Facebook Icon Youtube Icon Twitter Icon Flickr Icon Vimeo Icon RSS Icon Itunes Icon Pinterest Icon

Mosquito-killing Fungi Engineered with Spider and Scorpion Toxins Could Help Fight Malaria

June 14, 2017

Matthew Wright, 

COLLEGE PARK, Md.-- Malaria kills nearly half a million people every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In some of the hardest-hit areas in sub-Saharan Africa, the mosquitoes that carry the malaria parasite have become resistant to traditional chemical insecticides, complicating efforts to fight the disease.

Photo of mosquitoA new study from researchers at the University of Maryland and colleagues from Burkina Faso, China and Australia suggests that a mosquito-killing fungus genetically engineered to produce spider and scorpion toxins could serve as a highly effective biological control mechanism to fight malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The fungus is specific to mosquitoes and does not pose a risk to humans. Further, the study results, which are published in the June 13 edition of Scientific Reports, suggest that the fungus is also safe for honey bees and other insects. 

“In this paper, we report that our most potent fungal strains, engineered to express multiple toxins, are able to kill mosquitoes with a single spore,” said Brian Lovett, a graduate student in UMD's Department of Entomology and a co-author of the paper. “We also report that our transgenic fungi stop mosquitoes from blood feeding. Together, this means that our fungal strains are capable of preventing transmission of disease by more than 90 percent of mosquitoes after just five days.”

The researchers used the fungus Metarhizium pingshaense, which is a natural killer of mosquitoes. The fungus was originally isolated from a mosquito and previous evidence suggests that the fungus is specific to disease-carrying mosquito species, including Anopheles gambiae and Aedes aegypti. When spores of the funguscome into contact with a mosquito’s body, the spores germinate and penetrate the insect’s exoskeleton, eventually killing the insect host from the inside out.

On its own, however, the fungus requires fairly high doses of spores and a large amount of time to have lethal effects. To boost the fungus’ deadly power, the researchers engineered the fungus with several genes that express neurotoxins from spider and scorpion venom—both alone and in combination with other toxins. The toxins act by blocking the calcium, potassium and/or sodium channels required for the transmission of nerve impulses.

The researchers then tested the engineered fungal strains on wild-caught, insecticide-resistant mosquitoes in Burkina Faso. Each engineered strain killed mosquitoes more quickly and efficiently than the unaltered fungus. But the most effective strain used a combination of two toxins, one derived from the North African desert scorpion Androctonus australis and another derived from the Australian Blue Mountains funnel-web spider Hadronyche versuta. The scorpion toxin blocks sodium channels, while the spider toxin blocks both potassium and calcium channels. Both of these toxins have already been approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for insecticidal use.

“The WHO has identified insecticide resistance as the major threat to effective mosquito control, which is relevant not only to malaria but to a number of mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue, yellow fever, viral encephalitis and filariasis,” said Raymond St. Leger, a distinguished university professor in the UMD Department of Entomology and senior author of the study. “Unlike chemical insecticides that target only sodium channels, many spider and scorpion toxins hit the nervous system’s calcium and potassium ion channels, so insects have no pre-existing resistance.”

When Lovett, St. Leger and their colleagues inserted the toxin genes into the Metarhizium fungus, they included an additional failsafe: a highly specific promoter sequence, or genetic “switch,” which ensures that the toxin genes can only be activated in the blood of insects. As a result, the fungus will not release the toxin into the environment.

To further ensure the safety of non-target insect species, the researchers also tested the engineered fungal strains on honey bees. Working in Burkina Faso, the team deliberately infected local bees using both passive methods (exposing the bees to spore-coated fabric) and direct methods (spraying the bees with spores suspended in liquid). After two weeks, no bees had died as a result of the toxin-boosted fungus.

“The toxins we’re using are potent, but totally specific to insects. They are only expressed by the fungus when in an insect. Additionally, the fungus does nothing at all to bees and other beneficial species,” St. Leger said. “So we have several different layers of biosecurity at work.”

Encouraged by the results of the current study, the researchers plan to expand their on-the-ground testing regimen in Burkina Faso. Currently, the team is testing the spores on mosquitoes contained in a custom-built enclosure that resembles a greenhouse, with walls made of netting instead of glass. The researchers are also testing the fungus on insect species that are closely related to mosquitoes, such as midges and gnats, to ensure that the fungus is completely safe for non-target insects. Eventually, the team hopes to deploy the spores in the field, on wild mosquito populations.

“This is our first in-depth study of the effects toxin-expressing fungi have on mosquitoes, beyond their ability to kill faster. This is also our broadest characterization of our arsenal of insect-killing spider and scorpion toxins,” Lovett said. “Our results directly extend our understanding of how these technologies may be used in the field against mosquito pests.”

