The secrets of sea slugs
Basking in the
light yields energy for
sea slugs, which carry out
photosynthesis as though they were plants.
Photo by Mary Rumpho
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It seems sea slugs have the best of
both worlds. They get energy from eating small marine plants, and from
the sun through photosynthesis by absorbing parts of plant cells.
Essentially, they become part animal and part plant.
Mary Rumpho, a professor in The University of Maine Department of
Biochemistry, Microbiology and Molecular Biology, is delving into the
genetic nuts and bolts that underlie this phenomenon. With support from
a $400,000 National Science Foundation grant, she is using the tools of
biotechnology to determine exactly how part of a plant cell — in this
case the chloroplast that carries out photosynthesis — can successfully
mesh with the machinery of an animal cell.
In her Hitchner Hall laboratory, Rumpho maintains three aquaria with
slugs that are native to coastal marshes from Florida to Nova Scotia.
Some of the animals crawl on the sides and bottoms of the tanks, and
look like typical slugs. Lying among them are what appear to be leaves
of an exotic plant. Close inspection reveals these leaves to be other
slugs that have unfurled their green tissues almost as butterflies open
The focus of her work is the DNA in the chloroplasts. Plants and animals
don't normally share genes, and yet, the slug shows that it is not only
possible but that it works quite well.
Rumpho is trying to identify the mechanisms contributing to the
long-term survival and functioning of the chloroplasts and their genes.
Biomechanical study looks at
An apple a day may be a simple recommendation for healthy eating. But
when it comes to trace elements in the diet, the guidelines get a little
more complicated. So it is with manganese, an element that is critical
for cardiovascular health, according to a team of University of Maine
In 1998, research led by Associate Professor of Clinical Nutrition
Dorothy Klimis-Zacas of the UMaine Department of Food Science and Human
Nutrition reported evidence that the trace element may be important to
biochemical processes in blood vessel walls. Now, she and her students
have turned to mechanical tests of arteries to determine if indeed a
lack of manganese paves the way for deterioration of arteries.
Last summer, the researchers fed rats diets that had varying levels of
manganese. Their goal is to test the ability of the rats' arteries to
contract and relax when exposed to two stimulants, epinephrine and
In another aspect of the study, blueberries were added to the rats'
diets to see if they have any effect on the mechanical properties of
arteries. Since blueberries are high in antioxidants and manganese, the
research team wants to see if adding the fruit will protect the arteries
from damages related to a low manganese diet.
The federal government has not established guidelines for manganese in
the diet. The UMaine research could provide the basis for doing so.
Evidence of El Niño in ancient Peru
A team of researchers has found that the climate phenomenon known as El Niño may have been a contributing factor in the rise and fall of ancient
civilizations in Peru.
Using archaeological evidence from sites along the Peruvian coast,
scientists from The University of Maine, Yale University, University of
Pittsburgh and University of Miami suggest that the fate of organized
Peruvian societies may be related to environmental changes caused by
flood cycles starting about 5,000 years ago.
"We found that there was a change in the frequency of El Niño events
about 3,000 years ago, and that correlates in time with cultural
change," says Daniel Sandweiss of the UMaine Department of Anthropology,
and the Institute for Quaternary and Climate Studies.
Changes in El Niño frequency, and the construction and abandonment of
monumental temples in this region, suggest that climate and culture are
Early complex, temple-building cultures in coastal Peru began just after
the apparent onset of El Niño about 5,800 years ago, and collapsed
between 2,900 and 2,800 years ago. The longest lasting of the temple
sites is the only one in which evidence of flood mitigation has been
"By doing something proactive about El Niño, the leaders of this site (Manchay
Bajo) appear to have been making an appropriate response to changes in
their environment. Whether it really worked for the most serious effects
of El Niño we can't say. But if it did, that could have given them more
long-lasting control," Sandweiss suggests.
Learning to love science and math
The University of Maine is helping teachers get across two of the
toughest subjects for many schoolchildren — mathematics and science.
The Center for Science and Mathematics Education Research, established
with a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, will
conduct research and train master's-level teachers to bring the latest
techniques to the classroom.
"One of the greatest challenges we face as a nation is to interrupt the
downward spiral in math and science literacy in our students," says
Rebecca Eilers, dean of the UMaine College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
"To break the cycle, we must equip future science and math teachers with
new tools to inspire, stimulate and excite children's natural tendencies
to want to understand the natural world."
The center combines instruction and practice in exemplary teaching
methods, content and research findings, including effective use of
technology. A new Master's in Science Teaching Program will focus on
practicing teachers, as well as recent graduates, scientists, engineers
and mathematicians who want to pursue a teaching career.
