Rx for Small Town Economic Health
By Randy Weckman
Health care is changing quickly for the better in rural Kentucky. For a long time the standard of care for many rural Kentuckians has been to travel long distances for even relatively minor procedures. That's because no local facility was available to perform them. While traveling for health care was inconvenient, it also represented lost opportunities for economic development.
Eric Scorsone in the Department of Agricultural Economics is helping to change all that. His research involves working with local leaders and health care providers to assess the type of medical facilities that can be economically viable for a community. In many cases so far he's completed more than 30 analyses for communities throughout Kentuckyimproving local medical facilities makes sense in both convenience and in keeping money at home.
Scorsone's work is part of the Kentucky Rural Health Works Program, which is a collaborative effort of the UK College of Agriculture, the UK Center of Excellence for Rural Health, and the Kentucky State Office of Rural Health. These groups work together to assist rural Kentucky communities in promoting and supporting rural economic development and local health care networks.
Too often in the past, rural leaders didn't know if improving medical care facilities would be economically feasible, Scorsone said. They didn't have information about the health care status of their community to make wise decisions. Many communities simply avoided making decisions to improve local facilities, he said.
Scorsone said that a local health care system is vital to rural economies because rural health care is often second only to the local school system in the number of people it employs and may account for as much as 20 percent of the county's jobs. He also noted that during the last two decades, health care's share of industry earnings had doubled to about 12.3 percent. During the same time, medical transfer payments (from government agencies for health care) tripled in the amount they contribute to rural Kentucky's personal income.
When Scorsone and the team do a community health care audit, they review the market area for the proposed facility. Then, they make assessments of how many types of procedures would likely be performed each year given the demographics. They present that information to the requesting leaders or health care facility.
For example, the Monroe County Hospital asked for help in ascertaining whether a market exists for dialysis. Monroe County has one of the highest rates of diabetes in the nation, and kidney disease is one of the outcomes of uncontrolled diabetes. Hospital officials surmised that the county might have enough patients who would need kidney dialysis to pay for establishing a dialysis clinic.
As soon as they were asked to assess the economics of establishing the clinic, the Rural Health Works Program team reviewed demographic data concerning the expanded market geography and estimated that between 1,700 and 2,300 dialysis visits could be expected each year.
The team acted as a consultant, providing data for local leaders to use in making decisions. Obviously, we cannot know whether it is economically feasible, based on facility costs and the like. We can, however, predict with some measure of certainty the level of need for the service in the community, Scorsone said.
Monroe County leaders have put the dialysis project on their to-do list.
Scorsone noted that not all of the ideas for expansion of health care facilities are economically worthwhile.
The Cumberland County Hospital wanted to expand the number of beds at the facility. Our market analysis suggested that expansion probably wasn't a good idea economically. And that knowledge helped the hospital avoid a costly overexpansion that wouldn't pay for itself, he said.
Not having a robust health system means lost economic opportunities for the community. It also means that health care is less accessible because of the inconvenience of driving an hour or two for routine medical procedures. If local conditions warrant additional health care development, communities can make life easier for citizens and give their local economy a shot in the arm, Scorsone said.
We've used the Rural Health Works Program in a variety of settings, said Judy Jones, director of the UK Center of Excellence for Rural Health in Hazard. The benefit is that it shows community leaders just how much health services contribute to the local economy. Rural community leaders are always looking for ways to improve their economies. And unlike manufacturing, health care is a clean industry, and it encourages education, she said.
Marcum & Wallace Memorial Hospital Makes Informed Plans
The Marcum & Wallace Memorial Hospital in Irvine (Estill County) is a small but progressive community hospital with 25 licensed beds. It was established in 1949 as a result of local leaders seeing a need for a hospital in the area. The hospital needed help making a decision about whether it would be economically feasible to develop outpatient services. Its leaders asked Scorsone for help.
Scorsone first looked at the market area the hospital now serves, which is made up of portions of nine counties, including Estill, Powell, Wolfe, Lee, Jackson, Owsley, Breathitt, Clark, and Madison. The number of people residing in the market area was nearly 46,000.
Based on the demographics, the team estimated that the outpatient clinic services unit likely could perform between 1,450 and 1,700 procedures each year (between 350 and 410 endoscopic examinations, between 175 and 205 orthopedic procedures, and between 146 and 171 ophthalmological procedures, among others). The economic returns to the community for such a facility could be expected to be several hundred thousand dollars and create a number of jobs, too.
According to Susan Starling, chief administrative officer at Marcum & Wallace, Eric helped us strategically plan the direction we were going. His work will help us make important decisions about our hospital. Right now, we are making upgrades to our current facilities.
Next, hospital leaders will evaluate whether to add the clinic. Their decision will be based on the facts and figures Scorsone's team provided. "His information has been really valuable in giving us direction for the future. We have it in the plan, and the board will use it to chart our future," said Starling.
The Case of the Missing Gene:
Plant Pathologist Helps March of Diemes with Research
By Randy Weckman
When you think about it, it's not such a big intellectual leap from studying genes in a fungus that infects rice and certain other grass family members to investigating
mutations that cause birth defects in babies. You need only to understand that genes work pretty much the same way in all organisms, including fungi, humans, cats, dogs, and donkeys, among others.
That's why the March of Dimes organization was interested in funding the research of Mark Farman in the Department of Plant Pathology. That research is on mutations in a fungus that causes a disease in rice called rice blast. Rice and fungi wouldn't seem at first blush to be in the March of Dimes field of interest, but Farman's shining of a big, bright light on the process of gene loss in the fungus, the March of Dimes believed, might well help medical researchers understand the same phenomenon that causes all manner of birth defects in babies. And that's a worthwhile goal as far as the March of Dimes is concerned, because preventing birth defects has been its raison d'etre since it was established in the 1930s.
The research of Farman, a northwest-Londoner by birth, is at the below-tiny, below-microscopic level; he studies the lilliputian world of DNA (genetic material) of the rice blast fungus Magnaporthe grisea. This rice fungus is important to world rice production because it can waste a rice crop posthaste. And the fungus also can cause severe devastation in certain susceptible turf grasses such as annual ryegrass, perennial ryegrass, and St. Augustine grass, to name a few.
But this fungus has a peculiarity that makes Farman take an interest in it. Its quirk is that when one particular strain of the fungus is crossed with certain other strains, a gene that controls pigment in the fungus is lost in about 25 percent of the progeny. Because that gene causes color, progeny without the gene are pale and wan, easily recognized. Sometimes, however, when strains that are known to be genetically unstable are crossed with other strains, there is no gene loss. Weird, huh?
Furthermore, those 25 percent that lack pigmentation can't manufacture an enzyme (tetrahydroxynaphthalene reductase) that allows the fungus to synthesize its own melanin.
Normally, melanin allows the fungus to be stiff enough to penetrate rice leaves, enabling it to establish an infection. Because 25 percent of the strains don't have the melanin mechanism that allows infection to occur, the genetic mutant seems to be self-limiting. Progeny with the gene loss can no longer cause disease; nonetheless, the mutation appears with regularity as a new (de novo, as geneticists call it) defect.
And while 25 percent may seem an almost magical number to those who've had an elementary course in Mendelian genetics (Aha! A simple recessive trait will be expressed when two recessive genes come together after fertilization, and that will occur in 25 percent of progeny), as a fungal geneticist, Farman knew that the phenomenon he saw and recorded was truly due to gene loss. That's because the rice blast fungus has only one set of chromosomes, so the recessive trait would be expressed 100 percent of the time.
Farman compared the genetic material of the mutants with parent fungi and found that the mutants, plain and simple, had a big hole where a gene that codes for melanin synthesis should be. It had been deleted sometime during meiosis. Meiosis is the process by which a cell's double set of chromosomes becomes a single set in the sperm or egg. Offspring from the fertilized egg then receive one set of chromosomes from each parent. See the sidebar on meiosis on page 15 if you need a quick refresher course in biology. If the oddity was caused instead by the expression of a non-functional gene, once reproduction occurred there would be a copy of that gene.
The Human Connection
Why is chromosome loss more than a novelty, a sideshow for a fungus that causes disease in rice? Does this phenomenon have implications for science beyond allowing researchers to understand and maybe control a disease in rice and certain turf grasses?
De novo gene lossesthose in which the gene loss occurs in the first generation and have not been inheritedalso are relatively common in plants and animals. Often, the results are catastrophic. Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome in humans, for example, is caused by the deletion of genes on the human chromosome 4; the syndrome is manifested in growth and mental retardation, incomplete brain development, and other defects. Several congenital heart defects are caused by genetic aberrations on chromosome 22. The Angelman syndromesometimes called the happy puppet syndrome because children born with it have severe mental retardation, inappropriate laughter, lack of speech, and herky, jerky gaitis thought to be caused by genetic errors in the 15th chromosome.
Because Farmans rice fungus is rather predictable (at least in the sense that genes are deleted with high frequency), it is a good organism to study to find out exactly whyand howgene deletion occurs. If Farman's research in the rice fungus, which is truly basic science, can answer these puzzling questions, other researchers may be able to discover ways to prevent a variety of birth defects in babies.