Image: A dead female Anopheles gambiae mosquito covered in the mosquito-killing fungus Metarhizium pingshaense, which has been engineered to produce spider and scorpion toxins. The fungus is also engineered to express a green fluorescent protein for easy identification of the toxin-producing fungal structures. Image credit: Brian Lovett. 

MFRI Director Steven Edwards to Retire from the University Of Maryland

June 13, 2017

Karen Haje, 301-226-9962

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Maryland State Fire Training Director, Steven T.  Edwards, will retire from the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute (MFRI) at the University of Maryland, effective January 5, 2018. 

Photo of Steven EdwardsEdwards has served as the director of MFRI, the state’s comprehensive training and education system for emergency services, for the past 25 years. Under his leadership, MFRI increased student attendance, enhanced the quality of its training programs and its equipment and safety and health procedures, and generated additional funding for its organization. During his tenure, Edwards created the Center for Firefighter Health and Safety, which was funded through research grants. He was also instrumental in the renovation of MFRI’s main training facility in College Park and two regional training centers, as well as the construction two new regional training centers. Most recently, Edwards led the effort to create the MFRI 2025 Strategic Plan, developed to provide organizational guidance for the next 10 years.

“It has been a true honor and privilege to serve as the MFRI Director for 25 years, as I have worked with a great organization that serves an essential public safety purpose,” said Edwards. “Most importantly, I have had the pleasure to work with the MFRI faculty, staff and instructors who are the utmost professionals in their field.” 

Edwards has received numerous awards and honors, including the Mason Lankford National Fire Service Leadership Award from the Congressional Fire Services Institute, the Hudiberg Award from the International Fire Service Training Association, the President’s Award from the North American Fire Training Directors and the UMCP President's Distinguished Service Award for excellence and dedicated service to the University of Maryland. He is also the author of the “Fire Service Personnel Management” (3rd ed.), a textbook used in college-level educational programs. 

“MFRI’s distinguished service has saved lives throughout Maryland and beyond, thanks to the excellence of Steve and his team,” said University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh. “Throughout his career, Steve has led the way in making Maryland first responders among the best in the world, and set the standard for quality service. He will be missed.” 

MFRI plans, researches, develops, and delivers quality training programs to enhance the ability of emergency service providers to protect life, the environment, and property. Each year, MFRI conducts 1,800 educational programs, training over 34,000 students in Maryland, the United States and across the world. MFRI training programs and evaluation processes have been nationally accredited and all meet or exceed the National Fire Service Professional Qualifications. 

Prior to his service with MFRI, Edwards served with the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department for 25 years beginning as a high school cadet in 1968, progressing through every rank and retiring as its Fire Chief in 1993. In 1979, he was awarded the PGFD “Gold Star of Valor” for the rescue of two firefighters at a major fire and explosion. In 2018, Director Edwards will have 50 years of service devoted to the emergency services of Maryland. 

Edwards’ numerous contributions to state and national organizations is impressive. He was the elected President of the North American Fire Training Directors, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Safety Equipment Institute, the Congressional Fire Services National Advisory Committee Chair, National Fire Protection Research Board Foundation, National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications, Chair of the Maryland Instructor Certification Review Board and member of the Maryland Statewide Emergency Medical Advisory Board.

Edwards’ retirement announcement is made at this time to allow the University of Maryland adequate time to conduct a nationwide search for a new Director.  

NASA Honors Renowned UMD Comet Science Pioneer Michael A’Hearn

June 13, 2017

Leon Tune, 301-405-4679

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – On June 12, at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, NASA posthumously awarded the Exceptional Public Service Medal to University of Maryland Distinguished University Professor Michael F. A'Hearn, one of the world's leading cometary scientists. The NASA Medal is for “fundamental work on comets and small bodies of the solar system, leadership in space missions, and ensuring public access to data from NASA missions and related projects.”

Banner image on A'HearnA'Hearn, who died on May 29 at his home in University Park, Maryland at the age of 76, was most widely known as the principal investigator (PI) of the NASA Deep Impact mission. On July 4, 2005, the spacecraft released a washing-machine-sized probe that collided spectacularly with comet Tempel 1, while the main spacecraft observed the results. The powerful impact gave scientists their first-ever view of pristine material inside a comet and garnered massive public attention for planetary science, solar system exploration, NASA and the University of Maryland.

The impact was also observed by NASA and other space telescopes and from Earth by many professional groundbased telescopes and thousands of amateur astronomers. The event set a then NASA record for webpage hits (more than 1 million) and drew front-page news coverage by broadcast, print and web media outlets around the world.

