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USDA scientists seek commercial uses for inventions

At research labs in Beltsville, scientists are studying ways to cure dairy cows of antibiotic-resistant illnesses, screen food ingredients for contaminants and warn farmers early on about severe droughts.

Such projects, underway at U.S. Department of Agriculture facilities in Maryland and elsewhere, are part of a push by the agency to find commercial uses for its inventions, often with the help of public and private partnerships.

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At the Beltsville Hydrology and Remote Sensing Laboratory, scientists have been developing a crop condition indicator that can warn of severe drought earlier than existing systems. It's an effort to give farmers more time to adjust planting and marketing in the midst of a growing season.

"There's a lot of different ways to look at drought," said Martha Anderson, a research physical scientist on the project. "You can look at anomalies in rainfall, if it's higher or lower than normal, stream flow, soil moisture, but a lot of these things are not directly related to how the crops are responding to the drought."

Anderson, whose lab is located at the Agricultural Research Service in Beltsville, has studied the amount of water being transpired by plants, working in collaboration with researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and using satellites to map out water use by vegetation and crops.

Later this summer, she will see much of her labor — years of research, testing and work with enormous sets of satellite data — pay off when NOAA starts using the new Evaporative Stress Index, which shows areas where water use and availability is anomalously low.

The project is just one of dozens with the potential to have widespread impact, according to the department's most recent Annual Report on Technology Transfer, released last month.

Other research includes a procedure to remove up to 98 percent of allergens from peanuts without affecting flavor, the use of radio frequency energy to pasteurize shelled eggs quickly, and a portable device that identifies harmful bacteria in food and could speed the response to foodborne illness outbreaks.

Along with their research, scientists are now asked to report the numbers of patents, patent applications, new inventions and new businesses started as a result of the work. In the last fiscal year, the agency received 83 patents — up from 51 in fiscal 2013 — filed 119 patent applications and unveiled another 117 new inventions, according to the report.

"There's a substantial benefit to society from this research," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Baltimore Sun. "A lot of attention is paid to national human research, but we want to make sure people don't forget the important role that agricultural research plays."

Every dollar invested in USDA research returns $20 to the economy, he said, and "nothing beats a new business or new job linked to the research."

At the agency's Animal Bioscience and Biotechnology Department, also in Beltsville, researchers have been working on ways to cure dairy cows of mastitis, infections of the mammary gland caused by the bacterial pathogen Staphylococcus.

The disease, responsible for $2 billion in losses for the dairy industry each year, is typically treated with antibiotics, but animals and humans alike are becoming more resistant to the drugs.

"We were looking at novel ways to cure multiple pathogens simultaneously," said Dave Donovan, a research molecular biologist at the Agricultural Research Service campus. "There's a huge push to remove antibiotics from everything."

The research involved fusing proteins, which are known to have resistant enzymes and for killing a variety of pathogens, to create "antimicrobial proteins" to inhibit growth of microorganisms and act as an alternative to antibiotics.

"We're running out of antibiotics to take care of multiple-drug-resistant pathogens … and the greatest concern is human health," Donovan said. "It's really bad if [bacteria in] animals start to develop resistance — that means it won't be that long for [bacteria in] humans to develop the same resistance."

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The USDA hopes the technology will become an alternative treatment for mastitis in cows and reduce the need for conventional antibiotics on dairy farms. Products that Donovan has created, some with collaborators globally at universities or in private industries, are still in the development pipeline. None have been commercialized, but Donovan said he has seen industry interest.

Though "we are nowhere near eradication [of the disease], these antimicrobials are very very important," said Donovan. He is working on feed-based treatment for diseases affecting the poultry industry.

Anderson, the scientist studying drought conditions, said the Evaporative Stress Index, was put to the test in 2012 in Iowa and Minnesota during a "flash" drought, a type that crept up on the area faster than usual because lower-than-normal rainfall combined with extended heat and high winds.

"Suddenly the crop conditions started to deteriorate quite rapidly," Anderson said. "It's the reason why the precipitation rates don't give the whole story. …That was a problem because nobody has time to respond to this.

"So one of the ideas is we want to provide information as quickly and timely as possible about rapidly evolving crop health conditions."

In 2012, the index, still in an experimental mode, began warning of deteriorating crop and moisture conditions in May, several weeks before warnings from standard indicators such as the U.S. Drought Monitor, the USDA said. Warnings came before the plants started to visibly deteriorate, said Anderson, who is hoping the system can be incorporated into the Drought Monitor.

With collaborators in places such as Brazil and the Middle East, Anderson is working on a prototype that would adopt the index for global use and act as an early warning of famine.

"We're now in the stages of trying to work with end users and trying to understand how the tools we've built address needs," Anderson said.

USDA research stretches back decades, and has led to consumer product innovations such as permanent press cotton clothing, frozen orange juice concentrate and the mass production of penicillin during World War II.

Over the past five years, the USDA has unveiled 775 new inventions, filed 365 patent applications and received 311 patents. The department has more than 400 income-producing licenses with companies using its technology.

Researchers have helped develop a new kind of flour made from chardonnay grape seeds that can prevent increases in cholesterol and weight gain. And one of the longer-term projects involves working with NASA to learn how to grow food in space, said Vilsack, the agriculture secretary.

That could be useful on manned expeditions to Mars, he said, but might also have other applications.

"That's the kind of research that ultimately gives rise to products becoming commercially available," he said.

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