MT. PLEASANT (WWJ) — Like most of Michigan’s directional schools — you know, the ones with a direction as their first word — Central Michigan University started out over a century ago as a teacher’s college in the days of the one-room schoolhouse.
Boy howdy, have things changed. This sprawling campus that bumps up to mid-Michigan cornfields is constantly reinventing itself with advanced new buildings, and it’s home to truly world-class science and research.
Most of the people I met with were members or researchers for CMU’s Institute for Great Lakes Research, an effort by CMU to learn more about the four Great Lakes that surround Michigan.
My day began at 8 with Daelyn Woolnough, assistant professor of biology, and a member of CMU’s Institute for Great Lakes Research.
Woolnough studies animals that most people think of as barely alive, and which are threatened by invasive species — Michigan’s native mussels.
There are more than a dozen varieties, with whimsical names like the snuffbox and the plain pocketbook. Once common in the Great Lakes, they’ve been decimated by the zebra mussel, which rode to the lakes in the ballast tanks of oceangoing freighters, and its cousin the quagga mussel.
Most people don’t know that these “living rocks” both move and have sex. Mussels make more mussels when the male releases sperm near a female who’s bearing an egg. The female then releases millions of larvae, who survive initially by attaching to a fish. (Each species tends to “specialize” in a particular breed of fish.) Eventually the mussels fall off the fish as small adults, and grow slowly over time.
Only a tiny percentage of mussels make it to adulthood — 100 million larvae may net you 10 adults. But once mussels reach adulthood, they can live 100 years.
Native mussels were once plentiful enough in Michigan that there was an industry here making buttons out of the pretty iridescent inner parts of their shells.
Mussels, Woolnough said, are “the canary in the coal mine.” When you’ve got water quality problems, they start dying first, before the fish, because mussels make a living by filtering the water.
Woolnough said researchers have recently found a healthy colony of more than 70 rare snuffbox mussels in the Grand River near Lyons — which will have to be relocated, as a nearby dam is scheduled to be removed next year.
Woolnough said her lab at CMU is the only one in Michigan studying host-fish relationships, trying to “grow” different kinds of mussels on different fish. In a microscope, I got a chance to view a tiny baby mussel that had been found on a fish.
In the wild, her team is placing tiny radio tags called PIT tags on individual mussels to track them.
One final question — can you eat Michigan mussels?
“My question to you is, would you want to eat something that has been filtering water for that long?” Woolnough said. “It would probably taste like the sole of a boot.”
Woolnough said humans have eaten mussels in the past — but only as a last resort. They are a more common food source for animals like raccoons and ducks, and their shells are homes for aquatic insects.
Woolnough is a native of Nova Scotia who studied at the University of Guelph, Iowa State and Trent University.
Next up was a fascinating session at CMU’s spectacular Health Professions Building with Gary Dunbar, a longtime faculty member and director of CMU’s neuroscience program.
Dunbar’s research team is working toward treating neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, as well as treating cognitive problems caused by a stroke.
Huntington’s disease is caused by a genetic mutation that causes overly long proteins in a critical area of the brain, leading to a horrible slow decline in the body’s motor control. The median age of diagnosis is 42, and the time to death is usually about 15 years.
Dunbar is using adult stem cells delivered by an adenovirus to treat Huntington’s disease in the brains of mice. The stem cells cause the overexpression of a critical brain chemical called brain derived neurotrophic factor. That can help overcome the overly long proteins in the brain.
Dunbar is collaborating with the University of California – Davis on this work — and he’s justifiably proud that his small team’s scientific publication on Huntington’s “scooped” UC Davis’ much larger research operation (100 scientists, 128,000 square feet).
“We’re doing amazing things here with undergrads,” Dunbar said. “I like to engage them with cutting-edge practical research.”
What’s yet to be answered is whether using a patient’s own stem cells — which also contain the mutation will be “reintroducing the disease. We are studying that.”
The team has also studied using creatine and Co-Q10, both dietary supplements, to treat Huntington’s, but they offer only a temporary delay in the disease’s progression.
The stem cells Dunbar is studying aren’t necessarily building new neurons in the brains of the mice, but they are producing anti-inflammatory chemicals in the brain, as well as chemicals critical for brain functions — meaning that the brain cells left behind will work better.
Dunbar’s team has also begun experimenting with induced pluripotent stem cells, which are taken from skin and can be “induced” to become any kind of cell, much like an embryonic stem cell. These, Dunbar said, have the potential to actually form new neurons within damaged area of the brain.
“But can they be functionally integrated into a circuit that will drive recovery of function? We don’t know if that’s the case,” Dunbar said.
These cells will be studied for treatment of spinal cord injury, stroke, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
As part of the research, rats are injected in the brain with a hormone that temporarily constricts blood vessels that carry oxygen. By depriving the brain tissue of oxygen, the cells begin to die out, mimicking a stroke. This allows the team to assess cognitive learning problems that follow a stroke, such as memory difficulties.
To treat the stroke, the team injects bone-marrow-derived stem cells into the brain that produce proteins to reduce brain swelling and help damaged cells survive, function better or return to normal function faster.
In evaluating the experiment, Dunbar and his team discovered stroke rats that were injected with stem cells could perform tasks with significantly fewer mistakes than rats with strokes that did not receive the stem cell injections. In fact, Dunbar reports that stem cell-treated stroke rats could perform nearly as well as rats that did not have a stroke.
Dunbar credits lead author and CMU alumnus Steven Lowrance, ’13, for the success of this project. Dunbar works with a team of approximately 50 students every year in his neuroscience research.
Next up was a visit to the Central Michigan University Research Center, the home of CMU’s Center for Great Lakes Research.
The center is led by Donald Uzarski, who joined CMU in 2007 after working at Michigan State University and Grand Valley State University. He got his Ph.D. at MSU in limnology, the study of lakes, and ecology.
The center is in Year Four of a five-year, $10 million project funded by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to study the coastal wetlands of the Great Lakes.
Uzarski said those wetlands represent only 1 percent of Great Lakes shoreline but in an earlier study were found to produce 14 percent of the biological activity and diversity in the lakes.
“They are hotspots for productivity,” Uzarski said. “These wetlands are as productive as rain forests.”
Uzarski’s research group has figured out a way to prove just how important those wetlands are by reading trace chemicals stored in the ear bones, or otoliths, of fish.
Those ear bones grow with annual stripes, or annuli, just like the rings of a tree. Using a laser-based instrument, Uzarski’s team is measuring trace elements in the bone that comes from coastal wetlands to prove that the fish in question spent time there.
“We can figure out where it’s been by what got deposited in the bone by the water chemistry,” Uzarski said.
Working on the project are James J. Student, a geologist who directs CMU’s Isotopic and Elemental Analysis Labs, and Lee Schoen, a graduate student.
The EPA study will help answer this and many other questions about the importance of the coastal wetlands.
“We’ve lost over 50 percent of these coastal wetlands already, and we’re just now finding out how important they are,” Uzarski said. “The ones that remain, we have no idea if they’re getting healthier, or worse, or if their structures are being wiped out. So we developed tools to measure the health of the wetlands — chemistry, physical measurements, the biota… We’re also seeking info on what is causing any changes, human or climate change, and how does the system change due to these effects.”
Next, it was back to CMU’s main science building for a fascinating 45 minutes with Andy Mahon, biology faculty member who’s also involved with the Institute for Great Lakes Research.
Like a proud papa, Mahon showed off a $90,000 machine he said was the only one of its kind at an American university — a machine that will test for millions of different kinds of DNA at once out of one water sample.
All this started a few years ago when Mahon said somebody brought up the problem of keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes.
“It started out with, can we detect things through their DNA in water, and then it moved to, how many are there, and what are some of the other questions you can answer with this technology,” Mahon said.
Mahon has been working with his former employer, Notre Dame, on using a common DNA test called PCR, polymerase chain reaction, to answer those questions — most recently with his new “toy,’ the digital PCR machine.
“Rather than looking for one animal, we’re going to look for all of them at once,” Mahon said. “It’s basic DNA bar coding, but these new instruments can give you millions of sequences at a time. We can sequence everything in the water.”
So not only can Mahon tell you if Asian carp have been swimming in Lake Michigan by the telltale DNA they leave behind from their bodily fluids, he can also tell you if there are invasive species in the live bait tank at the sporting goods store by the DNA they leave behind.
Mahon said there are many possible commercial applications of this technology, from quickly testing the ballast water of Great Lakes freighters for invasive species to testing shipments of pet fish for the aquarium trade before they get into the country.
Mahon said he also wants to be able to test the Great Lakes for the next generation of invasive species.
