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Research briefs: The latest in research being conducted around Florida

Older Than We Thought ...

Humans appear to have been living in Florida 14,500 years ago — about 1,500 years earlier than scientists previously believed humans were in the Southeast U.S.

Florida State University archaeologist Jessi Halligan, an assistant professor of anthropology, discovered stone tools alongside mastodon bones at an underwater site about 45 minutes from Tallahassee. Working with colleagues from Texas A&M University and the University of Michigan, Halligan excavated the site — inside a sinkhole in the Aucilla River — between 2012 and 2014, finding artifacts that included a knife once used to butcher animals.

Humberto Campins of UCF
Humberto Campins of UCF

Asteroid Mining

If all goes as planned, sometime in the fall of 2018 a spacecraft dubbed OSIRIS-REx will intercept a potential Earth impactor asteroid known as Bennu and spend the next two years surveying the surface and using a robotic arm to collect samples. Back on Earth, University of Central Florida physicist Humberto Campins will help analyze the data and photographs transmitted by OSIRIS-REx to choose the best spots on the surface of the asteroid to target for collection. UCF says the hunt for natural resources within the solar system is an important step toward manned missions to Mars.

Meanwhile, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Honeybee Robotics are collaborating on a drone that will help explore asteroids and other planetary bodies, with an eye toward prospecting the asteroids for possible resource development.

Top-Tier Activity

Florida International University has moved into the top category in the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education — “R1: Doctoral Universities — Highest Research Activity.” FIU joins four other public universities in Florida — the University of Florida, Florida State University, University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida — along with private University of Miami.

Sue Percival of UF IFAS
Sue Percival of UF IFAS

Garlic vs. Flu

At the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Sue Percival and colleagues performed a study of 120 healthy people in which they gave some members of the group capsules containing aged garlic, while others got a placebo. The researchers found that those who consumed the garlic produced more T-cells and NK cells, both of which are part of the immune system. The garlic didn’t reduce the incidence of cold and flu among those studied, but those who got the garlic had fewer cold and flu symptoms and shorter illnesses.


UF researchers say they have developed a way to stop “ransomware” — virus-like software that hackers use to encrypt files on a computer and then demand payment to unlock. The UF-designed system, dubbed “CryptoDrop” and developed within UF’s Florida Institute for Cybersecurity Research, allows ransomware to lock up a handful of files but then blocks it from advancing. The UF researchers say their detector was able to successfully defend computers after only a median of 10 files had been encrypted.

Meanwhile, UF announced that its Office of Technology Licensing signed a record 122 licenses and options and launched 17 startup companies in fiscal year 2015-16. UF also announced that AGTC, a startup founded 20 years ago based on UF research, landed a billion-dollar deal to collaborate with Biogen on gene-based therapy for eye diseases.

John Paul of USF
John Paul of USF

Grouper Sex

Researchers have discovered a way to hear when groupers are spawning, using a package of sensors and grouper acoustic recognition computer algorithms installed in aquatic drones. The sensing technology was developed by a team of scientists from Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and the University of the Virgin Islands’ Center for Marine and Environmental Studies. A number of commercially important types of groupers — including the Nassau, Warsaw, black, yellowfin and red hind — spawn in large groups for short periods of time, making them vulnerable to overfishing. The technology could help fisheries determine when and where protective measures are needed.

… And Grouper Detectors

John Paul, a professor of biological oceanography in the University of South Florida’s College of Marine Science, and one of his former graduate students, Robert M. Ulrich, launched a company called PureMolecular, which has developed hand-held devices that help restaurants and suppliers authenticate seafood species and prevent fraud. The company was born out of Paul’s studies at USF, where his research interest in “grouper forensics” won him the 2015 USF Excellence in Innovation Award. PureMolecular has obtained the exclusive license for the grouper detection technology from USF, which is based on a patent that Paul and his research associates co-invented. The company aims to one day expand into authentication of other seafood, including shrimp, tuna, lobster and shellfish.