Farman has shown that fungal strains possessing an unstable pigment gene have small pieces of DNA on each side of the gene that are virtually identical. Such repeats can cause problems for the fungal cells, especially if they are close to one another. This is because the enzymes that replicate the chromosomes can jump between repeats, failing to copy any of the DNA in between. During normal meiosis, these jumps are prevented because a matching chromosome from the other parent pairs tightly with the unstable chromosome, holding the repeats well apart.
Farman proposes that the frequent de novo mutations occur when the chromosome region containing the pigment gene is organized differently in each of the parents. This prevents the partners that are pairing from aligning correctly, which will allow the repeats surrounding the unstable pigment gene to pair with each other. If the cell then performs what it believes to be a normal meiotic exchange of DNA strands in this self-paired loop, the pigment gene will be released from the chromosome and degraded.
Real-World Problem Solving
But a simple association does not a theory prove.
That's why researchers always work from a theoretical rationale, which seeks to explain how two observations are related. Researchers develop their rationale and then try to disprove it through crucial research.
In a series of experiments, Farman made the crosses between the unstable strain and stable strains and found that pigment gene deletions occurred whenever chromosome pairing was predicted to be disrupted.
Furthermore, deletions occurred only in the chromosome that possessed the repeats on each side of the gene; the sites of deletion were right within the repeated gene, Farman said. Even more telling, however, was the finding that the unstable chromosome region rarely suffered deletion in crosses where it was able to pair with an identical chromosome, he said.
Farman thus was able to specify that the pigment deficiency is caused by gene loss and was able to predict with precision the circumstances under which losses occurred when parents have chromosomes with different organizational patterns in a region rich in repeated DNA.
How does this help manage the disease in rice and turf grasses?
According to plant pathologist Paul Vincelli, who collaborated with Farman on discovering a strain of Magnaporthe grisea fungus that causes devastating disease on perennial ryegrass, many fungicides lose their punch after a short time because the fungus adapts genetically so that it can surviveand sometimes thrivein the presence of the fungicide.
Understanding the basic molecular aspects of genetic variation in various fungal strains can help other scientists develop control agents that will remain effective against a constantly mutating fungal population, Vincelli said.
Did the March of Dimes Get Its Moneys Worth?
Because the genetics of de novo chromosomal abnormalities isn't easy to study in humans, Farman's research on a fungus may provide important information on understanding how mutations occur. They appear not to be random events, but rather have a very strong, deterministic genetic basis. If scientists can understand the mechanism for such mutations, it may be possible to predict when such birth defects might occur, perhaps even develop methods to avoid them altogether if there is a strong probability of their occurrence.
The ABCs of Meiosis
If you think Watson refers to Sherlock Holmes sidekick and Crick refers to the pain in the neck you have from reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classics about Sherlocks adventures, you might need a tutorial on meiosispro-nounced my - oh - sis. Meiosis occurs when reproductive cells (eggs or sperm) are produced. Suffice it to say, these days biology is more than carving up really dead animals.
Watson and Crick were the young scientists at Cambridge University in England (Watson was American; Crick was English) who in 1953 described that the genetic molecule (DNA) is made up of two chains of chemicals (sugar phosphates) arranged around a central axis much like a ladderexcept that the ladder is twisted into what's called a double helix. The ladderand each species has a certain number of discrete ladders in every cellis made up of chromosomes. (Humans have 46 chromosomes; goldfish have 94; gorillas, 48; and cattle, 60).
Continuing the ladder analogy, think of the rungs. Each rung is formed from the weak bonding of two of four basic molecules-adenine, cytosine, thymine, and guanine. Up and down the ladder are several rungs that in a row make up genes. And between rungs (genes)and this is important when understanding Farman's workare pieces of DNA that apparently have little importance but occupy spaces between genes. It is in these spaces (repeats) that Farman believes trouble begins.
De Novo Chromosomal Abnormalities
De novo chromosomal aberrations in humans are frequent. In fact, all mutationseven if they are inheritedstarted out as de novo aberrations. Syndromes in humans that are thought to be the outcome of chromosomal errors include some well-known ones, such as Down syndrome and dwarfism. Down syndrome occurs in one out of every 1,250 births to mothers in their 20s and in one in 30 births for women who are in their mid-40s. It is associated with a chromosomal defect on the 21st chromosome. Down syndrome (like several other birth defects such as Patau syndrome, Turner syndrome, and Kleinfelter syndrome) is caused by an incomplete separation of chromosome pairs during meiosis. Each of the syndromes shows three chromosomes (trisomy) when there normally would be only two. Further, many of the de novo chromosomal abnormalities are unnoticed because the fetus dies before it is detected as a pregnancy.