“There are species coming that make zebra mussels and quagga mussels look like poodles,” he said. “The northern snakehead, an Asian fish, was in the Potomac in the late ’80s and has made its way up to the New York area, the Erie Canal. It’s a large nasty fish with big teeth that will eliminate the bass population. There’s also the golden mussel, which is more robust than the zebra mussel or the quagga mussel.”
And how would he stop the Asian carp from getting into the Great Lakes from the Chicago canal?
“A big pile of gravel” to block the canal, Mahon said, “and a brand new industry to lift freight containers over it from Great Lakes boats to river boats.”
On the bright side, DNA testing is getting easier and easier, pointing to a prototype device called the MinION that detects all kinds of DNA that’s a USB stick that will sell for $900.
Just down the hall was a fun interview with Liz Alm, a member of CMU’s microbiology who also works with its Institute for Great Lakes Research, who has experimented with improving the quality of Great Lakes beaches — using border collies to chase away seagulls.
Alm led a student team of five researchers who spend the summer on Ottawa County beaches to test the collies’ performance.
Alm said Michigan beaches are tested for fecal coliform bacteria as a proxy for contamination by municipal sewage, which can make people sick in a lot of ways. But when there are a lot of gulls on a beach, their droppings can also foul the water, confusing conventional beach water monitoring.
So to keep gull droppings from fooling the bacteria tests and closing beaches, Alm used border collies on a long, 200-meter lead under human supervision to chase away the gulls.
Not surprisingly, it worked. Tests of water at the dog-patrolled beaches showed the sand and water was cleaner.
Alm worked with Thomas Gehring, a wildlife biologist on the CMU faculty, on the project.
Funding for this project was provided by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which also funds a lot of other CMU Great Lakes programs (and which has been targeted for a 26 percent cut by the House of Representatives, by the way).
Then it was back to the CMURC for the day’s final meetings.
First, I talked to Elissa Richmond, marketing and public relations director of the CMURC, a 17,000-square foot lab center and incubation space that is the headquarters of the Mt. Pleasant Smart Zone. It’s partially funded by CMU but is a separate nonprofit entity.
The CMURC has four full-time employees and four CMU interns on its staff, and it’s currently working with about 50 companies. Its two biggest tenants are getting ready to move out, and Richmond said the CMURC’s space going forward will be used mostly for hoteling — a coworking space for entrepreneurs to collaborate and meet.
Then, I spoke with CMURC client Gary Moeggenberg, president and owner of Industrial Cryogenic Engineering — ICE, get it? — a startup company that improves the strength and durability of metal and other materials by cooling it to more than 300 degrees below zero and then gradually warm it back up over two days.
“Metal under a microscope looks like a bowl of rice grains,” Moeggenberg said. “When you cool that metal down as low as 320 degrees below zero, 85 percent of those grains of rice will be standing up straight, equally spaced, and holding onto each other better than they ever have.”
Moeggenberg, a licensed builder, got into the technology after talking about it with a friend of his father five years ago. His cooling vessel in Mt. Pleasant is about four feet by four feet by 13 feet in size, and has a capacity of 20,000 pounds of materials.
Moeggenberg said the technique improves the performance of excavation equipment, farm implements, wood chippers, band saw blades gun barrels, polymers — even sporting equipment. (N.B. — he says it’s illegal to do this to golf balls. He also says it makes them go a LOT farther. It’s up to your sense of ethics.)
Moeggenberg said he’s busy enough that he’s now hired his first employee.
My final appointment of the day was with Anthony Chappaz, assistant professor of geochemistry and another member of the Institute for Great Lakes Research.
Chappaz, a native of France, completed his Ph.D. at the University of Quebec, and has been with CMU two years after spending three years at the University of California – Riverside. At CMU, he’s setting up a sophisticated clean room complex to analyze extremely low concentrations of trace elements in water and sediment samples from the Great Lakes.
By measuring the concentrations and determining the exact chemical forms of these elements, he can identify the sources of pollutants in those sediments. dating those isotopes, Using lead isotopes, he can even precisely date when those polltion events occurred.
Chappaz’s basic research focuses on better understanding trace elements to deduce the conditions on our planet billions of years ago, before oxygen was even present in Earth’s atmosphere. and to study how humans have changed the chemistry of the Great Lakes over the past 300 years of industrial civilization.
And so, sometime around 2 p.m., my amazing six hours at CMU ended.
All I can say is, wow. This school is attacking the problem of threats to the Great Lakes from dozens of different angles. All of them look likely to help preserve this global freshwater treasure. Many thanks to Kathy Backus, assistant director of public relations at CMU, for setting up these appointments.