Explore Magazine Volume 6 Issue 2


System To Help Gauge Red-Light Running Problem
by Aaron Hoover

University of Florida engineering researchers have developed an inexpensive system to count red-light runners at intersections, a step that comes as advocates of red-light camera ticketing systems pursue laws making them legal in Florida.

The system developed by civil engineering Professors Ken Courage and Scott Washburn, with engineering graduate student Shaun MacKenzie, uses a video camera and computer software to automatically count red-light runners at intersections. The goal is to give cities an inexpensive way to identify intersections with lots of violators. That data would help them determine where to place expensive cameras and electronics that automatically photograph red-light runners for tickets — investments of at least $50,000 each.

“The issue for cities is that the automated enforcement equipment is very expensive, so they don’t want to invest in it at intersections where there is not a significant problem,” Washburn said. “The premise behind this project is to find a reasonably low-cost way to identify the worst intersections.”

Red-light running is a serious and often deadly moving violation. Nationally, red-light runners are responsible for an estimated 260,000 crashes and about 750 deaths each year.

Current methods for counting red-light runners at intersections are tedious, labor intensive and costly, Washburn said.

The UF system, being field-tested at a busy Gainesville intersection, automates the process. A video camera on a light pole films an image of the entire intersection at University Avenue and 34th Street. An electronic device connected to the signal controller cabinet, meanwhile, monitors the status of the lights and encodes different audio tones on the videotape for traffic movements. Both the image and the tones are converted into digital codes and processed by the computer software. The result is an automated and running count of red-light runners in different directions of traffic.

Although the system still is being tested, one surprising result so far is the number of red-light runners captured by the system, Washburn said. In one two-hour period after the lunch rush hour, for example, the system recorded 24 violators in just two of the four approaches to the intersection.

“Red-light running is a bigger problem than most people realize," Washburn said.

The UF research is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation through the Southeastern Transportation Center. Scott Washburn, swash@ce.ufl.edu

Research Funding Approaches $380 Million
The University of Florida’s aggressive pursuit of health-related grants helped generate a record $379.5 million in research funding during fiscal year 2000-2001, up 11.8 percent from the previous year.

The six colleges that comprise UF’s Health Science Center accounted for 52 percent of the university’s total, receiving a record $197.8 million in contracts and grants last year, up nearly 14 percent from the previous year. Much of that

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increase can be attributed to a 34-percent increase in awards from the National Institutes of Health, which continues to be UF’s largest source of research funding at $93.5 million.

“The university’s ability to address the whole spectrum of health issues makes us especially competitive for NIH funding,” said Win Phillips, UF’s vice president for research. “We are participating in the broad diversity of opportunities stemming from growth in the health-care field.”

UF faculty also had great success in their pursuit of funding from the National Science Foundation last year. The record $28.2 million in NSF awards represented a 36-percent increase over 1999-2000.

A $3.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to establish a Center for Subtropical Agroforestry to promote environmentally friendly farming practices helped push UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) to a record $66.9 million in funding last year.

Federal money still accounts for well over half of UF’s total research funding, but the university continues to build its relationships with industry. Funding from industry was up more than 23 percent last year to $59.2 million.

“While publicly funded research, particularly from the federal government, is vital to our research enterprise, we have tried to achieve a more balanced ratio of public and private funding,” Phillips said. “Industrial sponsors have come to recognize the University of Florida as a high-quality research institution that can help them solve real-world problems.”

UF faculty are becoming increasingly aggressive in their pursuit of major grants. Although the 4,195 proposals submitted was only a 3.3-percent increase from the previous year, the amount requested rose 32 percent from $471,998,565 to $623,166,794.

“The significant number of major grants the university has received over the last decade has helped to inspire other faculty to aim higher in their pursuit of funding,” Phillips said.

Fern Soaks Up Deadly Arsenic From Soil
by Aaron Hoover

The solution to one of man’s most vexing environmental problems may lie in one of nature’s most remarkable plants.

In an article in the journal Nature, University of Florida scientists report discovering a fern that soaks up arsenic from contaminated soil. The first plant ever found to “hyperaccumulate” arsenic — a carcinogenic heavy metal often used as an herbicide, the fern may prove useful in cleaning up thousands of sites contaminated by arsenic from industrial, mining, agricultural or other operations around the world.

“It has great potential for remediating these contaminated soils,” said Lena Ma, an associate professor at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and lead researcher on the project.

