The marbled murrelet — a small seabird native to the North Pacific — is a flagship species for healthy ecosystems. Murrelets are listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act in Oregon, Washington and California, yet little is known about the nesting habits of this curious, short-beaked seabird in Oregon. Enter a world-class research team from Oregon State University.
Distinguished professor Steven Strauss focuses his attention on genetic engineering and gene editing in poplar and eucalypt trees. He’s using genetic technology to make state-of-the-art modifications to a variety of traits, including flowering and productivity.
“We’re working at the DNA level directly,” Strauss says. “In typical breeding you cross and select families of plants to make seeds that are going to be more productive or superior in other ways. By intensive selection and crossing you can change a tree’s DNA considerably, but it’s an indirect effect. In contrast, in genetic engineering we must know the science surrounding the target traits first, not just which plants grow better. This knowledge allows us to modify them at the DNA level.”
Strauss is working with students, faculty and researchers on a new type of genetic technology known as gene editing, or CRISPR. It gives researchers the ability to specify precisely where a genetic change will be made—something that was essentially impossible before. Strauss says the technology is only a few years old and is an exciting step for biotechnology.
By using CRISPR and directing it at different kinds of genes, plants may become disease resistant, pest resistant and more productive.
One genetic change Strauss focuses on is the prevention of pollen and/or seed production.
“It can provide a level of containment, and confidence in containment, that is unprecedented. This should help with public acceptance and regulatory approval, and may improve tree productivity,” Strauss says.
Genetic engineering is used widely in the agriculture. Gene editing will likely be coming to agriculture and medicine in the near future. Strauss says that gene editing could be an important tool for forest tree breeding too, and plans to continue working in this area and exposing his students to the rapidly growing technology.
“It’s mind-blowing in its power,” Strauss says, “and the training students get using it in the lab will help them whether they plan to work in forestry, agriculture, medicine, conservation, or many other biological fields.”
“There’s a dirty little secret about wood,” says TallWood Design Institute researcher Lech Muszynski. “It burns.”
Muszynski studies the fire resistance of cross-laminated timber. When discussing this topic, he often refers to a photo from the great San Francisco fire in 1906. In the photo, two melted steel beams lay across a wooden beam.
The beam burned, while the steel softened. But Muszynski says the old photo proves the difference between flammability and fire safety.
“Materials that do not burn may be less fire safe than wood that does burn, but keeps its load bearing capacity much better,” he says. “In this case, the steel lost its load bearing capacity, while the wood, which didn’t burn completely, retains its ability to bear a load and saves the space below from being crushed.”
Despite this evidence from the early 1900s and recent research conducted in Europe, the American public is still concerned about fire when it comes to wooden buildings, and American construction companies don’t have enough data to ensure tall wooden buildings are up to code. Muszynski hopes to provide this data and put minds at ease with his latest research project, which tests the fire resistance of cross-laminated timber floors and walls.
“The point of my project is not to generate new science, but to provide a large-scale demonstration of how cross-laminated timber panels react to fire,” Muszynski says.
When Muszynski says “large scale,” he means it. Many of the panels he tested in a large furnace at the Western Fire Center in Kelso, Washington were too large to be transported in one piece, and had to be assembled on site.
The samples went into the furnace completely unprotected with any kind of fire-proofing materials typically used in wooden construction. Thermocouples, which measure temperature, were attached to the panels to collect data while the panels were exposed to fire.
Muszynski said that each panel experienced similar, gradual and predictable charring rates: the surface of the panels darkened within two minutes, caught fire and eventually a layer of char formed on the surface of the wood.
“Every floor panel we tested survived two hours of fire exposure,” Muszynski says. “After two hours we cut it off and inspected the sample. Only one wall sample failed after 90 minutes, and that’s still pretty good.”
The next step of the project is evaluating the charred samples. For this, Muszynski employed two Oregon State undergraduates.
“At first he tried to talk me out of the job,” says senior forestry student Cassie Holloway. “We were starting in the middle of summer, and doing this kind of heavy manual labor in the heat is pretty difficult.”
But Holloway and her partner prevailed. They cut each sample into one-foot by one-foot samples and evaluated the char depth to ensure consistency with data from the thermocouples.
Holloway first heard about CLT in her junior seminar class and was immediately intrigued.
“Growing up, I was very interested in conservation and sustainability,” Hollway says. “I think it’s awesome that people are using renewable materials to build up instead of out. I was really excited to be able to work on this project.”
Once sampling is completed, Muszynski says he will work to create a map of the char depth of each sample. Next, he hopes to test the fire resistance of connections used in CLT construction.
“Our ultimate goal is to make the TallWood Design Institute the one-stop place for testing anything mass-timber including CLT and glulam and whatever comes next,” Muszynski says. “This must include fire testing.”
Bogdan Strimbu heads the Management, Algorithms and Remote Sensing Lab (MARS) at Oregon State. Most of his research involves sitting at a computer and pouring over data, but recently, he’s been able to fill a niche in his field with his beloved ‘birds,’ a nickname for his collection of drones.
“People love drones because they are fascinated by flying,” Strimbu says. “God didn’t make us with wings, but now we can fly as we want with a first-person view. We can see what the cameras see right away, like a bird. It’s a miracle.”
Right now, Strimbu has a few drone-based projects, but word about the ‘birds’ has leaked around campus, and now his lab is assisting other researchers who need to see things from another perspective. They’ve worked with the Department of Ecosystems and Society, the College of Engineering, and the University Research Forests.
“It’s refreshing when we have a drone flight,” says masters student Scott Heffernan. “I mostly work in front of my computers, so it’s nice to get outside.”
Heffernan’s own project uses radar data from the Sentinel-1 mission in Europe to model ambient canopy moisture on a stand level. The projects will eventually help managers make better decisions about how to manage for fire threats.
Ph.D. student Chu Qi’s thesis is extremely theoretical, as it is focused on applying computer vision and deep learning techniques in forest inventory and operations. Qi holds a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Oregon State University, but was lured to the College of Forestry by Strimbu and the promise of working with drones. He uses his mechanical experience to repair the flying machines after their inevitable accidents.
Using his skills in forestry appealed to him because of the pollution problem his home city in China faces. He believes he can reduce the cost of labor when it comes to measuring ‘difficult’ forest attributes, such as taper.
“If I’m successful at developing my algorithm, you will be able to fly a drone over a stand, and the computation of stem volume and diameter will only take a few minutes,” Qi says. “It will be much faster than LiDAR.”
Qi says the accessibility of drones is what appeals to him.
“A few years ago, this wasn’t popular,” he says. “Air companies could see things from the sky, but now, as a normal person, I can gather information from the sky easily and cheaply.”
“It’s a very good time to fly for research,” he says. “It’s also very easy because of new, relaxed regulations in 2016. The biggest challenge our lab faces is lack of resources. I don’t even tell my students how many requests I get to do other work for faculty because it’s too overwhelming.”
Strimbu’s lab will continue to do their best to keep up with demand and to feed the passion they have for flight.
“We want to help give everyone a different perspective,” Strimbu says. “Getting higher helps you look at things in a new way.”