“Mike A’Hearn devoted his life to exploration, and his work has transformed our understanding of what comets are made of and how they interact within our corner of the universe,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division.  “This is a great loss for the small bodies community and for me personally.”

After Deep Impact’s original mission ended, A'Hearn and his science team convinced NASA to use the surviving primary spacecraft for continued cometary studies. With A'Hearn as PI, the project embarked on an extended mission, designated EPOXI, with dual purposes-- studying extrasolar planets and comet Hartley 2. On the way to Hartley 2, the Deep Impact spacecraft flew between the Earth and the Moon. Its instruments were able to confirm the surprising presence of water on the Moon’s surface. The Deep Impact spacecraft later imaged two other comets-- C/2009 P1 Garradd (in 2012), which had a surprisingly high carbon monoxide content, and C/2012 S1 ISON (in 2013), a comet that disintegrated as it grazed past the Sun.  The images and findings of these later missions further advanced comet science and attracted more media and public attention.  

When NASA lost contact with the Deep Impact spacecraft in September 2013, A’Hearn said: “Deep Impact has been a principal focus of my astronomy work for more than a decade and I’m saddened by its functional loss. But, I’m very proud of the many contributions to our evolving understanding of comets that it has made possible.”

Illuminating the Primordial Dust 
Distinguished University Professor Michael A’Hearn’s many scientific contributions started well before and continued well beyond Deep Impact. During his more than 50 years at UMD, he studied comets using ground-based observatories, space telescopes such as the Hubble Space Telescope, and Deep Impact and other spacecraft. 

He looked at comets across the range of light (electromagnetic radiation) wavelengths from extreme ultraviolet radiation to visible light to radio waves. In particular, in the 1970’s he pioneered the study of comets in the ultraviolet, using the International Ultraviolet Explorer space telescope, coordinated the world’s ground-based observations of comet Halley in the 80’s, and in the 90’s compiled the most comprehensive set of compositional data of comets to date. 

A’Hearn’s post-Deep Impact work included being co-investigator on the Stardust-NExT mission to re-visit comet Tempel 1, which documented changes on the comet’s surface since Deep Impact, and a co-investigator on two instrument teams (the OSIRIS camera and the NASA Alice ultraviolet spectrograph), on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission, which co-orbited and landed on comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko. 

In addition to being a pillar of cometary science, another major contribution to planetary science was A'Hearn’s nearly three decades as principal investigator for the Small Bodies Node, which is the part of NASA's Planetary Data System that specializes in the archiving, cataloging, and distributing scientific data sets relevant to asteroids, comets and interplanetary dust. A founder and advocate for the Planetary Data System, A’Hearn championed its mission to preserve data of planets and make it publically accessible for use by future generations as they seek answers to questions that current researchers don’t even know to ask. Under his leadership, the Small Bodies Node developed from a two-person group to a strong, UMD-based, organization of 18 scientists and programmers.

Together with colleagues, many of whom he had mentored, A’Hearn used observational and exploratory tools, computer models (numerical simulations), and experiments (biggest was the Tempel 1 impact) to help us better understand comet chemistry and comet components (body, or nuclei, and surrounding gas and dust called the coma).  This work was done with the goal of gaining new insights into how the dense disc of gas and dust that had rotated around our newly formed Sun, formed into our  solar system’s planets, comets and asteroids, and thus, ultimately, into us.

“Everything about Mike was genuine-- his love of comets and the secrets they hold to our origin and his concern for individuals,” said University of Maryland Professor Jessica M. Sunshine, director of the UMD Small Bodies Group. “Mike inspired thousands of UMD undergrads to appreciate science, formally and informally guided generations of young cometary scientists all over the world and he advocated for future solar system exploration, open and long-term access to planetary data, and the protection of our planet from the hazards of cometary and asteroidal impacts.”  

Defending Planet Earth 
A’Hearn was an avid sailor who noted in one NASA biography that his second choice of profession after astronomy would have been ship’s captain.  And, like a good captain, part of his work involved protecting Earth and the living things it carries by helping in the detection of comets and asteroids orbiting in “uncharted waters” of our solar system that pose potential impact hazards to Earth and determining the best methods to prevent or mitigate such impacts.

He was vice-chair of a 2010 National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council report entitled “Defending Planet Earth: Near-Earth-Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies (2010) Chapter: 2 Risk Analysis.” He also chaired the mitigation sub-panel that wrote the section of the report devoted to protecting our planet from dangerous “near-Earth objects” and to mitigating the damage of unavoidable impacts.  A brief interview,  A'Hearn: Protecting Earth: Four Recommendations, can be seen here.

