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From Research in Review Magazine, Florida State University, Spring 2006:


Court Decision on “Intelligent Design”
Topic of Scholarly Forum May 17

Last December, a Pennsylvania federal judge—hearing the nation’s first case centered around “intelligent design”—ruled that the concept is merely a “re-labeled” form of creation science, a religious-based theory about the origins of life that the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court banned from being taught in public schools as a violation of the Constitution’s mandate to keep state and religion matters separate. As this issue was headed to press, final preparations were being made to present the nation’s first high-level, in-depth review of this landmark case in a public forum set for May 17 on FSU’s central campus.

Six nationally known scholars in fields ranging from theology to constitutional law are set to participate in a two-hour forum to be held in the FSU College of Medicine Auditorium, beginning at 8 p.m. Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is serving as moderator. Panelists will include Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of The National Center for Science Education based in Oakland, Calif.; Robert T. Pennock, philosopher of science at Michigan State University; John F. Haught, professor of theology at Georgetown University; Joseph Travis, evolutionary biologist and dean of FSU’s College of Arts and Sciences; Michael Ruse, FSU philosopher of science and history; and Steven Gey, an authority on church/state separation issues with FSU’s College of Law.

The forum is being co-sponsored by The FSU Office of Research and The University Research Magazine Association in conjunction with the Tallahassee Scientific Society.

To watch the forum video, visit: www.research.fsu.edu/dover.

An FSU First for Scripps Florida

Scientists at Scripps Florida, the state’s new biomedical research facility launched in 2003, may still be waiting for a permanent home but nonetheless are doing what they know best: research. Let the record show that the first published results bear the stamp of Florida State University.

Just two years after Gov. Bush broke ground on a temporary lab for Scripps Florida in Palm Beach County, the February 15 issue of Analytical Chemistry carried the news of the development of a new analytical technique that can help researchers produce drugs better and faster. FSU chemists Chris Hendrickson and Alan Marshall collaborated with Scripps researchers on the work.

Patrick Griffin, head of drug discovery at Scripps Florida, said his group teamed up with Marshall because his technology at FSU’s National High Magnetic Field Laboratory is the best available for this particular kind of research. Marshall directs the lab’s Ion Cyclotron Resonance program, which exploits techniques capable of performing extremely detailed analysis of a wide variety of substances. Hendrickson directs the lab’s instrumentation development.

The results are not only a success for Scripps Florida and FSU, biomedicine and patients, but they also represent a first step toward the state’s goal of becoming a powerhouse for biotech research. In October 2003, Florida lawmakers pledged $310 million to entice the world-renowned Scripps Research Institute, based in La Jolla, Calif., to build its first East Coast campus in Florida.

Since then, environmental concerns and political jockeying have delayed construction on a permanent home in Palm Beach County. But it hasn’t kept the more than 170 Scripps scientists and staff—concentrated primarily in Jupiter, Fla.—from their projects.

The first published collaboration with FSU helps Scripps researchers precisely map out how drugs bind to proteins, which are the target for most drugs. How this binding process works makes all the difference in drugs’ effectiveness.

Marshall said the new strategy involves dipping complexes of drugs bound to proteins into “heavy water”— a compound (D2O) where hydrogen’s role in the water molecule is replaced by the heavier element deuterium. Gradually, the deuterium switches place with the exposed hydrogen atoms of the protein.

But drugs shield some of a protein’s hydrogen binding sites, blocking them from being swapped out. To detect just where these hidden sites are, researchers cut up the protein and weigh each segment. Pieces that are unusually heavy are the ones where hydrogen was replaced with deuterium. This tells scientists, more precisely than before, where the drug attaches to the protein.

Marshall said the technique suggests a way to dramatically speed up the development of new drugs and improve existing ones.

Asian Art Collection Finds a Florida Home

Art is education, and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota is about to open a whole new school.

Sarasota philanthropist Helga Wall-Apelt is donating to the FSU-operated museum hundreds of pieces of Asian art, from intricately carved Chinese jades to Cambodian stone figures from the 12th century.

To house the collection, the German native is also giving the Ringling $4 million to construct an Asian art gallery, expected to be ready in three to four years, and an additional $4 million for an endowment.

In all, the gift is thought to be worth more than $50 million, making it the largest single gift to FSU and the Ringling. But for Wall-Apelt, no dollar amount can match the collection’s full significance.

Wall-Apelt told reporters at the press conference announcing the donation that it was her father, a German Jewish doctor, who introduced her to Eastern culture and philosophy. She guessed that studying Buddhism helped him deal with the Nazi rise to power.

When he passed away more than 50 years ago, he left Wall-Apelt, then 15, a bronze Buddha statue from China’s Ming Dynasty, her first piece of Asian art.

T. Rex, the Tiny

Millions of years before humans walked the Earth, a feathery tyrant terrorized its fellow creatures in the far reaches of the western Gobi Desert.

