R&D for Maine - Impact Stories
Cellulose has great potential for use in “green” building and manufacturing materials. Cellulose—the major component of plants–is abundant and renewable and offers many advantages for designing new materials. Current research by College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture scientists focuses on use of cellulose nanofibrils in thermoplastic composites. Cellulose-nanofibril-filled thermoplastics have potential for use in under-the-hood automobile components, where high heat exposure is a limiting factor. They also have potential for infrastructure applications because of their strength and stiffness. Current studies focus on polymer-mixing regimes that will enhance the dispersion and distribution of cellulose nanofibrils in thermoplastic matrices and on methods for minimizing the impact of moisture during production. These composites provide challenges for scale-up to commercial production, but tremendous opportunity to provide a new class of green materials.
Project contact: Douglas Gardner, Professor of Wood Science and Technology
The Knowledge Transfer Alliance (KTA) brings assistance to businesses and communities in Maine experiencing economic distress. The program is led by the college’s School of Economics, bringing together expertise from the Maine Business School, the Advance Manufacturing Center, UMaine Cooperative Extension, and other University of Maine partners. KTA teams offer assistance in decision analysis, financial accountability and record keeping, marketing, streamlining production channels, and increasing manufacturing efficiencies. The team approach uses the talents of faculty, graduate students, and private/public consultants to work directly with businesses and municipalities. The ultimate goal of KTA is to produce an environment that facilitates the creation and retention of higher-skill and higher-wage jobs and increases tax revenues and capital investment. Given the nature of Maine’s economy, most clients are small businesses and many are natural resource based. A recent KTA client, the owner of Saunders Mills, reflected on her experience:
Having the benefit of The Knowledge Transfer Alliance and Hugh Stevens during this rescue and start- up of two fairly complicated business (Saunders Brothers and Moosehead Manufacturing) was like having a giant Business SIM card that I could plug into my business, as needed, download some advice, as needed, select from a menu of expertise, as needed, and know in the back of my mind that I had storehouse of no-nonsense facts and intelligence that I could rely on. This is what helped me get through: intelligence for my business. KTA arrived on the scene, quickly assessed the situation, gave real advice which confirmed my thoughts and gave me the confidence to move fast-forward and take the risk of creating 18 jobs in 3 months.
Project contact: Hugh Stevens, Program Director
The shellfish industry is concerned about the explosive growth of invasive European green crab populations in Maine, which are voracious predators of clams, oysters, and mussels. Although the species is often used as bait, there is presently no commercial fishery for green crab since it is relatively small, making it economically unfeasible to extract the meat in existing processing facilities. Food science faculty in the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture have been working to develop methods to mechanically remove the meat from the shell and to gather data on the nutritional characteristics, texture, color, and flavor of the extracted crab meat. This first phase has been a success. College scientists have successfully developed processes to produce crab mince with good microbial and nutritional quality. The next steps, which are in progress, involve testing whether consumers like the new food products that contain the crab mince. The ultimate goal is to demonstrate an economically feasible use for harvested green crabs. This R&D has the potential to stimulate the establishment of a new fishery, contribute to the growth of the seafood-processing sector, and result in the development of new food products.
Project contact: Denise Skonberg, Associate Professor of Food Science
Faculty in the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture’s Darling Marine Center are using selective breeding to develop domesticated oysters with superior growth and disease resistance. The oyster culture industry in Maine is poised for significant growth, but there is a need for oysters that will grow faster in Maine’s relatively cold ocean temperatures and are more resistant to Roseovarius oyster disease. Starting with oyster “seed” produced in a hatchery, college researchers first select individual oysters that exhibit the desired traits. These oysters are then being used in a breeding program to produce an improved line of the eastern oyster. The initial research has been highly successful. The “UMaine oyster” grows modestly faster than wild oysters and other selectively-bred lines when grown in several of Maine’s rivers. To make the next advance, college scientists are identifying the specific genes associated with high quality traits and exploring whether crossing existing oyster lines can be used to capitalize on hybrid vigor for growth and disease resistance.
