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2016 Minnesota Futures Awards Explore Health and the Environment

mushrooms on a log

The University of Minnesota continues to research innovative solutions in major areas of study and impact. This year, The Office of the Vice President for Research awarded a total of $491,990 to two projects for the Minnesota Futures grant program, an internal funding opportunity that promotes novel research to advance new ideas that cross disciplinary boundaries. The two winning projects, selected out of 55 proposals submitted, address significant challenges in health and the environment while encouraging collaboration on emerging research opportunities.

Discovery of New Antifungal Therapeutics Using Chemical Genomics Guided Bioprospecting – Awarded $242,048

Principal Investigator: Claudia Schmidt-Dannert, biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics

Co-Investigators: Christine Salomon, Center for Drug Design; Chad Myers, computer science and engineering; Peter Kennedy, plant biology

Life-threatening fungal infections have increased in recent years, but only three types of antifungal drugs are available and developing new antifungal drugs is challenging. Unlike antibacterial drugs, antifungal drugs must target fungal cells, which are not so different from human cells, making it more difficult to identify distinct mechanisms to target for treatment.

This Minnesota Futures project will focus on a previously unexplored yet abundant resource, Basidiomycota fungi, commonly known as mushrooms, to find new antifungal properties and increase the number of treatment options.

By “bioprospecting” mushrooms—searching for microorganisms within them—researchers can identify the genetic properties of antifungals that have new, unique structures and behavior, and apply that knowledge to producing antifungal drugs.

This project, which will make use of the U’s extensive, in-house mushroom collection, combines strengths in computational biology, chemical genomics, drug discovery, biochemistry, synthetic biology, genomics and fungal biology, and provides groundwork for other drug discovery efforts.

Genetic Control of Invasive Fish Species – Awarded $249,942

Principal Investigator: Michael Smanski, biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics

Co-Investigators: Perry Hackett, genetics, cell biology and development; Przemyslaw Bajer, fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology; Karl Clark, Mayo Clinic

Minnesota is no stranger to invasive species. The effects of zebra mussels, Asian carp and other harmful non-natives have the potential to damage our ecosystems beyond repair. On a national scale, the impact of invasive species carries an economic burden of over $100 billion. Current management strategies have fallen short and often end up harming other, benign organisms.

This research project focuses on biocontrol methods that complement existing strategies but go a step beyond to fill the need for solutions that are species-specific, broadly applicable, cost-effective and can be magnified to a larger scale—regional or national—in the future. The method involves altering the genetics of males in the invasive species before releasing them among the population, leading to sterile offspring and the eventual control of the species overall. In order to make this method usable, this study aims to develop this technology further in zebrafish, from which the system can be applied to other invasive fish species and eventually other vertebrate pests.

The research combines areas of study in biochemistry, genetics, conservation and ecology to harness the resources of all these departments and conduct this novel work.

About the Minnesota Futures program

Modeled after the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative, the Minnesota Futures program supports extraordinary research by nurturing interdisciplinary ideas. The program, which helps develop projects to a point where they become competitive for external funding, covers expenses of up to $250,000 over two years and is supported by technology commercialization revenue. Since 2008, the Minnesota Futures grant has supported research by faculty who go on to win substantial grants and whose innovations reach the market to potentially improve the lives of millions.

For more information on current and past awards, see the Minnesota Futures Grant Program page.

Meher Khan

Meher Khan

Meher previously served as communications associate for the Office of the Vice President for Research. She now works in the U of M's Clinical and Translational Science Institute as a communications specialist.

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