It was small by dinosaur standards—a mere 10 feet from nose to tail. But it had a wicked set of teeth, serrated to cut like knives and rip through flesh, and long arms designed to grab prey.

It had a striking crest atop its head, standing fragile but proud from nostril to eye and probably used to attract mates.

At least, so goes the story told through its bones.

A team of Chinese and American scientists discovered two sets of them in the Gobi Desert in China. Assembling them revealed a curious combination of traits—the crest, a shallow snout, long, three-fingered forelimbs—and showed they were like no dinosaur specimen ever unearthed before. Yet they shared a long pelvic bone, D-shaped teeth and other features with the gigantic Tyrannosaurus Rex, which lived about 100 million years later and grew 40 feet long.

The scientists soon realized they had come across the oldest, most primitive ancestor of T. Rex yet known. The new genus was named Guanlong, or “crowned dragon.” The species was named wucaii, or “five colors,” referring to the rich colors of the rocks where the bones were found.

The discovery team was led by paleontologist Xu Xing of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, and James Clark, associate professor of biology at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Greg Erickson, FSU assistant professor of biological science and renowned in his field as an expert in dinosaur growth, was brought in to determine how old the ancient animals were when they died 160 million years ago.

Judging by the bones’ growth rings (similar to trees’), Erickson showed that one of the Guanlong specimens found was a 6-year-old juvenile. He determined that a larger specimen found died at about 12 years old, a full-grown adult.

Prior to Guanlong’s finding, researchers had already identified medium-size tyrannosauroids, younger and bigger than the crowned dragon but older than T. rex. The previous record holder for the age of a T. rex ancestor was the 130 million-year-old Dilong paradoxus, also a feathery dinosaur which was discovered in China in 2004.

“Now we have our small tyrannosauroid,” said Erickson, who is investigating why T. rex evolved into such an enormous predator. He has already published his research on the growth curve of previously known tyrannosauroids. “This animal will fit in nicely.”

Mangrove Tea

As the world’s lush mangrove forests disappear, scientists are figuring out just how essential they are to the oceans—and potentially, to the Earth’s climate.

Mangroves, tropical trees that thrive in brackish water where land meets the ocean, are already known for protecting shorelines and coastal critters, from mollusks to sea turtles. Hundreds of bird species depend on mangroves for nesting and migration for their survival.

These wetland forests cover less than 0.1 percent of the Earth’s land, but researchers have found yet another significant facet of these plants.

FSU oceanographer Thorsten Dittmar and a team of researchers in Germany studied a Brazilian mangrove forest, one of the largest in the world, and found that the trees play a much larger part in channeling carbon into the oceans than previously thought. This function keeps at least some carbon dioxide—a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere—out of the air. Their results were published in February in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles.

Dittmar explained that the trees’ tangled roots act like the netting of a teabag. They trap fallen leaves and other organic matter that the sun and bacteria then break down. But the material dissolved in the muddy base doesn’t stick around for long. Because mangroves grow along shores, rising tides regularly flood the shadowy network of roots. When the tide falls—like pouring water over a teabag—it flushes out whatever is dissolved, including carbon.

Until now, researchers had focused on rivers as the main courier of dissolved organic carbon from the land to the sea. But Dittmar’s team found the mangroves’ teabag effect accounted for more than 10 percent of the dissolved organic carbon that washes from land into the oceans. In Brazil, mangroves transported as much carbon to sea as the massive Amazon River.

But how much longer mangroves will keep this role remains uncertain. As Floridians know so well, they tend to grow in prime locations for development and other uses. Less than half a million acres of Florida’s mangrove-covered shorelines are estimated to remain from the millions of acres that existed in the 1930s. Dittmar said a report from the early 1990s showed shrimp farming had destroyed half of the mangroves in Southeast Asia, where most of the world’s mangroves are—or, at least, where they used to be.

Starving a Virus

For years after its discovery in the late ’80s, the virus that causes hepatitis C thwarted researchers’ attempts to study it in the lab. Scientists simply could not get the bug to stay alive in captivity.

Hengli Tang

“It’s a very finicky virus,” said Hengli Tang, FSU assistant professor of biological science. “It needs all the right conditions.”

Meanwhile, hepatitis C was infecting millions of people around the world, causing liver disease and liver cancer. In the United States, it has become the most common, chronic blood-borne virus.

Luckily, within the past five years scientists have figured out how to keep the virus alive in a petri dish, making it far easier to study. They could finally chip away at the virus’s curious nature and perhaps find a way to defeat it.

A cure for the disease may yet be a long way off, but at least one of the mysteries surrounding the virus has now been solved by Tang and FSU doctoral student Heather Nelson.

Like other viruses, the hep C virus copies, or clones, itself en masse by invading cells—in this case, human liver cells—and turning them into virus factories. No surprises there—this is what all disease-causing viruses do.