Project contact: Paul Rawson, Associate Professor of Marine Science
Forest science faculty in the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture have teamed up with large forest landowners to learn how to better manage the hundreds of thousands of acres of young spruce-fir forests in northern and western Maine. These forests are a direct outgrowth of the spruce budworm outbreak and salvage logging of decades earlier. Pre-commercial and commercial thinning will be critical steps in the future management of these stands, but it is unclear how to best thin these new forests. Thinning removes some trees to allow the remaining ones to grow faster. In 2000, forest scientists and landowners initiated two long-term thinning experiments on 15 sites distributed across lands of 12 major forest landowners. These landowners are members of the Cooperative Forestry Research Unit at the University of Maine. The first 10 years of data revealed deficiencies in the existing growth and yield models for predicting tree growth after thinning. The new models developed from this project will be valuable tools for planning the sustainable harvest of these forest stands as they mature.
Project contact: Robert Wagner, Professor of Forest Ecosystem Science
The Bear Brook Watershed project is in its third decade of research on topics of enormous consequence for Maine and the nation. The project’s initial emphasis on studying effects of acid rain on forest, soils, and streams has expanded to include research on a wide range of current environmental issues such as climate change, air-quality regulation, surface water quality, and forest sustainability. The Bear Brook Watershed is designed as two side-by-side watersheds, one of which has been experimentally enriched with nitrogen for 22 years. So far, studies have shown how declining sulfur deposition influences stream acidity, how elevated nitrogen and sulfur affect forest health, particularly sugar maple growth, how calcium and similar nutrients are easily stripped from soils, and how increased nitrogen cycling from atmospheric deposition or climate warming might change the forest and streams. The Bear Brook Watershed program is helping to bring the best available science to bear on public-policy issues in Maine and the nation. For more information, see Bear Brook Watershed in Maine (www.umaine.edu/drsoils/bbwm/bbwm.html).
Project contact: Ivan Fernandez, Professor of Soil Science
The Penobscot River Restoration Project is an ambitious effort to open hundreds of miles of historic spawning habitat to sea-run fishes and restore natural aquatic communities and habitats. Fisheries science faculty in the college and research faculty in the U.S. G. S. Maine Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit are working to ensure that future decision-making on river management and fish restoration programs will be supported by the most current scientific information on fish communities in the river and their responses to dam removals. An initial study is examining the responses of both sea-run and resident fishes to improvements in fish passage on Sedgeunkedunk Stream, a small tributary flowing into the lower Penobscot River at the city of Brewer. Removal of a dam and fishway improvements in 2008-2009 have allowed unimpeded movements of fishes from the Penobscot River to headwater wetlands and ponds in the Sedgeunkedunk Stream watershed for the first time in a century. Atlantic salmon and sea lampreys responded quickly and have been found along the entire waterway. A key question now is whether the return of sea lampreys may have positive benefits on stream habitat. In other systems, sea lamprey carcasses bring nutrients and energy from the sea and nest-building adults upgrade stream bed habitat. A second series of research projects is focused on documenting current fish communities and behavior in the main stem of the Penobscot River as a baseline to assess future responses to dam removal. This information will be critical for developing effective restoration programs for Atlantic salmon, alewife, American shad, rainbow smelt, sea lamprey and other species.
Project contact: Stephen Coghlan, Assistant Professor of Freshwater Fisheries Ecology
Low milk prices put incredible financial stress on Maine’s dairy farms and farm families. Over the last two decades, milk prices have fluctuated dramatically in response to national and international policies and economics. To assist Maine’s dairy industry when milk prices drop below production costs, the state of Maine uses a Dairy Income Stabilization program. Faculty members in the college’s School of Economics provide the critical economic data for managing the income stabilization program. This regularly updated research provides objective information on production costs, relationships of costs to herd size, and the impacts of regional competition. Farm-level sales of milk in Maine in 2009 equaled $87.62 million, and its overall contribution to Maine’s economy is likely twice this due to the multiplier effect (dairy farmers buy tractors, and fuel, use veterinary services, pay wages to workers, etc.). Collaboration between the state, the dairy industry, and the University of Maine is a key to ensuring a brighter future for Maine’s dairy industry.
