DISCOVERIES: A brief look at important research at...

DISCOVERIES: A brief look at important research at MTSU

Growth Experience
An endangered local ecosystem stands to benefit from the return of two problem-solving plant ecologists

Drs. Jeffrey Walck and Siti Hidayati

Outside garden clubs and co-ops, seeds probably don’t figure in the daily discussion of the average person. Yet, after water and oxygen, seeds are about as crucial to human life as it gets. One need look no further than the so-called “Doomsday” seed vault located in the Norwegian tundra—a repository for the world’s food sources should man, or outside forces, one day need to resow the planet—to see how serious a matter seed preservation can be.

Still, storing a seed does little good if one does not know how to make it germinate. That’s where MTSU’s own seed experts—Drs. Jeffrey Walck and Siti Hidayati—come in. The husband-wife duo of plant ecologists study seed germination and have cracked the mysteries of hard-to-germinate species around the world.

The pair recently returned to MTSU after a two-year sabbatical working in Australia as part of a collaborative partnership among Kings Park and Botanic Garden in Perth, the University of Western Australia’s School of Plant Biology, and the Millennium Seed Bank Project at the Royal Botanic Gardens. (Dramatically named Norwegian seed vaults notwithstanding, this latter project is the world’s largest seed conservation initiative for safeguarding plants against extinction.) While in the Land of Oz, the couple cracked the mystery of germination in Guinea flowers—dominant shrubs in temperate Australia—and also worked on several plants important for mining restoration.

“[Australians] have large mining operations, so they have to reclaim the land but couldn’t get the seeds of the native species to germinate,” Walck explains. “That was very big for them from both an academic and industrial standpoint.”

Success unlocking Australia’s seed mysteries garnered attention elsewhere around the globe. Taiwan and South Korea each have the couple working to unlock their own seed germination mysteries. It’s also led to greater notice in the global science community. Based on additional efforts in Australia reviewing the effects of global climate change on plant regeneration from seeds, Walck recently coauthored and published an opinion article in Nature, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, titled “Time to Future-proof Plants in Storage.”

While the couple’s global seed germination studies continue to percolate in incubators lining the halls of the Davis Science Building on MTSU’s campus, the pair is turning their attention to a problem closer to home—the preservation and restoration of middle Tennessee’s signature cedar glades.

Cedar glades, where limestone bedrock occurs near or at the surface and make it impossible for trees to grow, are an endangered ecosystem. Globally unique, they are found primarily in middle Tennessee. But because of the rapid growth of Metro Nashville and nearby Murfreesboro and Lebanon, many of the cedar glades (an estimated 50%) have been destroyed by development. Plant communities of highly specialized species, many of which are found nowhere else in the world, have been destroyed along the way.

Walck has focused on restoration ecology—or what to do to “fix” a glade that’s been disturbed or destroyed. “Nothing has ever been done on that question,” Walck says. “We have some glades that have been heavily impacted and could probably be restored, but we lack the basic ecological data needed to do it.”

Though the rest of the world may miss them, Walck and Hidayati’s return to middle Tennessee comes just in time for the cedar glades.

To learn more about MTSU’s educational efforts to preserve cedar glades, visit

— Drew Ruble, Drew.Ruble@


A Fine Grasp

Daniel Erenso tackles sickle cell diseases one cell at a time

Dr. Daniel Erenso, associate professor of physics and astronomy, must have been hard to beat when playing the game Operation as a kid. (Remember the game where players use tweezers to extract parts from small slits in a cartoon body without touching the edges of the cavity for fear of being electronically “buzzed” out of the game?)


Dr. Daniel Erenso

That’s because Erenso uses an experimental technique that enables him to “grasp” individual cells with a laser beam to study the morphology and elasticity of red blood cells (RBCs) by measuring their responses to linear and rotational deformations.

What’s the upside? Abnormalities in RBC shape or flexibility, which are caused by genetic mutation, can result in sickle cell (SC) diseases. The prevalence of these diseases in the United States is approximately one in 5,000. Worldwide, an estimated 300,000 affected individuals are born each year. SC affects mostly people (or their descendants) from parts of tropical and subtropical regions since the gene mutation is caused by frequent exposure to malaria, which is common there.

Though several treatments have been developed to treat these diseases, the most promising technique is stem cell–targeted gene therapy. Recently, a clinical trial conducted in mouse models by a group led by Dr. Derek Persons at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis corrected two common types of sickle cell diseases: sickle cell anemia and beta-thalassemia.

