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Biochemistry Provides The Foundation For Agricultural And Life Sciences

On Oct. 15, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Biochemistry will dedicate its new campus home.

The 200,000-square-foot building has the modern laboratories and equipment that faculty members need to advance knowledge in today”s key research areas, says Hector DeLuca, chairman of the Department of Biochemistry. More than half of the building”s $35.6-million price tag was paid by patent royalties from DeLuca”s vitamin D discoveries.

The dedication ceremony for the new building will take place at 3 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 15. Invited speakers include Gov. Tommy Thompson, UW-Madison Chancellor David Ward, Elton Aberle, Dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, biochemistry professors Hector DeLuca and Michael Cox, Arthur C. Nielsen Jr., president of the board of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and former WARF director Howard Bremer.

According to Deluca, modern biochemistry focuses on developmental biology, protein structure and function, molecular genetics, nutrition, metabolism, and enzymology. Although some of these topics may seem removed from the agriculture”s front lines, progress in these areas may well lead to new ways farmers can reduce both their costs and environmental impacts, while producing healthier crops and livestock in the next century.

For example, DeLuca and cooperators have found a way to reduce the amount of phosphorus – an important water pollutant – in manure. A study with chickens showed that including the active form of vitamin D in poultry diets reduced phosphorus content of the manure by one-half. DeLuca says the vitamin D compound increases the birds” ability to absorb phosphorus from feed and eliminates the need for phosphorus supplements.

Here are more examples of current projects expected to have an impact on agriculture:

Research on the genes that tell plants when to drop their leaves. Biochemists are experimenting with plants that have a synthetic gene that appears to make the plants grow larger and produce more flowers.

Studies of how the bacteria that live in nodules on the roots of plants such as alfalfa and soybeans can fix nitrogen from the air. Controlling this process in crops could reduce farm fertilizer budgets, increase crop productivity and protect water from excessive nitrogen.

Research on the genetic instructions in viruses that cause them to infect and sicken animals and people. Altering these instructions can lead to new ways to protect human and animal health.

Studies of certain bacterial enzymes that allow the microbes to break down organic chemicals that pollute groundwater. Advances in this area will lead to new ways to clean up pollution.

Research on the molecular structure of brazzein, a molecule 2,000 times sweeter than sugar. This study could lead to crops containing the natural sweetener.

Such work will continue a long history of biochemistry discoveries that have benefited Wisconsin agriculture, beginning in 1890 with the Babcock butterfat test. The test quickly became the gold standard for evaluating milk quality and the foundation upon which the dairy food industry was built.

Many department discoveries are best known for curing human ills. But earlier research usually emerged from farm problems and the findings made an enormous impact on animal health, growth and reproduction.

UW-Madison biochemists showed that salt was essential for dairy cows, discovered vitamin A and the B-vitamin complex while studying animal nutrition, found effective treatments for poultry with weak legs, discovered that both copper and iron were needed to cure anemia in piglets and people, showed that iodine could prevent hair loss and goiter in calves and humans, and that cobalt, manganese, zinc and selenium were essential for healthy diets.

Problems with a “bleeding disease” in cattle that ate sweet clover sent Karl Paul Link and his colleagues in search of the compound responsible. Their discoveries produced the most widely used killer of rats and mice in the world, and an important medicine to prevent unwanted blood clots.

Research on urea as a nitrogen source for cattle focused scientific attention on ruminant fermentation and led to studies on better rations that continue today in dairy science.

Biochemists Henry Lardy and Paul Phillips worked out an egg-yolk based “extender” that kept semen samples alive for several days. That discovery led to wider use of artificial insemination and rapid improvement of Wisconsin dairy herds.

The dedication also marks a change of address for the department. After 86 years on Henry Mall, it has moved around the corner to a new address on Babcock Drive. One of the College”s six original departments, the department”s past and current addresses honor two UW-Madison legends. William Henry was the first College dean and biochemist Stephen Babcock was the first faculty member Henry hired.