms are reported, said Freedman.
“Even before people are coughing and getting a fever, they’ll start shedding the virus in their feces, and that will show up in the wastewater,” Freedman said. Once or twice a week, Freedman collects wastewater samples from one campus plant and two municipal plants and sends them to a lab in Tennessee. Results from the testing are posted on both the city and the University websites.
Disorders affecting bones and joints — including arthritis, osteoporosis and chronic back pain — are a major driver of health care costs around the world. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that by 2040, more than one-quarter of Americans will be diagnosed with arthritis.
Clemson is looking to address that problem. With an $11 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Center for Biomedical Research Excellence, the University has launched a new research center that will bring together scientists from across South Carolina to change the way musculoskeletal disorders are diagnosed, treated and studied.
Led by bioengineers at Clemson, the South Carolina Center for Translational Research Improving Musculoskeletal Health combines orthopedics and other clinical expertise from the Greenville Health System and the Medical University of South Carolina with computer scientists, computational engineers, biophysicists and other experts to better understand musculoskeletal disorders and to design and evaluate new devices, interventions and drug therapies.
Christopher Saski, associate professor in the plant and environmental sciences department, is the principal investigator on a project that seeks to explore the cotton genome and how it reacts in microgravity and normal gravity.
“We are using a systems genomics approach in a very unique environment to fully understand the developmental programs and molecular mechanisms that orchestrate the regeneration of plant cells into whole plants,” Saski said. “This new understanding has the potential to unlock plant genomes to biotechnology and subsequently transform agriculture.”
The Cotton Sustainability Challenge, run by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) and sponsored by Target Corp., provided researchers and innovators the opportunity to propose solutions to improve crop production on Earth by sending their concepts to the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory.
CASIS announced Monday the selection of three projects as winners of the challenge, which sought potential solutions to benefit cotton production by improving water sustainability. Through the collaboration, CASIS and NASA will facilitate hardware implementation and in-orbit access to the ISS National Lab, while Target will provide grant funding for selected proposals.
Saski’s project proposes to examine gene expression, DNA methylation patterns and genome sequences of embryogenic callus material that respond differently to regeneration in tissue culture during the process of regeneration under micro- and normal gravity environments.
This innovative approach could have the potential to unlock the phenomenon of genetic recalcitrance (resistance) to regeneration, advancing fundamental biological knowledge and can have translational impacts to other plant species that are critical to global agricultural sustainability.
“Dr. Saski’s proposal is such a novel idea and epitomizes the goal of our department’s research, which is translational, problem-solving science to advance crop agriculture in South Carolina and beyond,” said Paula Agudelo, interim associate dean of research and graduate studies for Clemson’s College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences.
Saski’s transdisciplinary team of investigators includes Li Wen, a scientist from Changsha University of Science and Technology in China and a visiting scholar at Clemson University; Shuangxia Jin, a renowned cotton scientist at Huazhong Agricultural University, also in China; and Jeremy Schmutz, a faculty investigator at the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology.
“Space science provides unprecedented opportunities for the study of molecular biology where we can investigate the molecular mechanisms of life development and growth regulation from a unique perspective aboard the ISS,” Jin said.
On the space station, a variety of physical and biological phenomena can be tested in ways not possible on Earth.
“Microgravity is a unique trigger that alters epigenetics and gene expression and will have a profound influence on understanding the genetic programs of plant regeneration,” Wen said.
HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology, located in Huntsville, Alabama, is a nonprofit institute dedicated to developing and applying scientific advances to health, agriculture, learning and commercialization.
“We will apply our experience to produce a novel reference genome of cotton and apply genomic tools to compare gene expression changes between space and earth plants, along with epigenetics, which are subtle accumulated changes to the functioning of DNA,” Schmutz said.
The research aims at solving a quandary that affects everyone: No tractable solution is in place to satisfy the growing demand for fuel, food, and fiber as the global population continues to expand. Better understanding gene function and the use of genome engineering technology has the potential to change the lives of everyone and everything on the planet.
“Dr. Saski’s work on plant transformation in zero gravity has significant implications for crop improvement; this is a very exciting opportunity,” said Tim Boosinger, interim dean of the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences.
In 2005, Congress designated the U.S. portion of the International Space Station as the nation’s newest national laboratory to maximize its use for improving life on Earth, promoting collaboration among diverse users and advancing STEM education. The unique laboratory environment is available for use by other U.S. government agencies and by academic and private institutions, providing access to the permanent microgravity setting, vantage point in low Earth orbit and varied environments of space.
The challenge provided researchers a novel way to leverage microgravity to evaluate avenues for more sustainable cotton production. Cotton is a natural plant fiber produced in many countries and one of the most important raw materials required for the production of textiles and clothing.
Cotton cultivation requires sustainable access to natural resources like water that are increasingly threatened. This challenge sought to engage the creative power of the research community to leverage the ISS National Lab to innovate and generate ideas that will improve the utilization of natural resources for sustainable cotton production.
CASIS is the nonprofit organization selected to manage the ISS National Laboratory with a focus on enabling a new era of space research to improve life on Earth. In this innovative role, CASIS promotes and brokers a diverse range of research in life sciences, physical sciences, remote sensing, technology development and education.
“Bringing awareness to cotton sustainability is a powerful opportunity to showcase the unique research facets of the International Space Station,” CASIS director of commercial innovation and strategic partnerships Cynthia Bouthot said in a news release announcing the winners Monday. “We look forward to working alongside Target and our selected researchers as they prepare to send innovative research to our orbiting laboratory.”