Penn State Science Addresses Global Challenges
Many current research programs in the college and at Penn State speak directly or indirectly to some of these various challenges. Below you will find examples of how Penn State Science is working on approaches to address global issues. To the right you will find video and audio files of Penn State Science research focusing on solutions to the challenges facing our global society.
Our undergraduate and graduate students also have opportunities to work with college faculty on these important research issues.
The National Science Foundation's Division of Mathematical Sciences has awarded more than $500,000 to Penn State to develop new statistical methods needed for predicting the future of Antarctic ice sheets. Using information gleaned from geologic data from the past 20,000 years, the scientists also will apply their new methods to provide a better understanding of the past and current behavior of the ice sheets.
A new route to making graphene has been discovered that could make the 21st century's wonder material easier to ramp up to industrial scale. Graphene -- a tightly bound single layer of carbon atoms with super strength and the ability to conduct heat and electricity better than any other known material -- has potential industrial uses that include flexible electronic displays, high-speed computing, stronger wind-turbine blades, and more-efficient solar cells, to name just a few under development.
Bacteria that grow in environments enriched in far-red light use a previously unknown process for harvesting energy. This discovery lays the foundation for further research aimed at improving plant growth and harvesting energy from the Sun, and understanding dense blooms like those now occurring on Lake Erie and other lakes worldwide.
A new discovery of two additional coral communities showing signs of damage from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill expands the impact footprint of the 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The discovery was made by a team led by Charles Fisher, professor of biology at Penn State University.
A new drug target to fight Alzheimer's disease has been discovered by a research team led by Gong Chen, a Professor of Biology and the Verne M. Willaman Chair in Life Sciences at Penn State University. The discovery also has potential for development as a novel diagnostic tool for Alzheimer's disease, which is the most common form of dementia and one for which no cure has yet been found.
A Key Regulatory Protein Is Discovered To Be Essential for Malaria Parasite Transmission to Mosquitoes
Two teams have independently discovered that a single regulatory protein acts as the master genetic switch that triggers the development of male and female sexual forms (termed gametocytes) of the malaria parasite, solving a long-standing mystery in parasite biology with important implications for human health. The protein, AP2-G, is necessary for activating a set of genes that initiate the development of gametocytes -- the only forms that are infectious to mosquitos. The research also gives important clues for identifying the underlying mechanisms that control this developmental fate, determining whether or not a malaria parasite will be able to transmit the disease.
For the first time, a team of chemists and engineers at Penn State University have placed tiny synthetic motors inside live human cells, propelled them with ultrasonic waves and steered them magnetically. It's not exactly "Fantastic Voyage," but it's close. The nanomotors, which are rocket-shaped metal particles, move around inside the cells, spinning and battering against the cell membrane.
Penn State University molecular biologists have discovered a brand-new pathway for repairing nerve cells that could have implications for faster and improved healing. These findings demonstrate that dendrites, the component of nerve cells that receive information from the brain, have the capacity to regrow after an injury.
Brain Repair after Injury and Alzheimer's Disease: In Vivo Reprogramming of Reactive Glial Cells into Functional Neurons
Researchers at Penn State University have developed an innovative technology to regenerate functional neurons after brain injury, and also in model systems used for research on Alzheimer's disease. The scientists have used supporting cells of the central nervous system, glial cells, to regenerate healthy, functional neurons, which are critical for transmitting signals in the brain.
Rising water temperatures due to climate change are putting coral reefs in jeopardy, but a surprising discovery by a team of marine biologists suggests that very similar looking coral species differ in how they survive in harsh environments. "We've found that previously unrecognized species diversity was hiding some corals' ability to respond to climate change," said Iliana Baums, associate professor of biology at Penn State University.
A molecular technique that will help the scientific community to analyze -- on a scale previously impossible -- molecules that play a critical role in regulating gene expression has been developed by a research team led by a chemist and a plant biologist at Penn State University. The scientists developed a method that enables more-accurate prediction of how ribonucleic acid molecules (RNAs) fold within living cells, thus shedding new light on how plants -- as well as other living organisms -- respond to environmental conditions. Potential implications of the methodology for human health include, for example, learning how an infection-induced fever could affect the RNA structures of both humans and pathogens.
