$1.1M in funding to unlock power of critical protein in honeybees

ASU Professor Gro Amdam to research vitellogenin to support honeybee health

October 18, 2022

Vitellogenin is a protein that may be the key to optimizing health and reproduction in all egg-laying species. This protein has been around since the start of animal life; even dinosaurs had it. 

Gro Amdam, a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, has been fascinated by the potential of vitellogenin to change the way we think about animal reproduction and overall health. Recently, Amdam and international collaborators were awarded $1.1 million to advance vitellogenin research and support honeybee health.  Clow-up view of a queen and worker bees. Vitellogenin is a critical protein that supports honeybee health. Photo courtesy Christopher Bang

Before moving to the United States, as a PhD student at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Amdam decided to pursue the study of vitellogenin in honeybees. Initially, academics thought vitellogenin was just another protein in egg yolk, crucial for almost all egg-laying animals, but nothing spectacular. Despite the common belief, Amdam knew there was more to the vitellogenin story — something exciting and ready to be discovered. 

As part of her PhD work, she found interest in fluctuations of this protein, particularly in bee workers. She found that different patterns of expression were closely related to fundamental aspects of the bees' life cycle. Honeybees were the perfect model organism to investigate this protein. They are easy to breed and produce vitellogenin in vast amounts, with some bees producing up to several hundred micrograms per day.

Amdam said this protein is like a swiss knife: It possesses multiple modifications and add-ons, which are critical to its function. 

After more than 20 years of investigating vitellogenin, $1.1 million was awarded to Amdam’s summer home campus, the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. The funds come from a competitive, multidisciplinary and international program that receives over 2,000 applications in all fields of biology and Amdam was one of the 82 funded. This award will be key in financing reseaerch at ASU and with international collaborators.

Portrait of ASU Professor .

Gro Amdam

Amdam is thrilled by the support and endorsement of this award.

"Getting funded is one thing," she said, "but the fact that an international community recognized the importance of (vitellogenin) is the most exciting! This work has been considered unique and extremely competitive in an open arena."

Their multi-year project aims to unlock the power of vitellogenin variants in honeybees. Its broad scope starts at the genetic and molecular level and ends with investigating its effects on veterinary medicine, agriculture and society at large.  

"We are going from genetics and simulations of the protein structure to molecular dynamics, all the way to growing the protein in animals and observing its effect in bee colonies," Amdam said.  

Vitellogenin is a protein that is shared among various species. Understanding the role of vitellogenin in health and reproduction is critical when it comes to sustainable food sources. The goal is to develop new techniques for breeding healthier animals, not only honeybees but also fish and poultry.

"With this proposal, we are taking the step from honeybees to a platform for application in animals that are our food sources," Amdam said. 

"This allows us to take an entirely new look at these species, like the bee, chickens or fish, and say, 'Are we taking care of this protein?' If we ignore it, then other things will fall apart," Amdam said. "This leads towards healthier farm animals so we can better understand how they utilize macronutrients to support health and reproduction."

Amdam and her team have been instrumental in the paradigm shift in vitellogenin research. "Our research has pushed this field forward," she said. 

With so much more to learn, expanding our understanding in this field has grown into a team effort, and Amdam has been able to share her excitement for vitellogenin with former and current students, who plan to take her initial research to new levels. For Amdam, vitellogenin is "a gift that keeps giving."

"I can say that I've trained people that have been important in moving this knowledge forward, and this is super rewarding!" Amdam said.

Anaissa Ruiz-Tejada

Graduate Science Writer, School of Life Sciences

ASU math alumna models high-velocity impact for NASA's DART mission

October 18, 2022

History was made on Sept. 26 when NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) successfully impacted its asteroid target, the agency’s first attempt to move an asteroid in space. As a part of NASA’s overall planetary defense strategy, DART’s impact with the asteroid demonstrated a viable mitigation technique for protecting the planet from an Earth-bound asteroid or comet, if one were discovered.