Ma’s research team found that the brake fern, Pteris vittata, not only soaks up arsenic but does so with staggering efficiency. They measured levels as much as 200 times higher in the fern than the concentrations in contaminated soils where it was growing, Ma said.

In that example, from a site contaminated by lumber treated with chromium-copper-arsenic solution, the soil had 38.9 parts per million of arsenic, while the fern fronds had 7,526 parts per million of arsenic.

In greenhouse tests using soil artificially infused with arsenic, concentrations of the heavy metal in the fern’s fronds have reached 22,630 parts per million.

“Why it accumulates arsenic is a mystery,” she said, adding that her future research will focus on how the plant takes up, distributes and detoxifies the arsenic.

The findings suggest the fern could become a star player in a burgeoning industry known as “phytoremediation,” or using plants and trees to clean up toxic waste sites.
Because the fern accumulates 90 percent of the arsenic in its fronds and stems, the strategy would be to grow the plant on toxic sites, then harvest the fronds and stems — its “aboveground biomass” — and transfer them to a designated hazardous waste facility.

The approach could help address a major problem in Florida and worldwide, Ma said.

The state has more than 3,200 known sites contaminated by arsenic. Worldwide, there are tens of thousands of contaminated sites, the result of mining, milling, combustion, wood preservation and pesticide application, Ma said.
Lena Ma, lqma@ufl.edu

32 Faculty Named UF Research Foundation Professors
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The University of Florida Research Foundation (UFRF) has named 32 faculty members who have a distinguished current record of research and a strong research agenda that is likely to lead to continuing distinction in their fields as UFRF Professors for 2001-2004.

The UFRF professors were recommended by their college deans based on nominations from their department chairs, a personal statement and an evaluation of their recent research accomplishments as evidenced by publications in scholarly journals, external funding, honors and awards, development of intellectual property and other measures appropriate to their field of expertise. The three-year award carries with it a $5,000 annual salary supplement and a $3,000 grant.

“Much of the information in the nomination packets comes from department chairs and colleagues who know better than anyone the status these researchers have achieved in their respective fields,” said Win Phillips, vice president for research. “Words like ‘cutting edge,’ ‘innovative,’ ‘most productive’ and ‘revolutionary’ are testament to the respect these peers have for their colleagues.

“Another constant among UFRF Professors is the importance they place on teaching,” Phillips added. “Despite often extensive research activities, these faculty are often also the recipients of outstanding teaching awards.”

The professorships are funded from the university’s share of royalty and licensing income on UF-generated products.

$3.9 Million Grant To Fund New Agroforestry Center
by Tom Nordlie

To promote environmentally friendly farming practices in the Southeast, the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is establishing a new Center for Subtropical Agroforestry with the aid of a $3.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

P.K. Nair, distinguished professor in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation, said the center will provide teaching, research and extension in agroforestry, a new farming practice that grows crops and animals alongside of trees or shrubs.

“We’ve waited years for this,” said Nair, who will serve as the center’s director. “It’s the first time a government agency has provided substantial funding for agroforestry in the southeastern U.S.”

He said scientific agroforestry practices are relatively unknown to industrialized nations but are common in tropical regions, where limited-resource farmers grow trees in crop fields to produce firewood and other products.

“In the United States, agroforestry could bridge the gap between commercial agriculture and traditional farming,” Nair said. “It could help smaller farms diversify, enhance revenues and become more sustainable. It also promotes conservation of land and wildlife habitat.”

To give the center a regional perspective, UF experts will collaborate with representatives of Florida A & M University, Auburn University, the University of Georgia and the University of the Virgin Islands.

The center will pursue eight research projects and four extension projects.

One research project involves farming pine trees on cattle pastureland. Another will focus on interaction between trees and crops, which often compete for resources.

Before the public supports agroforestry, it must become aware of it, said Alan Long, UF associate professor of forest operations. Long and UF natural resources assistant Professor Martha Monroe are coordinating the center’s four extension projects with the help of Sarah Workman, a newly recruited research assistant professor with the agroforestry center.

One extension project will establish demonstration areas on farms where landowners can view agroforestry cultivation, Workman said.
P.K. Nair, pknair@ufl.edu

Genetically Modified Earth Plants Will Glow From Mars
by Paul Kimpel

In what reads like a story from a 1950s science fiction magazine, a team of University of Florida scientists has genetically modified a tiny plant to send reports back from Mars in a most unworldly way: by emitting an eerie, fluorescent glow.

