CALS research spans the globe
By Zeke Barlow
Twice a year, biological systems engineering Associate Professor Conrad Heatwole flies to Zambia to study how poor farming practices are damaging streams and destroying forests near one of Africa’s last unspoiled national parks.
Biochemistry Professor Zhijian “Jake” Tu spends time in China every year, where he collaborates with fellow researchers to examine how the mobile DNA — or transposon — of malarial mosquitoes jumped from one species to the next.
Crop and soil environmental sciences Professor Ozzie Abaye is well-known in the Senegalese village where she has been investigating grassland management and preservation using techniques that are being adopted locally.
And Jim Westwood, professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science, has spent weeks in Africa and the Middle East researching ways to combat parasitic weeds that plague sustenance farmers and stifle local economies.
These four projects are just a sampling of the research that scientists in the college are conducting around the world. From Africa to Asia, and South America to Europe, researchers are examining ways to feed growing populations, deal with the challenges of climate change, and protect our natural resources.
Westwood has been focusing on two species that attach to the roots of other plants, causing them to wither and die and leaving locals without food to eat or crops to sell. His research involves ways to disrupt the relationship between the host and the parasite on a molecular level in hopes of creating a seed that fights off the parasite.
“We are helping some of the poorest farmers in the world,” Westwood said. “But these plants also have a history of finding their way to the United States, so it is in all of our interests to find ways to control and eradicate them.”
Meanwhile, Tu is researching how a transposon jumped between mosquito species. His hypothesis is that it jumped in and out of a virus that was shared between the two species. If the transposon is still able to move from one species to the next, it could be used as a tool to study mosquito genetics and to engineer a mosquito that can no longer transmit malaria or other vector-borne diseases that kill millions of people annually.
“I love that the result of our curiosity-driven research could be a profound benefit to society,” said Tu.
In Zambia, poor agricultural practices in the Luangwa River basin have caused fields to be quickly abandoned, causing erosion and runoff and prompting farmers to cut down the forest in search of new farmland.
Heatwole has spent recent years researching the impact of such practices that not only damage the water supply but also impact the diverse wildlife that lives in the national park downstream.
“There are so many things that benefit from improving sustainability and productivity of the agricultural land,” he said.
Abaye, an alternative crops specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension, spent last year in Senegal, where she researched ways for farmers to improve conservation agriculture in the West African nation. She introduced protein- and mineral-rich mung beans that increase the food and feed supply and provide groundcover.
Locals in the small village of Toubacouta were so excited after the first harvest that they held a celebratory dance.