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About Egghead

Egghead is a blog about research by, with or related to UC Davis. Comments on posts are welcome, as are tips and suggestions for posts. General feedback may be sent to Andy Fell. This blog is created and maintained by UC Davis University Communications, and mostly edited by Andy Fell.

Honda Smart Home Open House is March 25

There will be a community open house at the Honda Smart Home in West Village on campus next Tuesday afternoon, March 25, noon to 4 p.m.. If you’ve been wondering what this zero-net energy smart home is all about, this is your chance to tour the home, talk to project leaders and learn more about it.

The house is on N. Sage Street in West Village, a block north of the village square.

The event is free and open to the public.

HSH_community announcement_FINAL[1]


Upcoming: Friday talks on science of elite sports

If you’re interested in a scientific approach to athletic performance or coaching, an upcoming series of visiting lectures at UC Davis is for you. Beginning on April 4, the first three speakers are: Stuart Kim, Stanford University, on using genetics to improve performance of elite athletes; Asker Jeukendrup, global head of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, on fueling elite performance; and Chip Schaefer, director of athletic performance for the Sacramento Kings, on screening to decrease injury and improved performance.

A full program is available at

Seminars will be held at 1 p.m. on Fridays in room 126, Wellman Hall and are open to the public. The series is part of a new course in the Exercise Biology major, “The Changing Face of Science in Elite Sports,” organized by Keith Baar, associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior, College of Biological Sciences.

New materials microscope is a first in the U.S.

Researchers at UC Davis will soon have a new and very special tool to examine the structure and composition of materials at an atomic scale. The new Focused Ion Beam microscope, or dual-beam FIB, now being installed in the College of Engineering’s Center for Nano-Micromanufacturing (NCM2) is one of the first three instruments of its advanced type in the world — and currently the only one of its kind in the U.S..

“It will be transformative for materials science here,” said Klaus van Benthem, associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science. “We’ve never had images of this brilliance before.”

Materials scientists try to understand the structure and properties of both new and existing materials. Breakthroughs in technology from electronics to solar panels to industrial catalysts often depend on new discoveries about materials.

The microscope was manufactured by FEI, Inc.

Klaus van Benthem with the new instrument.

Klaus van Benthem with the new instrument.

of Hillsborough, Ore. and has a list price of $1.75 million. Purchase of the instrument was mostly supported by a grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research.

The dual-beam FIB instrument includes both a scanning electron microscope and a focused beam of gallium ions that can be tuned across a wide energy range, van Benthem said. The gallium beam can be used for imaging, or more significantly it can be used to remove layers of material on a scale of two to five nanometers. Researchers can use it to generate three-dimensional images of the structure of new materials, or to prepare exquisitely thin samples for transmission electron microscopy.

It’s like an archaeologist using a brush, rather than a shovel, to carefully remove layers of dirt and expose fragile remains.

“The name of the game is to remove material atom by atom, without damaging the surface underneath,” van Benthem said.

The FIB will also be combined with other instruments at UC Davis to measure the chemical composition of materials on the atomic scale, or to study how individual crystals are oriented. It can also be used to “write” tiny electronic circuits on to surfaces.

Work on setting up the machine is already underway, and graduate students will play a key role in running the instrument and training new users.

“Students can learn a great deal from working with a cutting-edge instrument like this,” van Benthem said.

The microscope was manufactured in the Czech Republic and is the first to be shipped to the U.S.. So far, two others have been installed worldwide, in Japan and in Germany, van Benthem said.

The Center for Nano-Micromanufacturing provides facilities to campus researchers and off-campus users for work on nanomaterials and microfabrication, including a class 100 clean room facility. The FIB microscope will be available to both campus and off-campus users in early April, and van Benthem said he’s already getting requests from potential users around the world.

“It’s really going to put us on the map,” he said.

End the U.S. innovation deficit, universities urge

A new video recently released online draws attention to the “Innovation Deficit” and the need for federal investments in research and education to support economic growth and American leadership in science and technology.

