In a busy and productive year 2021 for UW-Madison research, these stories stood out


The year 2021 has started with hope, as we have seen millions of vaccines make their way across the country and into greedy arms. While we’re still not where we’d like to be – vaccination has stalled across the country and new variations have changed the rules – we’re also nowhere near where we were in 2020, especially at UW-Madison , which claims a vaccination rate of over 95 percent. And among those who are vaccinated, COVID-19 has been largely reduced to a nuisance.

Students are back on campus, the labs are back to work on projects essential to advancing our understanding of the world (and beyond!), Discussions and in-person events have resumed, and we are starting to resume. where we left off – although a lot has changed. This year, we’ve covered a range of insightful, fun, and important stories, and kept an eye out for the things that matter most, like saving lives, tackling racial disparities, and probing the universe for answers to the questions. fundamental questions.

Here is our list of the stories that stand out the most.

—Chris Barncard, Eric Hamilton and Kelly April Tyrrell, UW-Madison Research Communications

Chris Barncard, science writer

Eric's portrait

Eric Hamilton, science writer

Kelly portrait

Kelly April Tyrrell, Director of Research Communications

Daddy’s Long Legs Got Their Long Legs Reusing Old Scalable Tools

Daddy’s long legs might be common on walls and sidewalks, but there is nothing in common with these legs. From specimens collected outside Birge Hall, researchers at UW-Madison became the first to assemble the papa longlegs genome. By manipulating papa longlegs eggs, scientists have identified the genes that give rise to both the long appendages and the many curved sections that make them especially perfect for exploring, grabbing, and climbing.

Tom Brock, who laid the groundwork for PCR, dies

The university – and the world – has lost a giant this year with the passing of Tom Brock. As a young teacher, Brock discovered the microbial life that grew in the boiling pools of Yellowstone National Park. Years later, these heat-loving microbes formed the basis of the polymerase chain reaction, which amplifies DNA so that it can be studied. PCR has become the foundation of all modern biology, resulting in the sequencing of the human genome and countless new therapies. During the pandemic, PCR became part of our daily lexicon as it underpins our best COVID-19 tests. As if that weren’t enough, Brock and his wife Kathie also founded their own publishing house and spent decades restoring land in the drift-free region of Wisconsin. Watch the video.

Tiny carbon ribbons to transform telecommunications

Researchers at UW-Madison are working on improving the performance of our communication technologies. This year, they took a major step forward by producing the smallest graphene ribbons ever produced. A so-called “miracle material”, graphene is an ultra-thin single layer of carbon that is inexpensive, easy to process, and offers a range of properties useful for everything from telecommunications to solar cells. To maximize its performance, researchers have to make it incredibly small – we’re talking nanometers, about 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair – and that’s what they did. The physics and engineering teams have come a few nanometers closer to their goal and continue to work on even smaller structures. Additionally, an image of these ribbons won an award in the 2021 Cool Science Image competition.

Taming the turnips

Thousands of years ago, as humans developed agriculture around the world, a group of farmers from the Hindu Kush mountains offered the world a whole new vegetable – turnips. This is the discovery of a new analysis of the confused genomes of turnips and their closest relatives by botanists Eve Emshwiller and Alex McAlvay. Until now, the family history of these humble pillars was impossible to disentangle. As the original turnip spread east to East Asia and west to Europe, other farmers selected the larger leaves of bok choy or broccoli rabe, developing ultimately many different vegetables from a single species. The information could help protect these crops from pests. Plus, as McAlvay says, “it’s fun to know where your crops are coming from”.

We can now see in the corners in real time

As from the pages of science fiction and children’s imaginations, researchers at UW-Madison are developing technology that allows us to see around corners. Andreas Velten and his lab have been working to make this technique a reality for a decade. In fact, this is not the first time that this work has made our roundup. But, this year, they’ve reported a big leap: real-time video of hidden scenes, rather than static footage. While the lab used custom gear to accomplish this feat, the core components are ubiquitous and affordable, and even find their way into the latest iPhones. With a little more refinement, the technology could be widely deployed to aid in search and rescue, medical imaging and other applications. Watch the video.

Take care of the workers Take care of us

In March 2020, as the campus closed and emptied, many employees remained on site to ensure buildings were maintained, students were supported, and critical research was conducted. When University Health Services received their first batch of vaccines in January 2021, healthcare workers and others on the front lines became the first to be bitten. As more and more people met federal and state eligibility criteria, UHS organized special clinic hours to help vaccinate workers on the second and third shifts, assisted by dedicated staff from cultural language services. The clinics aimed to reduce barriers to vaccination, address racial and ethnic disparities in the impacts of COVID-19, and increase vaccination rates on campus. By December 2021, nearly 96% of staff at UW-Madison would be vaccinated.

Why do we call it collective immunity?

Would you believe it was a herd of mice? One of the biggest buzzwords of the pandemic – describing when immunity to a circulating pathogen for some begins to protect even those who are not immune – dates back almost a century to a study of bacteria and rodents.

Individualized brain cell transplants reverse Parkinson’s symptoms in monkeys

Parkinson’s disease medications work well for many patients, but their effectiveness wanes as the disease progresses, damaging brain cells and making symptoms that are truly debilitating worse. Scientists tried to implant new brain cells, but struggled to make enough cells and prevent the body from rejecting them. This year, researchers at UW-Madison revealed that they had transplanted neurons from monkeys’ own cells into the brains of animals. The cells successfully integrated into surrounding brain tissue and relieved the tremors and depression associated with Parkinson’s disease. The next step could be human clinical trials.

Emerging viruses

The first reports of a cluster of pneumonia-like cases in Wuhan, China reached infectious disease specialists around the world on December 30, 2019, via ProMED, established in 1994 as the first outbreak information service. . Stephen Morse, former UW-Madison virologist and epidemiologist, envisioned it as a global network of early warning systems for new communicable diseases. Morse hosted a major scientific conference in 1989 that gave a boost to pandemic planning and named the sparks that start pandemics: emerging viruses. Morse’s profile from On Wisconsin magazine is full of fascinating surprises, like where the word “flu” came from, which city in Wisconsin has its own viral namesake, and what it’s like to grab a library book and go. see that the last person to verify it won a Nobel Prize.

Understanding some of Earth’s most destructive storms

Have you ever noticed that when you turn on your faucet and let the water reach the basin, it forms a ring shape where the water seems to rise and churn? It’s a phenomenon called hydraulic flow, and researchers using high-resolution supercomputer simulations developed at UW-Madison found that it contributed to the formation of cirrus plumes above the anvil, another a natural phenomenon that causes some of the most destructive tornadoes on Earth. Work on the drivers of these plumes could help forecasters better understand when a thunderstorm could become particularly dangerous and, according to Leigh Orf, co-author of the study, it could help researchers better understand the implications of a change. climate.


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