Inquiring Minds
By Sharon Keeler
Illustrations by David Wink

In this issue:

Pass the Pumpkin Puffs
Diagnosing Sick Forests
Alzheimer's Care Map

Pass the Pumpkin Puffs

Brent Loy has spent the past 18 years obsessed with pumpkins. He has a vision of a seeded variety that produces plump, tasty, hull-less seeds that puff into bite-sized snacks when heated. "This is a product that could compete with peanuts and sunflower seeds," says the UNH professor of plant biology, who has made a career of crossbreeding new plant varieties.

A patient man, indeed, Loy has been busy creating several new pumpkin hybrids that produce these seeds without hulls. He says the morsels are delicious and nutritious—high in potassium, and nearly 40 percent protein with no cholesterol. The seed's oil, accounting for 40 to 45 percent of its weight, is highly unsaturated. And, unlike pumpkin seeds currently sold on the market, Loy's seeds come out of the pumpkin virtually ready to eat.

"They've been through widespread taste tests and people love them," says Loy. "They're a lot tastier than sunflower seeds and the market for those is huge."

The genetic trait for a hull-less pumpkin seed was discovered in Austria in 1933. The small seeds, however, won few converts in the U.S. So Loy decided to breed a plant that puts more energy into its seeds than its fruit.

According to Loy, the process of creating a marketable plant is labor-intensive and requires years of combining the desirable traits for such things as fruit and seed size, seed yield and disease resistance. Seed production is a two-step process.

"First, you have to produce the desirable male and female parent plants. Then you have to cross-fertilize the two strains to produce the hybrid," Loy explains. His pumpkins are F1 hybrids, which are lucrative for seed companies because the hull-less seeds from the fruit cannot be used to reproduce the original hybrid.

One fruit of Loy's labor, a hybrid he calls Snackjack, is currently being grown for commercial introduction, hopefully this fall. An ornamental pumpkin with flesh of pie quality, Snackjack weighs less than two pounds and grows on a bush instead of a vine.

Loy says he is trying to improve two characteristics of his hybrids—seed size and disease resistance. Snackjack produces seeds that weigh between 120 to 170 milligrams each. He would like a hybrid with seeds that weigh 200 milligrams or more. And, while Snackjack has grown well in warmer, drier climates, he's had some setbacks in production because it is particularly susceptible to fruit rot.

Loy has several hybrids he's testing that will, he hopes, improve upon seed size and disease resistance. He is currently working to narrow them down to two or three varieties. Autumn Seeds, a major seed producer in Oregon, this year contracted out a five-acre planting of one of his hybrids. Loy says if the company decides to produce the hull-less pumpkin seeds, then the industry has a good start, because Autumn Seeds has processing and drying facilities in place, as well as contacts with major marketers.

Until then, Loy keeps toiling the fields, in search of the perfect pumpkin. He says he'll be a happy man when the seed is finally in the bag.

Diagnosing Sick Forests

President Clinton this year announced new initiatives to provide Americans with cleaner air, by reducing pollution caused by automobile emissions. This is good news for Northeastern forests, as mounting evidence shows that excessive amounts of nitrogen, whose chief source is auto emissions, are slowing the growth of trees and contributing to the infiltration of heavy metals into streams. Airborne ozone, formed when volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen interact in the presence of sunlight, is also detrimental.

These findings come from 11 years of National Science Foundation-sponsored research by John Aber, professor of natural resources in UNH's Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space, and other scientists conducting experiments in three Northeastern forests—Harvard Forest in Petersham, Mass., Mount Ascutney in Vermont and Bear Brooks Watershed, 60 miles inland from Acadia National Park in Maine. By adding nitrogen to the soil around trees and comparing it to untreated areas, they were able to record the damage caused by excessive amounts.

In normal concentrations, nitrogen is a vital fertilizer. In excess, it can severely stress the biosphere, upsetting the natural balance. The effects are damaging in several ways.

