January 2020 AnSci Connection

AnSci Connection - a monthly newsletter from the department of animal science

UMN Researcher Aims to Prevent Severe Allergic Reactions to Common Fungus

Alternaria Alternata

Alternaria alternata germinating spores.

Alternaria alternata is a common, highly allergenic fungus that is found in rural areas across the upper Midwest and the Great Plains states including Minnesota. For most of us, Alternaria spores enter our airways and it is no big deal, but for some Minnesotans it triggers an immune reaction followed by airway inflammation that can be very severe. Why are these individuals so sensitive to Alternaria? Dr. Scott O’Grady and his team are determined to not only figure out why, but also how to prevent this immune response.

Dr. O’Grady, a professor of cell physiology at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Animal Science, specifically works on diseases that affect the lungs like cystic fibrosis and asthma. In the case of Alternaria, Dr. O’Grady studies the danger signaling mechanisms that are activated by fungal allergens and their role in allergic inflammation. Danger signals are compounds released by cells in response to stress and function as a warning to nearby cells when something is wrong or when there is danger in the immediate environment. The danger signals involved in the epithelial response to Alternaria include ATP and DNA.

While adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is very important in cell metabolism, some biologists even call it the energy currency of life, it is also used by most cells as a signaling molecule. When Alternaria spores enter the upper airways of sensitive individuals, the fungus causes oxidative stress, which results from an imbalance of free oxygen radicals and antioxidants that can lead to cell and tissue damage. When airway epithelial cells detect an increase in oxidative stress, ATP is transported out of the cell into the airway lumen by two mechanisms, one that involves a specific membrane channel protein and a second mechanism that involves fusion of ATP-containing vesicles to the cell membrane followed by release of ATP into the lumen. The ATP then acts on the epithelial cells to increase the calcium concentration, triggering secretion of another signaling molecule called IL-33, which initiates the allergic reaction and the inflammatory response.

Dr. O’Grady is specifically looking at ATP release mechanisms as potential drug targets since they represent an early step in the initiation of the allergic response and inhibiting this step should block the immune response. Recently, they have determined that ATP release occurs through a channel that depends on cholesterol. They have shown that statin drugs, which lower plasma membrane cholesterol content, block ATP release by ~50% and inhibit the calcium response. This stops IL-33 release and the immunologic response of the airway epithelium. 

In addition to ATP, Alternaria exposure also induces DNA release, which also functions as a danger signal. Dr. O’Grady is currently studying the mechanism of DNA release and its role in amplifying the contributions of immune cells to airway inflammation. 

People most susceptible to the effects of Alternaria are those with asthma who have become sensitized to the fungus and unfortunately, in recent years asthma has become increasingly prevalent worldwide. Therefore, finding ways to inhibit allergic responses to environmental allergens like Alternaria should help in preventing potential life-threatening asthmatic attacks in allergen sensitive individuals.

Animal Science Course Adjusts to Meet the Interests of Students

Ruminant Nutrition Class“As faculty, we need to continually evaluate the content provided in our courses and listen to student interest,” stated Dr. Mary Raeth. Dr. Raeth and Dr. Marshall Stern decided last year to listen to the students and restructure the ruminant nutrition course to include more than just dairy, beef, and some small ruminants. Currently the course focuses on production and exotic animals and is held in a hybrid format.

Dr. Raeth’s personal goal for this course was “to get students excited about ruminant nutrition and expose them to the wide variety of industry opportunities in this area.” The course focuses on many different topics including rumen microbiology, lactating dairy cow diets, deer and elk nutrition, giraffe nutrition, beef feedlot diets, dairy goat nutrition, forage quality, zoo animal nutrition overview, and rumen microbiome. While Dr. Raeth and Dr. Stern both have backgrounds in dairy cattle, they bring in guest lecturers to help bring a variety of experience. For example, one lecturer obtained her PhD from the UMN in beef nutrition and then went on to work at the Chicago Zoo. This is just an example of the many ways ruminant nutrition can be useful for the students in their future.Student with goat

The hybrid format allows students to watch an online lecture on Tuesdays, when it fits into their schedule. Then on Thursdays there is either an in-class activity or a guest lecture. This format allows the students to fit the course better into their busy schedules, while also allowing them to have that instructor interaction and learn hands on. The lab portion also helps keep the students accountable. They know they need to complete the online portion and take a quiz before lab so they are prepared to learn hands on. “I love the opportunity to interact with students in a relaxed classroom environment. When there are hands-on activities, inevitably students are more comfortable asking questions. It greatly enhances student learning and instructor enjoyment,” stated Dr. Raeth.