A Deep and Lasting Impact on Comet Science and Colleagues
A'Hearn was named a Distinguished University Professor in 2000. This formal UMD title denotes University of Maryland's academic honor of highest distinction and is awarded to a limited number of UMD's most accomplished professors. Awardees are established scholars, held in the highest esteem by professional colleagues nationally and internationally, whose contributions have had a significant influence on their discipline and perhaps beyond. 

Other recognitions of his work include an Exceptional Public Service Medal from NASA and the Gerard P. Kuiper Prize from American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences. The NASA Medal was approved shortly before his death in recognition of his “fundamental work on comets and small bodies of the solar system, leadership in space missions, and ensuring public access to data from NASA missions and related projects.”  The Kuiper Prize “recognizes and honors outstanding contributors to planetary science.”

A’Hearn’s tremendous impacts on his field and university were personal as well as professional. Colleagues universally say he was a great and thoughtful friend as well as a terrific teacher and mentor for younger scientists, many of whom now will continue his legacy by further advancing the understanding of comets and asteroids and the early history of our solar system.

"Mike was a wonderful friend, mentor, and colleague to so many in our astronomy department and everywhere,” said UMD Astronomy Department Chair Stuart Vogel. “He was the founder of the department's Small Bodies Group and one of the most respected and admired planetary scientists in the world. He will be deeply missed."

In 2011 A’Hearn became a professor emeritus, but, even in “retirement” he continued to produce important work and to mentor younger scientists.  He authored a review article, Comets: Looking Ahead that was published the day of his death. He is a coauthor of at least one other forthcoming paper. 

“Dr. Mike A’Hearn was one-of-a-kind in a group of unique individuals – the hand full of planetary scientists who have led a mission of exploration through our solar system,” said Lindley N. Johnson, NASA’s planetary defense officer and program executive for Deep Impact/EPOXI. “Mike was a joy to work with. Not only was he a treasured advisor to so many graduate students, he was a valued mentor to us all.  I’d like to now think of him as having grabbed a comet by its vibrant tail – and forever riding it around the solar system.”

Born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1940, A’Hearn grew up in Boston, graduated from Boston College High School and from Boston College (’62) and received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin (’66), studying polarization of the atmosphere of Venus.

Michael A’Hearn passed away at his home on May 29, 2017. He is survived by his wife Maxine, sons Brian J. A’Hearn (Zlata) of Oxford, UK, Kevin P. A’Hearn (Kanlayane) of Vienna, VA, and Patrick N. A’Hearn of Seattle, WA; and grandchildren Sean, Brendan, Marie, Eliane, and Gabriel.



UMD Awarded $6 Million NIH Grant for Structure-Based Design of a Hepatitis C Vaccine

June 13, 2017

IBBR Contact: Viqar Aslam, 240-314-6373



COLLEGE PARK, Md.-- The University of Maryland’s Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research (IBBR) has been awarded a $6-million grant entitled, “Structure-Based Vaccine Design for Hepatitis C Virus,” to develop a novel prophylactic vaccine to prevent hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection. The grant is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the research will take place over a five-year period.  

There are currently no approved vaccines for HCV, a highly variable RNA virus that currently infects 185 million worldwide, adds 3 to 4 million new infections each year and is associated with severe liver diseases and cancer. HCV infection is responsible for more U.S. deaths than HIV and all other infectious diseases combined. Although FDA approved direct-acting antiviral drugs (DAAs) are available and shown to be safe and effective, access is limited due to the very high cost of treatment and DAAs are largely unaffordable in developing nations. Furthermore, DAA treatment-induced cure does not prevent re-infection and other potential underlying medical conditions associated with a primary infection, making a prophylactic HCV vaccine an urgent, unmet medical need.

The lead principal investigator on this new NIH award is Thomas Fuerst, PhD, director of IBBR, professor in UMD's Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics,and head of IBBR’s Structure-based Vaccine Design (SBVD) team. The SBVD team, working in conjunction with Steven Foung, MD, professor of Pathology at Stanford University School of Medicine, who also will serve as a principal investigator on this award, will be studying the efficacy of immune responses in animal models of its HCV vaccine candidates to determine which candidates will protect against the majority of HCV genotypes.

IBBR's integrated SBVD team is a multi-disciplinary group located at IBBR, consisting of scientists from both the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP), and the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB). The team includes experts in vaccinology, structural biology, computational modeling, protein engineering, and immunoadjuvant and formulation chemistry necessary to shepherd the HCV vaccine project from preclinical development into an optimally designed lead vaccine candidate for clinical development.