And while many genetic abnormalities are catastrophic, some are a real benefit, especially in agriculture.
Genetic aberrations in plants can lead to quite convenient foods. Seedless grapes and watermelon are two common foods that are the result of errors during meiosis that lead to the progeny having three sets of chromosomes instead of two. In the trade such plants are called triploid. The fact that no seeds are produced means that all new plants must be propagated using unconventional techniques. In grapes, new plants are created by coaxing cuttings from a mother plant to set roots and begin anew. In the case of watermelon, seeded varieties are chemically treated so that the resulting plants have four sets of chromosomes. Seeds from those plants are then crossed with a conventional two-set watermelon, which results in the triploid progeny that produces seedless fruit when pollinated with a two-sets-of-chromosomes variety.
In meiosis, a cells double set of chromosomes becomes a single set in the sperm or egg, so that after fertilization occurs, the egg has one set of chromosomes from each parent. Heres how it works (each chromosome as drawn is representative of a set of chromosomes):
1. Most cells in our bodies contain two copies of each chromosome, one that came from Mom (blue) and the other from Dad (red).
2. Just before meiosis, chromosomes copy themselves, resulting in sister strands of DNA joined at the centromere.
3. Early in meiosis, each replicated chromosome pairs up with its partner in the middle of the cell so that the four DNA strands are aligned with one another. Enzymes cut the DNA strands at random points along the chromosomes. Another set of enzymes then joins the free ends to one of the strands on the partner chromosome, resulting in a crossover. In normal meiosis, the crossovers occur at exactly the same point on the two DNA strands, so no genetic information is lost.
4. After crossing over is complete, the chromosome pairs are pulled apart by cellular motors that latch onto their centromeres.
5. Finally, the sister strands are separated, resulting in four chromosome sets that are each packaged into a single sperm or egg cell, which are called haploid cells because they contain just one copy of each chromosome.
Farman proposes that frequent de novo mutations occur when the chromosome region containing the pigment gene doesnt align correctly with its pairing partner during meiosis. This would allow repeats (of DNA) surrounding the unstable pigment locus to pair with each other.
By Randy Weckman
Listening to the Voices of the Rural Poor
Poor people. Children in poverty. The images conjured up by each of these phrases today most often have an urban, housing project complexion. Yet, much of the poverty in the United States is not urban, inner city poverty, but rural, wide-open-spaces poverty and small town poverty. Regardless of locale, poverty constitutes human potential unfulfilled.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, commonly dubbed welfare reform, made sweeping changes in the federal governments role in supporting low-income families. It ended cash assistance as an entitlement, imposed time limits and work requirements on poor people, and gave states greater domain in welfare policy. And as the name implies, it put the onus on poor families to figure out how to end their dependence on welfare.
Nearly all discussions leading to welfare reform centered on the urban poor. And while the outcome of being poor in an urban situation and a rural situation may be similar, the opportunities for bootstrapping oneself out of poverty may be quite different.
How are rural families with young children dealing with the end of welfare as we know it, a common descriptor of the legislation? According to a study by Tricia Dyk, a sociologist in the Department of Community and Leadership Development, theyre having problems that are uniquely rural in nature.
In our study we asked poor Kentucky mothers to tell us in their own words what their lives are like after welfare reform, said Dyk.
Because they are telling us their story, we can understand the strategies they use in dealing with poverty every day, she said.
The mothers weve interviewed arent welfare queens of popular myth. Two-thirds of them or their husbands had worked sometime during the last year. Nonetheless, the barriers for bootstrapping themselves permanently out of poverty are formidable, Dyk said.
These families dont want to continue drawing a check, as the saying goes, but they face difficult challenges not only in finding a job but in being able to retain it because of many things most of us take for granted, she said.
Jobs in rural areas are scarce, and when a job is available, it is twice as likely as an urban job to pay minimum wage and have no benefits, Dyk said. It may be very difficult if not impossible to sustain a family on minimum wages, especially when benefits are meager, she said.
The lack of reliable transportation is a major barrier for many of these people, she said.
Because getting to a job in a rural area usually requires some travel, you may have a hard time keeping a job if you don't have a car or your car is undependable. Some moms are coping by having a member of an extended family help out with transportation to and from a job, Dyk said.
Child care is another major obstacle for many. Child care is expensive in urban areas, too, but at least it is more readily available. In rural areas, reliable child care may be quite distant from ones home, she said.
