Explore Magazine Volume 3 Issue 1


Net Ban Leads to Clam Farming Bonanza

Two years after the state net ban put thousands of them out of work, Florida fishermen are poised to lead the nation in clam production.

Barrie Smith, quality control manager for Nature Coast Industries, a clam wholesaler based in Cedar Key, says his 2-year-old company has grown at an exponential rate.

"We sell all over the country - from the Northeast to the Midwest to the West Coast," he said. "We are currently the largest handler of farm-raised clams in the country."

If the crop continues to grow as expected, Florida production soon would represent more than 10 percent of the total U.S. clam supply, said Leslie Sturmer, aquaculture agent with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

"Our big concern now is that we need to improve our marketing efforts to keep demand ahead of supply and help growers stay profitable," Sturmer said.

Sturmer coordinated job retraining programs for unemployed fishermen during the past two years to lead the shift from fishing to farming. The Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, a private marine research firm in Ft. Pierce, helped UF start the training program.

"The retraining efforts have paid off in a big way," she said. "From zero cultured clam production in the Cedar Key region in 1991, production has skyrocketed, with upwards of 50 million clams being produced in the area in 1997. This represents a value to farmers - and a new revenue to the area - of about $7.5 million."

About 300 producers are now growing clams within 1,400 acres of state-owned submerged lands dedicated to aquaculture off Levy and Dixie counties.

Sturmer said the rapid success of Florida's new clam farming industry is due to the state's long growing season and lack of disease problems.

"Florida growers can grow a crop of littlenecks (premium-sized clams) on leased land in about a year. It takes two years for the same growth in South Carolina and three years in New Jersey or Massachusetts," she said.

Carole L. Jaworski

Researchers Design Safe, Cheap Fusion Reactor

Researchers at the University of Florida and University of California, Irvine, have designed a nuclear fusion reactor that could produce electricity twice as efficiently as a traditional coal-burning power plant without radioactive fuels or byproducts.

The Colliding Beam Fusion Reactor was designed by UF physics Professor Hendrik Monkhorst, UC physics Professor Norman Rostoker and UC researcher Michl Binderbauer. An article describing their work appeared in the Nov. 21, 1997 issue of the journal Science.

The reactor would cost half as much to run annually as coal-burning power plants, Monkhorst said, because the fuel is cheap and extreme safety measures are unnecessary. It would require about 200 grams of boron per day at a cost of a few dollars to run a 100-megawatt reactor. Electricity and helium gas are the only products of the reactor.

"In the fusion reaction that will be achieved within this reactor, there will be no significant neutron production, so it will be completely harmless to the equipment and to the person standing next to it," Monkhorst said.

The reactor would work like this: Beams of boron and hydrogen are sent into a reactor where magnets cause the beams to bend and move in a circular motion. This motion causes the nuclei to collide and fuse. The fusion creates particle energy that then can be converted into electrical power.

The fusion reactor would convert nearly 90 percent of the energy it generates into electricity, compared with, at most, 40 percent for a traditional coal-burning power plant, Monkhorst said.

A few dozen 100-megawatt reactors could power a large metropolitan area such as New York City.

Monkhorst said a functional prototype reactor could be built within a decade for about $70 million.

Kristen Vecellio

$2 Million NIH Grant Funds Physiology of Fear Study

Fortified by a federal grant worth almost $2 million, UF researchers are delving into the brain's deepest regions, searching to learn which structures are central to the body's response to fear and anxiety.

"We want to learn whether different parts of the brain are activated depending on the type of anxiety," said Peter Lang, director of UF's Center for Emotion and Attention. "If someone is socially fearful, is the brain's response the same as for someone who is afraid of snakes? What about panic disorder?"

The answers to such questions will help shape treatments for people whose anxieties interfere with day-to-day life.

"We need to know whether 'one-size-fits-all' therapy is the way to go or whether each disorder needs unique attention and different behavioral approaches to try to lessen fearful and anxious responses," said Lang, a graduate research professor of clinical and health psychology in UF's College of Health Professions.

The five-year National Institutes of Health grant continues the agency's 10-year commitment to UF's multidisciplinary fear-and-anxiety research effort.

