Explore Magazine Volume 6 Issue 1


NASA To UF: Improve Space & Earth Technologies
by Aaron Hoover

         NASA has a dual mission for University of Florida scientists and engineers: Come up with technologies that help astronauts survive extended stays in space — and offer environmental benefits here on Earth.
         The space agency recently moved to give UF $2.5 million for a new center that will develop effective ways to recycle air, water and waste on extended space missions such as a manned mission to Mars. But that’s only half the picture: The center also must actively seek and promote a “terrestrial” commercial application for each new technology, such as removing pollutants from air or water. That contrasts with the traditional approach, which places the initial focus on the research with “technology transfer” following later.
         “What’s unique about this center is it’s simultaneously dealing with two issues,” said John Warwick, professor and chairman of UF’s Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences, where the center will be based. “One is the technical needs of NASA to support extended human space flight. The second is to support development of technology that has a high commercial potential.”
         NASA officials expect that it will be extremely difficult to regularly resupply astronauts on the extended missions anticipated in coming years, such as a prolonged visit to the Moon or the Mars mission. As a result, the agency is looking for technologies that can sustain life for months or years in a so-called “closed loop” system, where oxygen, water and other essentials are recycled and reused repeatedly.
         “If you don’t have to resupply water and other consumables, and you can recycle, then that can save you mass and that saves you money,” said Katherine Daues, an administrator at NASA’s Advanced Life Support Program at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
         Daues said the average person requires a minimum of 26,500 pounds of water, food and air — the vast bulk of the weight is water — to live for one year away from Earth. But every pound sent into space costs thousands of dollars and occupies vital room aboard the spacecraft.
         Warwick said the UF center will focus its efforts in three areas: air revitalization, solid waste recovery and water recovery. The goals with all of the systems, he said, are to reduce size and weight and function on low power with minimal crew oversight. The systems also must be extremely reliable, he said.
         Closed-loop technologies have great commercial potential, which the center will exploit as the technologies are developed, Warwick said. For example, more effective water recovery systems could prove useful for submarines, military ships and even commercial cruise lines, which face stiffer and stiffer regulations against discharging wastewater at sea.
         NASA has provided $250,000 to UF to launch the center, which will receive five annual $500,000 grants starting in December. UF plans to use a chunk of the start-up money for two pilot research projects: one in air and water revitalization and one in solid waste revitalization.
John Warwick, warwick@eng.ufl.edu

UF Gets $5 Million For Brain Rehab Research
by Victoria White

         After years of believing that brain damage from strokes and other injuries was irreversible, researchers are growing optimistic that with the right combination of medicine and rehabilitation, they can inspire the brain to form new pathways to regain some lost functions.
         With that goal in mind, a team of scientists from the University of Florida’s McKnight Brain Institute led by faculty from the neurology department has received a $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to test several provocative ideas for treating the stroke-induced communication problems referred to collectively as aphasia.
         At the heart of the research is the emerging concept of neural plasticity — the idea that the brain is adaptable and under ideal conditions can create new ways to handle lost skills. However, after injury, these changes in the brain do not happen naturally. That’s why UF researchers are looking for the medicines, and mental and physical exercises that will enable the brain to develop new skills.
         Their new grant, which the NIH will distribute during the next four years, comes just a year after the UF-affiliated Malcom Randall Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Gainesville was awarded $3.5 million to develop a center of excellence in brain rehabilitation research. With those funds from the Rehabilitation Research and Development Service of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, these same UF and VA scientists are tackling additional cognitive and motor problems brought on by traumatic injury, stroke or degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
         “Neurological diseases are among the most debilitating chronic conditions,” said Leslie Gonzalez-Rothi, a professor of neurology in UF’s College of Medicine who is the principal investigator on both grants. “Cognitive disorders isolate the person who is affected by them, and everyone who lives with them is seriously affected. So our goal is to try to minimize these effects.”
         For the rehabilitation efforts, UF specialists from the colleges of Medicine and Health Professions will work with their counterparts at the VA on a variety of projects.
         “One of the things we’re trying to do is make the brain more receptive to learning by trying certain medications in combination with speech or physical therapy,” said Gonzalez-Rothi, program director of the Gainesville VA’s Brain Rehabilitation Research Center.