DART targeted the asteroid moonlet Dimorphos, a small body just 530 feet in diameter. It orbits a larger, 2,560-foot asteroid called Didymos. Neither asteroid poses a threat to Earth. ASU alum Wendy Caldwell stands smiling, with arms folded in front of a digital rendering of an asteroid. ASU alum Wendy Caldwell. Download Full Image

Wendy Caldwell is a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and a member of DART’s Impact Modelers Working Group. She earned her PhD in applied mathematics from Arizona State University's School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences in 2019.

Caldwell was at the watch party at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory as the successful impact was announced at 7:14 p.m. EDT. Watching the monitors, Caldwell knew viewers would not actually see Dimorphos, the secondary, smaller asteroid of the Didymos system, until an hour before impact – with the world watching.

“When we saw it and got confirmation of ‘target locked,’ we were screaming and cheering like it was the Super Bowl!" Caldwell said. "It was even crazier when the screen went red at impact. I remember saying, ‘Look at that resolution’ as the spacecraft plunged closer to the surface of Dimorphos. We got some great views of surface boulders and other features. It was also validating for those of us who were hypothesizing that Dimorphos would be a rubble pile with regolith. Nailed it!”

The Impact Modelers Working Group is a collaborative effort across institutions for the DART mission, which includes two Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists, both women. The group worked on inverse tests in which they ran simulations to mimic data they would receive from the impact. Then they shared that data with other team members, who run simulations to try to determine properties, such as material composition and momentum enhancement.

Prior to spacecraft impact, Caldwell’s job on the “truth” team was to model high-velocity impacts into rocky targets to help inform likely material compositions of Dimorphos and to predict the momentum enhancement of the impact. Currently, her job is to model the impact given the data gathered from the mission, in order to better understand Dimorphos and deflection by kinetic impactor. Her team gets new data on a regular basis and is continually updating and improving the models.

She has also done benchmarking studies in the Los Alamos National Laboratory hydrocode FLAG. Her team published two papers in September, one on their predictions for the DART impact and one summarizing their inverse test and results.

Caldwell uses numerical partial differential equations and computational solid mechanics in her simulations. There are also post-processing calculations used for determining the amount of momentum imparted to Dimorphos from the impact, as well as the period change.

“Most of that stuff is vector calculus, but a lot of physics, like orbital mechanics, feature prominently,” Caldwell said.

A significant amount of computer power is needed to run the 3D impact simulations. Caldwell’s code is parallel and can run on up to 3,600 processors at a time. It can take days of run time on those processors for simulations to complete.

“It's a heavy lift, and not something that can be achieved on a laptop or even smaller supercomputers. Our LANLLos Alamos National Laboratory computers can run calculations on the order of 40 petaflops — that's 40 million billion floating point operations per second,” Caldwell said. “And people like me still whine about it not being fast enough.”

Analysis of data obtained over the past two weeks by NASA’s DART investigation team shows the spacecraft's kinetic impact with its target asteroid, Dimorphos, successfully altered the asteroid’s orbit. The new data provide some interesting information about both asteroid properties and the effectiveness of a kinetic impactor as a planetary defense technology.

“These data are going to allow us to validate our modeling techniques against impacts into space rocks big enough to pose a threat to life on Earth,” Caldwell said. “We don't have a lab for these experiments, so getting to actually do it in space was really cool.”

The DART team is a diverse group of scientists coming from a wide array of backgrounds. Caldwell explains what a scientist in 2022 might look like.

“A scientist looks like whoever is reading this. We are all born scientists — it is why kids ask ‘why?’ all the time. It is our nature to want to understand the world around us.

“Scientists are normal people. I have tattoos and piercings, usually dye my hair weird colors, dance, direct plays and perform in a local cabaret. And I'm still a scientist. Yes, I like to stay home and read books sometimes, but I also stood in line at Disney to meet Elsa and Anna.

“The thing is, you probably won't know if you see a scientist, because, contrary to how we are portrayed in popular culture, we don't stand out. Some of my colleagues wear suits every day. Some wear shorts and flip-flops. One of the greatest things about my job is that it doesn't matter at all how I look — it matters that I do good science.”

Rhonda Olson

Manager of Marketing and Communication, School of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences