by Scott Rogers

Could the answer to dealing with the global energy crisis be found in sunlight?

In a new paper published in Energy & Environmental Science, Department of Chemistry Associate Professor WEI DAVID WEI and a team of researchers make the case that using sunlight to promote chemical reactions could be a unique way to address the global energy crisis.

As the world continues to search for and implement alternative “clean” energy sources that can be used to replace the burning of fossil fuels and lessen the impact of global warming, Wei looked to nature — how photosynthesis is used by plants to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugar — to guide his research.

Wei David Wei
Professor Wei David Wei runs the Wei Research Group in the Department of Chemistry.

“Our research demonstrates how to efficiently utilize sunlight to prompt water oxidation—the key step in carbon dioxide reduction and nitrogen fixation,” Wei said. Water oxidation is the process through which water is converted into oxygen and protons, an essential step for sparking artificial photosynthesis.

Carbon dioxide reduction helps convert the gas — which is the main cause of global warming — into useful fuels, while nitrogen fixation converts nitrogen molecules into fertilizers for use in agriculture.

In the paper, the authors note that the study successfully developed a molecular approach to “stabilize photo-generated hot holes on Au/TiO2 heterostructures for driving water oxidation under visible-light illumination,” — which essentially illuminates a new avenue through which researchers can facilitate photochemical processes like that of photosynthesis found in plants.

The research team began this project about three years ago and includes graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and collaborators from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Moving forward, the team will continue their research into carbon dioxide reduction and nitrogen fixation to provide new avenues for lessening the energy crisis and global warming.

Research was supported by the National Science Foundation, a UF Graduate School Fellowship, a Department of Energy Science Graduate Student Award, an Ann R. Stasch Summer Fellowship, a Vala Research Award, and the College of Liberal Art and Sciences (CLAS) Dissertation Fellowship funded by the Charles Vincent and Heidi Cole McLaughlin Endowment.

Click Here to View the Abstract

 

Kevin Tang, UF assistant professor of computational language science

More than 7,000 languages have evolved across the globe as different cultures have migrated, interacted with each other and isolated themselves. New research, though, suggests another factor has played a major role in the way these languages changed: genetics.

A study led by Kevin Tang, UF assistant professor of computational language science and the director of the Speech, Lexicon and Modeling (SLaM) Lab in the Department of Linguistics, highlights how gene variations can, over time, guide the course of an entire language.

While linguists have long studied how languages evolve, until recently genetics have been largely left out of the picture. But in the era of big data, advances in genome sequencing, as well as the creation of massive typological databases, have allowed new insights into the relationship between our speech and our genetic code.

“We’re now looking at the actual hardware that allow us to be human,” Tang said. “This adds a missing piece of the puzzle. Big data is enabling us to detect these subtle signals.”

Tang and collaborators from Yale University and Brock University looked at a specific gene associated with how people process sounds. While a variation in this gene — known as an allele — may have a subtle effect on a single person’s speech, over time the allele’s prevalence in a group of people can have a long-term impact on how the whole culture communicates, causing them to favor certain sounds over others.

The researchers found that high prevalence of RU1-1 alleles in a culture was associated with its language having more “stop consonants,” sounds that involve the complete stop of airflow. Meanwhile, those cultures in which these alleles were less common had more “nasal consonants,” or sounds made while airflow continues through the nose. Their findings suggest that these patterns are driven by stop consonants’ vulnerability to the loss of precision in the timing of neuron spikes compared to more robust nasal consonants.

Looking ahead, the researchers plan to examine more genetic variations that may have had an impact on language.

Read the full study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

by Scott Rogers

You may be aware that the domesticated dog descended from the gray wolf and the housecat from the African wildcat, but what about the origins of a common childhood pet — the guinea pig?

A new paper published in Scientific Reports sheds light on how guinea pigs came to be found around the world and offers tantalizing clues for how they came to be domesticated.

Featuring contributions from UF researchers SUSAN DEFRANCE from the Department of Anthropology and MICHELLE LEFEBVRE from the Florida Museum of Natural History, the paper argues that the spread of guinea pigs can likely be traced back to what is today Peru. From there, the animals were moved to the islands of the Caribbean, and later Europe and the Southeastern United States through the exotic animal trade.