Again, the extended family often helps out with child care while parents work, Dyk said.
So, okay, if jobs in rural areas are scarce and barriers to working substantial, why don't the rural poor move to urban areas where jobs, public transportation, and child care are more available?
Historically, many rural poor have migrated to the cities, Dyk said. The low-income moms we interviewed, in addition to being very dependent on extended family members to keep their own families intact, often have responsibilities to other family members that preclude them from even thinking about leaving the rural area for the city, she said.
Oddly, living in poverty hadnt particularly embittered the low-income moms.
These people are resilient and resourceful in their own ways in dealing with the unexpectedness of their lives. They tend to be very good at living poor, Dyk said.
Take Laurie, a 22-year-old mother of two, who said one technique she uses to get through to the end of the month is pawning.
I pawn stuff all the time. I pawned my ring the other day to buy diapers. I pawn things telling myself I'll get them back. But then I never do.
Laurie (not her real name) takes care of two small children while her husband works any odd jobs he can procure. Laurie believes she is ineligible for child care assistance because she and her husband live together. Because money is so tight, she relies on washing clothes in the bathtub rather than spending money at the laundry.
By knowing just how families like Lauries are coping, we can better anticipate the needs our rural poor have in getting out of poverty and staying there, Dyk said. Just because they are no longer on welfare rolls doesn't mean their income is sufficient to move beyond poverty, she said.
About Kentucky Children Living in Poverty
Child poverty in Kentucky is substantial, with some locales having higher rates of child poverty than others. Poverty rates for children (defined as those under age 18) range from 6.8 percent in Boone County to more than 56 percent in Owsley County. Twenty-five Kentucky counties have more than one in three children living in poverty; all of these are rural counties. Overall, Kentucky ranked seventh in the nation in 1999 in the number of children living in povertymore than 200,000.
Owsley, Wolfe, Clay, Magoffin, and Martin countiesall rural counties located in Eastern Kentuckyare among those counties in the nation with the highest rate of children in poverty, ranging from 45.4 percent in Martin County to 56.4 percent in Owsley County. (In the national list of 38 counties with the highest rates of children in poverty, only oneHidalgo County in Texasis considered an urban county; the remaining 37 are rural.)
Childhood poverty isnt always the result of family members not working. In fact, two-thirds of poor families with children in Kentucky have at least one household member who works at least part of the year10 months per year on averageand nearly 25 percent of them work full-time. Less than 20 percent of poor families with children rely on welfare for the bulk of their income.
Leaving welfare rolls does not necessarily mean that a family with children also leaves poverty. In fact, the statistics indicate that nearly 60 percent of families leaving the welfare rolls continued to live in poverty despite family members work.
Sources: the College's Social 'N Agricultural Resource Library (www.ca.uky.edu/snarl), Kentucky Youth Advocates (www.kyyouth.org), and the Children's Defense Fund (www.childrensdefense.org). Visit these Web sites for more information about children in poverty.
- Listening to the Voices of the Rural Poor
Research Annual Report
Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station
In 2002, the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station made a giant leap forward in its funding from external grants and contracts for the College of Agriculture. That funding increased 60 percent over 2001 going from $10.5 million to $17.2 million. (The University as a whole increased its external funding by 22 percent.)
That's not the only milestone. Here are others:
- Between $4 and $5 million of the College's external grants are secured by faculty who have a primary appointment in the Cooperative Extension Service.
n College faculty obtained ten patents this year: in biotechnology, veterinary immunology, food science, weed science, and insect culture.
- The year 2002 gave us another chance to discover more about Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome (MRLS). Based partly on recommendations to protect mares from eastern tent caterpillars, only about one-third as many losses occurred in 2002 as in 2001. This past year, many College scientists again pitched in with enormous dedication and ruled out cyanide and mycotoxins as likely causes. Researchers also successfully reproduced the syndrome using eastern tent caterpillars, a key step in understanding the cause of the disease.
- A new program that will foster start-up companies in the state is under way. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Natural Products Alliance aims to translate University plant science research into start-up companies producing natural products such as plant-derived pharmaceuticals.
The report of the year 2002 is a sampling of only a few of the 148 externally-funded research projects in the College, but the stories here reflect the range of activities and the level of commitment typical of the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station. As you will see, our research program is committed to partnerships, world-class science, and discovering new research tools.
For example, we are partnering with:
ExtensionOne of the most important partners for the Experiment Station is the Cooperative Extension Service. The high-impact research of faculty members who have a primary appointment in Extension is making a difference in Kentucky.
