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Current Research Projects by Department

Department: Stockbridge School of Agriculture

Global climate change affects every aspect of our life. Global warming increases the intensity of drought, which leads to the increase in frequency and severity of forest fires. Beyond being a source of soot and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), severe wildfires/forest fires can damage soils, water quality and quantity, fisheries, plant communities, wildlife habitat, and endangered species; result in economic and property loss; and cause harms to the environment and public health. Forest thinning or prescribed burns reduce the accumulation of hazardous fuels and restore forest health.  The major cause of global warming is the ever-increasing concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere from the use of carbon-based fuels. Biochar, the anaerobic pyrolysis productof biomass waste material, has attracted research interest as a soil amendment that may improve soil structure, moisture retention, and buffering capacity, and that helps control plant root diseases and sequester carbon in soils (instead of release to air as CO2), as a result, mitigate greenhouse effect. Therefore, the goal of this proposed project is to utilize wood waste materials to produce biochar which can be used in both forest and agricultural soils to improve soil quality, sequester carbon in soils, and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases (e.g., CO2 and N2O).

 

Interest Area: Environmental Conservation

Plant seed oils have tremendous potential as environmentally, economically and technologically feasible replacements for petroleum, but the relatively low oil yields from existing crops limits the commercial viability of seed oil based biofuels.

Therefore, a primary issue of concern with biofuels and bio-products is the ability to produce enough  feedstock oils without displacing food crops. A second major concern is that environmental stresses such as drought, salinity, heat, and exposure to toxic metals adversely affect the growth and productivity of crop plants and thus are serious threats to crop production for food as well as biofuels. Additionally, increase oil contents and composition of fatty acids in edible oil not only improve the food security but will also improve the health of millions of people globally. Our proposed study addresses these fundamental concerns with research to enable the growth of high yield biofuel crops on contaminated and marginal lands without displacing food crop production. Molecular and biochemical approaches are proposed for improving the tolerance of plants to multiple abiotic and oxidative stresses, which will enable biofuel crops to grow on marginal and nutrient poor lands.

During this project, we will identify the key bottlenecks and rate limiting steps in the pathways for Triacylglycerol biosynthesis and storage in seeds. Further we will engineer Camelina sativa, brassica juncea and other related oilseeds crops for higher oil and seeds yields using the candidate genes. Additionally, we will develop "climate-resilient oil seeds crops" by combining enhanced oil and seed yield traits with traits imparting abiotic stresses tolerance in oil seed crops for enabling these crops to grow on nutrient poor marginal lands under changing climate.

We expect to be able to identify key genes/gene networks that limits the accumulation of lipids in seeds using transcriptomic, genomics and metabolomic approaches and  expect to produce genetically engineered oil seed crops with increased oil and seed yield.

Interest Area: Energy

Improving water management is of increasing importance in horticultural operations. A growing global population and changes in water availability will mean that less water will be available for ornamental plant production. There are also a growing number of federal and state regulations regarding water use and runoff from production areas. Better irrigation and fertilization management practices will help to limit the environmental impact of container plant production by limiting the runoff of water and nutrients from nurseries. It will help growers to meet regulations regarding nutrient management and runoff. Reductions in runoff will help improve quality in local ecosystems.

Interest Area: Water

House flies are the major vector of numerous food pathogens (e.g., Escherichia coli). It has been suggested that the fly crop is the major reservoir for the pathogen and also that this is where horizontal transmission of antibiotic resistance occurs. The salivary glands of most flies involved in vectoring pathogens are also involved in pathogen transmission and their nutrient and pathogen uptake while feeding. This research focuses on two essential organ systems of house flies, in order to explore non-traditional control strategies for the insects. Control of flies is thought to have a potential strong impact on transmission of food pathogens.