Research on how students learn science and math is at the core of the
center's activities. The research findings will inform student teachers
at the University and teachers in the classroom.
Directed by University of Maine physicist Susan McKay, the center will
draw from ongoing research in UMaine's Physics Education Research
Laboratory, and projects in the departments of Chemistry and Computer
Science. Participants also will include faculty in the College of
Education and Human Development, and the departments of Mathematics and
Statistics, Geological Sciences and Biological Sciences.
What's all the buzz in the
Most blueberry growers spray insecticides to control harmful pests, such
as beetles and flies that can damage crops. But sometimes the chemicals
harm the growers' most important allies — the bees that help make the
In the last four years, University of Maine entomologist Frank Drummond
has been working with growers to find new ways to protect native bees
and honeybees. More bees mean more berries.
In his research, Drummond has learned where native bees nest and where
they forage when blueberries are not in bloom. Keeping sprays away from
those important bee habitats, he says, is one step that growers can
Drummond also found that once some insecticides have been sprayed and
allowed to dry, they pose little danger to bees. Growers could avoid
spraying during the times bees leave nests and hives.
Drummond and Constance Stubbs, assistant scientist in UMaine's
Department of Biological Sciences, have been using automated bee
counters to keep track of when bumble bees and honeybees forage for
Eventually, Drummond would like to produce a set of recommended "best
management practices" for blueberry growers. The information, he says,
could be extended to farmers who grow other crops that depend on bees,
such as strawberries, cranberries and apples.
Competitive Family Farms
American farms have grown larger and more industrial as they specialize
in one type of livestock or certain crops. However, new agricultural
technologies, combined with integrated cropping and livestock systems,
could provide a boost to smaller, family-run farms, according to Stewart
Smith, University of Maine professor of sustainable agriculture.
Smith is administering a $2 million competitive research grant from the
U.S. Department of Agriculture to study this issue with colleagues in
Maine, Michigan and Iowa.
The project will study integrated farms — dairy and potato operations in
Maine and Michigan, and hog and feed grain farms in Iowa. Farmers are
helping to evaluate the performance of these systems.
Scientists are looking at factors such as profitability, marketing, and
effects on rural communities and ecosystems. They also are considering
what motivates farmers to adopt or shy away from integrated farming
Saving the corner store
Amid national chains and big-box stores, small and independent
neighborhood groceries are struggling.
With a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Fund for Rural
America, Gregory White of The University of Maine Department of Resource
Economics and Policy is looking at factors that could help small and
independent stores develop a market niche and be more competitive.
"Nationally, grocery store sales are up about 30 percent over the last
decade, but the number of independent and small stores decreased by 17
percent and 35 percent, respectively, over the same period," says White.
In the study, White will be joined by other UMaine scientists, as well
as by storeowners, farmers, the Maine Grocers Association, and state and
While the project will be conducted in Maine, the researchers expect to
apply the results throughout the country.
In search of ancient deep-sea corals
in the Gulf of Maine
We typically think of corals as living in the warm waters of the
Caribbean or the South Pacific. But these reef-building animals — some
hundreds of years old — also are found in the cold Gulf of Maine.
Now scientists are studying these little-known yet ancient deep-sea
corals to shed light on the ecosystems and natural resources off the
East Coast. What they find also could provide a glimpse of a diverse
underwater ecosystem that has been dramatically altered by human
Les Watling, a professor in The University of Maine's School of Marine
Sciences, and graduate student Anne Simpson are studying coral
communities as part of a three-year federally funded project known as
Last September, they started looking in areas just outside the Gulf to
find corals unaffected by human activity. They and other scientists used
the U.S. Navy's deepest diving submersible, the Alvin, to explore two
canyons that plunge toward the Atlantic Ocean bottom just south of
"We were looking at the distribution of coral communities and the
animals that live on them," says Watling, who believes corals were once
pervasive throughout the Gulf of Maine. "We were surprised to find
species that are related to animals in the Antarctic. We know that
relatives of Antarctic species can live in the deep water off the East
Coast, but we didn't expect to find them here."
In the rocky walls of one canyon, the researchers found corals that
provide a home for brittle stars, worms and other animals. The trip to
the muddy slopes of the second canyon failed to find corals.
This year, Watling and Simpson will dive in the shallower water at the
mouths of the canyons — areas they expect to be more favorable for coral
communities. In 2003, they will explore areas within the Gulf of Maine
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration is conducting the Deep East project.
Water molecules in a tight spot
Two University of Maine chemists and a scientist at the National
Institutes of Health (NIH) have used computer simulations to discover
how water molecules behave in tight spaces.
