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Posted on Mar 13, 2013

Quick Takes

Quick Takes

‘Gold Standard’ Cotton Genome Sequenced

Candace Haigler

Candace Haigler has described the first “gold- standard” genome sequence for cotton.

An international consortium with representatives from most of the world’s major cotton-producing countries, including Candace Haigler, an NC State professor of crop science and plant biology, has described the first “gold-standard” genome sequence for cotton. Published in the December issue of Nature, this is the culmination of a more than 20-year effort in the analysis of cotton genes, chromosomes and their evolution.

The cotton genome sequence will be invaluable both on the farm and in the biotechnology laboratory. On the farm, the identification of key cotton genes and their importance will provide data crucial to increasing cotton production, quality and sustainability. In the lab, the comparison of an elite cotton cultivar to its wild ancestors provides new insights into how a polyploid becomes more than the sum of its progenitors.

All flowering plants have experienced polyploidy, a process by which the entire hereditary blueprint of an organism is doubled. This is the first time that a polyploid plant could be compared to its progenitors over the entire genome, illuminating evolutionary processes salient to all plants and providing a strategy to better understand the genome of many other crops such as canola, wheat and peanut.

Preventing Youths’ Substance Use

New research from NC State, Brigham Young University and the Pennsylvania State University finds that parental involvement is more important than the school environment when it comes to preventing or limiting alcohol and marijuana use by children.

“Parents play an important role in shaping the decisions their children make when it comes to alcohol and marijuana,” says Toby Parcel, a professor of sociology at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work. “To be clear, school programs that address alcohol and marijuana use are definitely valuable, but the bonds parents form with their children are more important. Ideally, we can have both.”

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The researchers evaluated data from a nationally representative study that collected information from more than 10,000 students, as well as their parents, teachers and school administrators.

Researchers looked at how “family social capital” and “school social capital” affected the likelihood and/or frequency of marijuana use and alcohol use by children. They found that students with high levels of family social capital and low levels of school social capital were less likely to have used marijuana or alcohol — or to have used those substances less frequently — than students with high levels of school social capital but low family social capital.

Grant Boosts Home Solar Systems

A new grant to NC State and several partners could make installing rooftop solar energy systems much less expensive and time consuming. Researchers will use the five-year, $9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to design solar energy systems and installation procedures that require little or no customization by homeowners and installers. The systems would set up quickly and connect to the power grid easily, while still meeting building and electrical codes.

“The high cost and hassle associated with installing home solar energy systems is a major barrier to their widespread adoption,” says Alex Huang, director of the FREEDM Systems Center at NC State. “By developing standardized and easy-to-use technologies, we can significantly reduce the cost of these systems for homeowners, who would be able to install the systems themselves.”

Today, much of what homeowners spend on solar energy systems goes toward supplier overhead, inspections, permitting, installation and other so-called “soft” costs. DOE estimates these costs at $2.50 per watt, a significant amount of money for systems that typically generate several thousand watts of power.

But by creating systems that “plug and play” — universal designs akin to USB interfaces in computers — the researchers believe they can drive these costs under $1 per watt. That means a homeowner installing a 5,000-watt solar energy system could save more than $7,500 in soft costs.

Leading the project will be the FREEDM Systems Center, a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center headquartered at NC State that is developing smart grid technologies. The NC Solar Center at NC State, which develops and demonstrates clean energy technology, is also a key player.

Security in Cloud Browsing

Researchers from NC State and the University of Oregon have found a way to exploit cloud-based Web browsers, using them to perform large-scale computing tasks anonymously. The finding has potential ramifications for the security of “cloud browser” services.

Cloud browsers create a Web interface in the cloud so that computing is done there rather than on a user’s machine. This is particularly useful for mobile devices, such as smartphones, which have limited computing power. The cloud-computing paradigm pools the computational power and storage of multiple computers, allowing shared resources for multiple users.

William Enck

William Enck, assistant professor of computer science at NC State, leads research on the security of cloud- based Web browsers.

“Think of a cloud browser as being just like the browser on your desktop computer, but working entirely in the cloud and providing only the resulting image to your screen,” says William Enck, an assistant professor of computer science at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the research.