Along with lead author Edana Lord of Stockholm University, Lisa Matisoo-Smith from the University of Otago, María Fernanda Martínez-Polanco from the Universitat Rovira i Virgili Miguel Eduardo Delgado from the Universidad Nacional de La Plata and several other scholars, the researchers used ancient DNA to build upon past studies that suggested guinea pigs in the Caribbean originated from Columbia, testing samples of guinea pig remains excavated from several sites in the Caribbean, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Europe and North America.

After completing analysis, the team determined that the Central Andean region of modern Peru was actually the origin for Caribbean, European and North American guinea pigs. Their analysis also found that guinea pig domestication likely took place in both Peru and Colombia independently; although research thus far indicates that the Colombian guinea pigs were not transported to new regions.

This study also highlights the transition of guinea pigs from being used as a wild food source at least 10,000 years ago, to beloved pets found all around the world.

“The genetic information along with the archaeological contexts also shows us how the guinea pig had very different roles through time,” deFrance said. “As food and offerings in the Central Andes, food and an exchange goods in the Caribbean — and then the guinea pig is brought to Europe and North America where it becomes a pet.”

Why the guinea pig was viewed as a pet in some cultures and a food source in others can likely be attributed to long-established cultural notions of what is acceptable as food.

“In my opinion, as far as we know, rodents (such as rats, for example) were not acceptable food items among Europeans or colonial groups in the southeastern U.S.,” LeFebvre explained. “Sources of meat were well established (deer, fish, cows, fowl, etc.), while domestic guinea pigs showed up as a curiosity — a docile, furry, ‘cute’ rodent with pretty coats of different color.”

The paper also notes that in modern times the guinea pig was reintroduced to the Caribbean (Puerto Rico specifically) from Europe, adding another interesting chapter to this well-traveled rodent’s journey.

“This is a story about one of the most functionally diverse and far reaching domestic animals in human history,” LeFebvre said.

Click here to read the study


by Andrew Doerfler

GAINESVILLE — While the world awaits a vaccine or effective treatment for COVID-19, a UF professor’s mathematical model has shown that the coronavirus can be controlled by non-pharmaceutical measures such as social distancing and the use of facemasks in public — but only if widely complied with and implemented for an appropriate period of time.

Assistant Professor of Mathematical Biology CALISTUS NGONGHALA is the lead author of a new study published in the journal Mathematical Biosciences that studied the efficacy of non-pharmaceutical interventions in curtailing the virus.

The researchers found that widespread use of highly effective surgical facemasks in the public could wipe out the virus, while the use of less-effective cloth masks alone could significantly reduce, but not eliminate, the impact of the pandemic. The simulations showed even better results when extensive mask-wearing was paired with strict social distancing.

“Combining interventions is more effective in controlling and mitigating the burden of the pandemic than implementing them separately,” Ngonghala said.

How long social distancing must be maintained depends on how early on it was implemented in a particular location and what portion of the population wears masks in public. The study was unambiguous on one matter, however: Ending social distancing too early could be catastrophic.

“This study shows that early termination of the strict social-distancing measures could trigger a devastating second wave of the pandemic with burden similar to those projected before the onset of the strict social-distancing measures were implemented,” the article reads.

“Keeping social distancing in place through June 2020 would greatly reduce the chance of a resurgence.”

The simulations show that relaxing or terminating social distancing measures without widespread mask use at the end of April 2020 would trigger this second wave, while keeping social distancing in place through June 2020 would greatly reduce the chance of a resurgence.

To completely eliminate the disease through social distancing alone, the measures would have to be in place through early March 2021 on a nationwide level and up to late September 2021 for New York State.

The study explains that the decision to relax or terminate social-distancing measures should be made by states or counties based on the prevalence COVID-19 infections and deaths, the number of tests available and the existence of local hot spots.

“The goal is to provide a tool to assist public officials, so they can see how fast they can flatten the pandemic curve and keep the number of cases and hospitalizations down, to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system and capacity,” Ngonghala said.