Future human clinical trials of such stem cell–targeted gene therapy will require a different approach to measure the efficacy of the treatment in mice. One method is to conduct a comparative study on the elasto-mechanical properties of the normal, the sickle, and the genetically corrected RBCs of the mouse model using laser tweezers.

Last summer, Erenso teamed up with St. Jude’s Persons to conduct this study. Erenso and coworkers found that the new blood cells generated through the gene therapy technique have properties resembling those of healthy cells, a breakthrough for the scientists and good news for those with sickle cell diseases.

— Drew Ruble, Drew.Ruble@


A RetroFit Future
Dr. Charles Perry invents a way to make every car a hybrid

Prolific patent recipient Dr. Charles Perry’s latest invention, the Plug-In Hybrid RetroFit Kit, could save America 120 million gallons of fuel daily.

Dr. Charles Perry

Perry (B.S. ’66 and M.S. ’69) is the holder of the Robert E. and Georgianna West Russell Chair of Manufacturing Excellence in the Department of Engineering Technology. He is spearheading an eight-member team collaborating on this patent-pending, wheel-hub motor project.

Perry says that 80% of U.S. drivers make daily trips of 30 miles or less driving 40 mph or less. Those trips can be made with his 10- to 15-horsepower electric motors that would be powered by extra batteries installed in the car’s trunk. (The hybrid retrofit kit is installed in the space between the brake mechanism and the hub.)

Perry, a former IBM electrical engineer who was awarded 40 patents during his career there, says he believes the kits could be developed into a product selling for between $3,000 and $5,000.

— Randy Weiler, jweiler@


Unto Others
Colby Jubenville does his part to make the Golden Rule an MVP on the courts and playing fields of the Sun Belt Conference

In an age where athletics is often marred by acts of poor sportsmanship, Dr. Colby Jubenville has the remedy.

Dr. Colby Jubenville

Jubenville, professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance and director of the Center for Sport Policy and Research at MTSU, created Real Sportsmanship, an online program platform focusing on the coach-athlete relationship especially for the collegiate level.

Real Sportsmanship asked questions and administered a pretest, then followed up with more questions and a post-test. The issues discussed include the realities that both student-athletes and coaches face, which include drinking, partying, sexual activity, cheating, and gambling. Participants are asked to reflect on their experiences and decisions as they relate to those issues. Jubenville, himself a former college athlete, says participants should better understand how to handle new situations and assume leadership roles on their teams and in life.

The Sun Belt Conference began implementation of the platform for a five-year period, starting in 2010. Findings released from the Center for Sport Policy and Research at MTSU are based on data collected from 478 SBC coaches and 3,476 SBC athletes. The results indicate that the platform “significantly impacted several perceptional and behavioral aspects of coaches and student-athletes regarding sportsmanship.”

Jubenville notes that his research uncovered an important sportsmanship paradox—as the skill level increases, the ability to understand and implement sportsmanship decreases. Fortunately, the Real Sportsmanship program provides a means by which coaches and athletes can bridge this divide between skill and behavior before it grows too wide.

— Tom Tozer, ttozer@


Drive to Succeed

Professor Cliff Ricketts’s lifetime of alternative fuel research remains on course as he plans a 2,800-mile cross-country drive this fall using only 10 gallons of gas or less.

In October, if all goes as planned, the longtime MTSU School of Agribusiness and Agriscience faculty member will drive a 2008 Toyota Prius from Wilmington, N.C., to a Pacific Ocean beach near Los Angeles. Besides a few drops of gas, his fuel will consist of sunlight and hydrogen from water.

Dr. Cliff Ricketts

Dr. Cliff Ricketts calculates that the journey, which will take five days to complete, will require 3.73 tanks to achieve 750 miles per fill-up (100 miles with solar electric, 200 miles with hydrogen, 350 miles with 95% ethanol and 5% gas, and 100 miles with on-board regeneration).

His perfect-world formula: Make the drive using only 1.87 gallons of gas. But he will take 10 gallons just in case his calculations are off.

“My whole passion is sun and water,” says Ricketts, who considers himself a modern-day Davy Crockett:“a frontiersman with energy” who has “blazed a trail with ethanol, blazed a trail with hydrogen, and blazed a trail with sun and water.”

— Randy Weiler, jweiler@