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"Weird Life" Focus of NASA Conference

Michael Daly occasionally gets letters from school children who find "the world's toughest bacterium" listed in the Guinness Book of World Records. Deinococcus radiodurans can withstand 10,000 times the amount of radiation that would kill a human, earning it monikers like "Super Bug" and "Conan the Bacterium."

Daly, a scientist at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, was one of about 20 scientists who spoke about their studies of "weird life," or life in extreme environments, at a March 2000 conference near Big Sky. The conference was sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to help the space agency finetune programs aimed at understanding how life began in the violent early years of the planet. The gathering was organized by MSU's Thermal Biology Institute.

Biofilms at Big Sky

Sticky clusters of bacteria called biofilms got plenty of attention at Big Sky last summer when about 500 scientists gathered for a conference called Biofilm 2000. Organized by the MSU Center for Biofilm Engineering, the five-day conference featured numerous presentations on the bacteria that cling to surfaces and multiply. Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation, was the keynote speaker. Relatively unknown as few as 20 years ago, biofilms are now thought to be behind 65 percent of bacterial infections treated by physicians. The July conference was sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology.

Swarms Attend Bug Fest

More than 5,800 people interested in insects made Bug Fest 2000 a "bug" success. Michael Ivie, MSU professor of entomology and one of the organizers, said 5,877 people, mostly elementary and secondary school students, attended the five-day insect festival held in April 2000. Most of the visitors were from the Gallatin Valley, but some came from as far away as St. Regis, Moore, Centerville and Lame Deer. Bug Fest 2000 was one day longer and lured 1,500 more visitors than the 1998 Insectennial, which inspired the Bug Fest.

Gaining Stature

Money for aerospace education in Montana has nearly doubled, thanks to an upgrade given to a NASA-funded program offering opportunities for students in grade school through college.

In 1999, the budget for the Montana Space Grant Consortium was increased from $256,000 a year to $475,000 a year for the next five years. That's because the consortium of 13 Montana colleges, universities and tribal colleges successfully competed for "designated" status with the nation's space agency. That goal was out of reach nine years ago when the consortium began.

"Designation depended on a number of criteria, most importantly the state had to have more than $2 million in NASA-funded university research grants per year," said consortium director and MSU physics professor William Hiscock. "Back in 1990, Montana didn't come close to qualifying."

Consorting over Wildlife

MSU is stepping up its studies on animal diseases by joining forces with a Texas university. The two institutions created a consortium between the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University in College Station and the Center for Bison and Wildlife Health at MSU.

The two universities will share resources and expertise as they tackle research projects that "address resolution to current and future diseases in bison and mammalian wildlife in the U.S. and in international populations of confined and free-ranging non-domestic mammalian animals," the agreement reads. One of the first targets will be brucellosis, a bacterial disease that can cause cattle to abort their fetuses.

'Big Brain' Unveiled

MSU is now the proud owner of a supercomputer, the biggest brain in Montana. Made by Silicon Graphics, Inc., the Origin 2000 has two key selling points: It can process enormous amounts of data quickly (more than 100 times faster than a personal computer), and it's capable of stunning graphics. Put the two together, and you've got a machine that can display nerve cells in 3-D detail or reconstruct the gait and bite of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

MSU got the entire package--the supercomputer, a smaller cousin and several work stations--for a fraction of its original cost. Valued at more than $1 million, the package cost MSU $370,000, mostly in grant funds. The rest, about $850,000, was granted by Silicon Graphics. The company was "extremely interested" in the interdisciplinary research going on at MSU and its connection with teaching, according to sales representative Richard Grossen.
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