Additionally, the lab portion helps expose students to content that they may not see in any other course. “Students are able to view scanning and transmission electron micrographs of microbes that they will not find at any other animal science department in the United States.  A visit to my laboratory allows students to observe live microbes and learn about continuous culture fermentation, a rumen model that exists in only a few labs in the country," shares Dr. Stern.

“After 40 years of teaching Ruminant Nutrition, I love sharing the uniqueness of these animals,” said Dr. Stern. In the new format, Dr. Stern and Dr. Raeth are able to share their passion for ruminant nutrition, while also expanding student interest and participation.

Extension Task Force Provides Stress and Mental Health Resources to Rural Minnesotans

Worker at feedbunk on feedlotOn a plane, they tell you to adjust your own air mask first before you help others in an emergency situation. The same is true for your mental, emotional, and physical health. If you are not 100 percent, then you cannot give 100 percent to your farm, family, and other aspects of your life. You cannot pour from an empty cup, Emily Wilmes, Director of the Rural Stress Task Force, emphasizes. 

Unfortunately, rural Minnesota is facing many great challenges in the agricultural economy, workforce, access to mental health services and issues with addiction and recovery. Like most of you know, agriculture has had a tough go of it over the past few years. The median farm income was $26,055 in 2018, the lowest since the University of Minnesota began collecting data. Additionally there are 1,960 rural residents to every one licensed mental health provider, according to research from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Rural residents have limited access to needed care, as well as transportation to appointments in addition to the stigma for seeking help (z.umn.edu/ruralstress).

To help address this problem, the University of Minnesota Exention’s Rural Stress Task Force was developed to “apply programming and expertise from across Extension to help families and small towns respond to current economic, environmental, and societal challenges that overwhelmingly affect rural Minnesota and farming communities” (z.umn.edu/ruralstress). The Coping with Rural Stress webpage through Extension is a great tool for all rural Minnesotans, especially farmers. They can help connect you to resources for farm financial counseling, farm-lender mediation, mental health, and tools to help children cope during stressful times as well.

Extension also offers over 11 online workshops on Dealing with Stress to help understand what stress is; identify areas of stress in your life and which ones are important for you to change; build skills and discover tools to manage the physical, emotional, and attitudinal effects of stress; and develop skills to change what you do, how you think, and how you face conflict so that you have less stress in your life. They also have workshops helping deal with change and helping cultivate resiliency.

Wilmes encourages all who have questions or need someone to talk to to email her at krek0033@umn.edu. Additionally, if you or someone you know is struggling with stress, anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts, please call this free, confidential, number that is available 24/7 - 1-833-600-2670 x 1.

Pre-Vet Student Shares Her Leadership Story

Chaya with pigs“Once I visited the St. Paul campus, I knew that this school was right for me. I loved the flora and fauna and the fact that there were animals on campus to work with. I loved that if you ever felt bored, or that one place didn’t suit you, the campus was wide and diverse enough to explore and find new areas,” Chaya Gangsei stated while reminiscing about why she chose to attend the University of Minnesota.

A Woodbury, Minnesota native, Gangsei is a junior Animal Science major with an emphasis in Pre-Veterinary Medicine and a minor in Animal Behavior through the College of Biological Sciences. She currently works at Banfield Pet Hospital as a Vet Assistant and loves her dog Saphira.

