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AERS

Agricultural and Environmental Research Station


As a Land-Grant Institution, we are committed to conducting research for the betterment of West Virginia. With our Agricultural & Environmental Research Station (AERS), part of the Gus R. Douglass Land-Grant Institute, we maintain a competitive portfolio of research programs driven by national and state agendas. We are committed to developing knowledge and engaging in technology transfer and economic development activities beneficial to West Virginia and all our constituents.

From on-campus research labs, field plots and greenhouses to lab space at the West Virginia Regional Technology Park in South Charleston, AERS is an ever-increasing presence in agricultural and environmental research in the Mountain State. Explore our portfolio, which focuses on Aquaculture, Environmental Microbiology & Biotechnology, Horticultural Crops & Production Systems, Urban Forestry & Natural Resource Management, and Vegetable Genomics & Plant Breeding.

Aquaculture
We are focused on improving aquaculture production efficiency of cool-water (rainbow trout) and warm-water (channel catfish) fish grown and marketed in West Virginia, using a genomic-enabled nutritional approach: a study of the genome-wide influences of nutrition or dietary compounds on cells, tissues or organisms at a given time.
 
We are conducting research on the molecular and genetic/genomic basis of nutrient retention efficiency and nutritional/environmental factors that modulate mitochondrial function and/or biochemistry. The overall goal is to combine classical nutrition with modern molecular techniques to elucidate the molecular mechanisms of oxidative metabolic control of nutrient retention efficiency, growth and development, and its relationship with nutritional and/or physiological demands of nuclear-mitochondrial-encoded genes that are involved in oxidative phosphorylation within the same or among different stains/families of channel catfish and rainbow trout.
 

 
We are working to understand the molecular mechanisms of the interface between dietary manipulations, temperature and nuclear- and mitochondrial-encoded genes involved in oxidative metabolism. We are also determining the potential role of nutrients and non-dietary factors (temperature) in the molecular modulation of protein and gene expression levels that influence nutrient retention efficiency, growth and development in cultured fish at different live history stages.

To learn more, contact Dr. Jonathan Eya at eyajc@wvstateu.edu.
 
Bioenergy and Environmental Biotechnology
In nature, plant oils represent one of the most energy-rich sources of renewable hydrocarbons, and are stored in the form of triacylglycerols (TAGs) in oilseeds. These TAGs are used as alternative feedstock for biodiesel production. Plant oils possess several advantages compared to other fuels, such as higher energy content, no need for fermentation, compatible with existing fuel technology, and are environmental friendly. The current supply of these energy rich compounds, however, is limited due to low crop yield, competition with food production crops and available arable land. Meeting this ever increasing demand is challenging given the production of oilseed crops are limited to conventional methods.
 
A diversified research approach, into non-conventional sources of vegetable oils from bioenergy crops, including oil production in vegetative tissues of plants and microalgae could meet these challenges. Additionally, improving available techniques to isolate high quality biodiesel from plant/microalgae biomass, developing a low-cost portable continuous biodiesel process, capable of utilizing flexible feedstock, and capable of converting oilseeds or crude soy/rapeseed oil into biodiesel, which pass the most stringent cold-flow filtration specifications, is also crucial. Following are current research areas of focus;
 
·         Understanding the biochemistry and mechanisms of primary metabolism in plants.
·         Engineering photosynthetic organisms for Industrial and biofuels production.
·         Environmental biotechnology and bioremediation.
·         Bioenergy and environmental education and training.

To learn more, contact Dr. David Huber at huberdh@wvstateu.edu.
Environmental Microbiology & Biotechnology
Microorganisms drive the planet’s ecosystems. Microbes have also been harnessed to perform many biotechnological processes using the same genetic and metabolic arsenal that they utilize in the wild. We are interested in understanding how microbes control environmental processes and how they can be used in biotechnology, particularly bioenergy generation. Our major emphasis is environmental biotechnology, where we study the process of anaerobic digestion.


 
Anaerobic digestion is a waste-treatment system used for high-strength organic wastes that utilizes microorganisms to break down the waste while simultaneously producing bioenergy (methane and hydrogen). We use genomics, ecological and biochemical methods to study how the microbial consortia function.
 
The primary resource for this research is a 10,000-gallon, pilot-scale, thermophilic anaerobic digester (TAD) and an associated research facility on campus. Research has primarily focused on practical issues concerning anaerobic digestion, such as improving the efficiency of TAD and expanding the applications of the technology. For example, previous research has shown that effluent (stabilized waste leaving the digester) can be used as fertilizer for crops and as a feed supplement in aquaculture. More recently, our focus has been on bioenergy. We have tested whether mixing different types of organic wastes improves or diminishes bioenergy production. We are also addressing theoretical aspects of biomass-to-energy conversion by investigating bioreactor system stability and bioenergy production through the integration of microbial genomics, ecology and metabolism perspectives.
 

 
Another topic is the microbial ecology of the guts of herbivorous insects. Insects, such as wood-boring species, are able to consume plant biomass because they have microbes in their guts that act as partners in the biomass breakdown. The microbes, genes and enzymes in the guts of these insects are performing a process similar to anaerobic digestion and could potentially be used for biotechnology.
 

 
We also work with freshwater microbiology, looking at the microbial diversity and ecology of a series of unique freshwater lakes located in the desert of central Mexico. Additionally, we are studying the plant/soil/microbe relationship that governs the success of mine-site reclamation in Appalachia. Surface mining destroys topsoil, and the re-vegetation of these sites is hindered by poor-quality landfill. We are seeking a better understanding of the microbes and plants that can revitalize these degraded soils.

To learn more, contact Dr. David Huber at huberdh@wvstateu.edu.
 