Other colleges in the UniversityThese relationships bring the best science to bear on solving agricultural problems, and the discoveries they yield are important to the future of Kentucky agriculture. Biosystems and agricultural engineering research, for example, may result in new approaches to using tobacco plants to produce commercially-valuable proteins. West Nile Virus, a complex disease, is being studied by a cross-disciplinary team. That broad approach is necessary if West Nile's devastation is to be understood and eventually curbed. Partners for these projects come from the College of Pharmacy and the College of Arts and Sciences.
Kentucky State UniversityKSU is a natural partner, since both UK and KSU are land grant universities bent on helping the public. KSU's research on traps for beehive mites illustrates its efforts to replace chemical use with other control methods. Together, UK and KSU serve a broad range of agriculture.
State agenciesForestry faculty members have worked for the past several years with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources in an effort to restore the peregrine falcon to its natural rural habitat. That work is an example of collaboration across organizational lines for the state's benefit.
This report also points up two other important aspects of the College's research program:
* Although many of our programs have international distinction, the programs of Jerry Skees and Peter Nagy have attracted worldwide acclaim for innovation and originality.
* We're committed to expanding opportunities for horticultural crops as you'll see when you read about the creative use of computer scanning to determine seed vigor.
We are proud of what our Experiment Station scientists have done in the past year, and we look forward to the future.
Nancy M. Cox, Associate Director
Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station
S-129 Agricultural Science Center, University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky 40546-0091
Total Research Support
2002 Federal Fiscal Year
(October 1, 2001 through September 30, 2002)
Gifts & Endowment Income$4,313,867
Grants & Contracts$17,200,000
Research Annual Report Stories by Martha Jackson
Managing the Hurricane
Some people expect the worst. Jerry Skees in Agricultural Economics doesn't waste time expecting it. He moves on to how to manage it, traveling the globe to develop agricultural insurance in countries such as Mexico, Morocco, Mongolia, and Argentina.
What we're trying to do is sort out the mix between markets and government for managing natural disaster risk, Skees said. When everyone has a wreck at the same time, it requires special financial arrangements.
In this case, the wreck is generally a hurricane, flood, famine, droughtany devastating weather-related event that affects all parts of a countrys economy.
Skees helps countries figure out how to shift some of the potential economic cost of such disasters into the global financial markets so the economic burden is shared.
Were trying to help countries sort out, before the event, how to finance economic losses as well as who is going to get benefits, he said. He helps countries assess their risk, price it, and recommends how (and who) should bear the cost of those risks.
With the right kind of planning, a country can better survive the disaster's economic pummeling and rebound more quickly with less dependence on the whims of international aid.
Social scientists rarely have the opportunity to try different approaches in other countries, Skees said about his international experience. The hope is that the learning will be something we can bring back to Kentucky and the nation.
Skees continues to be involved in advising on the U.S. crop insurance program, for which the issue of sharing the risk in a global market is still of great significance.
Moving Over to Better Red Clover
Twelve years ago, most of the red clover seeded in Kentucky was of common (and relatively cheap) varieties. Research showed that some varieties were better, but how to convince farmers? For Jimmy Henning, then an Extension specialist (now assistant director of Extension for agriculture and natural resources), it was a matter of putting the plow horse in the race with the Thoroughbred.
Variety trials were expanded to include common red clovers. Those trials began to show that, by comparison, research-proven varieties improved yield, lived longer, and brought in at least $250 more per acre than did the common varieties.
But Henning knew improved varieties of red clover wouldnt take hold unless farmers saw them work firsthand. So he and Dan Grigson, Lincoln County agent for ag and natural resources, carried out an information campaign that is a model for how to put research to work. Henning and Grigson conducted demonstrations, held field days, spoke at meetings, and told their story to anybody who would listenin the media, in newsletters (including Grigson's own Uddergram), and at farm supply stores. They convinced distributors to put better red clover varieties in the stores.
Farmers began asking for improved varieties, and stores began to stock them. The added value due to extra yield and persistence grew from about $3.5 million in 1995 to nearly $7 million in 2002 because of increased use of the better varieties.
Not all farmers in Kentucky (or Lincoln County) are convinced, of course. But the effort shows that research, packaged so that its benefits are clear, can mean more profits for farmers.
Pharming and Foam
Most people still look at a tobacco plant and think of only one product, but College researchers are exploring tobacco's potential to manufacture crucial proteins for the pharmaceutical industry through a new biotechnology called molecular pharming.
Kentucky, a state that wrote the book on how to grow tobacco, is in a prime position to take advantage of a crop thats being used in new ways.
The tobacco plant is able, with the jump-start of a genetically modified protein introduced into its biological system, to produce proteins that can become the basis for all sorts of medicines.