Gangsei has been very involved on campus, as part of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) Diversity Committee, an orientation leader, and has trained service dogs in FETCH, a living learning community in Bailey Hall. Training the dogs has been by far her favorite experience on campus. “Dogs are just one kind of animals that humans interact with and seeing how their intelligence and behaviors can help people in need pushed me to continue with my work in animal behavior and vet work to ensure that dogs are able to continue helping people in the future” stated Gangsei.Chaya with Block M

Starting this semester Gangsei was selected to be a student member on the Animal Science Diversity & Inclusion Committee. She heard about it through Dr. Beth Ventura and, somewhat on a whim, decided to reach out and apply to be a student advocate. “I was thrilled to find out that I could join and continue to help improve campus culture. Sometimes, it can be hard to see diversity around us and feel like we are not alone, I know I have struggled with this feeling in my classes and daily life. The University has been making it more and more of a priority to help alleviate the concerns that students are having around diversity. I saw this in my role as an orientation leader and I hope to continue to help bring that mentality into CFANS,” Gangsei shared.

After graduation Gangsei plans to continue her work at Banfield Pet Hospital with the hopes of going to Veterinary School. She also has plans to earn a graduate degree in Behavioral Biology to help her specialize as a Behavioral Veterinarian. “I’m not sure how long that path may be and all that it may include but I am excited for the journey” Gangsei concluded.

Thoughts from Dr. Mike Schutz 

What a difference a year makes.  Last year at this time as I was writing the January letter, we were preparing for the polar vortex with temperatures slated to reach -30° F.  Fortunately, though unexpectedly, I missed the brunt of the polar vortex.  I flew to New Orleans to attend the National Cattlemens’ Beef Association meetings and the Annual Meeting of Animal Science Department Heads just ahead of the cold. As the meeting was just wrapping up, my iPhone began to explode with texts informing me that both legs of my flight back home to MSP were cancelled and I would not be able to depart until the following day.  So, when I arrived back in Minnesota, the temperatures were back up to a relatively balmy -16° F, but also without much wind.  I was softened by being outside of Minnesota for 20 some years, so this winter is much appreciated---at least for its temperatures so far.  But please keep an eye on the forecast and be safe!  Hopefully we can also avoid the mindboggling snowfall of last winter that resulted in so many roof collapses on livestock and poultry facilities.

The short days are already beginning to lengthen, which means spring is on its way.  For some, this semester will bring graduation, for others internships, study abroad opportunities, or just time between semesters.  Coming up on Sunday, February 23 is the annual Gopher Dairy Club banquet.  Robert and Jeannette Sheehan of Sheeknowl Holsteins, Rochester, MN will be recognized as their Golden Graduate.  Jeanette has earned many other distinguished recognitions including 2018 World Dairy Expo Woman of the Year and Bob was well known for his work as Sire Procurement Manager for Minnesota Valley Breeders and has been involved for many years in organizations such as the Minnesota Holstein Association.  The Distinguished Service Award will be presented to CFANS Director of Alumni and Constituent Relations, Mary Buschette.  We will have more upcoming recognitions to talk about next month. 

On a more subdued note, I’m sorry to report that I relay to you the news that our communications specialist, Maggie Stensaas, has accepted an offer to serve as the Wellness Coordinator at the new Benedictine Living Community in Northfield, MN.  I am delighted for Maggie in this new career path and wish her nothing but joy and success.  Her last day here in Animal Science will be February 4, 2020.  Maggie has quietly gone about her work in Animal Science and has made outstanding contributions in her communications role.  From immeasurably enhancing our presence in social media to revitalizing AnSci Connection, to initiating our internal newsletter; she accomplished much in her brief 5 months with us. Maggie and her efforts will be greatly missed.
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Hope you all have a safe and wonderful Spring Semester, and keep warm!


Ski-U-Mah!


Dr. Mike Schutz
Department Head
Department of Animal Science 

Other Animal Science News

  • A big welcome to Kim Reno for joining the department on Monday, January 13th. Kim is the new Administrative Director. Welcome! We are excited to have you on board.
  • A 10-year study by Dr. Amy Hazel, Dr. Brad Heins and Dr. Les Hansen showed that daily profit was 13% higher for the two-breed crossbreds (Viking Red × Holstein and Montbeliarde × Holstein) and 9% higher for the three-breed crossbreds (Holstein, Viking Red and Montbeliarde) than their Holstein herdmates. This research has been featured in 2 prominent dairy industry magazines: Progressive Dairy and Dairy Herd Management.