This project was initially seeded with funds from the MPowering the State initiative. “MPower” is a strategic partnership between UMCP and UMB. The initiative is designed to expand research collaborations, promote innovation and impact, and leverage the research strengths across the campuses to develop novel, multidisciplinary solutions to major unmet medical and public health needs.

“We are proud to see results from MPower’s investments in multiple, high-impact projects at IBBR. As the premier translational science institute for the University of Maryland, IBBR’s mission focuses on excellence in science and engineering that provides solutions to global medical and public health needs. Bringing together both UMCP and UMB faculty is the sine qua non of research excellence and its application, and these efforts facilitate commercialization and economic development for the State of Maryland,”said Mary Ann Rankin, PhD, senior vice president and provost at UMCP and co-leader of MPower.

“IBBR’s mission is to to conduct ground-breaking research that provides solutions to major medical problems important to society through interdisciplinary collaboration. The SBVD team is one example of several programs at the Institute engaged in novel vaccine development, next generation protein therapeutics, and macromolecular drug delivery technologies that have done an excellent job in working together across the scientific disciplines and campuses. This is a perfect example of our mission and what we are trying to accomplish at IBBR. We are thankful to the NIH and MPower for their continued support to the Institute and its translational mission,” said Fuerst.

University of Maryland Bioengineers Develop New Technologies to Drive Next-Generation Therapies for Multiple Sclerosis

June 13, 2017

Alyssa Wolice, 301-405-3936


COLLEGE PARK, MD.— Researchers in the University of Maryland (UMD) Fischell Department of Bioengineering (BIOE) Jewell Laboratory are using quantum dots – tiny semiconductor particles commonly used in nanotechnology – to decipher the features needed to design specific and effective therapies for multiple sclerosis (MS) and other autoimmune diseases. 

“Engineering technologies aimed at autoimmune disease could pave the way for new treatment options,” said principal investigator and BIOE assistant professor Christopher Jewell“However, in order to develop next-generation therapies, bioengineers need basic insight into the specific features that are critical to therapy design. Generally, because the human body is so complex, discoveries in medicine have relied on trial-and-error. But, by using rational design approaches – understanding what each piece of a potential therapeutic controls – we have the potential to transform how disease is tackled. Toward this goal, our team used quantum dots to dissect some of the important design features for new nanotherapeutics aimed at MS.” 

In MS, the immune system incorrectly recognizes components of the central nervous system, causing inflammation and destruction of myelin, the fatty substance that surrounds and protects nerve fibers. When this happens, nerve fibers and cells are damaged, leading to loss of motor function and other complications. The National Multiple Sclerosis Society estimates that MS affects more than 2.3 million people worldwide.

“Symptoms can vary greatly from patient to patient, but can produce extreme fatigue, muscle weakness, and spasticity, and significant pain, “said Krystina Hess, BIOE graduate student and lead author of the Advanced Functional Materials paper. “There is currently no cure for MS, and traditional therapies broadly decrease the activity of the immune system at a cost that leaves MS patients vulnerable to infection.” 

One promising strategy to overcome these hurdles is generation of what are known as regulatory T cells (TREGS), the type of white blood cells responsible for turning off immune responses in the body. These cells are capable of restraining the inflammatory response against myelin that occurs in MS, while keeping healthy functions of the immune system intact.

In the human body, the immune system uses antigens – molecules that are present on all cells and vary according to the type of cell – to distinguish self-cells from foreign cells. Because the immune system recognizes specific types of antigens as those displayed by human cells, it can quickly activate an immune response once it detects foreign substance, such as bacteria, toxins, or a virus.

Recent studies focused on specific MS treatments have revealed that the development of inflammation or tolerance against self-molecules is influenced by the concentration and form of antigens reaching the tissues that coordinate immune function – namely, lymph nodes and the spleen. Even more, new studies reveal that changing the way myelin is processed and presented to the immune system can drive tolerance instead of inflammation.

Knowing this, Jewell teamed up with Dr. Igor Medintz and his colleagues at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory to develop a precision system that uses quantum dots to control how many self-antigens are displayed on each dot. One reason Jewell and his team looked to quantum dots is because they are uniform and very small, allowing efficient draining through lymphatic vessels and accumulation in the lymph nodes.

Quantum dots are also fluorescent, which allows real-time tracking in cells and animals. The team hypothesized that, by using quantum dots displaying defined densities of myelin peptides, they could reveal how the number or density of peptides alters the processing and trafficking of the peptide and, in turn, promotes TREGS that control the disease.