A duo of scientists at Penn State University has achieved a major milestone in understanding how genomic "dark matter" originates. This "dark matter" -- called non-coding RNA -- does not contain the blueprint for making proteins and yet it comprises more than 95 percent of the human genome. The researchers have discovered that essentially all coding and non-coding RNA originates at the same types of locations along the human genome. The team's findings eventually may help to pinpoint exactly where complex-disease traits reside, since the genetic origins of many diseases reside outside of the coding region of the genome.
Melting sea ice in the Arctic may be leading, indirectly, to fewer caribou calf births and higher calf mortality in Greenland, according to scientists at Penn State University. Eric Post, a Penn State University professor of biology, and Jeffrey Kerby, a Penn State graduate student, have linked the melting of Arctic sea ice with changes in the timing of plant growth on land, which in turn is associated with lower production of calves by caribou in the area.
A novel method for finding and delivering healing drugs to newly formed microcracks in bones has been invented by a team of chemists and bioengineers at Penn State University and Boston University. The method involves the targeted delivery of the drugs, directly to the cracks, on the backs of tiny self-powered nanoparticles. The energy that revs the motors of the nanoparticles and sends them rushing toward the crack comes from a surprising source -- the crack itself.
As biomedical researchers continue to make progress toward the realization of personalized genomic medicine, their focus is increasingly tuned to highly mutable regions of the human genome that contribute significantly to genetic variation as well as many inherited disorders.
Accurately characterizing mutability has -- to date -- posed a serious challenge, but a team of Penn State University researchers has recently made a great step forward.
A research discovery that helps point the way to potential therapies for memory-related disorders including Alzheimer's Disease has been made by a team of neuroscientists that includes Douglas Cavener, a professor of biology at Penn State University. Cavener and his colleagues were hunting deep in the brain's molecular machinery to discover what was going wrong there that causes the brains of patients with Alzheimer's Disease to lose the ability to make sufficient proteins. The continual production of fresh proteins is an essential process in the brain that is necessary for learning and the long-term storage of memories.
With sea ice at its lowest point in 1,500 years, how might ecological communities in the Arctic be affected by its continued and even accelerated melting over the next decades? Eric Post, a Penn State University professor of biology, and an international team of scientists tackle this question by examining relationships among algae, plankton, whales, and terrestrial animals such as caribou, arctic foxes, and walrus; as well as the effects of human exploration of previously inaccessible parts of the region.
Human herpesvirus, commonly known as herpes simplex virus 1 and 2 (HSV-1 and HSV-2), is like that friend who ends up crashing on your couch and never leaves. Most of the time he lurks in the background, relatively innocuous but for the annoying thought of his presence. But occasionally he comes out of the shadows and ends up in the way in your kitchen at mealtime, uninvited and naturally wanting a little something for himself. Later he interrupts an intimate moment with a perfectly timed and inopportune knock at your bedroom door; and as time drags on, he generally spoils your good times by managing to be everywhere you wish he wouldn't be at precisely the wrong moments. But unlike your couch-crashing "friend," you can't just put herpes out on the street and be done with it. And worse yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that, in the United States alone, herpes infects more than three-quarters of a million new people every year. Moriah Szpara, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State and researcher at the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, aims to find a cure for the disease.
Billions of dollars.That's what's at stake for BP as a result of the damage caused to ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. News of that spill -- which began on April 20, 2010, with an explosion onboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that killed 11 people and injured 17 -- dominated the media for weeks. Millions watched with a feeling of helplessness as the rig sank and over the next 86 days over 200 million gallons of oil spewed out of the Macondo well and into the ocean. Five months after the spill was capped, the federal government estimated the marine animal death toll at 6,104 birds, 609 sea turtles, and 100 mammals, including dolphins. But what of the deep-water corals that provide habitat and reproductive grounds for numerous species of fish, shrimp, and crabs? According to Charles Fisher, professor of biology at Penn State, these corals and the organisms they support are important components of a healthy deep sea and open-ocean ecosystem. That's why both BP and the government are closely collaborating with him on his investigation of the disaster's impact.