The research effort involves scientists from UF's colleges of Health Professions, Medicine and Engineering. Basic scientists will use functional magnetic resonance imaging to study blood flow in the brains of study participants. The participants will be analyzed while they are recalling emotional moments or being prompted with images that can evoke strong feelings.

The fruits of the research will be applied in UF's Fear and Anxiety Clinic, which draws people with specific and social phobias; and panic, post-traumatic stress, obsessive-compulsive and generalized anxiety disorders.

Victoria White

IFAS Researchers Growing Bananas in South Florida

In a state where citrus reigns supreme, most residents view bananas as just something to slice up and toss on their morning cereal.

But worldwide, bananas outrank citrus as a fruit crop, and scientists at the University of Florida are assisting in global research efforts to manage important banana diseases and make the fruit tastier.

Researchers at UF's Tropical Research and Education Center in Homestead have planted 36 varieties of bananas to see how they fare. Many of the bananas are being tried for the first time in the Western Hemisphere, said Randy Ploetz, a scientist in UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Bananas rank fourth worldwide as the most valuable food crop, behind rice, wheat and potatoes. Almost 80 million metric tons are harvested annually around the world.

In Latin America and Africa, bananas are considered a staple food. In Uganda, for example, per capita banana consumption is 1.3 pounds per day - about 16 times the amount consumed in the United States.

Bananas are easily digested and high in vitamins A and C and in potassium. In fact, Ploetz said, "you could live indefinitely on a diet of just milk and bananas."

The Florida banana crop consists of specialty cooking and dessert bananas, not the Cavendish variety found in supermarkets. It is a small industry - valued at about $1 million a year, compared with $1.5 billion a year for citrus - and concentrated in Dade County. But the research in Homestead could boost production in Florida and help producers manage disease problems worldwide.

And although the industry is small, it fills a unique market niche, said IFAS tropical fruits specialist Jonathan Crane.

"Many people throughout Florida, especially Hispanic, Caribbean and Asian-Americans, are familiar with these specialty bananas," Crane said, "so there is quite a demand for them."

Cindy Spence

 Tumor-Causing Virus Threatens Sea Turtles

A unique virus genetically related to human herpes viruses could be linked to a serious tumor epidemic threatening the survival of endangered sea turtles worldwide, according to a team of researchers at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine and the Marathon-based Turtle Hospital who first identified it.

Scientists are racing to isolate the new virus so further studies can be conducted to confirm whether it causes the tumors.

The tumors, known as fibro-papillomas, erupt on a turtle's soft body tissue and its shell, frequently appearing on or around the eyes, the flippers and even in the mouth. Once the lesions impair the turtle's vision and swimming ability, it has difficulty feeding and ultimately may die. Often the tumors develop within internal organs, such as the lungs and kidneys, and impede normal function.

The research team has detected the virus in more than 95 percent of the tumors plaguing green and loggerhead sea turtles found in the waters surrounding Florida, as well as in tumors on green turtles in Hawaii.

"The fact that this virus is associated with or found in more than 95 percent of tumors does not mean it's the cause of the tumor," said Paul Klein, a professor with joint appointments in UF's colleges of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine. "But it is a strong candidate because infection with it is closely associated with tumor development."

The virus is genetically similar but not identical to human herpes simplex virus 1 and 2 and varicella zoster virus, which causes chicken pox, Klein said, but researchers do not believe the virus can transmit the disease to people.

In some cases, veterinarians can intervene and operate to remove the life-threatening lesions, saving the animal's life.

The research has been supported by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service Honolulu Laboratory, Save-A-Turtle of Islamorada and the Hidden Harbor Marine Environmental Project, Inc., in Marathon.

Melanie Fridl Ross

At Last: A Robotic Lawn Mower

George Jetson, eat your heart out.

A robot lawn mower called LawnNibbler, developed at the University of Florida's Machine Intelligence Laboratory, can cut your grass intelligently - avoiding dogs, kids, trees and birdbaths - while you're out on the golf course or taking the kids to soccer practice.