Project contact: George Criner, Professor of Economics
Ongoing research by faculty in the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture’s School of Economics, in collaboration with UMaine Cooperative Extension has helped community leaders and merchants in Bar Harbor and Portland to better understand the economic impacts and spending patterns of cruise ship passengers visiting their cities. These economists are now working with state and local organizations to help coastal merchants and communities to strengthen their marketing efforts and better meet the needs of the growing number of cruise ship tourists visiting Maine. A first product of that effort was released in July 2011, webinar entitled, “Capturing the Day Tripping Tourist – Cruise Ship and Destination Event Visitors,” for small business owners, economic development practitioners, and local community officials. The cruise ship industry is a growing segment of the tourism sector nationally and in Maine. Bar Harbor hosted 93 cruise ships carrying 143,984 passengers in 2009 with expectations of 120 visits in 2010. Portland welcomed 71,720 passengers on 45 cruise ships in 2009. A 2008 study by college economists found that the total economic impact of cruise ship passengers was between $5.8 million and $8.0 million in sales revenue throughout the Portland region.
Project contact: Todd Gabe, Professor of Economics
While recycling has become part of our daily lives, waste disposal continues to be a significant challenge for Maine. The closure of many of the state’s older landfills in the 1980s dramatically increased the need for smarter and more efficient ways to control the waste stream. The Maine State Planning Office is collaborating with faculty and students in the college’s School of Economics on research to better understand people’s waste-disposal habits. Gathering information on the contents of the waste stream is the first step in helping Maine communities to make better waste-management decisions and design more effective recycling programs.
A crew of students began work on the project in summer 2011 with visits to 17 Maine communities. Donning tyvek suits, laytex and neoprene gloves, safety goggles, and occasionally face masks, at each site the students dumped the contents of 50 to 70 garbage bags onto tables for sorting into approximately 65 categories, and then weighed the material. This fall another crew will revisit many of these towns to see how the waste stream varies between seasons. Armed with this information, the State Planning Office will be better able to advise Maine communities on how to design more effective programs to increase recycling rates and save money.
Protecting and regulating small wetlands, most notably vernal pools, is of great public interest in Maine. It is important that rapidly evolving federal and state wetland policies are based on solid science and a clear understanding of the significance of vernal pools for pool-breeding amphibians in Maine. Faculty and graduate students in the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture have been studying vernal pool ecology for more than a decade and have worked closely with federal and state regulatory agencies, town governments, and a wide range of other stakeholders to help to guide conservation strategies. Ongoing research focuses on understanding the habitat needs of amphibians in the areas adjacent to vernal pools and on economic and social considerations that affect conservation on private lands. The socioeconomic studies will be centered in the towns of Orono and Topsham and are part of an effort to work with towns and regulatory agencies to better understand how to implement conservation practices.
Project contact: Aram Calhoun, Professor of Wetland Ecology
A key to managing marine fisheries is understanding the factors that influence the behavior of individual fishermen since they often determine the success of regulations and management programs. Maine’s cod, lobster, and sea urchin fisheries are highly competitive. Fishermen are challenged to efficiently collect valuable knowledge about a complex resource. And scientists recognize that competitive interactions between individual ﬁshermen lead to private incentives and informal social arrangements that may or may not help to conserve the resource. For example, in some cases successful competition with other fishermen requires secretive non-cooperative behavior; in other cases, cooperation may yield better catches. These different outcomes have different, and not always obvious, impacts on the feasibility and effectiveness of fisheries management.