"The deposited nitrogen upsets the nitrogen/magnesium balance in plants, resulting in a lot of leaves, but no chlorophyll," says Aber. "Excess nitrogen can also cause a loss of frost-hardiness and needles, and reduced productivity."

Nitrogen's impact also spreads beyond the trees. What plants don't need often runs off, carrying with it other minerals such as magnesium, potassium and aluminum. The run-off depletes the nutrient value of the soil, while also contaminating ground water and streams.

Aber says the Northeast is particularly vulnerable to deposited pollution because wind blows from west to east, bringing pollution to the state from the industrial Midwest. And because precipitation is greater at higher elevations, nitrogen deposition is most prevalent on mountain tops.

Some good news for New England forests did surface from the research results, Aber explains. Because much of the land was once used for agricultural purposes, it is nitrogren poor. These lands, which are naturally reforesting, act like sponges in soaking up excess nitrogen, making them more resilient in the short term.

In addition to nitrates, Aber's research shows that trees are also harmed by chronic exposure to excess ozone, which is created locally, primarily by auto emissions. While excess nitrogen causes a relatively slow change in the forest, ozone's effects are immediate.

"It directly affects the leaves, damaging cell membranes. The necessary repair reduces the amount of energy left for growth of the tree," says Aber, adding that a computer model shows that the ozone damage alone could reduce annual forest production by 3 to 16 percent.

Because of the way ozone is formed, concentrations tend to be highest in two locations where vacationers go to escape air pollution, the top of Mt. Washington and Acadia National Park. "It's ironic," says Aber, "that travelers to these remote areas should experience such high levels of ozone."

Alzheimer's Care Map

Alzheimer's disease is a degenerative brain disease that affects approximately 4 million Americans. It is not a normal part of aging, but a disorder that leads to loss of mental and physical functions. Eventually, most people with Alzheimer's become unable to care for themselves. More than seven out of 10 people with the disease live at home, says the Alzheimer's Association, and almost 75 percent of home care is provided by family and friends.

"Families are the primary care support systems, yet many initiate long-term care giving with few resources, or little understanding of the disease," says UNH professor of nursing Raelene Shippee-Rice. "They tend to cope along the way instead of planning long range. It's not until financial resources are drained or they are "burned out' that they turn to support services."

By this time the relative may have multiple health or behavioral problems that eventually result in institutional long-term care. Half of all nursing home patients suffer from Alzheimer's or a related disorder, and the average cost of caring for each patient is $42,000 per year.

A pilot program led by Shippee-Rice and UNH nursing colleague Jeffrey Eaton is helping New Hampshire residents plan and maintain home-based long-term care for elders with Alzheimer's disease or another cognitive impairment. In addition to providing an important service to area families, as well as practical experience for UNH students, the program is a research study for Shippee-Rice and Eaton. They are compiling data to determine if early intervention can, indeed, help families sustain home-based—and more cost-effective— care. Their goal is to develop a model that will be supported by health insurance providers.

According to Shippee-Rice and Eaton, studies indicate that elders and their families who are dealing with Alzheimer's disease and related disorders express difficulty in obtaining evaluation services and diagnosis, don't know which services are available, and often face barriers, including lack of transportation, to access those services.

Funded by a $100,000 community grant from the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services health care transition fund, the program, "Elder and Family Support Services for Alzheimer's Disease and Cognitive Impairment," is designed to improve early intervention and access to care for older adults, and provide family support, education and training that will result in the use of cost-efficient community services.

Teams of social workers, nurses and consulting geriatricians will work with primary care givers to deliver the program to families referred from collaborating health care facilities. UNH students will also work on these teams, gaining hands-on experience in providing quality health care and human services. A number of health care facilities and programs are participating in the project.

"Families must know where to begin and how to negotiate the system if they are to prepare for long-term care giving," Shippee-Rice says. "Helping them plot a map of care will prepare them for more active and informed roles, and give them the additional support they need to maintain home care longer."

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