Enck says cloud browsers can protect themselves to some extent by requiring users to create accounts — and then putting limits on how those accounts are used. This would make it easier to detect potential problems.

Researchers Boost WiFi Performance

As many WiFi users know, WiFi performance is often poor in areas where there are a lot of users, such as airports or coffee shops. But researchers at NC State have developed a new software program called WiFox that can be incorporated into existing networks to expedite data traffic in large audience WiFi environments — improving data throughput by up to 700 percent.

WiFi traffic gets slowed down in high-population environments because computer users and the WiFi access point they are connected to have to send data back and forth via a single channel.

If a large number of users are submitting data requests on that channel, it is more difficult for the access point to send them back the data they requested. Similarly, if the access point is permanently given a high priority — enabling it to override user requests in order to send out its data — users would have trouble submitting their data requests. Either way, things slow down when there is a traffic jam of data on the shared channel.

WiFox monitors the amount of traffic on a WiFi channel and grants an access point priority to send its data when it detects that the access point is developing a backlog of data. The amount of priority the access point is given depends on the size of the backlog — the longer the backlog, the higher the priority. In effect, the program acts like a traffic cop, keeping the data traffic moving smoothly in both directions.

Arpit Gupta, a Ph.D. student in computer science at NC State, is lead author of a paper describing the work.

Dinosaur Bones Hold Ancient Proteins

A team of researchers from NC State and the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) has found more evidence for the preservation of ancient dinosaur proteins, including reactivity to antibodies that target specific proteins normally found in bone cells of vertebrates. These results further rule out sample contamination, and help solidify the case for preservation of cells — and possibly DNA — in ancient remains.

Mary Schweitzer, professor of marine, earth and atmospheric sciences with a joint appointment at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, first discovered what appeared to be preserved soft tissue in a 67-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus Rex in 2005. Subsequent research revealed similar preservation in an about-80-million-year-old Brachylophosaurus canadensis. In 2007 and again in 2009, Schweitzer and colleagues used chemical and molecular analyses to confirm that the fibrous material collected from the specimens was collagen.

Mary Schweitzer

Researchers have found more evidence in support of Mary Schweitzer’s groundbreaking discovery of ancient dinosaur proteins in 2005.

Schweitzer’s next step was to find out if the star-shaped cellular structures within the fibrous matrix were osteocytes, or bone cells. Using techniques including microscopy, histochemistry and mass spectrometry, Schweitzer demonstrates that these cellular structures react to specific antibodies, including one — a protein known as PHEX — that is found in the osteocytes of living birds. The findings appear online in Bone and were presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

New Technique for Sorting Live Cells

Researchers from NC State and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have developed a new technique that uses sound waves to separate selected collections of cells rapidly for use in biomedical research.

“We think this is important because it will make it faster and easier for researchers to sort out the live cells they need for research ranging from disease study to drug development,” says Xiaoning Jiang, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and adjunct professor of biomedical engineering at NC State, who is co-author of a paper on the work.

Biomedical research often focuses on how specific cell types respond to various chemicals or environmental factors. These cells are often grown in a liquid medium and on top of a collection of “micropallets,” which are essentially small plastic platforms that sit on the substrate at the bottom of the container. Researchers then select the cells they want and detach the relevant micropallets, which can be removed for additional experimentation or analysis.

Current techniques for removing these micropallets rely on lasers or physical manipulation to separate the pallets from the substrate. But each approach has its drawbacks. Physical manipulation is a slow process, while the energy produced by lasers to release larger micropallets (e.g., a micropallet 500 micrometers in diameter) can inadvertently kill a significant number of the cells. Neither technique is efficient at detaching a significant number of large micropallets quickly.

The new technique from NC State uses ultrasound technology to release the micropallets, focusing relatively high-frequency sound waves that are translated into a wave of pressure within the substrate itself. When that wave of force hits a targeted micropallet, the pallet is lifted off the substrate and can be removed, together with its attached cells, for further study.

Using this technique, micropallets can be selectively released in less than a millisecond. This is not as fast as laser-based techniques, but is much faster than physical manipulation. However, the ultrasound technique has a viability rate of better than 90 percent, meaning that more than 90 percent of live cells survive the process. This is significantly better than existing techniques for the release of large-sized pallets, which can have viability rates of less than 50 percent.