The next step in this kind of pharming is to harvest these proteins as efficiently and as inexpensively as possible. That's where the engineer comes in. Czarena Crofcheck in Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering is working with colleagues including Michael Jay and Paul M. Bummer in the College of Pharmacy and Indu B. Maiti at the Kentucky Tobacco Research and Development Center on how to best separate and recover these crucial proteins from the hundreds of other proteins produced by tobacco.
These researchers are using a method called foam fractionation. It's based on the scientific principle that if a gas is bubbled through a liquid, foam is created and surface-active components concentrate in the foam. These components can then be removed along with the foam.
Crofcheck and her colleagues have already shown the process works. Now, they are refining the technique. If they are successful, they will lower the cost of producing drugs from tobacco plants and potentially increase the output of tobacco pharmers in Kentucky and elsewhere.
Sleuthing Our Way to Fuel Alternatives
Many hope for a world in which we will be less dependent on non-renewable oil, coal, and natural gas to power our cars and heat our homes. Ethanol made from renewable organic material such as plants may be part of the answer, but right now it's expensive to produce. Two UK researchers could help change that.
Herb Strobel in the College's Department of Animal Sciences and Bert Lynn at the UK Mass Spectrometry Facility are analyzing the bacterium Clostridium thermocellum, which one day could be an efficient ethanol-producing machine. It works quickly at high temperatures to convert organic matter into ethanol. But this bacterium can't itself tolerate much ethanol, and that means it can't produce ethanol beyond a certain amount.
As the first step to understanding how particular proteins contribute to ethanol tolerance, Strobel and Lynn are identifying the proteins in the bacterium using a set of state-of-the-art techniques called proteomics. It's a preface to genetically altering this bacterium's proteins so that it can tolerate (and thus produce) more ethanol.
Their procedure is exacting: Strobel and his colleagues tag the ethanol-sensitive proteins to be studied; Lynn and his staff analyze them at the smallest structural level to identify them precisely.
This research could lead to all sorts of cheap organic matter being used to make ethanolcorn husks, sawdust, wood chips, even municipal wasteand the search for renewable energy sources will have taken a giant step forward.
Using Numbers to Tell the Tale
If Julie Zimmerman had her own bumper sticker, it might read Have Numbers: Will Travel.
That's because Zimmerman, a faculty member in the Department of Community and Leadership Development, is the primary organizer of a database of social and demographic data for every county in the commonwealth.
Called Kentucky: By the Numbers, Zimmerman's program started as a result of federal welfare reform in the late 1990s, when the federal government mandated that states find ways to help welfare recipients make the transition to work.
People weren't really sure just how the resulting changes would affect their communities. They told us they needed data to help them make decisions, Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman and her colleagues asked people what types of information they needed to respond to the changes. Since then, shes assembled a broad range of social and demographic data including, for example, how much of a community's economy depends on food stamps, how many women are in its labor force, and how many farmers live in a county. The material is organized so that it is easy to access and use.
The numbers have been used by a diverse group of people, including researchers and organizational and governmental officials.
Response continues to be high for this series. Our plans are to continue adding data on issues facing Kentucky communities, Zimmerman said.
Kentucky: By the Numbers is available through local Extension offices or on the Web at: www.ca.uky.edu/snarl.
West Nile Virus: Where the Sciences Meet
To most of us, West Nile Virus is only a passing worry. To horse farm managers, West Nile is a very real threat. To a group of UK scientists, it is an example of the interconnectedness of nature and an opportunity to work together to combat a complex disease.
Peter Timoney and Tom Chambers in Veterinary Science, David Westneat in UK's Department of Biology, and Stephen Dobson in Entomology are collaborating to better understand West Nile, which was identified in the United States in 1999.
More than one kind of mosquito can carry the virus, and more than 100 species of birds are known to be susceptible to it. A third complication is that, while mosquitoes carrying the virus normally infect birds, some species can bite horses or people instead. The virus can kill birds and cause a range of symptoms in people and horses. Very occasionally, West Nile causes fatal neurological disease.
Dobson is working with livestock managers to obtain mosquito samples that are tested for the virus. Timoney and his colleagues provide information about the horses that fall ill with West Nile, and Westneat is looking at bird species to see which ones make good hosts, and why.
Together with other UK scientists and state and county health departments, they are working to better understand West Nile: its natural cycle, key participants, and risk factors. By better understanding this disease, they hope to provide more focused and effective control strategies that will result in a safer environment for the state's human and equine populations and financial savings for farm managers.