While public health officials around the world are on alert about the pandemic potential of new disease threats, a team that includes Penn State University biologist Marcel Salathé is developing innovative new systems and techniques to track the spread of infectious diseases, with the help of news websites, blogs, and social media. New research by Salathé, and colleagues from the Harvard Medical School, describes the advantages and challenges of "digital epidemiology" -- a new field of increasing importance for tracking infectious disease outbreaks and epidemics by leveraging the widespread use of the Internet and mobile phones.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, genetic mutation is key to our evolution and survival. As our cells grow, reproduce, and die, DNA is repeatedly replicated and repaired, and bits and pieces of its sequences are perpetually changed, misplaced, and swapped in the process, thus producing mutations. These mutations create genetic variation, which results in different observable traits or phenotypes -- providing material for the process of natural selection to act upon and driving the evolution of fitter populations.But mutations aren't always beneficial for the individual; in some cases, they can be harmful, leading to inherited or somatic genetic diseases. A growing number of neurodegenerative and neuromuscular inherited diseases are being linked to mutations that arise from instability in one particular group of DNA sequences called microsatellites. And geneticists have also observed microsatellite instability in the genomes of a broad variety of cancer cells, including those found in colon, rectal, endometrial, ovarian, lung, melanoma, pancreatic, gastric, and bladder cancers.
Cheaper clean-energy technologies could be made possible thanks to a new discovery. Led by Raymond Schaak, a professor of chemistry at Penn State University, research team members have found that an important chemical reaction that generates hydrogen from water is effectively triggered -- or catalyzed -- by a nanoparticle composed of nickel and phosphorus, two inexpensive elements that are abundant on Earth.
Alzheimer's, Schizophrenia, and Autism Now Can Be Studied with Mature Brain Cells Reprogrammed from Skin Cells
Difficult-to-study diseases such as Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, and autism now can be probed more safely and effectively thanks to an innovative new method for obtaining mature brain cells called neurons from reprogrammed skin cells. According to Gong Chen, the Verne M. Willaman Chair in Life Sciences and professor of biology at Penn State University and the leader of the research team, the method could lead to customized treatments for individual patients based on their own genetic and cellular information.
Diseases such as tuberculosis, anthrax, and shigellosis -- a severe food-borne illness -- eventually could be treated with an entirely new and more-effective kind of antibiotic, thanks to a team of scientists led by Kenneth Keiler, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State University. The team describes 46 previously untested molecules that target and disrupt an important step in the process of protein synthesis in bacteria, thereby rendering bacteria incapable of replicating.
A gene associated with both protection against bacterial infection and excessive blood clotting could offer new insights into treatment strategies for deep-vein thrombosis -- the formation of a harmful clot in a deep vein. The gene produces an enzyme that, if inhibited via a specific drug therapy, could offer hope to patients prone to deep-vein clots, such as those that sometimes form in the legs during lengthy airplane flights or during recuperation after major surgery.
On Twitter, a popular microblogging and social-networking service, statements about vaccines may have unexpected effects -- positive messages may backfire, according to a team of Penn State University researchers led by Marcel Salathé, an assistant professor of biology. The team tracked the pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine messages to which Twitter users were exposed and then observed how those users expressed their own sentiments about a new vaccine for combating influenza H1N1 -- a virus strain responsible for swine flu. The results, which may help health officials improve strategies for vaccination-awareness efforts.
Can existing ecological communities persist intact as temperatures rise? This is a question of increasing relevance in the field of climate change and is the focus of a new study that suggests that the answer may have as much to do with the biological interactions that shape communities as with the effects of climate change itself.
The study's insights are based on a novel approach by Eric Post, a Penn State University professor of biology, who simulated climate change and integrated the effects of large, plant-eating mammals in a 10-year arctic field experiment.
