Moisture meter will help prevent grain losses In Brief: In developing countries, grains are often stored in bags, not silos, and high moisture can lead to mold growth in stored grain. Current moisture tests can be costly and impractical for some farmers, so USDA-ARS and university scientists have developed a simple, inexpensive moisture meter. Many farmers in developing regions of the world have no low-cost way to reliably assess the moisture level of their stored grain. Too much moisture can lead to spoilage, insect infestation, and growth of molds like Aspergillus, which often renders grain unfit for consumption. A team of USDA-ARS and Kansas State University (KSU) researchers has been addressing the problem over the past year, helping subsistence farmers prevent postharvest grain losses of up to 30%. In underdeveloped countries like Ghana, grains like maize are stored in large bags rather than in bins or silos, as in the U.S. ASABE member Paul Armstrong of the USDA-ARS and his KSU colleagues have developed a handheld device that they hope will provide farmers with a fast, low-cost way of checking their grain bags. “The meter works by measuring the relative humidity and temperature within the grain to estimate the moisture content,” said Armstrong, who is with the USDA-ARS Center for Grain and Animal Health Research in Manhattan, Kansas. “It is a fairly old concept, but it can be made more practical with modern, inexpensive sensors.” The device is known as the post-harvest loss (PHL) moisture meter, and it costs about $75 to make. It is designed so that farmers can build it, or have it built, using off-theshelf parts and without sophisticated manufacturing equipment. It features a probe that’s inserted directly into a bag of grain to check the moisture level. After about six minutes, a reading appears on a small display window. “Determining whether the grain moisture is low enough for storage is critical for avoiding mold and reducing insect damage,” said James Campbell, who leads research at the USDA-ARS Stored Product Insect and Engineering Research Unit, where Armstrong developed and initially tested the device. Armstrong got involved when KSU requested his help with a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) project called the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss [Editor’s note: See page 12 for more information on the Feed the Future Innovation Lab]. The objectives include finding ways to reduce hunger, poverty, and malnutrition in impoverished countries. The USDA-ARS is also partnering with USAID in its Feed the Future efforts to address world food security. As part of the project, the PHL moisture meter is being evaluated by grain farmers in Ethiopia, Guatemala, and Bangladesh, as well as at four sites in maize-producing regions of Ghana. In the Ghana trials, the moisture meter performed well compared to two other devices that are commonly used in modern grain production systems and that can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars. A description of the device and trial results will be submitted for publication in Applied Engineering in Agriculture. With feedback from farmers, Armstrong and his colleagues are making refinements, including extending the battery life, shortening the measurement time, adding smart phone connectivity, and reducing the cost. Part of this effort is being funded through a USDA-ARS Innovation Fund grant. For more information, contact Jan Suszkiw, Acting Supervisory Editor and Public Affairs Specialist, USDA-ARS, Beltsville, Md., USA, Jan.Suszkiw@ars.usda.gov. Land-use planning is more efficient with targeted tools In Brief: When communities look to address water quality issues such as nutrient pollution, an assortment of computer models can help them simulate scenarios to solve their problems. But how do local officials and watershed planners know which models best address their needs, and which models consider cost as part of the solution? When watershed planners want additional information for making decisions about nutrient management and land use, they want to do it as expeditiously as possible. “With the data that we have available, we must work economically and quickly, and we must have confidence in the results,” said ASABE member Bernard Engel, head of Purdue University’s Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. With funding from Illinois- Indiana Sea Grant, Engel and his team analyzed various modeling tools to assess their value in addressing community land use and water concerns. “Models vary greatly in terms of the required data inputs, the level of expertise needed to use them, and what exactly they model or simulate. Because of that variation, each model has its own strengths and weaknesses,” said Engel. The researchers compared model performances to observed data sets, which allowed them to make recommendations on when to use certain models and what to expect from them. Engel’s team is hoping to push for the models about which they feel most confident to become more accessible to stakeholders. Some models are already available in more comprehensive decision support tools, such as Tipping Points and Indicators. Tipping Points and Indicators is a complex web-based program that uses data to help community planners understand how close a watershed is to ecological thresholds related to a range of water issues, and what the watershed will look like if land use patterns continue on the same course. Based on the results, communities can develop an action plan that includes customized steps to improve current conditions. Engel’s team spends most of its time developing and improving computer-based land use models. One of their additions to Tipping Points and Indicators is a tool to analyze the impacts of land use changes due to urbanization and the construction of green infrastructure, such as rain barrels, porous pavement, and green roofs. This tool was incorporated when decision makers in Peoria, Illinois, signed up to use Tipping Points and Indicators to develop a green infrastructure plan to address the city’s stormwater issues. Engel’s assessment project has helped inform what direction the team is heading. For example, they plan to explore ideas to improve modeling speed and cost-effectiveness. “If the models are faster, they will be more accessible for people, and more useful,” said Engel. For more information, contact Irene Miles, Coordinator of Strategic Communication, University of Illinois, Urbana, USA, email@example.com. Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue University Extension. Breeding resilience into plants In Brief: Researchers at the University of California-Davis are accelerating crop breeding to keep pace with variable weather and a changing climate. Variable weather is creating extreme challenges for crop breeding in California. How do researchers develop crops that will thrive under certain conditions when they can no longer predict what those conditions will be? “That’s the question we’re all asking,” said Charlie Brummer, professor and director of the UC Davis Plant Breeding Center. “Our weather patterns are changing fast, affecting everything from soil composition to what to expect in terms of weeds, diseases, and pests. It can take ten years to develop a new crop variety, even more for perennial plants. So we have to extrapolate what the future will bring—very, very quickly.” Changes have already begun, according to Allen Van Deynze, director of research at the UC Davis Seed Biotechnology Center. A spike in insects and the viruses they transmit is threatening vegetable crops in California and beyond. “An extra four to six weeks of heat can produce another generation of aphids and wipe out an entire crop,” Van Deynze explained, “The insects are multiplying very fast.” Extreme variations in local weather pose a greater challenge than long-term climate change. If growers know that the weather will trend hotter, they can plan accordingly. However, the wild swings—longer droughts and more intense floods—are trickier. “The insects, weeds, and other pests that thrive in more humid settings are different from those that we find during droughts,” Brummer said. “We’re working to breed crops that can adapt to all those conditions.” Plant breeders at UC Davis help develop new cultivars of the nearly 400 fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and ornamentals grown year-round in California’s diverse environments. To create a winning variety, breeders cross plants with desired traits and select the best offspring over multiple generations. That is essentially how humans have been improving crops since the dawn of agriculture. In recent years, breeding has become faster and smarter, thanks to rapid improvements in DNA sequencing and the computer power needed to analyze genetic data. Some plant traits, such as flavor and size, are determined by many genes acting together. Other traits, such as resistance to a disease, may be regulated by a single gene. Breeders can now identify genes that influence some traits at the molecular level, so they can select plants at the seed or seedling stage based on their DNA sequence rather than wait for traits to express themselves as the plants mature. That speeds up the process. “We have the tools to respond quickly to disease and other threats,” Van Deynze said. “We’re hoping to reduce the time it takes to breed for disease resistance from eight years to two or three years.” To accelerate breeding, genotyping is only part of the equation. Breeders also need phenotyping, which means measuring traits as plants grow in the field. “Molecular tools help us find genes of interest for some traits, but we don’t really know what we have for other traits until we grow plants in the field,” Brummer explained. “While trying to solve one problem, we can’t overlook yield or flavor. For those traits, we have to phenotype to find out which traits are best.” Current methods of phenotyping are slow and labor-intensive and have not kept pace with genotyping. Breeders use measuring tapes and their own taste buds to assess yield and fruit quality. Phenotyping has become the bottleneck in plant breeding, but a solution may be at hand. New smart machines and sensor-based technologies can automate the measurement of large numbers of plants. ASABE member David Slaughter, professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at UC Davis, has developed a rapid, in-field phenotyping system with high-tech cameras that creates three-dimensional models of each plant as it grows in the field. “It can measure critical components, like plant architecture and volume, leaf area and number, and even leaf temperature, which helps breeders determine growth patterns and whether plants are suffering from heat or water stress,” Slaughter explained. Slaughter’s tractor-pulled system can currently measure three plants per second, or 10,800 plants per hour. “That’s revolutionary,” Brummer said. “Breeding is a numbers game. The more plants we can look at, the better our chances of finding plants that are truly exceptional.” Sensor technology can also provide the big-picture data that breeders need to develop crops that can thrive in an uncertain future. “We need to look at both phenotyping and genotyping, and tie them together with crop management strategies to optimize the performance of new cultivars,” Brummer said. “Done correctly, we will be able to create new cultivars more efficiently and rapidly today, so they can perform well in the production environments of tomorrow.” For more information, contact Diane Nelson, senior writer, UC Davis College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, denelson@ ucdavis.edu. Yeast is good for a lot more than bread In Brief: A research team led by ASABE member Xueyang Feng, assistant professor of biological systems engineering at Virginia Tech, developed a way to make versatile alcohols from yeast, a discovery that could lead to environmentally friendly ways to manufacture a wide range of products that have historically been made from petroleum. Feng’s team discovered that a compartment in yeast cells can be used to produce fatty alcohols within the cell itself. “Theoretically, these alcohols could be used to supplement the biofuels industry in a more sustainable way,” said Jiayuan Sheng, a post-doctoral associate in Feng’s lab. “These fatty alcohols are sometimes derived from petroleum, so using yeast would eliminate the need for fossil fuels. In the meantime, there are immediate applications for industries that use fatty alcohols in their products.” The discovery has myriad applications. Fatty alcohols are used in a wide variety of products, from detergent to ice cream, and are value-added chemicals that generate $3 billion annually. In 2006, more than 1.3 million tons of fatty alcohols were used in consumer products. The most common products that incorporate fatty alcohols are cosmetics, lubricants, detergents, and food items that use them as thickeners or emulsifiers. To make mediumchain fatty alcohols, Feng’s team hijacked a pathway in a compartment in the yeast cell. Most eukaryotic cells, or cells containing a nucleus and organelles, are made up of various microorganisms, including peroxisomes, that are located outside the nucleus in the cytoplasm. Peroxisomes contain enzymes that oxidize certain molecules normally found in a cell, such as fatty and amino acids, and are responsible for turning hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen. Using a compartmentalized organelle like the peroxisome as a staging ground was what set this study apart from previous work. The team found that medium-chain fatty alcohols could be produced in yeast by targeted expression of fatty acyl-CoA reductase, or TaFAR, in the peroxisome of Saccharomyces cerevisiae. “We’re the first to develop this method of using the compartment within yeast cells to create medium-chain alcohols from yeast,” Feng said. Feng and Sheng have shown that yeast can do much more than make bread rise. For more information, contact, Zeke Barlow, VT Office of Communications and Marketing, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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