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Grants to address climate change impacts and biomedical challenges

By Hannah Ashton

Researchers in the College of Science know that curiosity is boundless. Answers are not stopping points but instead opportunities for deeper questions and discoveries.

Continuing to ask questions culminated in three faculty groups receiving College of Science Research and Innovation Seed (SciRIS) awards in July. Launched in 2018, SciRIS awards are granted biannually to collaborative research that accelerates the pace of discovery and innovation.

Investigations supported by previous SciRIS awards led to new research questions with the potential to tackle crucial problems and provide actionable solutions for industry, people and the planet.

Ocean hypoxia

Department of Microbiology head and Distinguished Professor Stephen Giovannoni and Francis Chan, associate professor of integrative biology, received a SciRIS Phase II grant of $75,000 for their project entitled “The Hypoxic Barrier: Oxygenase Enzyme Kinetics and Ocean Health.” They are researching the impact of hypoxia on dissolved organic matter composition and microbial community structure and function.

The group used a previous SciRIS award to purchase gas flow controllers and other equipment needed to conduct experiments where plankton communities were maintained for months under normal or hypoxic conditions. The new grant will allow them to extend their work to include metabolomics and metaproteomics.

Hypoxia—low or depleted oxygen in a body of water—puts crabs, salmon, oysters and other marine populations at risk. Associated with sewage discharge and fertilizer runoff, the problem is now exacerbated by climate change.

Experimental findings from two pilot studies suggest low oxygen irreversibly alters the trajectory of organic matter degradation. This represents an unrecognized feedback mechanism that may be stabilizing the severity of low oxygen zones in a warming ocean.

In the future, this research could help scientists predict hypoxic events on the Oregon coast, increasing resiliency and informing responsive climate change mitigation and adaptation policies.

Harmful algal blooms

Focusing on five important Oregon lakes, three researchers from the College of Science will be expanding on research funded in part by a SciRIS Stage 1 award.

Kimberly Halsey, associate microbiology professor, and Duo Jiang, associate statistics professor, previously measured 259 volatile organic compounds (VOC), microbial community composition and other environmental parameters over two years in Upper Klamath Lake, OR. The goal was to develop real-time, automated VOC detection as early-warning signs of toxic harmful algal blooms (HABs) in freshwater and marine ecosystems.

Increasingly Cyanobacteria, the microorganisms that can produce HABs, are being detected in many Oregon waterways that were thought to be pristine. Depending on the cyanobacterial species present, some blooms can produce toxic chemicals that can threaten water quality, recreational opportunities, fisheries, public health, and local and state economies.

A $75,000 SciRIS Stage 2 award will allow for external collaboration with three Oregon water utilities and state agencies, including the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. The five lakes selected have different HAB frequencies, cyanobacterial competition and cyanotoxin types. The team, including James Fox, research associate in the microbiology department, will study “How do the collections of VOCs vary in waterways characterized by different cyanobacterial blooms and cyanotoxins?”

Developing lake or regional HAB and cyanotoxin early warning detection systems, a long-term goal of the project, would help agencies more efficiently protect the environment and human health.

Gut-brain axis

Collaborating with the College of Veterinary Medicine, two College of Science researchers received a $125,000 SciRIS Stage 3 grant to continue ongoing research into the knowledge gap between gut microbes and brain function.

While many U.S. adults take dietary supplements for brain health the mechanisms of action are widely unknown and health benefits vary across studies. One route for gut microbes to affect brain function is through modulation of the vagus nerve.

After receiving initial support from SciRIS Stage 1 and 2 funding, the Stage 3 grant will allow microbiologist Maude David and her collaborators to create a silicon chip that will reproduce key features of the gut-brain axis, including spatially-organized co-cultured epithelial and neuronal cells and enteric bacteria.

The long-term goal is to enable the discovery of psychobiotics for the treatment of mood and anxiety disorders. While current studies are too laborious and expensive, the chip will allow for more rapid screening of potentially therapeutic microbes and compounds.

David, who founded NeuroBiome LLC, a startup focusing on the gut-brain axis, will be joined by neuroscientist Kenton Hokanson.