If all goes as planned, 10 varieties of the plant could be on their way to the red planetas part of a $300 million mission scheduled for 2007.

The plant experiment, funded by $290,000 from NASA's Human Exploration and Development in Space program, may be a first step toward making Mars habitable for humans, said Rob Ferl, assistant director of the Biotechnology Program at UF.

Ferl and a team of molecular biologists chose as their subject the Arabidopsis mustard plant. They picked it, Ferl said, because of three attributes that make it ideally suited for the Mars mission: its maximum height is 8 inches, its life cycle is only one month and its entire genome has been mapped. Moreover, in December 2000 it became the first plant to have its genetic sequence completed.

To create the glow, the team will insert "reporter genes" into varieties of the plant that will express themselves by emitting a colored glow under adverse conditions on Mars. Each reporter gene will react to an environmental stressor such as drought, disease or temperature. For example, one version will glow an incandescent green if it detects an excess of heavy metals in the Martian soil; another will turn blue in the presence of peroxides.

Ferl's team, in collaboration with Andrew Schuerger, a manager of Mars projects at the Kennedy Space Center-based Dynamac Corp., is competing with other biologists to receive the NASA contract for the Mars trip.
The 2 1/2-year Mars mission — nine months traveling 286 million miles each way and one year stationed on the planet - would work like this: The seeds of the plant would make the trip aboard a spacecraft similar to NASA's Mars Odyssey, which was launched April 7. Upon arrival, the landing vehicle's robot would scoop up a portion of Martian soil, and the scientists would analyze it using the robot and a specialized camera. After modifying the soil with fertilizers, buffers and nutrients, the scientists will germinate the seeds and grow the plants in a miniature greenhouse on the landing vehicle.
Rob Ferl, robferl@ufl.edu
Andrew Schuerger, chueac@kscems.ksc.nasa.gov

UF Seeks To Preserve Historic Cuban Archive

The University of Florida is launching an effort to preserve and make accessible a veritable gold mine of rare historic documents in Cuba's National Archives that chronicle three centuries of Spain's colonization of the New World.

Known as the Notary Protocols, these archival holdings in Havana are bound in 6,658 tomes, each containing an estimated 1,300 handwritten pages (the equivalent of about 40,000 volumes in a modern library). They track the comings and goings of many ships that sailed and nearly every person who traveled between Spain and the New World from the 16th through 19th centuries, said John Ingram, director of library collections at UF's George A. Smathers Libraries.

"We are embarking on a unique opportunity that will benefit present and future generations of scholars, students and the interested public," Ingram said.

The preservation effort will bring both microfilm and digital technology to bear on the archives' deteriorated papers. When funding is secured, specialists will travel to Havana and begin a 12- to 18-month pilot program for the lengthy and painstaking process of transferring the entire collection to microfilm and digital formats. Afterward, a guide to the materials will be posted on the Internet, and users will be able to obtain copies of individual documents on compact disc.

The project is the result of an agreement signed in March by UF and the Cuban National Archives. Ingram said the documents are especially relevant to Florida, where notary archives for the First Spanish Period (1565-1764) were lost during the U.S. invasion of Florida in 1812. The Notary Protocols will likely contain information on the outfitting of early expeditions to Florida and underscore the great dependence that Florida had on Cuba in almost all aspects of Spanish colonial life.

For more than 300 years, notaries in Havana recorded detailed information, dutifully registering travelers' wills, legal documents and the cargos they might be carrying. The result, Ingram said, is a priceless archive of materials that many specialists regard as the single most important source of information on the New World's colonial history. Regarded as uniquely valuable to this history for more than 100 years, yet rarely consulted because of their location and a general lack of resources to expose their value to scholars, the thousands of tomes will be a genuine treasure for research.

The cost of the project will be paid for with money raised from foundations and private donations, Ingram said. No federal or state tax dollars will be used. With the completion of a successful pilot program, and to make the larger effort possible, the UF library seeks to team up with U.S. and Spanish libraries and institutions in enlisting funding support for the entire project.

"I am convinced that the Protocolos Notariales in Cuba's archives will assume their rightful place of global importance for New World history and culture," Ingram said. "For my colleagues in Latin American studies, these records will truly open a window in time."
John Ingram, jeingr@mail.uflib.ufl.edu

Peppers Rely On "Zing" To Spread Seeds
by Aaron Hoover

It adds the fire to chili and the hot to salsa, but what does the zing do for the pepper?