Horticultural Crops & Production Systems
The number of farms in West Virginia has increased in the last 10 years, and the number of vegetable farms has almost doubled in the last five years. This suggests that new small farms are increasingly focusing on horticultural crops. Even with this increase, it is hard for small farms to remain competitive using traditional crop production and marketing avenues. Thus, finding alternative and sustainable approaches to growing crops or new crops/varieties not currently grown on a large-scale commercial basis in the U.S. can provide a greater return on small farm investment. Our research has a multipronged approach to developing solutions that are profitable and sustainable for growers in West Virginia and across the nation. 
 
Breeding Tomatoes for Protected Culture: Tomato production in protected culture, such as greenhouses and high tunnels, has been one of the fastest growing agricultural industries within the last 20 years. However, standard greenhouse tomato varieties were bred for European conditions, and many of the heirloom varieties do not carry resistances that are necessary for superior production. One potential solution is to develop new tomato varieties adapted to U.S.-protected culture, our consumers’ tastes and with high-priority traits such as disease and pest resistance. We have evaluated germplasm for desirable traits and are currently transferring insect and disease resistance into lines with superior flavor to develop new cultivars for the protected-culture tomato industry.
 

 
Trialing and Developing New Crops and Varieties: New varieties and strains of vegetables, herbs, fruit and ornamentals are constantly being developed throughout the world. Growers determine the ultimate value when they decide to grow that variety or crop for production. In addition to existing crops that have new varieties released each year for the grower’s repertoire, there are a number of potential crop options, but many growers need to see these grown and used before considering them as a possible new crop. Along those lines, we are trialing tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, and cut flowers. In addition, we are trialing herbaceous ornamental varieties for the University of Minnesota, which includes chrysanthemums, MonardaLamium, gladiolus and Gaura. 
 

 
High Tunnel Production: Season-extension tools can significantly increase sustainable food production by extending the season to grow and protect crops from inclement weather and pests. A high tunnel is similar to a greenhouse: a plastic-covered but usually not heated structure, which can be used to grow crops year-round. Planting and first harvest are earlier in high tunnels, which allow plant growth earlier in the spring as well as later into the fall. High tunnels are ideally suited to the climate and topography for small producers in West Virginia and can almost cover the entire calendar year. We are working to investigate crop choices, year-round scheduling and economic returns on vegetable production in high tunnels with several local growers, which can be used to make recommendations to existing and new high tunnel growers in the state and region.  

To learn more, contact Dr. Barbara Liedl at liedlbe@wvstateu.edu.
Urban Forestry & Natural Resource Management
Growing urban and rural development and the continuing exploration of natural resources adversely impact natural soil and water resources. Moreover, the region’s inherently acidic and nutrient-poor soils are in need of improvement in order to increase agronomic productivity and the contribution of agriculture to the local economy. Through the use of geochemical, physical and biological principles, both basic and applied research is directed at the development and dissemination of new knowledge, technologies and management practices to assure the sustainable, safe, efficient, agronomically beneficial and environmentally sound use of natural resources. This includes: 
 
  • Developing soil erosion mitigation and storm-water runoff management practices in urban and agricultural lands to improve soil productivity and water quality
  • Evaluating the use, performance and impact of selected woody and herbaceous vegetation in storm-water runoff management practices, such as rain gardens and/or wetlands and buffer strips in urban, agriculture and mine reclamation operations
  • Improving management practices to promote sustainable development and maintenance of green spaces, parks and recreational areas in urban settings
  • Developing and evaluating reclamation practices to improve post-mining land use, improving soil productivity and alleviating impact of soil disturbance operations (e.g. mining)
  • Exploring the use of alternative cover crops conducive to our soil conditions (e.g. aluminum- and manganese-resistant bio-energy crops)
  • Exploring environmentally responsible and agronomically beneficial use of agricultural waste and byproducts as soil amendments to improve soil productivity and agronomic value
 
The research is interfaced with end-users, landowners, and local and state government as a means to identify tangible problems associated with natural resource management, and is conducted in collaboration with commercial and academic partners as well as federal agencies to develop and integrate best management practices for soil and water resources management.

To learn more, contact Dr. Amir Hass at amirhass@wvstateu.edu.
Vegetable Genomics & Plant Breeding
Our genomics research involves identifying genes and linked DNA markers for use in crop genetics and breeding, with special reference to vegetable crops. We use a methodology known as “genome wide association mapping,” which uses a conventional field plot technique that dissects variation of quantitative traits, such as yield and fruit quality in association with genome wide DNA polymorphisms to characterize crop biodiversity for improvement in cucurbit crops and peppers.

We explore cutting-edge sequencing tools to identify genes and DNA polymorphisms for use in plant breeding. We also identify crop varieties that have pharmaceutical and nutraceutical values that can be used as functional foods. We are identifying DNA markers linked to various economically important traits like fruit quality and nutraceutical features in crops such as melon, watermelon, pumpkin, squash, sweet potato and pepper.
 

 
We seek to understand variation in plant traits, with special reference to evolution and phylogenetic perspective, and to understand domestication and adaptation of various plant genes that have economic potential. For example, one project deals with how grafting alters genomes in cucurbit crops and how the altered genomes, through grafting, affect characteristics such as resistance to pathogens or drought.
 

 
Also, we seek to understand adaptation mechanisms of native plants and invasive plants at Appalachian coal mine sites, where the mine-fills are characteristic of low pH and toxic soils. We use various population genetic tools to understand genetic mechanisms and explore how to combine genetic diversities at all levels for land reclamation. 

To learn more, contact Dr. Umesh K. Reddy at ureddy@wvstateu.edu or Dr. Padma Nimmakayala at padma@wvstateu.edu.
To learn more, contact:
Dr. Ami Smith
(304) 204-4305
smitham@wvstateu.edu
Student performing research

 

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