The study was recently featured in a roundup of research highlights released by the Washington State Department of Health, which has been faced with addressing one of the worst outbreaks in the United States.

His collaborators on the study were researchers from Arizona State University, the University of New South Wales in Australia and Harvard Medical School. Ngonghala said the team is now working on an extended second model that would measure the impact of states reopening.

In addition to social distancing and using face masks in public, the authors also examined the impact of other interventions like contact tracing, quarantine of suspected disease cases and isolation of confirmed cases.

Read the full study here.


Share Your Story

This is just one example of the ways Gators are doing their part to assist during the current crisis. Let us know how you or a Gator you know have made a difference by emailing newsandpublications@clas.ufl.edu.

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Physics Machine Shop Building Device to Protect Health Workers

by Andrew Doerfler

While many spots on campus sit empty, the Department of Physics’ Machine Shop is up and running to aid in an important effort to protect health care workers.

Working with collaborators from across the campus, the Machine Shop is building a prototype for a device that would decontaminate the atmosphere around COVID-19 patients during procedures that pose a heightened risk to health providers.

For example, when a patient’s breathing tube is removed, the patient tends to cough and spread the virus around the room. To prevent this, the decontamination unit would pump the atmosphere from a transparent box around the patient’s head through a zone that deactivates the virus, before sending the air back into the environment.

Interim Testing Rig
The interim testing rig that the Machine Shop is working on. (Courtesy photo)

“By using an enclosure or tent around the patient and pumping that locally contained atmosphere through the decontamination unit, we hope to reduce the atmospheric viral load to which health care workers are exposed, reducing the risk that the attending staff become infected,” said ANDREW G. RINZLER, physics professor and the chair of the department’s Technical Operations Committee.

Rinzler, Machine Shop supervisor BILL MALPHURS, and Machine Shop staff JOSH LINSCOTT and JOHN VANLEER are collaborating with a team that includes Nikolaus Gravenstein, of the Department of Anesthesiology in the College of Medicine; Dr. John Lednicky, of the Department of Environmental and Global Health in the College of Public Health and Health Professions and the Emerging Pathogens Institute; and Scott Powell of the Engineering School of Sustainable, Infrastructure and Environment in the College of Engineering.

The collaboration came about after Rinzler and Department of Physics Professor and Chair Kevin Ingersent asked Associate Dean Brian Harfe how the Machine Shop’s resources could help combat the pandemic. Harfe connected them with College of Engineering Associate Dean Forest Masters, who had organized a group working on efforts to help during the crisis. The decontamination device was among those projects, and Rinzler saw an opportunity to contribute.

The next step for the decontamination unit, Rinzler said, will be testing it in collaboration with the Emerging Pathogens Institute before it moves onto clinical evaluation.

Share Your Story

This is just one example of the ways Gators are doing their part to assist during the current crisis. Let us know how you or a Gator you know have made a difference by emailing newsandpublications@clas.ufl.edu.

Related Stories:

Alumna Works to Feed Southwest Florida During the Pandemic

Seeing a Hand Sanitizer Shortage, UF Chemistry Has a Solution

UF biologist corrects misconceptions about a fascinating creature

Since “Crocs: Ancient Predators in a Modern World” debuted in 2016, thousands of visitors to the traveling museum exhibit have listened to KENT VLIET — a crocodilian expert, the exhibit’s scientific adviser and laboratory coordinator in the Department of Biology — explain what makes these reptiles such fascinating and enduring creatures.

Alongside live specimens and interactive features, Vliet leads an immersive learning experience, teaching attendees about the order Crocodylia, which includes the American alligator species found here in Florida. He details why crocodilians swallow rocks, how they navigate, and how unique snout shapes allow different species to crack snail shells or glide through water.

But until the exhibit arrived at the Florida Museum of Natural History at UF last year, one notable croc fanatic hadn’t seen it: Vliet himself. His appearance is as a “digital curator” in prerecorded video segments, and Vliet failed to catch the exhibit’s stints at such vaunted venues as the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. (The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences even held an alumni event at the exhibit in D.C. that Vliet wasn’t able to attend.) The exhibit finished up its stay at the Florida Museum in early January 2020, with future runs yet to be announced.