Marine science faculty members in the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture along with colleagues at the University of Southern Maine are leading a project to better understand the human dynamics of these coupled natural and human systems. The research team includes economists, biologists, anthropologists, and computer scientists. All the participating scientists have years of experience in Gulf of Maine fisheries and well-developed relationships with individual ﬁshermen and fishery managers. The team is combining a modeling approach for the fisheries and gulf systems with a learning classifier system to simulate the learning and interactions of fisherman in each of these fisheries. The design of each model will be based in part on extensive interviews of ﬁshermen about their knowledge of the dynamics of the ﬁsheries in which they work. The ultimate goal is to use these models to explore policy problems in each fishery.
Project contact: James Wilson, Professor of Marine Science & Economics
Encouraging healthy lifestyles in young adults
Young adults, 18-24 years old, are at high risk for excessive weight gain, which often leads to obesity and related chronic conditions, such as type-2 diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. Human nutrition faculty in the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture are part of a research team from 11 state universities working to develop a program for promoting healthful eating and improving the quality of life of young adults. The researchers are using a community-based participatory approach that involves researchers, students, and community partners in each state. Initial studies has shown that more than 90% of students were willing to improve their eating, exercise, and sleep habits, along with their management of time and stress in order to maintain a healthy weight. From the student perspective, keys to promoting healthful behavior were reduced cost and improved options for healthful foods on campus or at work, easier and safer walking, and greater availability of places to exercise. The faculty are working with their community partners to help translate these research results into environmental and policies changes such as improving walkways and trails; increasing recreational options; and improving access and availability of healthful, high-quality foods at dining facilities and restaurants. In addition, researchers have developed a behavioral intervention program that includes modules on healthful eating, exercise, stress and time management, and reducing the risky behavior of smoking and alcohol intake. The program uses modern online and social networking technologies and is in a testing phase. In Maine the intervention program is being applied at two residential training centers for at-risk, at-promise young adults. The ultimate goal is for young adults on school campuses to successfully manage their weight and to lead active, healthful lifestyles.
Project contact: Adrienne White, Professor of Human Nutrition
David Mallett, a master of science student in wildlife ecology, is studying the ecology of the Canada lynx in Maine’s northern forests. The Canada lynx’s listing as a federal threatened species has the potential to affect Maine’s forest industries. To develop species conservation strategies that avoid negative impacts on forest management, we need a better understanding of lynx behavior and habitat. Dave’s research is focused on understanding how lynx populations respond to periodic declines in their primary prey, the snowshoe hare. He is looking at how lynx may adjust the sizes of their home ranges and how they may change their use of forest types as snowshoe hare density changes. This information will help biologists and land managers promote lynx conservation and manage forest operations.
Aleksandra Kristo, a Ph.D. student in food science and nutrition, is investigating the effects of wild blueberries on cardiovascular health. Wild blueberries are high in antioxidants and other compounds that have beneficial effects on the tone and function of arteries in animals both with and without high blood pressure. Aleksandra has conducted a number of experiments to document the potential of wild blueberries to modify major pathways of vasomotor control and improve vascular tone in animals. Her studies have important implications for prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease. And information on the health benefits of wild blueberries is valuable for marketing of one of Maine’s signature agricultural crops.
Michelle Goody, a Ph.D. student in biomedical sciences, is using zebrafish as an animal model to investigate the mechanisms underlying amelioration of muscle damage in embryos. Specifically, she is studying a group of muscle diseases, collectively called myopathies, which exhibit progressive muscle degeneration. Myopathies can result from mutations in the basement membrane where muscle fibers adhere. Michelle is studying the molecular mechanisms that produce this muscle degeneration and the potential for the compound NAD+ to rescue muscle fibers from degeneration. Eventually these types of studies may lead to therapeutic avenues for the treatment of human muscle diseases.
Venura Herath, a Ph.D. student in biological sciences, is studying the cellular and molecular processes that allow plants to respond to low temperature stress. As our nation and the world struggle to meet the expanding demand for food, there is a great need to improve our efficiency at breeding plants for traits that are difficult to manipulate such as stress tolerance. Venura is using rice, sorghum, and other species to dissect the intricate regulatory networks defining the spectrum of variation in cold sensitivity in flowering plants. This study is expected to contribute to innovative genomics-based strategies for engineering stress-tolerant food crops.