ANSC Research, A Balanced Attack

Cows, used for dairy research, eat at the Research and Education Center in Clarksville. On the Campus Farm, cows are also used to research digestive tracks.

Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg

June 16, 2014

It has been said that research is a bit like looking for a black cat in a dark room. Although this may be an overly simplistic definition, there is some truth to the unknown twists and turns in examining science and times of not being able to see exactly the target you’re trying to grapple.

In a university setting such as University of Maryland’s Department of Animal and Avian Sciences, there’s a balanced approach using both basic and applied research, said Dr. Tom Porter, professor and department chairman. “Basic research addresses questions about the fundamental mechanismsunderlying a problem,” he said. “It expands our general knowledge on a scientific discipline, and eventually might be incorporated into textbooks. An example would be a project aimed at determining how the cells of the small intestine absorb amino acids from the diet and how this process is regulated.

“Applied research addresses an immediate issue and yields results that can be incorporated into management or industry procedures and practices in the next few years,” said Dr. Porter who has been department chairman for five years. “An example would include determining the optimum diet formulation for reducing nitrogen excretion into the environment while maximizing animal production efficiency.”

Through a merger of the animal, dairy, and poultry science departments, the Department of Animal and Avian Sciences was formed in 1997 and has four main research focuses: animal genetics and cell biology, nutrient utilization and management, animal reproduction and development, and the most recent — pathobiology and infectious diseases. “Some of the older people like me fit into several of these,” Dr. Porter said.

The department includes 23 faculty members, seven of them hired in the past five years, and, like the two-pronged approach he described, the research being done is “very basic to very applied. We have to get those grants and graduate students need to be trained” while at the same time there are industries needing solutions to problems, whether it’s aquaculture farmers wanting to know how to store striped bass semen to assure successful artificial insemination, or research leading to new drugs to kill livestock parasites. While basic research may have the luxury of time, with applied research Dr. Porter said, “the quicker the better,” adding that “most of us have more than one project” so that if one slows down, you can be working on another.

Another difference in the two approaches is that “those doing the more basic research often find that after you answer one question, it opens up more questions,” Dr. Porter said. On the applied side, once you’ve solved the problem you were tasked with, “you’ve answered the question.” Asked what it takes to be a researcher, Dr. Porter said a common thread is that the people are dedicated, curious and patient – especially patient, it would appear. Looking at his work since 1993 studying the genes and hormones that control growth in boiler chickens, “I keep making small discoveries…some projects may only take a year and others a lifetime.”

Also to be included on the list of traits that are common to researchers is passion. “I can’t wait to get to work. I love what I do,” said Dr. Brian Bequette, who has been at the University for 11 years. “I’m 52 and I feel like my career is just taking off … if I’m not doing research and writing it’s not a good day.” Dr. Bequette is working on several projects including one that hopefully will result in improved livestock feed, specifically as it relates to nitrogen content, as well as a project that has possibilities for livestock, humans, and Dr. Brian Bequette wildlife involving in vitro fertilization. “It involves what nutrients have to be available so embryos develop normally,” the researcher said.

Yet another project that has him excited is one involving the National Zoo and cheetahs. The cats produce sperm that is not always viable and so researchers are developing biological markers to avoid implanting sperm that have no chance of resulting in offspring. The zoo currently has six cheetahs, according to a recent article in The Washington Post, and there are only about 10,000 surviving in the wild, mostly in Africa. The International Union for Conservation of Nature placed the cheetah, known for its speed, grace, and beauty, on a list of animals that are considered vulnerable, making research such as that being done at UMD even more crucial. Dr. Bequette said that when he looks at basic and applied research, “it all has application to the field, it always overlaps. I always have to see the applied part. I have to see a reason” for the work being done.

Dr. Iqbal Hamza is passionate about “a small soil worm that’s not even visible to the naked eye,” but is vital to his work on iron deficiency and parasites that make the condition worse. He said 30 to 50 percent of the world’s population is iron deficient, many in developing countries. The obvious danger is anemia, or the inability of the body to carry oxygen to tissues.

“Two things doctors recommend to pregnant women are iron and folic acid, so iron is absolutely critical,” Dr. Hamza said. The microscopic worm, that has been part of the eight years of research performed by Dr. Hamza, “doesn’t make heme, but it eats it,” in typical parasite/ host fashion. Heme is the deep red, non-protein component of hemoglo- bin. The “punch line,” as Dr. Hamza described his work, “was to devise a way to deliver iron more efficiently to humans and to identify new drugs to kill parasites in livestock and improve human health.”

One of the problems Dr. Jiuzhou Song is trying to crack is bringing Marek’s disease – “a very serious disease in birds” – under control. Caused by a Herpes-type virus and a problem worldwide, it mainly affects chickens, causing paralysis of the legs, wings, and neck, eye lesions, and weight loss. Dr. Song said Marek’s has resulted in at least $1 billion in yearly losses to the poultry industry. Vaccines have been used, he said, but he is researching genomics for a better solution to maintaining healthy flocks.

It is this kind of work that validates Dr. Song’s decision to go into research. “I like my research, this is what gives me a lot of my motivation, keeps me  excited,” he said. The scientist enjoys being able to do both basic and applied research, and the addition of other disciplines in his work such as math, biology, medical science, and computer science, adds to the rich tapestry of what happens in the lab and classrooms. “It all comes to gether to make things interesting,” Dr. Song said, as do students and faculty colleagues with different backgrounds. “A team effort” is needed for research “that never ends … we keep our brains busy.”

The busy brains are engaged even when they’re not on campus, the researchers said. Dr. Carol Keefer, whose projects include finding new insights into the basis of livestock embryonic loss so that reproduction can be im proved, recalled with a slight chuckle “waking up in the middle of the night with the solution” to a problem she had been working on, only to find “I couldn’t remember it the next day.” Dr. Keefer said many who go into science enjoy solving puzzles. “It’s gratifying when you figure out how to get through it, get around it.” 

Along with the challenge of the research itself, comes the added concern of securing money to keep the work going. Dr. Keefer is currently waiting to hear about a grant she has applied for, a wait that she described as being “on pins and needles. Once you get a grant, you’re waiting to get the next grant.” In Dr. Porter’s opinion, “The most disheartening thing is when you lose funding. Expenditures from external funding to the Department of Animal and Avian Sciences has doubled in the past five years. Extramural grant support now accounts for more than half of the annual expenditures in the department, exceeding support from the State and Federal governments.”

Dr. Hamza, who is working on iron deficiency, uses a scattergun approach to getting the necessary dollars, and has received grants from a variety of sources including the National Institutes of Health, the Roche Foundation for Anemia Research, and the March of Dimes. He has also created a company called Rakta -- Sanskrit for “blood.” It “allows me to tap money from the private sector” for his work because not only are federal funds more difficult to snare in these days of budget tightening, “there are a lot of strings attached.”

Worries over funding aside, Dr. Porter is optimistic about the department’s work. “We’re doing well, our prospects are looking good … some of the research projects are just getting started and we hope to make some big discoveries.” The work that these and other researchers in the department are tasked with is being performed in one of the oldest buildings on campus, but floor-by-floor the space is being renovated. Posters that the graduate and postgraduate students developed for their studies decorate the walls along with articles published about the research being done, just in case they need to be motivated.