The video was produced at Colorado State University for the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the Association of American Universities (AAU), both organizations to which UC Davis belongs. It’s part of a continuing campaign, including a website and Twitter feed, to draw attention to the negative effects of budget cuts and sequestration on federally-funded research.

“Investment in higher education is investment in economic growth,” wrote Chancellor Linda P. B. Katehi in an op-ed last December. “UC Davis alone accounts for 70,000 jobs and $7 billion in economic activity each year. Cutting off funding to our colleges and universities means fewer jobs, fewer dollars going to small businesses and fewer of the highly educated workers essential to our state’s economy.”

Katehi cited research on childhood asthma and agricultural diseases as just two areas where federally-funded research at UC Davis has had a direct impact on the well-being of Californians.

UC Davis has certainly benefitted from these federal investments in education and research, with a 335 percent increase in overall research funding since 1995. The campus still managed to increase research funding in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2013, to $754 million, and the federal government is still the largest single sponsor of research at UC Davis, at $356 million in 2012-13. Yet within those figures, federal funding fell by about $45 million.

The UC Davis Office of Research has set up a bridge funding program for researchers who have lost, or are about to lose, their primary extramural funding. The bridge program will provide up to $100,000 for a maximum of one year, allowing projects to continue and key staff to be retained while the investigator applies for new external grants.

Vice Chancellor for Research Harris Lewin also has established the Interdisciplinary Frontiers Program, investing $14.5 million in one-time internal funds to seed 20 new interdisciplinary research themes on campus in science, engineering, humanities and arts that could grow into major research centers and attract major external grants in the future.

In addition to APLU and AAU, the video was sponsored by a list of business and educational associations: Aerospace Industries Association, American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Council on Education, American Heart Association, Association of American Universities, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, Business-Higher Education Forum, Council on Competitiveness, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, Semiconductor Industry Association, Task Force on American Innovation, The Science Coalition, and United for Medical Research.

UC Davis student team selected for national solar competition

A team of students from UC Davis has been selected to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015. As competitions go, it’s a marathon, not a sprint: the  teams will have until Fall, 2015 to design, build and test their solar-powered homes at the test site at UC Irvine.

“Our team is very excited at the opportunity to compete in the Solar Decathlon in 2015. We plan to build an affordable zero net energy house that will serve as a prototype for commercialization of housing units for transient populations in the U.S.,” said Professor Frank Loge of the UC Davis Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who is coordinating the project, via e-mail.

“Our project builds upon UC Davis’ agricultural heritage and extensive working experience in zero net energy design and operation. Our project is a direct challenge to the notion that sustainable living is the province and concern of urban elites. To make a difference, ZNE must work for everyone and our project is an effort to make this sentiment a reality,” Loge said.

Loge said that the solar decathlon team will be composed of undergraduate and graduate students, lead by faculty and staff from many units across campus, including the Colleges of Engineering, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Letters and Science, the Graduate School of Management, and the School of Medicine. The core team will be composed of 20 students that will compete in the competition in October 2015, but over the course of the competition the project will touch many more students at the undergraduate and graduate level.

This is the first time UC Davis has taken part in the competition.

Details of the 2015 competition are to be announced today (Feb. 13) at an event at UC Irvine.

“As President Obama made clear in the State of the Union address, we need an all-of-the-above energy strategy that creates a safer and more sustainable planet, while ensuring American students and workers have the skills they need for the challenging jobs of today and tomorrow,” said Deputy U.S. Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman in a news release.

“The Solar Decathlon provides the next generation of America’s architects, engineers, and entrepreneurs with the real world experience and training they need to strengthen U.S. innovation and support new, clean sources of energy.”

The program challenges 20 collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

The first five competitions (2002, 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2011), were held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The 2013 competition was held in Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif. and the 2015 competition returns to the same location.

The Solar Decathlon enhances public understanding of how to save money at home with clean energy solutions available today and provides students with training and hands-on experience to prepare them for the clean energy workforce. Since 2002 the Solar Decathlon has involved 132 collegiate teams with nearly 20,000 participants, pursuing a multidisciplinary approach to study the requirements for designing and building energy-efficient, solar-powered houses.