“One of our exciting findings is that tolerance and elimination of paralysis in a pre-clinical mouse model was much better when myelin peptides were displayed on many quantum dots at a low density of 25 per dot, instead of fewer quantum dots displaying the same number of peptides but at a high density of 65 per dot,” Jewell said. “Developing specific knowledge or design guidelines such as these might enable more selective – and effective – therapies to treat MS and other diseases.”

Additional authors on the work are Lisa Tostanoski, James Andorko from the Jewell Lab, and Eunkeu Oh, Kimihiro Susumu, and Jeffrey Deschamps of the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.

This research, which was published in Advanced Functional Materials, is funded in part by the Naval Research Laboratory’s Nanoscience Institute, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Defense SMART Graduate Fellowship Program

University of Maryland Joins Grand Coalition to Support Paris Agreement Climate Action

June 11, 2017

Natifia Mullings, 301-405-4076

COLLEGE PARK, Md.-- The University of Maryland has united with over 1,000 leaders from across the country to reaffirm its continued support of climate action by joining the “We Are Still In” coalition. College and university leaders, as well as mayors, governors, businesses, and investors have pledged to forge ahead on climate action to meet the Paris Agreement.

“Sustainability has become a way of life for our campus, as students, faculty and staff commit to the future of our planet,” said University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh. “Faculty and students are at the forefront of climate research. We made a promise and commitment to carbon neutrality. We’re keeping it.”

In December 2015 in Paris, world leaders signed the first global commitment to fight climate change. The landmark agreement succeeded where past attempts failed because it allowed each country to set its own emission reduction targets and adopt its own strategies for reaching them. In addition, nations - inspired by the actions of local and regional governments, along with businesses - began to realize that fighting climate change brings significant economic and public health benefits.

With the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, a broad and sizeable cross section of the U.S. economy will pursue ambitious climate goals, working together to take action and ensure that the U.S. remains a global leader in reducing emissions.

The University of Maryland became a charter signatory of the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment (now called the Carbon Commitment) in 2007 and finished its first Climate Action Plan in 2009 with the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. The university has met its initial goals on the path to carbon neutrality by achieving a 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2015. The next target is a 50 percent reduction by 2020.

HUD Housing Assistance Linked to Improved Health Care Access

June 6, 2017

Kelly Blake, 301-405-9418

COLLEGE PARK, Md. –  A new study examining the impact that access to affordable housing has on health showed that people receiving subsidized housing assistance were more likely to have medical insurance and less likely to have unmet medical need than other low income people who were on a US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) wait list for the housing assistance benefit. Approximately 31 percent of the recipients of housing assistance were uninsured, as compared to about 37 percent of the future recipients.

Led by University of Maryland School of Public Health researcher Dr. Andrew Fenelon, the study analyzed data on adults ages 18-64 from the National Health Interview Survey that were linked to HUD data for the eight years from 2004-2012. The findings are published in Health Affairs, June 2017.health affairs bar chart

“We found that the benefits of giving people subsidized housing go beyond simply having access to affordable housing. Housing is good in and of itself, but even better is that with improved access to housing, you get improvements in access to health care, and ultimately better health outcomes,” said Dr. Fenelon, who is an assistant professor in the UMD SPH Department of Health Services Administration. He conducted the study in collaboration with researchers from HUD, the US Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Center for Health Statistics.

Housing assistance programs funded by HUD provide low-income people with access to safe and affordable housing. People receiving public housing subsidies are often in poor health, with increased need for mental health and chronic disease care. Access to health care has been shown to improve health, and housing instability is correlated with poor access to health care. Still, there are few studies that have explored whether housing assistance programs may lead to improvements in health.

The results of this study are particularly relevant given the Trump administration’s proposed $6 billion cut to the Department of Housing and Urban Development budget for 2018. 

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research organization, estimates that the Trump proposal would result in the elimination of 250,000 rental vouchers. The center also warns that proposals in the budget would “significantly raise assisted tenants’ rents and cut voucher subsidies in various ways.”

Even with current funding levels, qualified individuals may wait many years to receive assistance in the form of housing choice vouchers, which may be used towards any housing arrangement.

“There are many reasons why having access to housing may enable people to obtain health insurance and access needed care,” said Dr. Fenelon. “With the increased stability that comes from having a home and reduced financial burdens, and being introduced into the social service system and the access to other support services it provides, people receiving housing assistance are getting improved access to primary care health services. This is a clear demonstration that housing is one of the so-called ‘social determinants’ of health. The value of this program should be carefully considered in light of the far-reaching benefits it may have beyond its face value.”

Gravitational Waves Detected a Third Time

June 5, 2017

Matthew Wright, 301-405-9267

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – On January 4, 2017, at 11:11:58 CET, scientists from the University of Maryland and other physicists observed gravitational waves—ripples in the fabric of spacetime—for the third time, concluding that the latest observed gravitational waves were produced in the final moments of the merger of two black holes, the same type of event determined to have generated the gravitational waves detected in the first two historic observations. 