But scientists noticed in the lab that when invaded liver cells grew crowded and ran out of room to divide, the hepatitis C virus would stop cloning itself soon after. Researchers thus suggested that the slowed growth of the liver cells directly stalled virus production.

But the theory had a major flaw, Tang realized. In the body, slow growth is the norm for liver cells, yet that’s where the virus thrives. Tang reasoned that the cause had to be something else.

To pin down the answer, Tang and Nelson grew mixed cultures of liver cells and the virus. As expected, the liver cells grew crowded; they stopped dividing; and the virus choked.

But the FSU researchers found that feeding the cultures with a certain solution gave the virus its second wind, and crowded liver cells once again churned out more viruses. The solution’s key ingredients were the building blocks of RNA called nucleosides.

Made up of little more than bits of RNA dressed in a protein coat to begin with, the hepatitis C virus couldn’t replicate itself in earlier experiments simply because it ran out of parts, Tang and Nelson concluded.

The discovery, Tang said, explains up to 70 percent of why the virus stalls when its host liver cells stop growing in the lab. The finding solves a key mystery that has stymied progress in the search for an effective drug to snuff out the disease.

Tang and Nelson published their results in the Feb. 8 issue of the Journal of Virology.

For more on all the varieties of viral hepatitis, visit: www.cdc.gov/hepatitis.

Caution: Kids May Cause Depression

If kids came with a warning label, it would read: May cause symptoms of depression.

That is, you may feel lonely more often than before; things that didn’t bother you before may bother you as a parent; you may feel more fearful; you may lose your appetite; you may lose your concentration easily.

This vision of parenthood might not fit what we hope and expect.

“We have a highly romanticized idea of parenthood,” said Robin Simon, FSU associate professor of sociology. But Simon and sociologist Ranae Evenson of Vanderbilt University have found the reality is quite different from our rose-colored expectations.

In Simon and Evenson’s mental health study, published in December in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, parents of all kinds—married, single, stepparents, noncustodial—reported more symptoms of depression than adults with no kids. The researchers based their analysis on data on more than 13,000 U.S. adults.

With this comprehensive study, Simon and Evenson may have ended a three-decade-long quest to answer the question of whether parents are more depressed than nonparents. And they have also shattered common beliefs and previous research results on parenthood and mental health.

While earlier studies have shown that among parents women get more depressed than men, Simon and Evenson found that parents have the same levels of depression regardless of gender.

While many people believe stepparents are more depressed than nonparents, this study showed little difference in depression symptoms between the two groups.

Unlike marriage and employment, two major stages in adulthood that promote better mental health, parenthood is a downer. Even as kids grow up and leave the house, empty nesters can’t look forward to relief from the weight of parenthood.

But if there is a message to heed here, it isn’t “Don’t have kids.”

“Depression’s not necessarily misery,” Simon said. “Just know what you’re getting yourself into.”

Fresh Start for a Marine Lab

Florida State’s “window on the sea”—as a reporter poetically called the university’s marine laboratory at its opening in 1968—opened to a new era in January with the appointment of the lab’s first full-time, on-site director.

Felicia Coleman

Felicia Coleman, a member of FSU’s Department of Biological Science faculty, was tapped for the post by Vice President for Research Kirby Kemper, whose office oversees operation of the lab, located at Turkey Point on the Gulf coast in Franklin County.

Over the past two decades, Coleman has distinguished herself as a leading researcher in the ecology of grouper and other marine fish. She becomes the first designated scholar-scientist to assume a newly expanded role that will require her to maintain a full-time office at the lab. Coleman will be responsible for maintaining on-site, day-to-day operations of the lab’s teaching, research and outreach functions.

To the director’s chair, Coleman brings extensive experience in marine ecology research, teaching, science education and governmental policymaking in the areas of fisheries management. She holds a master’s degree from the College of Charleston and a doctorate in biology from Florida State.

Since the early 1990s, Coleman has been a close collaborator with her husband Chris Koenig, also an FSU biologist who specializes in studying the natural history of certain commercially and recreationally important Gulf fish, most notably the gag grouper. With Koenig and other researchers Coleman is now an active partner in research projects funded at more than $1 million principally by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Florida State has operated the current marine lab facility since the late 1960s, when it was dedicated in the name of Edward Ball, founder of the St. Joe Paper Company. Ball donated St. Joe property to the state for the marine lab’s use.

Coleman hit the ground running, instituting a number of changes at the lab including revising its name. The lab’s new moniker—The Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory—reflects a new mission to focus more research in and public attention on the lab’s immediate environs, which include some of the last remaining unspoiled seagrass acreages in the entire Gulf of Mexico.


An FSU First

Asian Art Collection

T. Rex, the Tiny

Mangrove Tea

Starving a Virus

Caution: Kids may Cause Depression

Fresh Start for a Marine Lab

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