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Feature: MSU's Land Grand Legacy

  • Author:
    Val Osowski
  • Published:
    Fall 2012

In recognizing the anniversary of an act that propelled MSU forward, we celebrate the incredible triumphs of the past along with the ongoing efforts and initiatives taking place today.

William J. Beal, the father of hybrid corn. Stanley Johnson, the first “dean” of peach breeders. Robert C. Kedzie, the father of the beet sugar industry in Michigan. G. Malcolm Trout, the father of homogenized milk.

These early scientists at MSU were pioneering giants, and their contributions to society herald what continues to take place today—and that is MSU continuing to spawn advances in research and education to the benefit of all humankind.

This year, as we trumpet our current work, it is worthwhile to celebrate a crucial anniversary and to revisit our historic successes since that fateful event—the work of those individuals who drove MSU’s land-grant beginnings and established what was known as “the great experiment”—the formal establishment of the U.S. landgrant college system.

On February 15, 1855, just 18 years after Michigan became a state, Gov. Kinsley S. Bingham signed legislation establishing the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan—the forerunner of MSU. Michigan’s fledgling agricultural college served as a prototype for land-grant institutions across the country.

“In Michigan, as elsewhere around the North, agricultural advocates had been calling for dedicated agricultural colleges for years,” says MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon. “Much of this ferment was occurring in the Midwest and Northeast as proponents set up a steady drumbeat for the establishment of federally backed colleges. People were concerned about issues of productivity and market competitiveness in what was by then a world economy.”

With eyes on Michigan, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation in 1862 that came to be known for its dogged sponsor, Rep. Justin Morrill of Vermont. The Morrill Act provided funding to higher education institutions by granting federally controlled land to states for development or sale to raise monies to establish and endow land-grant colleges. MSU was subsequently designated as the federal land-grant college for Michigan in 1863.

The Morrill Act was later strengthened by the passage of the Hatch Act in 1887, which created a national network of agricultural experiment stations to provide research support to the U.S. agriculture industry; and the Smith-Lever Act in 1914, which established the Extension Service to offer university-based educational resources to the public. The rest, as they say, is history.

Although MSU can point to many milestones in its early history, the university’s recent history is no less impressive. MSU is home to a plethora of nationally and internationally renowned scientists and has had 10 faculty members elected to the National Academy of Sciences (see p. 31). Election to membership in the academy is considered one of the highest professional honors that can be accorded a U.S. scientist or engineer. The academy acts as an official advisor to the federal government, upon request, in any matter of science or technology.

As MSU and the nation observe the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Morrill Act, it’s a fitting time to celebrate some of the life-changing, lifesaving discoveries made by MSU researchers that are bringing science and innovation to everyday life in the 21st century.

Conquering detection problems in water- and food-borne pathogens

MSU scientists are exploring new frontiers in the detection of water related diseases by developing sensors that can detect harmful pathogens in food and water before they cause widespread disease.

“From farm to table, there are numerous opportunities for food and water to become contaminated with pathogenic bacteria,” says Evangelyn Alocilja, professor of biosystems and agricultural engineering.

To help address this issue, Alocilja has developed a nanostructured biosensor that promises speedy detection of deadly pathogens and toxins, especially in water. This hand-held device can be used in a farmer’s field to test, for example, for Escherichia coli (E. Coli), a bacterium that is commonly found in the intestines of warm-blooded organisms. Most strains are harmless, but some, such as E. coli O157:H7, can cause serious food poisoning in humans and can be responsible for product recalls. The biosensor also can be used for the rapid detection of a broad range of other threats such as Salmonella, anthrax and tuberculosis.

Alocilja’s idea for the biosensor originated more than 10 years ago when she attended a conference on bio defense where the concept of a biosensor was presented. She believed that she had the expertise to develop a sensor and was driven by a desire to save lives.

The cycle of E. coli contamination begins when an animal with E. coli leaves excrement on the soil. Rain sends the contaminated soil into surface water, including irrigation water and recreational lakes and rivers, or it is leached into groundwater. When crops come in contact with that water—especially fruits and vegetables that are grown close to the ground—they become contaminated. As crops move through processing and/or packaging, further contamination may occur.

“If a farmer can find out that the water being used on his crops contains, for example, E. coli, he can take action and stop the contamination,” Alocilja says. Alocilja’s biosensor is now in the hands of a commercial company, nanoRETE, which is funded, in part, by MSU Technologies.

Alocilja realized that putting the product in the commercial marketplace will validate its usefulness and identify its weaknesses so that improvements can be made.

“In the lab, everything is in a controlled environment,” she says. “If we send it out as a commercial product, we can see exactly what is needed in the field and we can revise the design if necessary. Our goal is better performance, faster results and a less expensive device.”

Welcome to Fermentation Station

What do a salt substitute, distilled spirits and the chemical intermediate succinic acid have in common? They are all natural products created from fermentation processes developed over the past 20 years by MSU food science and human nutrition and chemical engineering and materials science researcher Kris Berglund.

“The basis of all this work has to do with some sort of fermentation process,” says Berglund, a University Distinguished Professor. “We start out with a basic idea that can be applied to a variety of renewable resources—for example, starch from grains and corn, cellulose (residues extracted from stems and stalks that aren’t food products) and hemicellulose from forest products. We have a number of raw materials we can choose from and five or six fermentations we are studying.”

One of the most notable products in Berglund’s research portfolio is a salt substitute commercially known as AlsoSalt. The notion for this product came from Berglund’s knowledge of the five tastes identified in Japanese science—bitter, salty, sour, sweet and Umami (which means “savory” or “deliciousness”).

“Umami is the sense of flavor enhancement,” Berglund explains. “MSG is the classic Umami flavor—it intensifies the taste of food. As it turns out, lysine—an amino acid that is one of the major products fermented from corn starch—is mildly salty and also possesses this Umami flavor. We were already studying lysine, so we asked what the basic problem was with salt substitutes. The answer is that they have a bitter taste that needs to be masked.”

Their interest piqued, Berglund and his colleagues started testing lysine and a number of amino acids.

“It wasn’t some great hypothesis—we just tasted things and figured out what tasted salty and what didn’t, what masked the bitterness and what didn’t,” Berglund says. “Through trial and error, we came up with a particular formulation of potassium chloride and lysine that gives the salty flavor without having any salt in it. That’s AlsoSalt.”

Patented in 1999, AlsoSalt was introduced to the U.S. market five years ago. In 2009, Heinz announced that it was using AlsoSalt in an improved version of its no-salt ketchup.

“When we started this work, most people were interested in artificial sweetners—they didn’t care about salt,” Berglund says. “Now there’s a much stronger appreciation of the health effects of sodium in people’s diets.

“AlsoSalt production is another example of biorefining that can produce a full complement of biobased chemicals, fuels and other products,” he adds. “We’re taking renewable resources and turning them into high-value, high-quality products that serve to further Michigan’s bioeconomy.”

Evolution in action

Evolution takes on a whole new look and feel in the work of MSU evolutionary biologist Richard Lenski. Most evolutionary biologists study evolution by examining fossils or by comparing different species. Lenski studies evolution by doing experiments with fast-reproducing organisms where he can watch evolution in action.

“Evolution is like a game that combines luck and skill, and I thought that perhaps bacteria could teach me some interesting new games,” says Lenski, who is also an MSU Hannah Distinguished Professor and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

In 1988, Lenski started an experiment with 12 populations of E. coli bacteria—all starting with the same ancestral strain and all living in identical environments—to see just how similarly or differently they would evolve. He wanted to keep the experiment going for at least a year and culture about 2,000 bacterial generations. Twenty-four years and more than 55,000 generations later, the experiment is still growing strong.

Lenski’s laboratory received quite a bit of attention in 2008 when one of the 12 populations of E. coli being studied evolved the ability to eat a chemical called citrate—a compound that, until now, E. coli could not grow on.

“This development was particularly exciting because it showed that, in a relatively short period of time—a couple of decades—a brand new function could evolve,” he says.

Although Lenski does basic research, his work has led others to think about various applications, including microbial forensics, strain improvement and computational evolution.

“After the anthrax attacks that shortly followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it became imperative to understand how to track the source of bacterial populations that might be used in bio-terrorism,” Lenski says. “Because of this long-term experiment, we now have the best data on how quickly strains change at the genomic level and how much genetic variation exists within a sample. This study has become a reference point for understanding the evolution of other bacteria.”