Bird Fans

Researchers at Florida International University are trying to save the Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, one of the world’s most endangered birds. Only about 100 males are known to remain alive in the wild; the bird lives only in central Florida. Last year, FIU’s Tropical Conservation Institute got permission to take seven of the birds into captivity — the first to be reared in a captive setting. Earlier this year, one of the females hatched four sparrows, an historic moment in their effort to save the species, the researchers say. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials later brought additional eggs they saved from flooding in central Florida that have since hatched. One problem in raising the birds, which only weigh about an ounce, has been creating a habitat with appropriate airflow. Interestingly, the birds seem to prefer a Dyson fan, which is quiet and circulates an uninterrupted stream of smooth air without blades. The company has donated fans to the institute to help with the project.

Health Data

Florida Polytechnic University received a $5-million gift last year to develop a Health Care Informatics program. Harish Chintakunta, an assistant professor of electrical engineering, is a lead investigator. The university says the primary mission of the initiative is to improve public health in part by providing easy access to different types of biometric measurements and tests. One example: Florida Poly students and faculty, using expertise in electronics, signal processing and statistics, are designing sensors that can be used in studies of sleep disorders.

Y. Ping Hsieh of FSU
Y. Ping Hsieh of FSU


A project called “Multi-Element Scanning Thermal Analysis,” developed by a team of Florida A&M researchers, bested 20 other universities, including Harvard, at the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps competition in Atlanta. The competition challenged researchers to transfer their findings into products or processes that could benefit society and to show broader applicability. The rapid MESTA technology can, in just half an hour, analyze and characterize the materials in complex compounds — detecting everything from chemicals in the air to identifying whether a white powder is anthrax.

Forget Me Not

Running without shoes can help improve a person’s memory, according to a study published by researchers at the University of North Florida. The results followed an experiment in which 72 participants ages 18 to 44 ran both barefoot and with shoes for approximately 16 minutes. The experiment found a roughly 16% increase in working memory performance following the barefoot run but no significant increase after the run with shoes. People running barefoot must pay closer attention to where they are placing their feet to avoid stepping on objects that might hurt them. It’s possible the more intensive use of working memory required in barefoot running leads to the increase in cognitive performance.

Diving …

Researchers at the University of South Florida have identified and tested an extract from a sponge they found in Antarctica that may help fight MRSA bacterial infections. MRSA — methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — can be spread in places such as hospitals, nursing homes, gyms and locker rooms. MRSA is particularly problematic because it can cause infections throughout the body and resists traditional antibiotics. USF chemistry professor Bill Baker and colleagues isolated an extract from the sponge and produced a chemical they call “darwinolide” that selectively affects biofilms, a collection of bacteria naturally resistant to antibiotics. Darwinolide, the researchers say, eliminates more than 98% of MRSA cells within these biofilms. USF ranks among the top 25 public universities in the nation for research expenditures and ninth among U.S. public universities in patents awarded.

… and Digging

Florida Southern College was chosen as one of a small number of universities to participate in Yale University’s Small World Initiative. A group of biology students worked to discover antibiotics that can combat infections that are adapting to long-used antibiotics. They cultivated bacteria from soil samples and noted which demonstrated the potential to produce compounds that would kill other bacteria. A subsequent conversation between the biology professor overseeing that project and a chemistry professor prompted the chemistry professor, Deborah Bromfield Lee, to expand on the research. An organic chemistry specialist, Lee and her students are now trying to isolate and identify the specific compounds with antibacterial properties.

Going Up: Johns Hopkins All Children’s

Construction is under way on a seven-story, $85-million research building at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. The facility will house the research activities of the hospital’s Heart Institute, Cancer and Blood Disorders Institute, Institute for Brain Protection Sciences, and Maternal, Fetal and Neonatal Institute. About 200 researchers and staff will work at the building, expected to be complete in 2018. The hospital conducts about 300 studies each year; more than half are clinical trials.

Elizabeth Franzmann of UM
Elizabeth Franzmann of UM

Mouths and Eyes

Elizabeth Franzmann, director of head and neck research at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the University of Maimi Health System, has developed an oral rinse test, the first of its kind, that measures a biomarker helpful in detecting oral cancer at its earliest stages. The test will be available to clinicians this year.

Meanwhile, the UM Miller School of Medicine’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute has developed a gene therapy for vision loss associated with mutations of mitochondria — the part of cells that act as the cells’ digestive system and powerhouse. There had previously been no way to insert DNA into the mitochondria until a discovery by John Guy, director of the Bascom Palmer Ocular Gene Therapy Laboratory.


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