Math Professor Wins National Medal Of Science
by Aaron Hoover

         A University of Florida mathematician who once crafted a 253-page proof that occupied an entire academic journal issue has received what is arguably the nation’s most prestigious award for science and engineering research.
         John Griggs Thompson, a graduate research professor of mathematics, is one of 12 recipients of the National Medal of Science. The medal, honoring scientific leaders who have changed or set new directions in a range of disciplines, was presented at a December dinner in Washington, D.C.
         The award winners include two Nobel laureates. The group also includes leaders in social policy, neuroscience, biology, chemistry, bioengineering, mathematics, physics and earth and environmental sciences.
         “These exceptional scientists and engineers have transformed our world and enhanced our daily lives,” then-President Bill Clinton said in a White House news release. “Their imagination and ingenuity will continue to inspire future generations of American scientists to remain at the cutting edge of scientific discovery and technological innovation.”
         Thompson, 68, is considered a world leader in algebra and a foremost group theorist.
         Group theory is a branch of mathematics that focuses on the study of symmetries – such as the symmetries of a geometric figure, or symmetries that arise in solutions to algebraic equations. Thompson is noted in the field for solving with fellow mathematician Walter Feit one of its thorniest problems, the so-called “odd order” problem. That achievement won Thompson the Fields Medal, the highest prize in mathematics, in 1970.
John Thompson, thompson@math.ufl.edu

IFAS Researchers Seek Insights Into Corn Genetics
by Chuck Woods

         To learn how genes control development of corn and other cereal grains — the source of about 90 percent of the world’s food supply — University of Florida researchers have initiated a five-year study with the aid of a $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
         Corn, also known as maize, was selected as the target crop because of its worldwide economic importance and the fact that it’s an “ideal model” for gene research, said horticultural sciences Professor Donald McCarty.
He said many of the genes that are important in corn may be applicable to other crops. For example, the gene that controls the yield in sweet corn may also control the yield in tomatoes.
         “The future success of agriculture depends on identifying genes that will make plants more efficient in converting sunlight, nutrients and water into food and fiber products,” McCarty said. “Conventional plant breeding now boosts crop yields by about 1 percent annually. In coming years, biotechnology will make breeding even more efficient.”
         He said biotech will reveal the genetic basis for many traits, including disease and insect susceptibility, biochemical composition and nutritive value. Breeders will be able to use genetic tests and markers to identify subtle but desirable traits in crops more readily. The application of modern molecular biology will allow desirable traits to be directly “engineered” into crop lines.
         McCarty, a seed geneticist who leads the project, said researchers will be focusing on how genes affect the development and metabolism of the corn seed or endosperm. Other scientists working on the project are Curtis Hannah and Karen Koch, professors in UF’s horticultural sciences department.
         UF is the lead institution for the study that also involves researchers at the University of Arizona, Iowa State University and Rutgers University.
         McCarty said UF is developing the genetic material, which is a large population of specially bred maize plants. Arizona, Iowa State and Rutgers are providing molecular tools, including the development of a large array of gene clones expressed in the endosperm.
         “Our research will focus directly on the endosperm, which is the most important component of the seed,” McCarty said. “When you eat sweet corn, you’re consuming the endosperm. It is the harvestable component of all cereal grains such as barley, rice and wheat.”
         He said corn plants contain more than 40,000 genes, and researchers want to learn more about the subset of those genes that are important to agriculture, particularly from the standpoint of plant growth, metabolism, disease resistance and crop yield.
         “The research will let us look at the biochemical functions those genes encode and really understand the nuts and bolts of how those genes control development of the endosperm and other plant structures,” McCarty said.
         In order to determine the function of a particular gene, scientists need to understand what happens when that gene is disrupted or eliminated from the plant.
         “It’s a little bit like trying to figure out how your car works by removing parts and asking what doesn’t work,” McCarty said. “While our genetic strategy may seem somewhat counter-intuitive, historically it’s proven to be a powerful way to understand the function of biological systems.
         “In purely scientific terms, the goal of our project is a comprehensive genetic dissection of the molecular mechanisms underlying endosperm development and metabolism,” McCarty said.
         “By analyzing mutations that disrupt the endosperm, we can identify specific genes that control endosperm development. Molecular analysis of such mutants will in turn lead to other genes that function in the same or interacting processes.”
Donald McCarty, drm@gnv.ifas.ufl.edu

UF Partners With Spain On World’s Largest Telescope
by Aaron Hoover

         Thanks in part to its track record in building instruments for advanced telescopes, the University of Florida will become a partner in what will be the world’s largest telescope, a $93 million behemoth under construction in Spain’s Canary Islands.
         UF is the only university to participate in the Gran Telescopio Canarias, which the Spanish government is building off the west coast of Africa. The agreement follows the Spanish government’s award of a major contract to UF astronomers to build an infrared camera, called CANARICAM, that will be the first instrument installed on the telescope when it is completed in late 2003.
         “We have long-term plans for the training of students and postdoctoral fellows from Spain and for collaboration on the design and construction of future astronomical instruments for large telescopes,” said Stan Dermott, chairman of UF’s astronomy department.
         Participation in the Gran Telescopio Canarias, or GTC for short, is the next logical step for the astronomy department, which already has gained access to the world’s other large telescopes by making the sensitive instruments needed to gather and interpret observations, Dermott said. Most recently, UF researchers provided the first instrument — an infrared camera known as OSCIR — for the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, which first became operational last summer. Gemini North and its twin, Gemini South in La Serena, Chile, are the National Science Foundation’s flagship astronomy projects.
         “The Spaniards sought our collaboration because of our expertise in building instruments,” Dermott said.
         UF’s participation in the GTC project means UF astronomy faculty and students will have exclusive use of the telescope for 12 nights annually, plus share an additional eight nights with the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias. In return, UF will contribute about 5 percent of the cost of the construction of the telescope.
         “This project offers a unique opportunity for the University of Florida to participate in a global-economy first,” said Win Phillips, UF vice president for research and dean of the Graduate School. “We’re making a small investment for an enormous return potential.”
         Although much of the research will occur at the telescope on the island of La Palma, UF officials plan to build a remote observation and control center on the UF campus so students and faculty can access the telescope from Gainesville.
         Astronomy students won’t be the only ones to benefit. The center also will be capable of linking with remotely operated submarines used by the UF geology department.
         “Once we have the control center, we can do whatever we want with it,” Dermott said. “We’ll take students to the limits of the universe and the depths of the oceans.”
         The Gran Telescopio Canarias will have as its “eye” 36 hexagonal ceramic glass elements joined together to form a 32.8-foot primary mirror, the largest mirror of any telescope in the world. Coupled with other technical innovations, the mirror will give the telescope superior image quality, higher reliability and greater efficiency than any other optical telescope. As a result, the GTC will be able to “see” the faintest and most distant objects in the universe, from hidden galaxies to newborn planets to distant stars.
         Dermott said the telescope’s abilities dovetail with the department’s primary research thrusts: searching for planets around nearby stars and probing the origins of the universe.
         “The key science project to drive this telescope is the hunt for planets around other stars,” he said. “But it will also be pivotal in looking at the formation and evolution of galaxies at the very beginnings of the universe.”
         Neil Sullivan, interim dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said: “UF is already recognized as a world leader in infrared instrument development and construction. This project with Spain will give our researchers and students a special competitive edge.”
Stanley Dermott, dermott@astro.ufl.edu

$5 Million Grant Funds Gene Therapy In Liver Study
by Victoria White

         In their quest to maximize the safety and effectiveness of gene therapy, University of Florida scientists have set their sights on the liver, the dark-red gland critical to hormone balance, blood sugar regulation and the creation and secretion of proteins.
         With its starring role in so many biological processes, the 3-pound liver is vulnerable to attack by many diseases, making it a top candidate for experimental treatment with corrective genes. Yet liver-directed gene therapy was involved in last year’s highly publicized death of a young patient in Pennsylvania.
         That’s why UF Genetics Institute researchers, with a new five-year, $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, are exploring an alternative method for carrying genes into the organ’s cells, using a molecular means of transportation known as a vector. The goal is to improve gene therapy techniques while simultaneously battling several devastating genetic diseases that affect the liver.
         In the Pennsylvania case, scientists packaged the corrective genes into adenovirus, but the vector was then blamed for triggering a fatal inflammatory response. Scientists here are conducting animal experiments using an unrelated and apparently harmless vector called the adeno-associated virus. While AAV has been tried before in the liver, researchers have had limited success in coaxing enough of the organ’s cells to “take up” corrective genes to effectively treat a medical condition.
         “We have this problem: On the one hand, the liver is really a prime site for trying to correct genetic and metabolic disorders,” said Dr. Terence R. Flotte, director of UF’s Genetics Institute. “On the other hand, it appears to be very sensitive to the toxicities of certain vectors. It’s also been difficult to get therapeutic levels of gene expression there. So it will be a major breakthrough if we can develop a safe and effective gene therapy using AAV directed to the liver.”
         In the new round of experiments, the researchers will use AAV in animal models of several genetic disorders that can damage liver function and cause a host of other problems.
         The targeted diseases are alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, which can cause pulmonary emphysema and in some cases liver failure; phenylketonuria, more commonly known as PKU, which can lead to abnormal brain development and mental retardation; and Pompe’s disease, a fatal disorder caused by deficiency of a specific enzyme. Pompe’s is known as a glycogen storage disease because it results from excess accumulation of the carbohydrate glycogen in the liver.
         One key part of the research is to continue efforts to tweak the AAV vector so that a higher percentage of liver cells incorporate the corrective genes. Past studies have shown that no more than 5 percent of liver cells begin following the inserted genes’ orders. But in preliminary research, UF microbiologists are beginning to see the potential for a much higher response rate, giving them hope that they can overcome the limits to successful gene therapy in the liver.

New Center To Study Gene Therapy For Diabetes
by Melanie Fridl Ross

         Armed with a $10.4 million grant from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International, University of Florida researchers have formed a new center devoted to the study of gene therapy to fight diabetes and its complications.
         The plan represents a pivotal shift in the traditional approach to diabetes research and a refocusing of scientific strategy. UF scientists — along with colleagues at the University of Miami — will capitalize on gene therapy’s potential to deliver medicine in novel ways, engineer rejection-proof tissues for islet and kidney transplant and tackle diabetes-associated complications such as vision loss.
         The approach is a move away from using gene therapy to treat ailments caused by a single gene defect. Diabetes is thought to be caused by a constellation of genes interacting with unknown environmental factors.
         The facility will be known as the JDRF Gene Therapy Center for the Prevention of Diabetes and Its Complications at the University of Florida and the University of Miami. The grant is the largest the diabetes association has awarded an academic institution for the study of gene therapy.
         “The center will join in the JDRF’s mission to find a cure for diabetes,” said center Director Mark Atkinson, the S. Family/American Diabetes Association professor for diabetes research at UF’s College of Medicine. Atkinson also directs UF’s Center for Immunology and Transplantation. “It’s a very ambitious goal, but we have a very ambitious group of investigators to tackle that lofty objective.”
         UF has a strong record in the development and application of gene therapy, while the University of Miami’s Diabetes Research Institute is a recognized leader in islet isolation and transplantation, said center Co-Director Dr. Camillo Ricordi. Ricordi is the Stacy Joy Goodman professor of surgery and medicine at the University of Miami School of Medicine and scientific director of its Diabetes Research Institute.
         “The joining of our teams in this critically important and timely initiative will result in a major synergistic force toward the development and application of novel treatments for patients with diabetes,” Ricordi said.
         Type 1 diabetes occurs when white blood cells vital to the body’s defenses against infection attack insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
         “Despite having spent 17 years investigating the cause of diabetes, I recently shifted half of my research efforts to gene therapy,” Atkinson said. “This could revolutionize diabetes treatment and may make an impact sooner, rather than years later.”

Executive Donates $4.2 Million For Butterfly Center
by Chris Brazda and Joe Kays

         The University of Florida will construct a new home for one of the world’s most comprehensive butterfly and moth collections, thanks to the generosity of a health-care executive with an avocation for butterflies.
         William and Nadine McGuire of Wayzata, Minn., have donated $4.2 million to the university to establish the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera Research, which will include two new buildings for Lepidoptera research and public exhibits. The gift is one of the largest private gifts ever to foster research on insects and is eligible for an equal match from the State of Florida, bringing the total to $8.4 million.
         The proposed 35,000-square-foot McGuire Hall, projected to open in early 2003, will be attached to the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Powell Hall. The facility will house one of the world’s largest and most complete Lepidoptera collections and associated research facilities for their study. Some 80,000 glass-topped drawers will hold more than 1 million specimens representing more than 95 percent of the world’s 225,000 butterfly species. The collection is second only to the British Museum in its comprehensiveness.
         Fronting McGuire Hall across a landscaped mall from the Harn Museum of Art will be a public museum and vivarium. Visitors will pass through a glass enclosure of living tropical rain forest plants and hundreds of live tropical butterflies before entering an area of displays and interactive exhibits.
         The McGuires’ gift also will allow for construction of a 6,000-square-foot building adjacent to UF’s entomology and nematology building. The new facility will be named the William W. and Nadine M. McGuire Center for Insect Conservation.
         “Lepidoptera research is a vital area to the study of ailing ecosystems because butterflies are an indicator species for how the environment is faring as a whole,” said William McGuire. “The University of Florida and its multidisciplinary approach to research, coupled with the State of Florida’s commitment to the environment, made our choice to invest in the University of Florida an easy one.”
         The bulk of the university’s butterfly collection has been at UF’s Allyn Museum of Entomology in Sarasota, Fla., since it was donated to the university in 1981 by businessman Arthur Allyn. The Sarasota facility reached capacity several years ago.
         “Since Darwin’s day, butterflies and moths have been used to study evolutionary change and ecological questions and as models to research genetic and developmental problems in humans,” said Tom Emmel, zoology professor and director of UF’s Division of Lepidoptera Research. “The McGuire Center will help to bring one of the world’s finest assemblages of research materials together at the University of Florida to continue such studies. The collections to be kept in the new facilities will also preserve for study in perpetuity samples of biodiversity from the tropics and temperate regions worldwide that can never be gathered again, due to habitat destruction and environmental change.”
         McGuire received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Austin and his medical degree from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. He is chairman and CEO of UnitedHealth Group. Nadine McGuire also is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. The McGuires are long-time enthusiasts of Lepidoptera and environmental studies and have donated more than 30,000 butterflies to UF in the past. McGuire has made many notable discoveries in the field of lepidopterology. He has had several new butterflies named after him and published a number of professional papers describing new kinds of butterflies, their biology and ecology.
Tom Emmel, tcemmel@ufl.edu