As it turns out, quite a lot. Working with the ancestor of most varieties of chili pepper plants, a University of Florida researcher has shown that the plant relies on its spiciness to ensure the very survival of its species.

In an article in the journal Nature in July, Josh Tewksbury, a UF postdoctoral researcher in zoology, and co-author Gary Nabhan, an ethnobotanist at Northern Arizona University, conclude that mammals, sensitive to the chemical that makes peppers taste hot, avoid the Capsicum annuum pepper. Birds, however, are unaffected by the chemical, known as capsaicin, and they happily eat the peppers. This is essential for the plant, since birds release the seeds in their droppings ready to germinate - whereas if mammals ate the seeds, they would crunch them up or render them infertile, the researchers report.

"The upshot is that it's very beneficial for the pepper to have mammals avoid its fruit and have birds attracted to them," Tewksbury said.

Plants that produce apparently poisonous or undesirable fruits - the edible reproductive body of a seed plant - have long puzzled biologists. Evolutionary theory says the main reason that plants create fruits is to encourage animals to eat them, so that the animals will disperse the plant's seeds. Why, biologists wonder, would plants go to the trouble of making a fruit, only to use chemicals to deter an animal and potential seed distributor?

Evolutionary biologist Dan Janson proposed in the late 1960s that plants may use chemicals to deter some animals without deterring others, thus selecting only preferred seed distributors. Known as "directed deterrence," this theory received very little attention and was never observed in nature, and it gathered dust in scholarly journals until Tewksbury and Nabhan decided to see if it might hold true in chili peppers.

The researchers did their investigation in a field in southern Arizona about 35 miles south of Tucson, using the Chiltepine chili pepper, Capsicum annuum. The plant is the progenitor of virtually all peppers native to North America, including jalapeno, poblano and bell peppers.

Using video cameras trained on the plants, they discovered that birds - in particular, a species known as the curve-billed thrasher - were the only animals eating the small, red peppers. Meanwhile, pack rats and cactus mice, the dominant fruit- or seed-eating mammals in the area, avoided the peppers entirely.

That was fine as far as it went, but Tewksbury and Nabhan needed to prove that the rats and mice were avoiding the capsaicin chemical in the peppers. To do so, they found a pepper similar in size, shape and nutritional content to Capsicum annum. But because of a genetic quirk, the pepper, a variety of Capsicum chacoense, completely lacks capsaicin. The researchers fed this "spiceless" pepper to packrats, mice and birds in labs. All gobbled it up. When the researchers swapped the hot pepper with the spiceless pepper, the birds continued to eat the pepper, but the rodents refused to even nibble it.

Analyzing the droppings and feces of the birds and rodents, the researchers discovered that the birds passed the seeds whole and capable of germinating. The rodents, however, chewed up most of the seeds, and any that remained were too damaged to germinate.

To cap it off, Tewksbury and Nabhan discovered that the curve-billed thrashers tended to spend a lot of time on a variety of fruiting shrubs, frequently releasing their droppings there. The peppers, they discovered, grew much better in the shade of the shrubs than the hostile open desert, which comprises the majority of habitat. The chilies also have two additional advantages: Birds are more likely to eat the pepper from chili bushes growing near the shrubs, further dispersing the seed, and an insect that kills the seeds and fruit of the pepper was much less common in the shade of the shrubs.

So not only are the birds distributing undamaged pepper seeds, they are doing so in just the places the resulting plants are most likely to thrive, Tewksbury said.

"From the pepper's perspective, it's very beneficial to get pooped out as a seed underneath a shrub, particularly a shrub that has fleshy fruits itself, and that's just where the thrashers deposit the seed," he said.
Josh Tewksbury, jtewksbury@zoo.ufl.edu

Mysterious Brown Dwarfs Are Likely "Failed Stars"
by Aaron Hoover

An international research team led by University of Florida astronomers announced in June that it had found dusty disks surrounding numerous faint objects believed to be "brown dwarfs" in the Orion Nebula.

Brown dwarfs, first observed about a decade ago, are mysterious gaseous structures that do not shine from sustained nuclear fusion as stars do. The findings of the new study suggest brown dwarfs may be more similar to "failed stars" rather than to "super planets," forming from collapsing clouds of interstellar gas.