While most farmers consider viruses and fungi potential threats to their crops, these microbes can help wild plants adapt to extreme conditions, according to a Penn State virologist. Discovering how microbes collaborate to improve the hardiness of plants is a key to sustainable agriculture that can help meet increasing food demands, in addition to avoiding possible conflicts over scare resources, said Marilyn Roossinck, professor of plant pathology and environmental microbiology, and biology.
Statistics is an important tool in sorting through information on how human activities are affecting the climate system, as well as how climate change affects natural and human systems, according Murali Haran, associate professor of statistics at Penn State. As more research is conducted and more data are gathered, Haran said that scientists are gaining a better understanding of current and future climate conditions, as well as predicting the risk of the dramatic and costly affects of this change.
Researchers have studied viruses as agents of disease in humans, domestic animals and plants, but a study of plant viruses in the wild may point to a more cooperative, benevolent role of the microbe, according to Penn State virologist Marilyn Roossinck, professor of plant pathology and environmental microbiology and biology. Roossinck said she is curious about how the wild plants avoid disease, and if there is a way this can be used in agriculture.
Classroom rosters combined with human-networking theory may give a clearer picture of just how infectious diseases such as influenza can spread through a closed group of people, and even through populations at large. Using high-school schedule data for a community of students, teachers, and staff, Penn State University's Marcel Salathé, an assistant professor of biology, and Timo Smieszek, a post-doctoral researcher, have developed a low-cost but effective method to determine how to focus disease-control strategies based on which individuals are most likely to spread the infection.
For the first time, a silicon-based optical fiber with solar-cell capabilities has been developed that has been shown to be scalable to many meters in length. The research opens the door to the possibility of weaving together solar-cell silicon wires to create flexible, curved, or twisted solar fabrics. The international team of chemists, physicists, and engineers, led by John Badding, a professor of chemistry at Penn State University, believe that an advantage of flexibility in solar-cell materials is the possibility of collecting light energy at various angles.
The adverse side effects of certain hepatitis C medications can now be replicated and observed in Petri dishes and test tubes, thanks to a research team led by Craig Cameron, the Paul Berg Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Penn State University. The team's findings may help pave the way toward the development of safer and more-effective treatments for hepatitis C, as well as other pathogens such as SARS and West Nile virus.
A gene that is associated with regeneration of injured nerve cells has been identified by scientists at Penn State University and Duke University. The team, led by Melissa Rolls, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State, has found that a mutation in a single gene can entirely shut down the process by which axons -- the parts of the nerve cell that are responsible for sending signals to other cells -- regrow themselves after being cut or damaged.
The first integrated understanding of how the human genome functions will be published this week -- the triumphant result of a collaborative five-year project involving more than 440 researchers working in 32 labs worldwide. Throughout the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements project, known as ENCODE, researchers found that more than 80 percent of the human genome sequence is linked to biological function. They also mapped more than 4 million regulatory regions where proteins interact with the DNA with exquisite specificity. These findings are a significant advance in understanding the precise and complex controls over the expression of genetic information within a cell.
A new way to study the role of a critical neurotransmitter in disorders such as epilepsy, anxiety, insomnia, depression, schizophrenia, and alcohol addiction has been developed by a group of scientists led by Gong Chen, an associate professor of at Penn State University. The new method involves molecularly engineering a model synapse -- a structure through which a nerve cell send signals to another cell. This model synapse can precisely control a variety of receptors for the neurotransmitter called GABA, which is important in brain chemistry. This work opens the door to the possibility of creating safer and more-efficient drugs that target GABA receptors and that cause fewer side effects.
Malaria parasites evolving in vaccinated laboratory mice become more virulent, according to research at Penn State University. The mice studied were injected with a critical component of several candidate human malaria vaccines that now are being evaluated in clinical trials. Andrew Read, Alumni Professor of Biological Sciences at Penn State, and his team, showed that more-virulent malaria parasites evolved in response to vaccination, but the exact mechanism is still a mystery. It was not due to changes in the part of the parasite targeted by the vaccine.
An analysis of newly sequenced polar bear genomes is providing important clues about the species' evolution, suggesting that climate change and genetic exchange with brown bears helped create the polar bear as we know it today. The international study, led by the Penn State University and the University at Buffalo, found evidence that the size of the polar bear population fluctuated with key climatic events over the past million years, growing during periods of cooling and shrinking in warmer times.