In September 2011, UC Davis officially opened West Village, a 200-acre community designed to house 3,000 UC Davis students and 500 staff and faculty in apartments and single-family homes. Developed by a public-private partnership between UC Davis and West Village Community Partnership, a joint venture of Carmel Partners from San Francisco and Urban Villages from Denver, it is the largest planned zero net energy community in the U.S. It is on track to demonstrate, for the first time, that zero net energy is practical on a large scale.

More: news release from the U.S. Department of Energy

Social or Stinky? New study reveals how animal defenses evolve

When people see a skunk, the reaction usually is “Eww,” but when they see a group of meerkats peering around, they often think “Aww.”

Why some animals use noxious scents while others live in social groups to defend themselves against predators is the question that biologists Tim Caro of the University of California, Davis and Theodore Stankowich of California State University, Long Beach  and sought to answer through a comprehensive analysis of predator-prey interactions among carnivorous mammals and birds of prey.

Their findings appear in the online edition of the journal Evolution.Who me, stinky? Photo by Jennifer Hunter.

“The idea is that we’re trying to explain why certain antipredator traits evolved in some species but not others,” said Stankowich, who noted that this study not only explains why skunks are stinky and why banded mongooses live in groups but also breaks new ground in the methodology of estimating predation risks.

Caro, Stankowich and Paul Haverkamp, a geographer who recently completed his Ph.D. at UC Davis, collected data on 181 species of carnivores, a group in which many species are small and under threat from other animals. They ran a comparison of every possible predator-prey combination, correcting for a variety of natural history factors, to create a potential risk value that estimates the strength of natural selection due to predation from birds and other mammals.

They found that noxious spraying was favored by animals that were nocturnal and mostly at risk from other animals, while sociality was favored by animals that were active during the day and potentially vulnerable to birds of prey.

“Spraying is a good close-range defense in case you get surprised by a predator, so at night when you can’t detect things far away, you might be more likely to stumble upon a predator,” Stankowich said.

Conversely, small carnivores like mongooses and meerkats usually are active during the day which puts them at risk from birds of prey. Living in a large social group means “more eyes on the sky” in daytime, when threats can be detected further away.

The social animals also use other defenses such as calling out a warning to other members of their group or even mobbing together to bite and scratch an intruder to drive it away.

The project was a major information technology undertaking involving plotting the geographic range overlap of hundreds of mammal and bird species, but will have long-term benefits for ongoing studies. The researchers plan to make their database, nicknamed the “Geography of Fear,” available to other researchers.

Swedish laurels for physics professor

Charles Fadley, distinguished professor of physics at UC Davis and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has been awarded an honorary doctorate by Uppsala University, Sweden. Fadley was one of four recipients of honorary doctorates in science and technology presented Jan. 24 at Uppsala, which was founded in 1477.

“His work, not least his synchrotron-light-based spectroscopic studies of surfaces, magnetic materials, and nanostructures, has inspired researchers around the world and at Uppsala,” according to the citation, which also noted Fadley’s service on two campus-wide research assessments at the Swedish university, in 2007 and 2011.

The presentation, complete with laurel wreaths, marks the “first and last occasion” of Fadley wearing a white tie and tails, he says (unless, we assume, he wins another major prize presented in Scandinavia). Luckily, there is photographic evidence:



Charles Fadley, left with Yoshinori Takura of Tokyo University, who also received an honorary doctorate.

Fadley has had a long association with Sweden, beginning with postdoctoral research in 1969. He was elected to the prestigious Royal Society of Sciences at Uppsala in 2009.

Policy makers, scientists agree: Water to dominate natural resource issues

A survey of scientists and policy makers identifies water supply as the most pressing environmental issue facing the U.S.. The results, published Feb. 5 in the journal BioScience, come as California suffers its worst drought in nearly half a century.

