Researchers included in Discover magazine's top 100 science stories

Released on 12/13/2006, at 2:00 AM
Office of University Communications
University of Nebraska–Lincoln
Lincoln, Neb., December 13th, 2006 —

For the second time in three years, University of Nebraska-Lincoln faculty members figure in two of Discover magazine's top 100 science stories of the year.

The magazine ranked ecological research that involved biologist Johannes "John" Knops as the No. 62 science story in 2006, and a touch sensor developed by chemical engineer Ravi Saraf, and his doctoral student, Vivek Maheshwari, as the No. 95 story. The list is published in Discover's January issue. UNL scientists were also involved in two of the top 100 stories in 2004.

"This is great," said Prem Paul, UNL vice chancellor for research. "Our faculty are doing terrific work in many areas. Having some of that work recognized in a major science magazine reflects the high quality of our research."

Knops' research was part of a long-term ecological study at the University of Minnesota's Cedar Creek Natural History Area and demonstrated the importance of biodiversity in ecosystems. The scientists seeded large plots with one or a group of two, four, eight or 16 plants chosen from perennial grassland species. Over a 10-year period, they measured the amount of new growth generated by all species in each plot from year to year and found that the more diverse plots were not only more productive, but more stable. They were much less prone to large drops in productivity from year to year than less-diverse plots.

"Traditionally in ecology and environmental research, people haven't done big, big experiments because they cost lots of money and it's difficult to come up with long-term funding," said Knops, an associate professor of biological sciences. "This was one of the few really big experiments and it had a big impact. It changed the study of ecology. There was a focus that every single species is unique. This research asked if the number of species matters, and it's been followed up by a number of experiments in Europe and elsewhere."

Knops and his colleagues announced their findings in the Oct. 26 issue of Nature. David Wedin, associate professor of plant and ecosystem ecology at UNL, was also involved in the Cedar Creek experiment during most of its run.

While most of the stories in Discover's top 100 resulted from work by large, often international teams, Saraf and Maheshwari's touch sensor was one of a handful produced by a small group working at one institution. The sensor could give surgeons the ability to detect cancer at the single-cell level, and provide artificial skin to give robots a sense of touch. It is a self-assembling nanoparticle device that has touch sensitivity comparable to that of the human finger, a capability far beyond any mechanical devices now available. The sensor consists of alternating monolayers of gold and cadmium sulfide nanoparticles separated from each other by a thin polymer film. Saraf and Maheshwari announced their discovery in the June 9 issue of Science.

"I'm very happy that a simple laboratory experiment could lead to such a promising discovery, and be considered one of the top science stories of the year," said Saraf, the Lowell E. and Betty Anderson professor of chemical engineering. "There is a lot of work to be done, though, before this sensor can be used as a biomedical device. That's our goal, but there is much work still to be done."

In addition, UNL alumnus Jay Keasling of the University of California, Berkeley, had Discover's No. 6 story. Keasling, who was named Discover's scientist of the year in the magazine's December issue, led a team that combined the genes of three different microbes to develop a potentially lifesaving organism. The microbe produces a precursor to artemisinin, a compound used to treat malaria.

Finally, UNL scientists and engineers are heavily involved Discover's No. 1 story, though it's one too widespread for any single institution to claim ownership -- the development of alternative energy sources. In March, UNL and the Nebraska Public Power District announced a partnership to form the Nebraska Center for Energy Sciences Research, which funds research projects aimed at developing domestic energy resources and improving energy efficiency. The center's director is Ken Cassman, a professor of agronomy whose work on the effects of global warming on rice production was part of Discover's No. 68 story in 2004. Also in 2004, UNL physicists Dan Claes and Greg Snow were part of an international team that established the mass of the top quark, Discover's No. 57 story.

CONTACT: Tom Simons, University Communications, (402) 472-8514