Further, Lenski adds, it’s increasingly recognized that evolution can be used alone or, better, in combination with genetic engineering to produce bacterial strains that have desirable features such as the ability to produce alternative fuels or remediate pollution.

“Darwin would be amazed to see where his ideas have led,” he muses.

Microbial technology to create energy

“Best wishes and make discoveries.” This was the note left for incoming MSU microbiologist Gemma Reguera by her office predecessor, microbiology and molecular genetics professor emeritus John Breznak, when she arrived on campus in 2006. Thanks to synchronicity, an increased societal interest in renewable energy and some innovative science, Reguera’s time at MSU has been full of discoveries.

In addition to sharing office space and research interests, Reguera and Breznak share the same alma mater (University of Massachusetts) and Ph.D. mentor, Ercole Canale-Parola, a research pioneer in plant biomass degradation and ethanol production using fermentation processes with microorganisms.

“His work really fascinated me—the fact that you could actually take a natural process that was occurring in the environment, bring it into the lab to study and then find an application for biofuel production,” says Reguera, an MMG associate professor. “At the time, we could barely get funding for this type of research, so it’s been very gratifying to come to MSU and have the resources and support that I need to continue this important work.”

For the past six years, Reguera has been building on Canale-Parola and Breznak’s work, developing a process that uses microbes to produce clean, cheap fuel and electricity from plant biomass. Most recently, she and members of her lab created a new biofuel production process that produces 20 times more energy than existing methods.

Reguera has developed bioelectrochemical systems known as microbial electrolysis cells (MEC) that use natural bacteria to break down and ferment agricultural residue into ethanol. Her platform is unique because it also employs a second bacterium—Geobacter sulfurreducens— which removes all of the waste fermentation byproducts while producing electricity. With a little energy input, this electricity is converted into hydrogen, which can also be used as fuel.

Reguera’s electrochemical systems use corn stover treated by the ammonia fiber expansion process (AFEX), an advanced pretreatment technology pioneered at MSU by Bruce Dale, professor of chemical engineering and materials science.

Similar electrochemical systems have been investigated before, but maximum energy recoveries as power from corn stover hover around 3.5 percent. Reguera’s platform averaged 35 to 40 percent energy recovery just from the production of ethanol in the fermentation process. When the MEC generated hydrogen, the energy recovery increased to 73 percent.

“The potential is definitely there to make this platform attractive for processing agricultural wastes,” she says. “I think that we can scale up with commercial bioreactors and standard fermenters and take it from there.”

Good Egg, Bad Egg

For MSU animal scientist George Smith, the first step to understanding the root cause of infertility in dairy cows—and in humans—is to figure out the factors and mechanisms that make it difficult for them to conceive. His work is focused on studying the egg at the cellular level. Understanding the root of the problem, Smith believes, paves the way for developing approaches to addressing infertility problems.

“A growing body of evidence in literature supports the idea that problems with egg quality contribute to poor reproductive performance in dairy cattle,” he explains. “What we’re interested in learning is what makes a good egg a good egg and a bad egg a bad egg, how to tell the difference, and what factors have to be optimal to produce healthy, viable off spring at term and beyond.”

In the quest to understand the role that egg quality plays in infertility, Smith led a team of researchers in the discovery of an egg-specific gene, JY-1, that is necessary for embryonic development in cows. Besides offering the dairy industry more solutions for the infertility problem that costs it more than $1 billion per year, the new gene provides clues into the egg’s role in embryo development and may ultimately provide new options for the more than 9.3 million women treated annually for fertility problems.

“This is where the application to human health comes into play,” Smith adds. “A major cause of infertility in women, especially those of advanced age, is poor quality oocytes. If there were ways that we could select for the best quality eggs before fertilization takes place, it may result in greater pregnancy success and alleviate some of the moral and ethical challenges associated with having to store extra fertilized embryos indefinitely.”

Tremendous opportunities exist for the practical application of enhanced reproductive technologies in humans, as well as in the dairy and beef cattle industries, Smith notes.

“This is the power of basic research: to understand and solve complex problems,” he explains. “It also validates the need for using farm animals to conduct this basic research that can, in turn, be translated long-term into new technologies and practices to achieve reproductive efficiency and productivity in agriculture and a better understanding of infertility problems in humans.”

Beating the Heat, Conquering the Cold

After being raised and living most of his young adult life in southern California, moving to Pullman, Wash., for his first job in the early 1980s was a shock to MSU microbiology and molecular genetics University Distinguished Professor Mike Thomashow’s system. It was also a turning point in his research career.

