The Model Lake

One of the world’s most respected ecological thinkers sounds a warning for Lake Mendota


When Lake Mendota turned the color of a bad Gatorade experiment in June, you should have seen it through Steve Carpenter’s eyes.

Carpenter, who is retiring this month after 28 years at the UW Center for Limnology, talks about Lake Mendota with a subtly relaxed sense of time. He’s been studying the Madison lakes since he began his doctorate in 1974. His specialty is environmental change: understanding it, predicting it, manipulating it. And Lake Mendota has been his laboratory, his lens, his living model.

Just like you, he saw that unnerving blue, the dead and dying fish. He knew the smell would probably get worse. No swimming allowed.

But he could also see the lake in 1971, when we finally diverted human sewage from the lakes. He could see it in 1987, when an extra large batch of walleye were released to initiate a grand ecological experiment to clean the lakes. He also sees decades into the future, divergent scenarios ranging from ecological recovery to stinking death spiral.

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Lactation Sensation

Dairy scientist Laura Hernandez marvels at the miracle of milk— and she’s exploring how to improve the processes that create it, for the benefit of both cows and humans

Laura Hernandez, not in milking garb. (Photo by Sevie Kenyon/UW-Madison CALS)

WHEN THE CITY GIRL decides to study lactation, she must first learn to milk a cow. Laura Hernandez, an assistant professor of dairy science at CALS, remembers that lesson.

Her tutor that day was Jessica Cederquist, then a fellow grad student and now CALS herd manager. “People who have never milked are used to what you see in the movies,” Cederquist explains. You know the choreography: grab a teat, pull down, milk squirts into the bucket. But that technique simply squeezes milk back into the udder. And just about everybody makes the mistake. “It is a rite of passage to stand back and laugh,” she admits.

“She thought it was very funny,” Hernandez recalls. “I think that was the beginning of a very good friendship.”
The milking got a little crazier once Hernandez ramped up her inquiries into how lactation works. Her first experiments required milking two halves of the same cow, comparing milk production. Because she was pairing the front right with the back left and vice versa, she had to replumb two half milkers, using a surplus of hoses and buckets. She’d also recently had knee surgery.

“You’re already kind of crowded in there and now you’ve got her fancy contraption and all of her buckets and a big old knee brace,” says Cederquist. And it’s a waterbed stall, so every time anybody moves, the floor moves, and the buckets yaw precariously. “She’s darn near laying on the floor under the cow, trying to figure out how she’s going to get this thing to stay on.”

Hernandez is still making things unusual for Cederquist. Lactation is a delicate enough phenomenon that the typical dairy farmer puts animals who are in the late stages of pregnancy on vacation. This is exactly when Hernandez needs to poke and prod, monitor and manipulate.

The hassle seems worth the reward: Her exploration of the role of serotonin in lactation has the potential to significantly improve animal health and boost milk production. There may also be profound lessons about the role of serotonin in human health. While seratonin was once considered the miracle molecule of mental health, Hernandez is helping unravel its role in many more parts of the body.

“There is still an infinite box of things it probably does that we can’t understand,” says Hernandez. Which is all the more interesting because it’s such a simple molecule, just a modified amino acid. It’s as if a Lego block were able to control a nuclear reactor. “I really am just completely fascinated by how a modified amino acid can regulate what feels like the universe at times,” Hernandez says.

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The Future, Unzipped

Young poplars in a zip lignin test plot. (Photo by Matthew Wisniewski/Wisconsin Energy Institute)

John Ralph PhD’82 talks with the easy, garrulous rhythms of his native New Zealand, and often seems amiably close to the edge of laughter.
So he was inclined toward amusement last year when he discovered that some portion of the Internet had misunderstood his latest research. Ralph—a CALS biochemist with joint appointments in biochemistry and biological systems engineering—had just unveiled a way to tweak the lignin that helps give plants their backbone. A kind of a natural plastic or binder, lignin gets in the way of some industrial processes, and Ralph’s team had cracked a complicated puzzle of genetics and chemistry to address the problem. They call it zip-lignin, because the modified lignin comes apart—roughly—like a zipper.

One writer at an influential publication called it “self-destructing” lignin. Not a bad turn of phrase—but not exactly accurate, either. For a geeky science story the news spread far, and by the time it had spread across the Internet, a random blogger could be found complaining about the dangers of walking through forests full of detonating trees.

Turning the misunderstanding into a teachable moment, Ralph went image surfing, and his standard KeyNote talk now contains a picture of a man puzzling over the shattered remains of a tree. “Oh noooo!” the caption reads. “I’ll be peacefully walking in a national park and these dang GM trees are going to be exploding all around me!”

That’s obviously a crazy scenario. But if the technology works as Ralph predicts, the potential changes to biofuels and paper production could rewrite the economics of these industries, and in the process lead to an entirely new natural chemical sector.

You can find the full story here.