Bringing Back the Peregrine Falcon
The peregrine falcon is a great-winged bird of prey that dive bombs for its food and can almost outstrip a flying plane. It can live anywhere from the tropics to the North Pole, but this bird is hard to find in Kentucky. Mike Lacki in Forestry has been working for the past three years at the Red River Gorge to find out why.
The peregrine has been known lately as more of a city bird. When the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources decided try to re-establish it in a more rural setting, Lacki and his graduate students began to handle bird release, hatching of young in captivity, and data collection.
Peregrines are great migrators. Ours have moved on, but currently, four nesting pairs of peregrines (plus a lone female) are in the state, having migrated here from elsewhere. The College's research project is adding to the knowledge base of how to encourage more peregrines to live and thrive in Kentucky in the future.
Lacki thinks restoration of birds such as the peregrine, which was once on the endangered species list, is important. If we make no effort to restore what we've already eliminated, we've accepted that natural systems are a little less than what they could be, he said.
He also believes it matters to bring the peregrine back to places like the Gorge.
If you're going to truly restore something, you're going to put it where it belongs, he said.
Using an Electronic Yardstick
The impatiens, petunias, and other flowers you buy at the garden center just naturally grow to the same height, right?
Wrong. If all your seedlings are the same height, it may be because bedding plant growers detected and replaced weak, low-vigor seedlings with strong ones.
The strength of seeds (and their ability to grow rapidly and uniformly) is called seed vigor, and until recently, seed vigor in bedding plants hadn't gotten much attention.
Bob Geneve and his colleagues in Horticulture are changing the way seed producers evaluate seed vigor by using a flat-bed scanner.
This little piece of office equipment is usually used to copy documents into an electronic file, but Geneve is using it to take digital images of seeds as they germinate and the seedlings grow. Directed by a computer program, the scanner takes pictures often, and at scheduled intervals, so it's easier to pinpoint exactly when the seedling first starts to grow, which is an indicator of seed vigor.
The scanner is also able to produce an image that makes it possible to measure growth precisely so that growth comparisons between one seed and another are more accurate.
Using this flat-bed scanner technique to identify high-vigor seeds could mean more money for the bedding plant industry. By using high-vigor seeds, seedling growers could save on labor costs to replace seedlings that don't come up on schedule. Seed companies, if they could show that their seeds have high vigor, would have another selling point in the marketplace.
Finding the Virtue in Viruses
RNA viruses are a wily enemy of agriculture and medicine. They cause disease in plants, animals, and people. Peter Nagy in Plant Pathology is part of a group of researchers around the world looking at how RNA viruses (those with ribonucleic acid as genetic material) work in small plants. If their work is successful, science will have taken a big step in learning how to disarm these viruses before they can do harm.
These viruses are a tough adversary. They can replicate so fast it would be dizzying to watch: 1 million new virus particles can be made from a single cell. It's one of the most efficient processes on earth, Nagy said. Sometimes, the viruses accidentally produce defective offspring that steal the parent's proteins. The parent virus cant reproduce itself without those proteins, and the defective virus can't produce them at all, so replication is curbed. Therefore, these defective viruses are potentially our allies against harmful viruses.
Nagy wants to understand both how the virus can copy itself so quickly and how replication can be blocked, which could mean not only less viral disease for plants but also strides in understandingand blockingviral infections in people and animals.
This research has even larger implications. Viruses could be harnessed for 21st century technology: the replication process of RNA viruses, once they are separated from their own harmful effects, could be used to turn plants into efficient little factories for medicines and other products.
Help for the Honeybee
Honeybees not only make tasty golden nectar, they scurry from plant to plant with the pollen essential to growing a variety of crops from apples to almonds.
For years, honeybee hives have been beset by the Varroa mite. This little vampire of a bug attaches itself to the bees, sucks their blood, weakens them, and shortens their life-span. Occasionally the mites fall off, but they just crawl back on the bees and continue their dirty work.
Acaricidesinsecticides for miteshave been the tool of choice in the past, but Tom Webster, an entomologist at Kentucky State University, is one of several people nationwide studying an inexpensive, non-chemical alternative.
The method under study is remarkably simple: A screen with about eight holes per inch is inserted in the hive. When the mites attach themselves as usual to the bees and fall off, they plummet through the screen trap. Unable to climb out to re-attach themselves to the bees, the mites die.
Webster and his research assistants at Kentucky State have carried out the first long-term project using the traps and have found, over 15 months, that they reduce mites by 60 percent.
He estimates that, nationwide, the traps could save $12 to $24 million in acaricides (even more if you add in the cost of labor to apply them).
The traps are already on the market. They cost about $10 retail.