Aurelie Rakotondrafara speaks about her research on genetic sequencing after being awarded the WARF Innovation Award. Image credit: Kaylie DuffyThe Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) revealed two research prize winners on Oct. 21.

The first prize, the WARF Innovation Award, was presented to two teams of scientific innovators at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Over 400 invention disclosures were submitted to WARF over the past year, and a panel of independent judges chose the two winning teams from a group of six finalists.

“We’re looking for innovations that represent foundational technologies that can potentially have long-term trajectories in terms of benefits over time,” explains Leigh Cagan, WARF’s chief technology commercialization officer. “The intent of this [award] is to provide some tangible, early recognition for extraordinary innovations.”

The winners included a unique genetic sequence that could allow researchers to produce multiple proteins from a lone strand of mRNA. The sequence, a form of internal ribosome entry site (IRES), was found in the wheat virus Triticum moscaic by plant pathologist Aurelie Rakotondrafara and her colleague Jincan Zhang.

“This technology comes at a timely manner where there is an increased use of plants for molecular farming,” says Rakotondrafara. The innovation could alter how biopharmaceuticals are created, such as the tobacco plant antibody that is currently treating patients with the Ebola virus.

The other prize went to genetics professor Richard Vierstra and his team who developed a genetic modification that could potentially improve protein production in crops.

Vierstra’s team, comprised of Ernest Burgie, Adam Bussell, and Joseph Walker, spent the last year studying the 3D structure of the light-sensing photoreceptor, phytochrome. These photoreceptors tell plants when to turn green.

“Through a lot of structural characterizations of immunogenesis, we found the key amino acids that control photochemical and thermodynamic properties of this photoreceptor,” explains Vierstra. “By doing so, we’re now able to engineer plants that see light in different ways.”

The phytochrome mutations created by Vierstra and his team could mean altering major plant characterizations, such as shade intolerance. This could allow farmers to produce crops that are capable of surviving in low-light conditions. “We’re hoping this will have wide ramifications for all of plant biology and agriculture,” adds Vierstra.

The two winning teams each received a $5,000 award. Other finalists included:

  • Nader Behdad, Susan Hagness, and Hung Luyen for minimally invasive antennas to treat tumors;
  • Nam Sung Kim and Hao Wang for a hybrid memory system that increases bandwidth;
  • Kyoung-Shin Choi and Tae Woo Kim for novel water-splitting cells to create hydrogen; and
  • Ronald Raines and Ismet Tanrikulu for collagen mimics that could aid healing wounds.

Niyanta Kumar thanks WARF after being one of two collaborative research projects to be awarded a WARF Discovery Challenge prize. Image credit: Kaylie DuffyIn addition to the WARF Innovation Awards, work by graduate students and postdoctoral researchers was honored through the third annual WARF Discovery Challenge. The purpose of this challenge was to promote collaborative research across various fields of study at UW-Madison. The winning proposals weren’t disclosed at the award ceremony due to privacy concerns; however, each group of winners was recognized for their ideas and provided a $7,500 prize to advance their research.

This year’s winners included:

  • Bingming Chen (pharmacy), Ross W. Cheloha (chemistry), and Niyanta Kumar (pharmacy); and
  • Ashok Sundramoorthy (biological systems engineering) and Gerald Brady (materials science engineering).

The winners were chosen from more than two dozen graduate and postdoctoral students who took part in a research symposium and award competition to create collaborative, pioneering ideas.

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