UF A Leader In New $11.9 Million Computer Network
by Aaron Hoover

         The University of Florida and the University of Chicago will lead an $11.9 million initiative that will lay the groundwork for a computer data grid of unprecedented speed and power.
         The initiative, called the Grid Physics Network, or GriPhyN, is funded by the largest grant in the National Science Foundation’s new Information Technology Research program, which supports long-term basic research on networking and information technology.
         GriPhyN initially aims to give scientists a tool to interpret the vast amounts of data expected to flow from the world’s most ambitious physics and astronomy experiments, but it also could have applications in the business world and elsewhere, said Paul Avery, lead scientist and UF professor of physics.
         “We need to plan for these experiments now, because we can’t wait until they start,” Avery said. “A personal computer today can do about a billion operations per second. The overall computing power we need is about 1 million times more than that.”
         GriPhyN involves more than a dozen institutions nationally and will pioneer a new concept called virtual data, in which the entire resources of a scientific collaboration become a single vast computing and storage system. GriPhyN could be thought of as a Napster for scientists, where the tunes being downloaded are not purloined hits but crucial insights into the nature of the universe, said project co-leader Ian Foster, professor in computer science at the University of Chicago and associate director of the Mathematics and Computer Science Division of Argonne National Laboratory.
         “Results will be computed only if and when needed,” Foster said. “Much of the time, the result you need will already have been computed by one of your colleagues, and the system will know where to find it.”
         The initiative initially will benefit four physics experiments that will explore the fundamental forces of nature and the structure of the universe.
         Two experiments at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics near Geneva, Switzerland, will search for the origins of mass using the Large Hadron Collider, which will become the world’s highest-energy particle collider when it begins operation in 2005. The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, based in Louisiana and Washington, will probe the gravitational waves of pulsars, supernovae and other phenomena. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey, conducted from Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico, is carrying out a massive automated survey of the stars.
         Each of these experiments will produce huge amounts of data that scientists at different institutions around the world will want to search and manipulate.
         Genomics is another major area of science where data volumes are increasing much faster than analysis capabilities, Foster said. So large are the data collections that scientists anticipate they will be measured in petabytes, where one petabyte is roughly the amount of data that can be contained on 1 million personal computer hard drives.
         The world’s most powerful supercomputers today can store and process data measured in terabytes, each of which equals 1,000 gigabytes. By tapping into the computing power of multiple institutions around the world, a computational data grid could significantly boost both storage and calculating capacity. The result will not reside at one location or on one supercomputer, but rather will be spread throughout the institutions, much like power plants connected to an electrical grid.
         “The electrical grid is a useful analogy, because users ranging from individuals to large organizations will consume computing and data resources in greatly differing amounts, and they will not care where those resources are located,” Avery said.
         The NSF grant is for research and development only, Avery said. Researchers seek a total of $70 million in NSF grants for further research and equipment to build the system. Research and construction should take place simultaneously, with a target completion data of 2005, he said.
Paul Avery, avery@phys.ufl.edu
Ian Foster, foster@mcs.anl.gov