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Tech Tuesday

High-tech Models help Track Diseases

Researchers fine-tune disease tracking models, engineered tobacco plants may be biofuel source and more studies on phosphorus in streams.

There's a worry bubbling in the background of the animal science industry, a worry about how to track a disease outbreak quickly and efficiently. At Kansas State University, researchers have combined technology and animal health information to more effectively predict the spread of foot-and-mouth disease, and the impact of preventive measures.

Researchers have found that if an FMD outbreak is not in the epidemic stage, preemptive vaccination is a minimally expensive way to halt spread of the disease across a network of animals. However, if there's a high probability of infection, computer models show that culling strategies are better.

The difference is how you look at the spread of the disease. The KSU researchers are aiming to do predictive and preventive modeling using a network-based approach. The first step is to track how the infection spreads in space and time, then try to slow the spread using specific strategies. The aim: Meet the disease with the correct response for best impact.

The network is a math model showing how FMD spreads with infected birds as the network and nodes on the network represented by stockyards and grazing lands. The nodes are connected in specific ways. The researchers note that they can be connected by grazing movements and by how people and vehicles move among the herds. Modeling these diseases helps improve the industry's response should the catastrophe occur.

A Better Tobacco...for Biofuel. Researchers at the Biotechnology Foundation Laboratories at Thomas Jefferson University have found a way to increase the oil in tobacco plant leaves. That could be the next step toward using the plants for biofuel according to a paper published in the online edition of Plant Biotechnology Journal.

The researchers note that tobacco could generate biofuel more efficiently than other ag crops, but most of the oil is usually found in the seeds. And tobacco plants don't produce a lot of seed even though the biofuel potential from the seeds is strong - they're 40% oil. The key would be to get more oil produced in the abundant leaves of the plant.

One aspect of tobacco that may be a benefit is that the crop is not considered a food, which would quell problems from groups involved in the food versus fuel debate.

The researchers have found a way to genetically engineer the plants so their leaves express up to 20 times more oil than conventional plants. It's promising work that becomes part of a large patchwork of research showing plenty of potential for renewable fuels.

Phosphorus and Stream Water Don't Mix. Researchers at Baylor University have found that concentrations of phosphorus above 20 parts per billion are linked to declines in waterh quality and aquatic plant and animal life. The study, the first to use the Baylor Experimental Aquatic Research stream facility, demonstrates that an amount of phosphorus over a certain level does cause negative changes found in many Texas streams.

This is the first study to link nutrient field observations to controlled experiments and allows water managers to use the research as the scientific basis for water management strategies. The Baylor work helps fine-tune the data water managers can use, and the 20 ppb measurement is helpful too. Plant life shows the impact at this level, but they also found that dissolved oxygen in the water - important for fish survival - dropped when phosphorus levels were higher than 20 ppb.

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