Their findings, reported in the journal Nature, have implications for
medical research and may contribute to an understanding of how water
behaves in the pores of cell membranes.
Jayendran Rasaiah and Jerzy Noworyta of UMaine's Department of Chemistry
collaborated with Gerhard Hummer of NIH. Rasaiah's research was
supported by a National Science Foundation grant.
They used computer simulation to generate a tiny tube of carbon atoms,
then placed it in a virtual pool of water. The simulations provide
dynamic information that goes beyond static pictures of conventional
structural biology, Rasaiah says.
From previous research, the scientists expected that water would not
enter such tubes, known as carbon nanotubes. However, they found that
the chains of hydrogen-bonded water molecules, only a single molecule
wide, move through the tube in short bursts.
How water is conducted in biological channels is important, says Rasaiah.
For example, the heart depends on concentrations of calcium in water;
movement through cell membranes may help balance calcium.
Got a taste for fortune? How about
University of Maine researchers are conducting field trials and taste
tests for six new apple varieties that may expand opportunities for the
state's apple industry and offer new choices for consumers.
The University's Maine Agricultural Center is sponsoring the research.
The focus is on the hardiness, disease resistance and other growing
characteristics of arlet, cameo, fortune, honeycrisp, gingergold and
Renae Moran, tree fruit specialist at The University of Maine's Highmoor
Farm in Monmouth, manages the experimental orchard and works closely
with apple growers.
Moran also monitors fruit for quality and storage characteristics. On
campus, she works with UMaine food scientists to conduct consumer
preference tests of each variety.
Based on early findings, apple growers in the state have added some of
the varieties to their orchards.
Focusing on the future of the
Jeremy Wilson, a specialist in forest landscape management, is the new
Irving Chair of Forest Ecosystem Management and an assistant professor
in the Department of Forest Management at The University of Maine.
Wilson's work in Maine will echo his efforts on the Landscape Management
Project at the University of Washington. "The project evolved out of
forest crises like the spotted owl controversy," he says.
"Traditionally, much of forestry deals with individual forest stands.
However, it is difficult to address the complex goals associated with
watershed protection, wildlife habitat and aesthetics using this
"What you do in a particular stand has implications for what you're
going to do in other stands around it. The Landscape Management Project
set out to think about techniques and tools for managing at larger
scales, ecosystems and landscapes."
Wilson will use a software system he and his colleagues produced to
evaluate the consequences of forest management alternatives at scales
from individual stands of trees to large landscapes. It allows planners
to analyze and compare the implications of management issues, ranging
from wildlife habitat and economic returns to risk of disturbances.
"Technology is the only way forest managers can effectively address the
ever-increasing number of goals being placed on forestland," he says.
The Irving Chair is funded by a $1 million endowment established by J.D.
Irving Limited, through the University of Maine Foundation. The position
focuses on research in support of science-based management of the
Acadian forest ecosystem.
Snacks from the sea
"Pass the crab chips, please" could be a request heard in gourmet
restaurants and health-conscious households as a result of a University
of Maine food science research project.
Denise Skonberg, assistant professor in UMaine's Department of Food
Science and Human Nutrition, is developing a snack chip using powdered
crab shell and mince, the bits of meat that are left on the shell after
With support from the Lobster Institute at the University, Skonberg and
her graduate students have developed prototype chips. Crab mince is
mixed with corn meal, potato flakes, spice and other ingredients, and
then subjected to steam and pressure in an extruder. The final product
is a crispy snack food that has the consistency of a puffed corn
Such sea snacks are value-added foods, making use of underutilized
seafood by-products. The marine munchies also are healthy snack
alternatives; powdered crab shell contains chitin, a natural substance
high in calcium.
East meets West in education reform
Culturally distinct, industrialized countries in the East and West have
taken different paths to educational reform in the past two decades.
Yet, if implemented successfully, these policies would make two
distinctive educational systems more alike, according to Jaekyung Lee,
UMaine assistant research professor specializing in comparative
education and educational policy analysis.
Lee examined major school reform in Japan and Korea, with highly
centralized school governance systems and homogeneous educational
values. In the United States and England, he studied school structures
with decentralized educational governance and relatively heterogeneous
Western policy makers saw their school systems as fragmented and student
outcomes mediocre. They focused on raising standards, and tightening
curriculum and assessment. Policy makers in the East saw their system as
deficient, with too much weight on standards and high-stakes testing
hindering creativity. They emphasized diversifying curriculum and
assessment, and enhancing whole-person education.
According to Lee, the research challenges the view of school reform as a
routine cycle or tinkering within a national boundary. It presents a new
perspective of reform — dynamic efforts to assess needs and attain
optimal education with reference to the world.