Interest Area: Food Science

Department: Department of Geosciences

. Natural and restored wetlands are among the most biodiverse ecosystems present in Massachusetts, providing unique habitat for species ranging from insects and endangered native fishes to coastal birds and songbirds, and plants which thrive in environments that range from completely saturated year-round to dry. Because this niche environment is crucially important for ecosystem services (including, but not limited to verdant habitat and food supply for a large diversity of plant, animal and insect species, water filtration, slowing and spreading of floodwaters, limiting erosion, storage of carbon and other nutrients, temperature buffering, pollinator habitat and forage lands, and water storage), significant attention has been paid to conserving and restoring wetlands and their optimum function wherever possible. One of the most basic, defining metrics of a wetland is, as the name implies, its wetness. The relative water content in the soil can be assessed in a variety of ways, and this quantity alone is important for reasons beyond wetland function. Specifically, for a wetland to become established and remain functional independently, sufficient water must be present throughout the year to favor wetland plants and animals, which thrive in wet environments but are unlikely to outcompete invasives or other species in drier regimes. We foresee a continued interest in wetland restoration in Massachusetts and predict that measurable metrics to assess the success of such restoration efforts are desired. To that end, we propose developing a series of tools to measure soil moisture and subsurface thermal regimes to monitor change over time.

Interest Area: Environmental Conservation

Global climate change is altering the Earth's natural cycling of water from the ground to the air and back again, what is known as the hydrologic cycle. In New England, climate change is predicted to increase temperatures and increase the frequency and strength of rain events. The increased temperatures will result in less snow accumulation in the winter and an increased need for irrigation in the hotter summer as evapo-transpiration increases. This will alter significantly the recharge/extraction cycle. Will less water enter groundwater aquifers because of reduced snow fall? Will enough water recharge the aquifers to offset the amount extracted in the summer for irrigation? Certainly the timing of recharge will change. These changes will require a better understanding of recharge rates and a better characterization of groundwater aquifers; the volume of water present and its availability. Understanding the seasonal timing and rates of groundwater recharge is critical to maintaining a sustainable water supply. Importantly, how will these changes in the hydrolgical cycle effect sustainable agricultural practices?

Interest Area: Water

Department: Department of Environmental Conservation

This study will provide important information on long-term trends in water demand and supply, aid in the formulation of water policies for water resource development, and offer information to help protect surface and groundwater supplies. This project will also target areas with the best potential for surface augmentation of water supplies based on the relative benefits and costs of water supply augmentation (through spatially explicit policies for runoff mitigation and groundwater recharge). This project will evaluate water resources within a watershed ecosystem framework, and thereby will consider multiple supplies and uses of water resources. This study will address three areas of special interest to the region, namely:
• Water management in the context of forest loss and rapid development and conflict for water supply;
• Improvements in the assessment of water availability, incorporating technological, institutional, cultural and economic factors that   influence water use and water availability and;
• Improved methods of characterizing and quantifying components of the water cycle in forested watersheds.

Interest Area: Environmental Conservation

This study will investigate how the estimated density of a forest ecosystem bioindicator species, the red backed salamander (P. cinereus)  is influenced by the design of a commonly applied sampling protocol. The project will provide important insights into the utility of artificial cover board surveys as a method for estimating salamander density for use as an indicator of forest ecosystem condition.

Interest Area: Environmental Conservation

Acid rain and atmospheric pollution continue to be regional and national problems. The site's data contributes to the accurate assessment of precipitation chemistry and the effectiveness of the nation's air pollution laws and regulations.