Certain kinds of viruses such as those that cause
the common cold, SARS,
hepatitis, and encephalitis, copy themselves using a unique mechanism, according to a team of Penn State University scientists that includes David Boehr, an assistant professor of and a co-leader of the research team along with Craig Cameron, the Paul Berg Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. The discovery sheds light on a previously identified, but never-before-understood region of an enzyme associated with the process of replicating genetic material. The research is an important step toward the improvement of existing vaccines, as well as toward the design of vaccines against viruses that have eluded vaccination strategies in the past.
Nerve Pathway for Combating Axon Injury and Stress May Hold Benefits for Individuals with Neurodegenerative Disorders
Researchers from the Huck Institutes' Center for CellularDynamics — led by Center director Melissa Rolls — have found that a neuroprotective pathway initiated in response to injured or stressed neural axons serves to stabilize and protect the nerve cell against further degeneration.Based on their observations, the authors suggest that this pathway represents an endogenous neuroprotective response to axon stress — and could potentially be developed into a diagnostic tool for the detection of early stages of neurodegenerative disease, or even utilized in novel therapies for such illnesses.
A team of scientists has developed a promising new strategy for "reactivating" genes that cause cancer tumors to shrink and die. The researchers hope that their discovery will aid in the development of an innovative anti-cancer drug that effectively targets unhealthy, cancerous tissue without damaging healthy, non-cancerous tissue and vital organs. The team, led by Yanming Wang, a Penn State University associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, and Gong Chen, a Penn State assistant professor of chemistry, developed the new strategy after years of earlier research on a gene called PAD4 (peptidylarginine deiminase 4), which produces the PAD4 enzyme.
Last year, about 100,000 Americans died of infections that were easily curable 20 years ago, according to the Infectious Diseases Society of America. That’s more than twice the number of people the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said were killed in car crashes. The cures are failing because germs are evolving. Nowadays, pathogens can evolve around drugs faster than replacement drugs can pass through regulatory hurdles. In a few cases, resistance has evolved so far that some germs can be killed only with chemicals that also kill the patient. In essence, the bugs are not taking our drugs lying down. Biologists call this incredible capacity of life to overcome environmental insults “adaptive evolution.” One of the key medical and scientific challenges in the 21st century is to discover how to manage the adaptive evolution of the pathogens we target with our pharmaceuticals.
For the first time, researchers at Penn State University and Rice University have created solid, spongy blocks of carbon nanotubes that have an astounding ability to clean up oil spills in water. Separating oil from seawater is just one of a range of potential applications for the new material formed using carbon and a dash of boron. The international team includes Mauricio Terrones, a professor of physics and of materials science and engineering at Penn State; Pulickel Ajayan, the Benjamin M. and Mary Greenwood Anderson Professor in Engineering at Rice University; and other scientists from the United States, Spain, Belgium and Japan.
Compelling evidence of the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on deep-sea corals was published online in the Early Edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences during the week beginning 26 March 2012. The diverse team of researchers, led by Penn State University Professor of Biology Charles Fisher, used a wide range of underwater vehicles, including the research submarine Alvin, to investigate the corals. They also used comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography to determine precisely the source of the petroleum hydrocarbons they found. Fisher said these findings confirm a serious impact from the spill on the animal communities in the deep sea more than 7 miles from the Macondo well.
In the United States, washing one’s hands is an ordinary, everyday habit. But after a visit to Uganda in the summer of 2009, Schreyer Honors College Scholar Ce Zhang learned that hand washing could mean the difference between life and death. Startled by the lack of hand washing facilities in the Ugandan village he visited, Ce, a senior majoring in biology in the Eberly College of Science, came up with the “Tippy Tap,” a device designed to increase hand washing among children.
A generally accepted 44-year-old assumption about how certain kinds of bacteria make energy and synthesize cell materials has been shown to be incorrect by a team of scientists led by Donald Bryant, the Ernest C. Pollard Professor of Biotechnology at Penn State University and a research professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Montana State University. The research is expected to help scientists discover new ways of genetically engineering bacteria to manufacture biofuels -- energy-rich compounds derived from biological sources.
Satellite images of nighttime lights, which normally are used to detect where clusters of people live, also can help keep tabs on diseases in developing nations, according to new research. An international research team that includes Matthew Ferrari, an assistant professor of biology at Penn State University, found that the new technique accurately indicates fluctuations in population density. The research is expected to help medical professionals to synchronize vaccination strategies with increases in population density.
A unique and innovative analysis of how social media can affect the spread of a disease has been designed and implemented by a scientist at Penn State University studying attitudes toward the H1N1 vaccine. Marcel Salathé, an assistant professor of biology, studied how users of Twitter expressed their sentiments about a new vaccine. He then tracked how the users' attitudes correlated with vaccination rates and how microbloggers with the same negative or positive feelings seemed to influence others in their social circles. The research is considered the first case study in how social-media sites affect and reflect disease networks.
A team of Penn State University scientists has invented a new system that uses magnetism to purify hybrid nanoparticles -- structures that are composed of two or more kinds of materials in an extremely small particle that is visible only with an electron microscope. The system holds the promise of helping to improve drug-delivery systems, drug-targeting technologies, medical-imaging technologies, and electronic information-storage devices.
In the war between drugs and drug-resistant diseases, is the current strategy for medicating patients giving many drug-resistant diseases a big competitive advantage? The ultimate goal of this new research effort is to develop a new science-based model for drug-resistance management that will inform treatment guidelines for a wide variety of diseases that affect people, including malaria and other diseases caused by parasites, MRSA and other diseases caused by bacterial infections, AIDS and other diseases caused by viruses, and cancer.
Researchers need to use all available resources in an integrated approach to put agriculture on a path to solve the world's food problems while reducing pollution, according to Penn State biologist Nina Fedoroff. Changes in national and international regulations will be necessary to achieve this goal.
Any parent knows that colds spread like wildfire, especially through schools. New research using human-networking theory may give a clearer picture of just how, exactly, infectious diseases such as the common cold, influenza, whooping cough, and SARS can spread through a closed group of people, and even through populations at large.
Conservation and international aid groups may be on the wrong course to address the havoc wreaked by climate change on tropical rainforests, according to a commentary appearing in the journal Nature on 2 December 2010. "Most of the world's terrestrial biodiversity is contained in tropical rainforests, and climate change is looming ever larger as one of the major threats to these ecosystems, but how humans deal with climate change may be even more important," said Penn State University professor of biology Eric Post, one of the letter's authors. Post explained that rising temperatures and altered precipitation are important concerns; however, how humans respond to these altered conditions may be exacerbating an already bad situation.
A team of researchers has used stem cells taken from the skin of patients with Rett syndrome — the most physically disabling of the autism disorders — to replicate autism in the lab and to study how the disease affects brain cells. The team's findings, published in the journal Cell, reveal disease-specific cellular defects, such as fewer functional connections between particular neurons, and demonstrate these defects are reversible. The results raise the hope that, one day, autism maybe become a treatable condition.
The density of transposable (jumping) elements between sex chromosomes in primates may have important consequences for the studies of human genetic diseases, say Penn State University researchers. Erika Kvikstad, a 2009 Penn State Ph.D. graduate in genetucs, and Kateryna Makova, an associate professor of biology at Penn State, used a statistical regression method to study the genomes of the human, chimpanzee, macaque, and orangutan, concluding that there is a strong sex-chromosome bias in the distribution of transposable elements, and providing insights about whether these non-coding, but important, DNA elements integrate themselves specifically into the male germline or female germline, or integrate themselves into the genome during the early stages of embryogenesis. The research has implications for understanding and perhaps someday even preventing and treating genetic diseases.
Human genomes from Southern African Bushmen and Bantu individuals have been sequenced by a team of scientists seeking a greater understanding of human genetic variation and its effect on human health. The research was completed by scientists from American, African, and Australian research institutions, with support from Penn State University in the United States and from several U.S. companies that market DNA-sequencing instruments.