Photo of a Gravitational Waves

Gravitational waves carry information about their origins and about the nature of gravity that cannot otherwise be obtained. All three detections of gravitational waves were made by science teams using the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) detectors located in Livingston, Louisiana, and Hanford, Washington.  The LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC) and the Virgo Collaboration observed the third gravitational wave event, named GW170104, on January 4, and published a report describing the discovery and its implications in the journal Physical Review Letters

LIGO’s first detection, on September 14, 2015, resulted from a merger of two black holes about 36 and 29 times the mass of the sun. In contrast, the black holes that created the second event were relative flyweights, tipping the scales at 14 and eight times the mass of the sun. 

The third and most recent detection lies in the middle, resulting from a merger between two black holes, more than 31 and 19 times the mass of the sun, respectively. The merger produced a single, more massive black hole that is slightly less than 49 times the mass of the sun, and transformed the remaining mass into gravitational energy. 

“The observation and interpretation of yet another LIGO signal, GW170104, confirms the success of our theoretical program to model binary black holes,” said Alessandra Buonanno, a UMD College Park Professor of Physics and LSC principal investigator who also has an appointment as Director at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam, Germany. Buonanno has led the effort to develop highly accurate models of gravitational waves that black holes would generate in the final process of orbiting and colliding with each other.

“For the third LIGO signal we could gather some evidence that at least one black hole might be rotating in a direction misaligned with the overall orbital motion—a spin configuration favored by some astrophysical formation scenarios of binary black holes” Buonanno added, noting that her team made substantial improvements to their methodology throughout 2016, in between LIGO’s observing runs.

The newly detected merger occurred approximately 3 billion years ago, making it more than twice as old (and more than twice as distant) as the first two events, which occurred 1.3 and 1.4 billion years ago, respectively. Based on the arrival time of the signals—the Hanford detector measured the waves 3 milliseconds before the Livingston detector—researchers can roughly determine the position of the source in the sky.

The first detection of gravitational waves, announced on February 11, 2016, was a milestone in physics and astronomy. It confirmed a major prediction of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity and marked the beginning of the new field of gravitational wave astronomy. 

“The latest detection adds to the diversity of black hole merger events we’ve been able to observe directly,” said Peter Shawhan, an associate professor of physics at UMD and an LSC principal investigator who serves as Data Analysis Committee Chair for the LSC. “We’re conducting a census of black holes in binary systems in our universe and we expect to discover other types of signals too. Besides just counting them, we can learn from their properties how they were born and how they evolved.”

The researchers also looked for an effect called dispersion, which is known to occur when light waves in a physical medium such as glass travel at different speeds depending on their wavelength. This is how a prism creates a rainbow, for example. Einstein's general theory of relativity forbids dispersion from happening in gravitational waves as they propagate from their source to Earth. LIGO did not find evidence for this effect in GW170104.

"Even for this new event, which is about two times farther away than our first two detections, we could not find any evidence that gravitational waves disperse as they travel in the fabric of space-time," Buonanno said. 

“Einstein still seems to have been right about the true nature of gravity,” Shawhan added.

The new detection occurred during LIGO's second observing run, which began November 30, 2016, and will continue through August 2017. The LIGO-Virgo team is continuing to search the latest LIGO data for signs of space-time ripples from the far reaches of the cosmos. They are also working on substantial technical upgrades for LIGO's third run, scheduled to begin in late 2018, with help from the nearly completed Virgo detector in Italy collecting data simultaneously. 


Image shows a numerical simulation of a binary black hole merger with masses and spins consistent with the third and most recent LIGO observation, named GW170104. The strength of the gravitational wave is indicated by elevation as well as color, with blue indicating weak fields and yellow indicating strong fields. The sizes of the black holes are doubled to improve visibility. Image Credit: Numerical-relativistic Simulation: S. Ossokine, A. Buonanno (Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics) and the Simulating eXtreme Spacetime project Scientific Visualization: T. Dietrich (Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics), R. Haas (NCSA).


Trustees of the University of Maryland College Park Foundation June 2, 2017 Statement

June 2, 2017

We, the Trustees of the University of Maryland College Park Foundation, are UMD alumni, community members and donors.  We serve and support the programs of the University and advance the interests of the members of our campus community – students, faculty, staff and our fellow alumni.

We collectively mourn the loss of Second Lt. Richard Collins III, a student at Bowie State University who had just been commissioned in the U.S. Army and was within days of his graduation. It is a tragedy.