That means brown dwarfs, like stars, could have planets rotating around them - although, without a proper sun, the planets likely wouldn't provide an environment conducive to life, said Elizabeth Lada, a UF associate professor of astronomy.

"It is entirely possible that our galaxy contains numerous planetary systems that orbit these cold, dark, failed stars," Lada said. "But even if brown dwarfs do have planetary systems, their planets would not have a stable climate and thus would be inhospitable to life as we know it."

The team, which announced its findings at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Pasadena, Calif., based its conclusions on observations of likely brown dwarfs in the so-called Trapezium cluster, a group of extremely young stars within the Orion Nebula. Located about 1,200 light years from Earth, the cluster and nebula appear to the untrained eye as a single central star in the sword of the hunter in the constellation Orion. The cluster is a kind of stellar nursery, with most of its stars aged less than 1 million years old, in contrast to our middle-aged sun, which is 4 billion years old.

Stars are thought to form when gravity causes a rotating cloud of gas to contract. Before the actual star is formed, the gas collapses into a rotating disk. Most young stars observed to date have been accompanied by such disks. Using a state-of-the-art, near-infrared camera on a European Southern Observatory telescope in the Chilean Andes, the researchers found disks surrounding both young stars and suspected brown dwarfs in the Trapezium cluster. Moreover, the percentage of stars with disks matched the percentage of brown dwarfs with disks.

That suggests brown dwarfs and stars share a common origin - one different from planets, which form within disks surrounding stars but do not have disks of their own. The observation is important because the small size of brown dwarfs - they are less than 7 percent of the size of our sun - had led some astronomers to speculate they were related more closely to planets than stars.

The team also achieved another milestone. In analyzing the observations, the astronomers identified at least 80 likely brown dwarfs, roughly doubling the number of the structures identified so far. The brown dwarfs in the Trapezium cluster constitute the largest "population" of brown dwarfs ever observed, researchers said.

"Even at their brightest, most brown dwarfs are still 100 or more times fainter than our sun, explaining why astronomers find such objects so difficult to detect," said August Muench, a UF doctoral student in astronomy and the project's lead investigator.
Elizabeth Lada, lada@astro.ufl.edu

Coastal Ecosystems Collapse Tied To Past Overfishing
by Aaron Hoover

Dying coral reefs, dwindling shellfish populations, shrinking seagrass beds and other collapses of the world's coastal ecosystems are often blamed on pollution or global warming.

But in a paper that appeared in the journal Science in July, 16 scientists and academicians from around the world argue that these trends were set into motion by a much older human transgression: overfishing.

Beginning long before Columbus and accelerating rapidly in colonial and modern times, people have radically overfished marine mammals, large fishes and shellfish, according to the paper, whose co-authors include Karen Bjorndal, a zoology professor and director of the Archie Carr Center for Sea Turtle Research at the University of Florida.

The reduction of these animals to a fraction of their historical abundance has caused ecological damage that remained hidden until recent decades, when other circumstances triggered its full effects, the scientists say.

"What we're finding is a number of the crises that our marine ecosystems are facing today can be traced back thousands of years in some cases, and hundreds of years in others, to when human beings first began affecting these ecosystems," Bjorndal says.

The paper discusses coastal ecosystems around the globe, hopscotching from the Chesapeake Bay to the Caribbean to Australia's coastal waters. It steps outside the bounds of pure ecological science, drawing on a broad array of scientific literature, historical accounts and archaeological evidence of aboriginal fishing practices.

The authors tie several recent downturns in the world's coastal ecosystems to past overfishing. Examples include declining underwater kelp forests, declining shellfish beds and shrinking seagrass beds.

Bjorndal's research ties overfishing of green sea turtles to the decline of turtlegrass in Florida Bay and in the Caribbean. The turtles, which eat only plants, prevent the turtlegrass from growing too long. In their absence, the longer grass shades the bottom, slows the current and decomposes on the sea bottom. This process both increases nutrients and encourages turtlegrass diseases.

"One of our best estimates is that green sea turtle populations today are 5 to 10 percent of what they were when Columbus arrived," Bjorndal says. "The functional loss of this species has had a huge effect."

Despite evidence of massive declines in many populations, the authors say most of the overfished species still survive in sufficient numbers to permit restoration.

"If we want to restore these ecosystems, we have to understand how they function, and just looking back a couple of decades isn't going to tell us," Bjorndal says.
Karen Bjorndal, kab@monarch.zoo.ufl.edu