The survey, by Erica Fleishman of the John Muir Institute of the Environment at UC Davis and Murray Rudd the University of York, England, asked managers, policymakers and their advisers, and scientists to rank a series of questions on the environment and natural resources based on their applicability to policy.

A question on the water supply necessary to sustain human populations and ecosystem resilience was ranked as having the greatest potential, if it was answered, to increase the effectiveness of policies related to natural resource management in the U.S..

The survey found no evidence of differing priorities between academics and government employees, or between scientists (either government of academic) and policymakers.

The question emerged from a previous collaboration among decision makers and scientists that yielded 40 research questions that most reflected the needs of those with jurisdiction over natural resources. That research also was published in BioScience.

The 602 respondents included 194 policymakers, 70 government scientists, and 228 academic scientists.

Other questions that were ranked as of high importance to policy included those on methods for measuring the benefits humans receive from ecosystems; the effects of sea-level rise, storm surge, erosion and variable precipitation on coastal ecosystems and human communities; and the effect on carbon storage and ecosystem resilience of different management strategies for forests, grasslands, and agricultural systems.

DNA repair protein is a three-way zipper

New work from UC Davis explains how a protein motor named Rad54 helps both to form and to break down the “displacement loop,” or D-loop, a key intermediate in the important DNA repair pathway, homologous recombination.

Formation of the D-loop allows a cell to use a broken or damaged DNA molecule to locate and synthesize lost sequence from an intact “donor” DNA molecule containing the same sequence. The cell needs to do this in order to maintain its genome, and it is therefore of crucial importance in understanding the origins of cancer and birth defects.

“It’s a big step for the field because it’s been unclear what Rad54 does,” said Wolf-Dietrich Heyer, professor in the Departments of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics and of Molecular and Cellular Biology in the College of Biological Sciences and at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. Heyer is coauthor of the paper published Jan. 30 in the journal Molecular Cell, along with graduate student William Douglass Wright.

Before DNA can be copied from the donor molecule, the damaged and donor DNA molecules have to find each other. A protein called Rad51 is responsible for lining a DNA strand and stretching it like a spring, so that the bases that make up the genetic code (A, C, G and T) can flip outwards.

During the search for the template from which to copy the missing information, Rad51 also stretches the donor DNA to match it to the broken DNA forming a unique three-stranded structure, the D-loop.

It’s been known that Rad54 both assists Rad51 in forming the D-loop and also disrupts D-loops, but until now it has not been clear how that happens.

Wright used purified DNA molecules with filaments of Rad51 to show that Rad54 acts as a pump that pushes a strand of the damaged DNA and a strand of the donor molecule through itself to create double-stranded DNA, knocking off Rad51 as it does so. Rad54 moves along DNA in the direction in which it detects Rad51.

In other words, presented with three-stranded DNA stretched open by Rad51, Rad54 moves along it, knocking out the Rad51 so that the structure can snap back into its normal form. Two strands are pushed together, but at the same time, another part of the Rad54 protein is in contact with the third strand of DNA, which is displaced.

graph abstract1So Rad54 is acting as a three-way zipper: it brings together two strands of DNA, while at the same time it separates a third strand of DNA that would otherwise interfere.

“This model consolidates both Rad51 removal and DNA zippering functions into one step,” Heyer said. It also helps place Rad54 in a class of other proteins that act as DNA pumps, for example during bacterial cell division.

The work was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, and a fellowship to Wright from the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program.

“Real Revolutionaries Carry a Banjo:” Jesse Drew on Pete Seeger

Jesse Drew of the Cinema and Technocultural Studies program at UC Davis met legendary musician Pete Seeger several times, most recently during filming of his documentary, “Open Country.” Seeger died Jan. 27, and Prof. Drew just posted a remembrance, “Real Revolutionaries Carry a Banjo.”

Seeger should be considered a founder of country music, Drew argues:

Not folk music, mind you, as that has been around for some time. Coun­try music. Nashville, I believe, owes Pete a statue in the cen­ter of town.

Read the whole article here.

Seeger also recorded an intro for Davis community radio station KDRT: