VOLUME 12, NO. 2 JANUARY 1999
Putting the Finger(print) on Superior Shrimp
hen a cattle rancher or pig farmer is selecting his best livestock, he knows he should look for certain physical characteristics. But what does a shrimp farmer look for? About 25 percent of the shrimp consumed worldwide today are raised on farms; that number will rise to 50 percent by the end of the century. Last January, WPI was awarded a patent titled "Method of Selecting Genetically Superior Shrimp." The patent is based on research performed by biology and biotechnology Professor Joseph C. Bagshaw, and Michael A. Buckholt, who received his Ph.D. from WPI in 1992 and is now a research assistant professor at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass.
"For reasons of geography and economics, the U.S. will never be a major producer of shrimp," says Bagshaw. "But we can be the world leader in developing superior strains for aquaculture." See the online Wire for Ruth Trask's story of the research that led to this patent.
Attention to Detail Key to Success for Award-Winning Bioengineer
harles S. Buer went from high school into the Navy and then to a job at Bob's Body Shop near his hometown of Dawson, Minn., where he spent the next 16 years working on the details of automobile repair and restoration. That attention to detail has stood him in good stead. Buer is now making a name for himself as a researcher whose meticulous attention to detail is earning him the respect of plant scientists worldwide. In October, he completed his Ph.D. in biology/biotechnology with a focus on plant bioengineering and is now enrolled in a postdoctoral program at the Australian National University's Research School of Biological Sciences in Canberra.
After coming to WPI in 1994, Buer spent much of his time doing something utterly unique: inserting microscopic objects into the cells of plants using lasers as tweezers and scissors. The object? "To study characteristics of linkages between plant cell membranes and the cell wall," he says.
For two and a half years, Buer has focused on developing an optical surgical technique he used to study the physical and mechanical characteristics of these linkages, called Hechtian strands. He discovered that by attaching specially coated microspheres to the linking strands and then using the laser tweezers to pull on the beads, he could measure the elastic properties of the strands as a function of progressive cold hardening of the cells.
Buer's research advisors were Pamela J. Weathers, professor of biology and biotechnology, and Grover A. Swartzlander Jr., assistant professor of physics. Weathers says Buer's discoveries will aid plant biologists in their efforts to enhance the cold-hardiness of important crop plants such as wheat. "A 30 percent increase in wheat production could be achieved if winter wheat were made 2 degrees more cold hardy," Weathers reports. Buer's research may turn this goal into a reality.
Buer and Kevin Gahagan, who received his doctorate in physics last January, developed new precision laser tools in order to attempt the genetic transformation of Ginkgo biloba, an important pharmaceutical herb that is rapidly becoming accepted by the medical community because it appears to be able to inhibit the body's ability to form blood clots, greatly diminishing the likelihood of strokes and heart attacks.
For his breakthrough laser techniques, described in his thesis "Applications of Optical Manipulation in Plant Biology," Buer received a graduate student research award from the WPI Chapter of Sigma Xi: the National Research Society in April. In 1997 his research was recognized with the prestigious Philip White Memorial Award from the Society of In Vitro Biology and with a highlighted poster award from that year's American Optical Society Annual Meeting.
Looking ahead, Buer sees a bright future in bioengineering involving plants. "A plant's ability to produce novel drugs will require exploitation to combat increasing microbial resistance to current drugs," he says. "Laser applications in science are increasing steadily. The ability to measure tiny forces provides scientists the ability to determine physical properties in cells that could only be guessed at previously."
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