Kent Vliet
Kent Vliet serves as a “digital curator” in the exhibit Crocs: Anicent Predators in a Modern World. (Photo courtesy of Peeling Productions)

That’s not to say Vliet terribly minded missing it. He was reluctant to appear in the exhibit in the first place, fearing that visitors would become annoyed by the sound of his voice. But he acquiesced because he’s passionate about spreading an appreciation for animals that are too often misunderstood.

“My hope is that people will be impressed by and respect these remarkable animals and their phenomenal capabilities,” Vliet said. 

Instead of highlighting the ruthless attackers commonly seen in news coverage, Vliet notes their shy personalities, sophisticated vocal systems and attentive parenting. “What I’m trying to do is create a new mental image of crocs — perhaps of a mother croc picking up and carrying its baby to water.”

As a well-known crocodilian expert, Vliet is a frequent phone call for reporters writing stories about these reptiles. He uses this platform to push back against sensational headlines and pervasive narratives. A recent NBC News Story, for example, asked him to weigh in on a Tennessee police department’s assertion that flushing drugs down the toilet could lead to “meth-gators” wreaking havoc on the community — Vliet was skeptical.

He hasn’t only corrected misconceptions held by laypeople — he’s also had to school his collaborators. The exhibit’s centerpiece is a scale sculpture of Gomek, the largest crocodile ever exhibited in North America at over 17 feet long and 2,000 pounds. But when the artist sent photos of the massive statue for review, Vliet noticed that the jaw articulation was completely wrong — the artist would have to redo it.

“I’m sure that guy must hate my guts,” Vliet said.

Criminology Professor Jodi Lane

When an inmate on death row wrote to a local newspaper in search of a pen pal, then-high schooler JODI LANE took notice. Even at that young age, Lane was curious about how society dealt with criminal offenders — and who better to ask than someone living it? She responded to his letter, peppering him with questions about life in prison.

Lane’s curiosity never subsided: she has studied topics including the corrections system and fear of crime since 1999 as a professor in UF’s Department of Sociology and Criminology & Law. Repeatedly recognized as one of the most prolific scholars in her field, Lane still believes in directly engaging correctional populations to learn about the system they inhabit.

Few institutions, though, make a point of formally teaching criminology students how to access correctional facilities — or how to interact with those inside. To help the next generation of students navigate the world behind bars firsthand, Lane co-authored Encountering Correctional Populations: A Practical Guide for Researchers (University of California Press) in 2018.

The book covers the persistence required to gain entry, tips for building a rapport and maintaining relationships with inmates and staff, the ethics of prison research and other essentials for collecting data in correctional facilities.

“We rarely teach people how to do the work,” Lane said. “Those of us who do this forget how we learned to do it.”

Lane’s PhD adviser, the late acclaimed criminologist Joan Petersilia, praised the book as a “treasure trove of essential information.”

“It is time to break open the ‘black box’ of corrections research, and this book is the first practical guide on how to do this,” wrote Petersilia, who passed away in October 2019.

Aspiring criminologists would do well to heed Lane’s guidance: This past November, Lane was honored as the 2019 Distinguished Scholar by the American Society of Criminology’s Division on Corrections and Sentencing.

Her dedication to imparting her wisdom to the next generation of criminologists isn’t new. In 2013, Lane was recognized with the Outstanding Mentor Award from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. In the midst of a three-year UF Research Foundation Professorship, she also continues her own investigations, recently publishing new insights into how gender and race play a role in juvenile delinquency and fear of crime.

For Lane, hands-on correctional research is not only valuable for providing the data that will eventually turn into public policy — it also gives a voice to those in the system.

“Often people inside don’t feel heard,” Lane said. “When someone is willing to sit down with them, they like feeling that someone is listening.”

by Andrew Doerfler

The demographics of the United States are changing, with more people aging into what should be their golden years. But the reality is more complicated: Older Americans increasingly face issues such as social isolation and food scarcity. A new UF program is looking to address these problems in underserved communities and improve seniors’ health in the process.