"The LawnNibbler will trim the grass in a defined area while avoiding obstacles such as trees, children, toys or pets," said Kevin Hakala, the graduate student who designed and built LawnNibbler for his engineering master's thesis, written under the guidance of Professor Keith L. Doty, laboratory director. "It uses two smart systems: one to tell it where it is and another to tell it what to avoid."

LawnNibbler uses a radio wire buried at the perimeter of its work area and a navigational beacon system using sonar and infrared emitters and detectors to tell it where it is in its environment.

Just 24 inches high, 23 3/4 inches long, 12 3/4 inches wide and weighing 35 pounds, LawnNibbler uses a weed trimmer-like nylon cord that cuts a

6-inch swath. Driven by a rechargeable battery-powered electric motor and humming along at 1 foot per second, LawnNibbler has the power to cover rough terrain and climb a 15-degree angle.

With the outdoors under robotic control, researchers are tackling another project to bring similar Jetson-esque technology to indoor tidying chores: They're working on a vacuum cleaner.

Randolph Fillmore

Roadsides Benefit From Municipal Organic Waste

Roadside dumping may be the best way to keep state highways beautiful and safe, says a team of University of Florida researchers.

Litterbugs they aren't, however. The waste they want to see spread alongside Florida highways is made up of organic material.

"The goal is to make roadsides a friendly environment to establish grass and at the same time get rid of waste products in an environmentally friendly way," said turfgrass researcher Grady Miller, of UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Miller and his colleagues were charged by the Florida Department of Transportation with finding a way to improve roadside soil. The improved soil would help grass grow, and grass helps to stabilize roadways by preventing soil erosion and keeping asphalt from crumbling.

Cities and counties, which produce mountains of nutrient-rich organic wastes, were happy to supply the raw material.

In general, roadside soil is too sandy to hold nutrients or water, making it difficult for grass to grow well.

"The roadside is a very harsh condition in which to grow turf," Miller said.

Along highways throughout the state, the researchers are studying how the organic material aids the establishment of new grass and boosts the growth of existing grass.

The team also has compared the effectiveness of commercial fertilizers and organic waste in UF's state-of-the art Turfgrass Envirotron. In all the samples, the grass nourished with organic wastes is faring better, Miller said.

 UF "Wonder Peanut" Is Healthier Than Olive Oil

A new "wonder peanut" harvested for the first time last fall in the United States beats olive oil in healthful benefits, says a University of Florida peanut breeder.

The SunOleic 97R peanut, developed by Daniel W. Gorbet, a UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences agronomy professor, surpasses olive oil in cholesterol-lowering properties, and it offers growers better yields than the industry standard "Florunner" - 10 to 14 percent more peanuts per acre.

It also offers manufacturers and retailers a three- to 15-fold increase in product shelf life, Gorbet said.

"That attribute alone translates into millions of dollars of savings on recalls due to outdated product," he said. "Longer shelf life also gives the new peanut an edge in taste. Not only does it taste good, it holds its flavor longer."

The new peanut variety has more than 80 percent oleic fatty acid, compared with about 50 percent in regular peanuts. Fatty acids are a major component in all oils, but it is the oleic form - found in largest quantities in olive and canola oils - that scientists believe make them healthy.

"This peanut has even more oleic acid than olive or canola oil. Its health benefits, therefore, could potentially be better," he said.

In a 1995 UF nutrition study, the new peanut's chemistry, in conjunction with a low-fat diet, was shown to help reduce coronary risk factors by lowering blood cholesterol levels in postmenopausal women.

SunOleic 97R peanuts should appear in products on grocers' shelves later this year.

Carole L. Jaworski

Bluebird Recovering In Central Florida

In the mid-1800s, poet Henry Thoreau penned "The bluebird carries the sky on his back." Back then, and even in the early 1900s, the small, colorful songbirds were seen commonly along roadsides, fields, parks and pastures.

But most people today have never seen a bluebird because, according to some estimates, bluebird populations had shrunk by the middle of this century to one-tenth of their original numbers.

With the gentle birds in jeopardy, University of Florida researchers and Audubon Society volunteers are establishing artificial nesting boxes on agricultural land in central Florida as part of recovery efforts for the Eastern bluebird.

UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is providing rural land in Hardee County for trails of bluebird nesting boxes in hopes that they will thrive around the cattle pastures and increase their numbers in Florida, said Findlay Pate, director of the UF/IFAS Range Cattle Research and Education Center in Ona, about 40 miles east of Bradenton.

"By providing nesting boxes around pastures, we are giving bluebirds a place to nest, raise their young and increase their population," Pate said.

Over the years, populations of bluebirds and other cavity-nesters such as purple martins and chickadees have plunged because of the introduction of aggressive species such as sparrows and starlings, which play havoc with bluebirds by killing them and stealing their nests. Other problems include increased urbanization and the loss of natural nesting sites when dead trees and wooden fence posts, often used by bluebirds as nesting cavities, are removed or replaced with metal fence posts, Pate said.

The ranch environment appears to be ideal habitat for bluebirds because they thrive in open country, needing shortgrass areas and nearby trees for spying and catching insects. Because of the desirable pasturelands at the research center, volunteers from the Hardee County chapter of the Audubon Society approached Pate about establishing the first bluebird trail of man-made nesting boxes.

If provided with proper homes, bluebirds will nest up to three times a year, producing four or five eggs at each nesting. And as a migratory bird, winter visitors often can be spotted alongside the permanent, Florida-resident bluebirds.

Sylvia K. Beauchamp

UF Polymer Engineer Wins Presidential Award

Elliot Douglas, an assistant professor in UF's Department of Material Science and Engineering, was the only Floridian among 60 scientists nationwide chosen for a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Douglas, 31, joined the other recipients in a White House ceremony in November to receive his award, which comes with a grant of $500,000 over five years. The award was established by President Clinton in February 1996 to "recognize young scholars' research contributions, their promise, and their commitment to broader societal goals."

"These gifted young professionals exemplify the best of our science and technology community and will help set the scientific pace for the U.S. and the world in the years ahead," Clinton said in announcing the recipients. "Their passion for discovery and their determination to explore new scientific frontiers will drive this nation forward and build a better America for the 21st century."

The $500,000 grant will fund five years of research into new polymer thermosets that can be used in composites, such as those used in graphite tennis rackets, and fiberglass- and graphite-shafted golf clubs, said Douglas. There are thousands of classes of polymers, many of them recyclable.

"This award gives me the opportunity to demonstrate what I can do with these materials," said Douglas, who was nominated for the award by the U.S. Army.

"The Army is not necessarily looking for something that can be used next year, but something way down the road, in such things as helicopters or light-weight body armor," he said.

 Photocatalytic Air Cleaning System Relieves Allergies

Allergy and asthma sufferers soon may have a new weapon in their fight against airborne enemies: an indoor-air cleaning system that uses light and simple chemicals to destroy the dust mites and mold spores that cause many allergies.

Developed at the University of Florida's Solar Energy and Energy Conversion Laboratory, the photocatalytic air filtration system has been tested in medical and industrial settings and proven successful at zapping odors and impurities caused by chemicals, viruses and bacteria. It soon will be available for home use, said Yogi Goswami, professor and director of the laboratory.

The system uses light, which reacts with a titanium dioxide-based chemical catalyst as air passes through. The result is oxidation, which attacks and destroys microbes by disintegrating their DNA. The reaction also kills dust mites and mold.

Goswami said the photocatalytic process is superior to conventional techniques because it doesn't employ filters that must be replaced.

"Contaminants are destroyed rather than transferred," said Goswami. Allergy and asthma sufferers may find great relief once dust mites and mold spores are eliminated from the air they breathe, he said.

"Dust mites in the air cause allergic reactions in an estimated 15 to 20 percent of the population," said Goswami. "Inhaled mold spores are also responsible for many allergy symptoms and aggravate asthma."

Goswami said the system has been tested successfully in medical research settings where laboratory air must be microbe-free.

"Surgical suites and hospital nurseries are just two obvious places for this system," he said. "Sick building syndrome will be a thing of the past where this system is used."

The technology is being readied for the market by Universal Air Technology at UF's Sid Martin Biotechnology Development Institute. Home units may cost as little as $500.

Randolph Fillmore