We also recognize that acts on campus have caused division and fear within our community with acts of hatred, bigotry and violence. They have left many wondering where free speech ends and hate speech begins. We denounce all acts that are intended to create emotional or physical harm to any individual or group.

This is a difficult time on many college campuses across the country. We are fearless in our determination to maintain the University of Maryland as an institution of higher education that welcomes, celebrates and respects diversity in all forms. We stand firm in our support of the actions proposed by President Loh in his letters to the community. And we as a Board are committed to creating a more inclusive and safer community for all.

--Signed by the Executive Committee of the University of Maryland College Park Foundation Board of Trustees on behalf of the full Board

Annual Survey Finds Bee Loss Somewhat Reduced at 33 Percent

May 25, 2017

Matthew Wright, 301-405-9267



COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Beekeepers across the United States lost 33 percent of their honey bee colonies during the year spanning April 2016 to April 2017, according to the latest preliminary results of an annual nationwide survey. Rates of both winter loss and summer loss—and consequently, total annual losses—improved compared with recent years.

“While it is encouraging that losses are lower than in the past, I would stop short of calling this ‘good’ news,” said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an assistant professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and project director for the Bee Informed Partnership. “Colony loss of more than 30 percent over the entire year is high. It’s hard to imagine any other agricultural sector being able to stay in business with such consistently high losses.”

The survey, which is conducted each year by the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America, found total annual losses in 2016-17 were the lowest since 2011-12, when the survey recorded less than 29 percent of colonies lost throughout the year. Winter losses last year were the lowest recorded since the survey began in 2006-07. 

According to vanEngelsdorp, the primary reason for the drop in colony loss appears to be that efforts by beekeepers to control varroa mite infestations were more successful during the past year.  Among the many different factors that contribute to colony losses, the lethal varroa mite parasite is considered to be at the top of the list. 

In the fall months of 2016, varroa mite levels across the country were noticeably lower in most beekeeping operations compared with past years. The researchers said this is likely due to increased vigilance on the part of beekeepers, a greater availability of mite control products and environmental conditions that favored the use of timely and effective mite control measures. For example, some mite control products contain essential oils that break down at high temperatures, but many parts of the country experienced relatively mild temperatures in the spring and early summer of 2016.

Beekeepers who responded to the 2015-16 survey lost a total of 33.2 percent of their colonies over the course of the year. This marks a decrease of 7.3 percentage points over the previous study year (2015-16), when loss rates were found to be 40.5 percent. Winter loss rates decreased from 26.9 percent in the previous winter to 21.1 percent this past winter, while summer loss rates decreased from 23.6 percent to 18.1 percent.

The survey asks both commercial and small-scale beekeepers to track the survival rates of their honey bee colonies. Survey results for this year and all previous years are publicly available on the Bee Informed website.

“This is a complex problem,” said Kelly Kulhanek, a graduate student in the UMD Department of Entomology who helped with the survey. “Lower losses are a great start, but it’s important to remember that 33 percent is still much higher than beekeepers deem acceptable. There is still much work to do.”

In addition to the varroa mite, factors contributing to colony losses include other parasites, such as the gut parasite Nosema, and viral and bacterial diseases. Poor nutrition (due in part to loss of natural foraging habitat) and pesticide exposure also take a toll, especially among commercial beekeepers. These and other stressors are likely to synergize with each other to compound the problem, the researchers said.

This is the 11th year of the winter loss survey, and the seventh year to include summer and annual losses. More than 4,900 beekeepers from all 50 states and the District of Columbia responded to this year’s survey. All told, these beekeepers manage about 13 percent of the nation’s estimated 2.78 million honey bee colonies.

The survey is part of a larger research effort to understand why honey bee colonies are in such poor health, and what can be done to manage the situation. Some crops, such as almonds, depend entirely on honey bees for pollination. Honey bees pollinate an estimated $15 billion worth of crops in the U.S. annually.

“Bees are good indicators of the health of the landscape as a whole,” said Nathalie Steinhauer, a graduate student in the UMD Department of Entomology who leads the data collection efforts for the annual survey. “Honey bees are strongly affected by the quality of their environment, including flower diversity, contaminants and pests. To keep healthy bees, you need a good environment and you need your neighbors to keep healthy bees. Honey bee health is a community matter.”

2016-2017 survey results as well as previous years’ results are publicly available on the Bee Informed Partnership’s website.



October 11
Interactions between Japanese and Americans in war-torn Tokyo provide the compelling focus of an exhibit opening... Read
October 5
UMD-led research team observes frog populations persisting in Panamanian forest, a decade after decimation by chytrid... Read