Led by DR. CAROLYN TUCKER, the Health-Smart Holistic Health and Wellness Centers Program provides resources that empower participants to improve their own mental, physical and spiritual health.

Tucker, a professor of psychology and the UF Florida Blue Endowed Chair in Health Disparities Research, was motivated by personal experience to launch the program. She grew up in a poor, rural black community and saw firsthand how these challenges plagued the health of seniors. She even faced food insecurity — a lack of consistent access to nutritious food — in her own childhood home. Now equipped with the expertise needed to tackle these problems, Tucker is determined to make a difference in the lives of those dealing with them today.

Supported by The Humana Foundation, the program takes a wide-ranging, holistic approach to improving the health of seniors, featuring church-based food pantries, insurance consultation, smartphone training for seniors, an app that helps seniors access food and social connection and more.

Because of the coronavirus crisis, much of the work must currently be conducted virtually — but the social connection the program fosters is all the more important in these times.

The Health-Smart Holistic Health and Wellness Centers Program has so far focused on assisting underserved communities in Jacksonville, where the senior poverty rate is more than double the national average. Its initiatives have been implemented at 10 predominantly black churches, two UF-Health affiliated health care centers and three senior centers.

Health-Smart 2
Early surveys suggest that participants in the program improved their diets. (Health-Smart Implementation Team)

While social isolation and food scarcity among seniors might seem like distinct concerns, Tucker believes they stem from the same root causes. Economic inequality, environmental injustice such as a lack of reliable public transportation, limited support services and other social determinants of health all bar seniors in underserved neighborhoods from social connection and nutrition. These troubles can in turn lead to poor mental and physical health, including obesity, diabetes, depression and stress.

“Many individuals — particularly seniors with low incomes — often do not have their physical and mental health needs met,” she said.

The program counts among its partners not only major organizations such as UF Health-Jacksonville, the Jacksonville Urban League, Feeding Northeast Florida and JAX ASCENT, but also black churches and community members in the area of Jacksonville hardest hit by poverty. To effectively take on social isolation and food insecurity, it was essential to engage those living these crises every day — not only because they have the most direct knowledge, but because Tucker counts on these partners to implement and sustain the programs.

“I knew that the best way to determine how to tackle food insecurity among mostly black seniors was to consult and partner with the true experts on these issues — the seniors in the target black communities and the leaders in these communities, including pastors,” Tucker said.

It’s too soon to draw conclusions from the program, but data from an early group of participants showed that they felt less lonely and stressed, ate more fruits and vegetables, forged new social connections and made new friends. Testimonials from seniors have also shown positive feelings about the changes the program has made in their lives.

Looking ahead, Tucker hopes that community leaders in Jacksonville and beyond will see the program as a model for improving the lives of seniors. While the program focuses on the elder members of the community, she wants to remind people that these issues could very well be relevant to them one day.

“An impetus for eliminating social isolation and food insecurity among seniors in particular can be found in the words of my grandfather,” Tucker said. “If you live long enough, one day you will get old.”

The UF Department of Chemistry has found a creative way to use its expertise to help those on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis.

With courses currently taking place online, the department has begun using teaching labs — no longer buzzing with students taking part in hands-on learning — to produce hundreds of liters of much-needed hand sanitizer for UF Health.

The idea originated in mid-March when teaching lab specialist CANDACE BIGGERSTAFF downloaded a World Health Organization formulation for hand sanitizer and realized the General Chemistry teaching lab had all of the ingredients sitting around unused while students learned from home.

“She made a batch, and the idea just took off from there,” said LISA McELWEE-WHITE, the Colonel Allen R. and Margaret G. Crow Professor of Chemistry and chair of the department.

A request went out to people in the department to donate the necessary reagents so that large quantities could be produced for UF Health, which faced a shortage of bulk hand sanitizer to refill its pumps.

“We knew there were shortages, and we knew we could make it,” McElwee-White said. “All of the components are commonly found in chemistry labs.”

The effort has been led by Biggerstaff, fellow General Chemistry lab specialist JESSICA WEBB, Organic Chemistry lab manager JOSHUA BUSH, and Organic Chemistry lab specialist FRED CARTWRIGHT.

Meanwhile, lab specialist MANASI KAMAT of Spectroscopic Services connected the chemistry team to UF Health to arrange the contribution.

“All the credit to goes to the staff,” McElwee-White said. “They’ve done all the labor. They’re really heroes.”

They’ve produced about 560 liters of hand sanitizer so far, made from two formulas — one ethanol-based and the other isopropyl-based. The Department of Biology also donated ingredients that have been used in the batches.

Now, the department is facing a shortage of their own: they’ve run out of ethanol and are welcoming donations so they can continue chipping in to help healthcare facilities.

“Everyone is doing what they can during this crisis,” McElwee-White said. “This is a place where our skills are applicable.”

To donate quantities of ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, glycerol, or hydrogen peroxide to the Department of Chemistry, contact Lisa McElwee-White at chair@chem.ufl.edu.

When you pour a bowl of cereal, you probably aren’t considering how humans came to enjoy milk in the first place.

But this question is essential to the work of anthropology professor Katherine Grillo, who studies pastoralism — the organizing of society around the herding of livestock — in east Africa. The consumption of animal milk was essential to life for these societies.

In a paper published in PNAS, Grillo and her fellow researchers present evidence that finally uncovers the consumption habits of these ancient herders in what is now Kenya and Tanzania and sheds a light on human evolution.

After excavating pottery at sites found throughout east Africa, Grillo and the team analyzed organic lipid residues left in the pottery and were able to see evidence of milk, meat and plant processing. “(This is) the first direct evidence we’ve ever had for milk or plant processing by ancient pastoralist societies in eastern Africa,” Grillo said.

The discovery of milk in this pottery was particularly exciting for the team.

“One of the reasons pastoralism has been so successful around the world is that humans have developed lactase persistence — the ability to digest milk due to the presence of specific alleles,” Grillo said.

Notably, in east Africa there are distinctive genetic bases for lactase persistence that are different from what you see in other parts of the world. Geneticists believed that this ability to digest milk in northeast Africa evolved around five thousand years ago, but archaeologists knew little about the archaeological contexts in which that evolution took place.

By combining lipid residue analyses with what we know from genetics and from archaeology, we can now begin to think about how and why lactase persistence developed in this part of the world.

The development of pastoralism in Africa is unique as well, where herding societies developed in areas that often can’t support agriculture that might provide supplementary nutrition like grains.

“In a lot of parts of east Africa today it is too dry to farm,” Grillo explained, which was also likely the case for the eastern Africans of five thousand years ago as well. In such a dry and arid climate, pastoralism was the best societal optional available.

“Pastoralism is a very sustainable and viable means of life in these places,” Grillo said.

This practice continues into the present, with millions of people relying on herding in this part of the world. In fact, strong reliance on cattle, sheep, and goats in the past matches very well with what highly specialized herders do in east Africa today, Grillo said.

Grillo has been excavating in Kenya and Tanzania for over a decade now. Her recent work has focused on ancient megalithic cemeteries in northwestern Kenya and on a pastoralist village site in Tanzania called Luxmanda. To conduct this research, Grillo selected pottery samples from museum collections and from sites that she and her colleagues uncovered, sending them to her co-first author on this paper, Julie Dunne, at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom for analysis.

These are the first steps for Grillo and co-researchers to figuring out the larger histories of food systems in this area. Moving forward, Grillo will continue with fieldwork in east Africa, focusing her research on trying to learn more about how herders in the past responded to climatic shifts, and how pastoralist cuisines and methods of food preparation have changed through time.

Along with Grillo and Dunne, research was also conducted by researchers from Washington University in St. Louis, Saint Louis University in Madrid, the National Museum of Tanzania, the University of Tennessee, United States International University in Nairobi, Kenya, the University of Oxford, the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, California State University – San Bernardino, and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

View the study by clicking here