“Winter was very cold in Pullman,” recalls Thomashow, director of the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory and member of the National Academy of Sciences. “I remember looking out my laboratory window at plants surviving in minus 20 degree weather and asking myself, ‘How are these plants dealing with this incredible cold? How do they overwinter in such a harsh environment?’ This got me interested in understanding the genetic mechanisms that plants have evolved to withstand freezing and other environmental stresses.”

When Thomashow came to MSU in 1986, there was a lot of skepticism in the scientific community about whether his chosen line of investigation, the study of cold-regulated gene expression, could offer enough information and knowledge to provide significant new insight into the genetic basis of freezing tolerance.

Twenty-six years later, Thomashow is internationally recognized for his work on the molecular mechanisms of cold acclimation and drought tolerance in plants.

One of Thomashow’s biggest breakthroughs was the discovery of the CBF cold-response pathway in Arabidopsis—a small, flowering plant related to cabbage and mustard that is considered a model organism in the study of basic plant processes.

“This is the genetic pathway that controls freezing tolerance,” Thomashow says. “It also works to increase the plant’s tolerance to drought and high salt concentrations. Now that we know what the pathway is, we want to see if we can influence various plant species and improve varieties.”

Plant breeders at universities and private companies are now using this pathway as a type of master control switch to regulate a suite of genes responsible for dehydration stress, which can be caused by drought, freezing and/or high salinity.

“Ultimately, the goal is to increase drought and freezing tolerance so that there is a longer growing season and an expanded growing region for as many crops as possible,” Thomashow says.

Land-grant roots, world-grant reach

Today, 150 years after President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, MSU applies its land-grant mission to a global stage as one of the top research universities in the world. From researching and treating life threatening diseases to working side-by-side with farmers to address hunger and malnutrition to advancing alternative energy technologies— MSU scientists develop sustainable solutions on a global scale that create prosperity and make life better for all.

“When we talk about the need to promote innovation, remember that it was Justin Morrill who framed land-grant in terms of national competitiveness,” President Simon says. “On the floor of the House of Representatives, he argued in 1858: ‘We owe it to ourselves not to become a weak competitor in the most important field where we are to meet the world as rivals.’

“Importantly,” Simon adds, “by the time the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan was created, the concept went beyond a farming trade school. It was a time of emerging knowledge in natural sciences such as agricultural chemistry, which created a thirst for the transmission of such knowledge to common people.”

Although much at MSU is different, Simon contends that much remains the same.

“We are still deeply engaged in our Michigan communities and in communities around the world. Still pursuing the practical and the theoretical. Still negotiating the tensions inherent in our multifaceted mission. And, above all, still advancing the common good in uncommon ways.”

Val Osowski, ’81, ’86, is a communications manager for MSU AgBioResearch.

Editor’s Note: All of the researchers featured in this article (Alocilja, Berglund, Lenski, Reguera and Thomashow) are also MSU AgBioResearch scientists. AgBioResearch supports the work of more than 300 scientists in six colleges—Agriculture and Natural Resources, Communication Arts and Sciences, Engineering, Natural Science, Social Science and Veterinary Medicine. AgBioResearch engages in innovative, leading-edge research that combines scientific expertise with practical experience to generate economic prosperity, sustain natural resources, and enhance the quality of life in Michigan, the nation and the world.


Election to membership in the National Academy of Sciences is considered one of the highest professional honors that can be accorded a U.S. scientist or engineer.

> Martin Bukovac, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of horticulture.

> James Dye, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of chemistry.

> Pam Fraker, University Distinguished Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

> Hans Kende, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the MSU-Department of Energy (DOE) Plant Research Laboratory.

> Richard Lenski, John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor of microbial ecology.

> Michael Thomashow, University Distinguished Professor of crop and soil sciences and of microbiology and molecular genetics.

> James Tiedje, University Distinguished Professor of crop and soil sciences and microbiology and molecular genetics.

> Edward Tolbert, Professor of biochemistry and molecular biology.

> Jan Zeevaart, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the DOE Plant Research Laboratory.

> Richard Witter, a retired veterinary medical officer with the USDA’S Agricultural Research Service and adjunct professor emeritus in veterinary medicine.