Prof. Irvine's recent trip to Hokkaido University

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

As part of a recent trip to Japan for an astrobiology conference held in the ancient city of Nara, microbiologist Susan Leschine (Veterinary & Animal Sciences) and astronomer William Irvine (Astronomy) spent an informative and enjoyable afternoon visiting Hokkaido University on July 16.

Leschine and Hokkaido Professors Kozo Asano and Teruo Sone shared their common interests in microbial diversity and applications of bacteria and fungi in food processing and in animal and human health. Sone, who donned a shirt with an image of Aspergillus, related the important role of this fungus in food fermentations and as a source of biologically active compounds for pharmaceuticals and for controlling plant pests. As a leader in applied microbiology and the probiotic effects of intestinal bacteria, Asono described novel microbial technologies for complex carbohydrate production and implications for human health. The recent discovery by Asano and Sone of Tomitella biformata, a bacterium isolated from 25,000-year-old Alaskan permafrost, and its astrobiological significance also were discussed.

Irvine’s recent research interests have been in the study of chemistry in interstellar clouds and in comets, so it was very interesting to visit the laboratory of Professor Naoki Watanabe, a world leader in laboratory astrochemistry. In particular, Professor Watanabe uses his state of the art equipment to analyze chemical processes on analogs of interstellar ices, including the important conversion between ortho- and para- states of key molecules present in interstellar molecular clouds.

The visit also included discussions of astrophysics, particularly of galactic structure and star formation, with Professors Asao Habe and Elizabeth Tasker, and their students and research associates.

Professor Hideki Takahashi provided a tour of the Hokkaido University Museum with its beautiful exhibits that inspire the imagination. Botanist Takahashi was instrumental in establishing one such exhibit featuring specimens on loan from the UMass Amherst Herbarium, including plants and lichens that had been collected more than a hundred years ago by William S. Clark. Clark was the third president of the Massachusetts Agricultural College, which later became the University of Massachusetts, and the first president to appoint a faculty and admit a class of students, 56 to be exact. The Hokkaido Museum exhibit includes excerpts from Clark’s letters and information about Amherst. Irvine commented, “The museum is fascinating, particularly to anyone from UMass, since there is an extensive exhibit on President Clark and his UMass colleagues who helped found Hokkaido University. In fact, President Clark’s image and his closing words to Hokkaido students (“Boys, be ambitious!”) are everywhere in Japan, even in taxis, on wine bottles, and at the Sapporo Airport!”