Interest Area: Environmental Conservation

There is widespread interest in greening municipalities and increasing urban tree canopy cover, largely through local community-based tree planting initiatives. It is generally estimated that newly-installed (i.e. planted) trees require at least 3 or more years before establishment, when they resume pre-transplant growth rates. Most trees installed in the urban environment are dug from the nursery field with a spade, and wrapped in burlap and a metal basket ('balled and burlap' or 'B&B'). There is interest, however, by shade tree committee members and professional urban foresters alike, in planting trees grown using other easier-to-plant systems, including a variety of container-grown (CG, IGF) and bare-root (BR) tree production methods. Trees grown from these production systems, however, must have the potential to grow long-term and reach maturity to offer the numerous values associated with urban trees that include a variety of aesthetic, social, and environmental benefits.This may be a challenge, since urban environments often present very difficult growing conditions that habitually thwart tree growth and survival. Though advances in understanding have been made, empirical data to describe the survival and growth of such trees remains limited, with the preponderance of research considering trees growing in agricultural plots, rather than in urban settings. Since budget constraints are routinely identified as a key limiting factor relative to urban forest management practices, there is also a need for further information concerning the longer term costs associated with planting and maintaining urban trees. Collecting growth and maintenance cost data on established urban oak specimens in Amherst, MA, produced using various nursery systems will 1) add to the overall base of  knowledge concerning urban tree growth and survival 2) enable the quantification and further understanding of the relationship of urban tree growth/survival and nursery production system 3) Enable the quantification and further understanding of the long-term costs associated with planting and maintaining urban trees. The long-term goal of this work is to gather local, empirical data that will help urban forest practitioners consider the appropriate (i.e. most cost-effective, best-performing) nursery production system, when selecting trees for urban planting in Massachusetts communities.

Interest Area: Environmental Conservation

The expansive growth of solar photovoltaics (PV) in Massachusetts has helped make the state a leader in renewable energy production, but there have been public concerns regarding the development of agricultural lands for solar PV electricity production. In response to these concerns, the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) included provisions in the new state solar energy program which limit conventional ground-mounted solar arrays on farmland, while encouraging innovative "dual-use" technology. Under the new Solar Massachusetts Renewable Target (SMART) program, there is a significant financial incentive for dual-use systems which limit shading and obstructions, and require continued agricultural production on the land below and around solar arrays.

Interest Area: Energy

This study will provide important information on long-term trends in water demand and supply, aid in the formulation of water policies for water resource development, and offer information to help protect surface and groundwater supplies. This project will also target areas with the best potential for surface augmentation of water supplies based on the relative benefits and costs of water supply augmentation (through spatially explicit policies for runoff mitigation and groundwater recharge). This project will evaluate water resources within a watershed ecosystem framework, and thereby will consider multiple supplies and uses of water resources. This study will address three areas of special interest to the region, namely:
• Water management in the context of forest loss and rapid development and conflict for water supply;
• Improvements in the assessment of water availability, incorporating technological, institutional, cultural and economic factors that   influence water use and water availability and;
• Improved methods of characterizing and quantifying components of the water cycle in forested watersheds.

Interest Area: Water

Department: Department of Microbiology

Nearly all food and agricultural waste in the U.S. enters landfills, making it the largest contributor of material entering these sites. Biological pre-treatment of large organic molecules by fermentative organisms lowers the high organic carbon load in waste, lowers wastewater treatment costs, and can produce bioenergy to partially offset costs. Conceivably, microbes that grow best above 80°C, or so-called ‘hyperthermophiles’, could be used to consolidate wastewater heat treatment and organic remediation in a single step to decrease costs while producing H2 as an energy product.

Interest Area: Energy

Although considerable research has been performed focused on the conversion of biomass to useful products, to date we still have no functional bio-refineries in the US or globally. One of the key problems in the conversion of biomass is known as the "lignin recalcitrance barrier". Lignin is a tough "plastic material" produced by plants that, at the molecular level, coats the "cellulosic" components of biomass that are used to produce most bio-based products and biofuels. Currently some very harsh chemical and heat pre-treatment systems that release cellulosic components from the surrounding lignin barrier are used in pilot scale research for most bio-refineries. To date however, these have been shown to be so harsh that they either damage the cellulose components, they are so polluting that they generate problematic or hazardous wastes, or they simply are so expensive that they cannot be used practically. What our research focuses on is harnessing and utilizing the CMF system that was developed millions of years ago by fungal organisms (a system that has largely been ignored by most scientists interested in biomass conversion). We hope that by harnessing the system that these unique "brown rot" fungi have evolved over the millennia that we can mimic and apply their chemistries to produce biorefinery systems that are more effective, and in particular that are highly energy efficient, cost efficient, safe and non-polluting.

Interest Area: Energy

Department: Department of Biology

Current agricultural practices on available arable land will not meet the nutritional needs of a population that will reach nine billion people by the middle of this century (Ray et al. 2013). In parallel, climate change will increase extreme weather events, including drought (Dai, 2011, Trenberth et al., 2014), and continued urbanization of farmland is eliminating arable land (Song et al. 2015). There is a clear need for sustainable agricultural innovations that can increase yields and provide food security without incurring environmental degradation. Soil microbes are known to form associations with plants and affect plant health, and in recent years, interest has grown in exploiting the beneficial associations that plants establish with microbes. The plant microbiome abounds with plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR) that can help plants acquire more nutrients from the soil and tolerate stressors like drought (Barnawal et al. 2013, Bresson et al. 2014). PGPR can also control plant pathogens (Chowdhury et al. 2013), promote beneficial mycorrhizal colonization (Labbe et al. 2014), and produce potentially valuable secondary metabolites (Raaijmakers et al. 2012). Finding ways to harness these beneficial microbes to improve crop growth and yield has the potential to ameliorate the challenges imposed by the world's growing population and environmental degradation.

 

Interest Area: Energy

Department: Department of Resource Economics

Residential solar power is an important technological innovation that holds promise for a cleaner energy future. Out of 2.5 million households in the state of Massachusetts, those who installed solar photovoltaic(PV) systems grew from a mere 14 households to 60,465 households between 2010-2017. Between 2015-2017, the residential installations are growing at an even higher rate
of 50% (Data source: Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources). It is crucial to understand what factors are determining the household decisions in the process of adopting the solar PV system.

Interest Area: Energy

Department: Department of Food Science

 Nanotechnology is defined by the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) as “…the understanding and control of matter at dimensions between approximately 1 and 100 nanometers, where unique phenomena enable applications. Here in this proposal, we aim to develop four nanotechnology enabled solutions to improve food quality, safety and nutrition.  A major trend in the modern food industry has been the development of functional foods designed to improve human health and wellbeing. Consumption of these foods may reduce the incidences of chronic diseases (such as cardiovascular disease, eye disease, diabetes, cancer, and hypertension) or improve human performance (such as alertness, activity levels, memory, and stamina).

Interest Area: Food Science

The results of this project will directly impact industries that handle foods most commonly implicated in foodborne disease outbreaks, including low-moisture foods (especially spices, nuts, and dried fruits); fresh, minimally, and shelf-stable processed produce; dairy; fresh and further processed seafood, meat, and poultry products (including fully cooked and ready-to-eat products subject to post-process contamination), as well as other multi-component and processed foods. Moreover, the threats and specific needs for food safety in the food industry are constantly evolving and require continued risk-based solutions in the face of these changes. Therefore, the project proposes risk-based solutions for the effective control of foodborne pathogens across food commodities in the U.S.

Interest Area: Food Science

There is a strong association of chronic inflammation with various types of diseases.

However, many of the current treatments for chronic inflammation are limited due to undesirable side effects associated with their long-term use and research has shown bioactive dietary components to be promising candidates for the prevention of inflammation and associated diseases. Thus, the goal of this project is to investigate the role of food bioactives in conjunction with microbiomes in prevention of inflammatory responses.

Interest Area: Food Science

Food safety is very much an agricultural issue.
This multi-researcher project will focus on four critical aspects of food safety: understanding the scope of food safety problems, characterizing the scientific basis of pathogenic organisms' survival, development of methodology for detection, and translating knowledge through food safety extension research and activates. Together these activities will contribute to the long term goal of reducing the overall risk of foodborne illness.

Interest Area: Food Science

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