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Algae, Probiotics, Water, Insects

Posted by | November 30, 2012

WSU Professor Receives Gates Foundation Grand Challenges Explorations Grant

Microalgae could be a low-cost source of both nutrients and biofuel. Photo: Vermal Erwan/Creative Commons.
Microalgae could be a low-cost source of both nutrients and biofuel. Photo: Vermal Erwan/Creative Commons.

WSU professor of biological systems engineering Shulin Chen is a Grand Challenges Explorations (GCE) winner. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Chen will pursue a progressive global health research project titled “Micronutrient fortification to improve infants’ development with a low-cost technology.”

“This is an exciting opportunity to engineer an innovative way of using algae as a natural source of important nutrients, particularly for young children,” said Chen. “And because people need only small amounts of these nutrients, it should be possible to benefit a large number of people in a cost-effective way.”

GCE is targeted at individuals worldwide who demonstrate groundbreaking thinking to deal with some of the world’s most persistent global health challenges. The program invests in the early stages of bold ideas that have real potential to solve problems people in the developing world face every day.

Chen plans to develop technologies to improve infant health in developing countries by using local, naturally occurring microalgae to inexpensively produce critical nutrients. This solution not only enhances early child development but also contributes to disease prevention.

In the last decade, microalgae have gained increasing attention for their potential to produce essential nutrients like omega-3 lipids and carotenoids, as well as biofuel. As the leading microalgae research team in the Pacific Northwest, Chen’s research group is focused on ways to achieve a sustainable food and bio-energy production system with advanced biotechnology. They believe that microalgae can help meet immediate global nutrition needs and provide a source of renewable energy in the near future.

Learn more about the reserch being conducted in WSU’s Department of Biosystems Engineering at

–Kathy Barnard

WSU, UI Faculty Address Probiotics, Prebiotics

The role of probiotics and prebiotics in promoting better health was the focus of a recent WSU/UI School of Food Science symposium.

Probiotics, or “good” bacteria, can contribute to intestinal health and protect the body from harmful bacteria. These beneficial microorganisms are complemented by prebiotics, nondigestible food components that feed probiotics. Together the two can promote better digestion, strengthen the immune system, and limit the production of carcinogens, among other critical medical impacts.

WSU assistant professor Meijun Zhu explored the relationship between probiotics and obesity in her presentation, explaining that gut microbiota have been shown to regulate body weight.

WSU assistant professor Giuliana Noratto discussed the roles of plant-derived probiotics and prebiotics in protecting the colon against inflammation, which has implications for preventing related types of cancer.

UI professor Kerry Huber described how resistant starch, such as beans, barley, and brown rice that are relatively slow to digest, functions as a prebiotic, while UI associate professor Gulhan Unlu closed the symposium with her presentation on the fermented milk drink kefir as a complex probiotic.

Read Nella Letizia’s complete article on the symposium on the School of Food Science website.

WSU Receives Grant for Collaborative Water Modeling in the Columbia Basin

Scientists from WSU’s School of the Environment and Center for Environmental Research, Education, and Outreach have received a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant to collaboratively build a comprehensive water use model for the Columbia River Basin. Assistant Professor Cailin Huyck Orr, an expert in inland waters, will lead an interdisciplinary, multi-campus team of social, earth, and agricultural scientists; civil and environmental engineers; economists; and policy experts in the Watershed Integrated Systems Dynamics Modeling (WISDM) project.

Stephen Bollens, director of the WSU School of the Environment, said, “This is a great example of a pressing, real-world challenge–-securing a sustainable water supply-–that is simply too large and too complex to be solved by any one investigator, campus, or discipline. But as a coordinated, interdisciplinary team, we can make real and meaningful progress.”

Orr said the timing of the project aligns with what is happening with the regional climate. “The intent of this program is to learn how water systems and associated stakeholders will adapt to changes in climate and water availability,” he explained. Precipitation is already falling more in the form of rain and less in the form of snow than in previous years, releasing water more quickly into the watershed and reducing the more steady availability that snow provides as it gradually melts throughout the spring and summer.

The WISDM project will involve creating simulations informed by people who live and work in the region to demonstrate how the needs and perspectives of both agricultural and urban users can promote or detract from established and sometimes conflicting goals for water management. Hydrological components will take crop systems into account so producers can see how switching from one crop to another affects water availability and quality, and then plan for future water use under different scenarios. Additionally, the system will calculate how regional economic changes influence the decision-making of individuals and related forecast of combined effects on water use.

Watch a short video about this project at

–Kathy Barnard

WSU Insect Lunch a Hopping Success

Tomas Benavides arguably paid the greatest compliment to entomology professor Richard Zack’s culinary skills after sampling a mealworm taco at Zack’s annual insect lunch. “Tastes like Taco Bell,” said Benavides, a junior majoring in human development. For students frequently limited to a fast-food budget, that’s saying something.

Roughly 250 WSU students and others came to Ensminger Pavilion to sample the tacos, cricket chili, and desserts sweetened with honey during the annual Dad’s Weekend event that is part of Zack’s Insects and People course. The insect lunch is a teaching tool that helps his students understand how people in other parts of the world see insects differently, he said.

Watch a short video about the Insect Lunch, and read the rest of this article by Nella Letizia, at