Tag Archives: research

Sweet success: UF researchers find key to sweeter, healthier strawberries

6 Apr
Paige Levin is a freshman journalism and political science student at the University of Florida. She enjoys writing opinion pieces and in-depth feature articles, and loves to discover people’s stories. Levin hopes to one day combine her passions for writing, government and politics to work in the nation’s capitol and bring the political information needed back to the people. Paige has been writing for about five years now, she is currently an intern for the Pledge 5 Foundation, and was previously the editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper.

Paige Levin is a freshman journalism and political science student at the University of Florida. She enjoys writing opinion pieces and in-depth feature articles, and loves to discover people’s stories. Levin hopes to one day combine her passions for writing, government and politics to work in the nation’s capitol and bring the political information needed back to the people. Paige has been writing for about five years now, she is currently an intern for the Pledge 5 Foundation, and was previously the editor-in-chief of her high school newspaper.

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of contributing bloggers beginning their careers as journalists/public relations professionals at the University of Florida. Please see my earlier post about getting journalists excited about science writing early on.

By Paige Levin

Whether they are tucked into a shortcake, whipped into a smoothie or sitting atop a yogurt parfait, there is nothing more enticing than a scoopful of juicy, red strawberries. But how many times have you bitten into a berry-laden treat, only to be left grimacing by a less than satisfying bitter burst?

You might be tempted to reach for the sugar to help sweeten your snack, which while tasty, isn’t beneficial to the waistline. Now, researchers at the University of Florida say they have found the compounds that promise a sweeter and healthier berry.

The study, conducted by the University of Florida’s Plant Innovation Program entitled “Strawberry Flavor: Diverse Chemical Compositions, a Seasonal Influence, and Effects on Sensory Perception,” identifies the 30 compounds in strawberries that give the fruit its distinctive flavor. This allows breeders to now create better tasting and possibly healthier varieties of strawberries.

One of the team members, Thomas Colquhoun said in the long term, six of the compounds discovered by Michael Schwieterman and his colleagues may allow scientists to create processed foods that taste sweeter while using less sugar, making the foods healthier.

“Our idea is to make our crops more flavorful and healthy for consumers so that our consumers eat healthier and eat more of it,” Colquhoun said.

Colquhoun, an assistant professor in floriculture biotechnology and genetics, said the study is unique because it uses a very sophisticated type of psychophysics. Psychophysics looks at the relationship between certain physical stimuli, in this case strawberry variety, and the sensations they affect or cause.

For the study,  166 consumers between 18 and 71 years old  were recruited and asked to taste between three and five different varieties of strawberries. After chewing and swallowing a whole strawberry, panelists were asked to rate it based on overall taste, texture  and perceived intensity of sweetness and sourness.download (2)

Linda Bartoshuk, director of human research at UF’s Center for Smell and Taste, was in charge of the consumer taste panel. Bartoshuk compared consumer opinions using a method called cross-modality matching. This method combines the pleasure and sensory scales, making it possible to compare opinions fairly.

“It doesn’t matter what your scale is or what my scale is,” Colquhoun said. “We can compare those two things because they can be mixed and matched and weighted.”

By comparing the psychophysics data from consumer panels with biochemical data, Colquhoun said they identified 30 volatile compounds associated with flavors consumers enjoy. Within that, the study showed a group of six volatiles associated with perceived sweetness intensity, without the contribution of sugar.

“You’re actually sensing this volatile, and there is some sort of signal that is telling your brain what you taste is actually sweet, even though you’re not registering sugar,” Colquhoun said. “So what that indicates is that we may be able to reduce the level of sugar, increase the level of these volatiles, and the strawberry should be perceived as approximately the same sweetness.”

Eventually, those six volatiles may be used to lower sugar content in products like strawberry jam and yogurt, but for now, Colquhoun said this information is passed along to the UF strawberry breeder so that he can grow more flavorful strawberries. He added that more varieties with richer flavor and better health benefits should be hitting the markets within the next two years.

Paul Lyrene, professor emeritus of horticultural sciences, said he thinks the new information will only have minimal effects on improving the strawberry in the short term.

“I think all the information is good and worthwhile and sometimes helpful, but I do not believe that the studies are going to lead to any great breakthroughs in flavors of strawberries because the problem is really not at the molecular level, its at some other level,” Lyrene said.

The reason we currently have such poor-flavored fruit is not because of the chemistry, Lyrene said, but because flavor is given low priority in the marketing system.

“I, as a plant breeder, know exactly how to make my fruit taste better without really knowing any of the molecular biology of what happens,” he said. “I have, for example, varieties of blueberries that everybody says are better than what is being grown, but the growers will not plant them because they yield only half as much.”

Lyrene said other issues come from the fact that a crop has to have a lot of different features to be successful.

“It has to be resistant to various diseases. It has to yield well.  It has to be attractive in appearance for the consumer, and it has to be compatible with the modern packing and shipping methods,” Lyrene said.

The team’s research, which began with tomatoes, and is now expanding to include blueberries, peaches, citrus and culinary herbs.

“UF is a unique place because we have a huge team of very, very highly skilled breeders,” Colquhoun said. “What we can do is just go right down the line and help our breeders with our basic science and applied consumer science.”

Science in the city

2 Oct

As many of you may know, this summer I interned at the University of Florida’s Health Science Center communications office. While most of the work there was for PR purposes, I was still able to cover some of the great research going on at UF. Below is a cover story I wrote for The Post about research going on at the UF’s Jacksonville campus. Pretty cool stuff. Enjoy!

Editor’s note: This story was originally posted in University of Florida’s Health Science Center magazine, The Post.

Researchers Fabiana Rollini and Dr. Jung Rae Cho work with Dr. Dominick Angiolillo on cardiovascular studies in Jacksonville. -Photo by Maria Belen Farias

Researchers Fabiana Rollini and Dr. Jung Rae Cho work with Dr. Dominick Angiolillo on cardiovascular studies
in Jacksonville.
-Photo by Maria Belen Farias

Amid the hustle and bustle of Jacksonville, University of Florida Health scientists are finding ways to solve some of our most challenging medical problems.

In the basement of the emergency medicine corridor of UF Health Jacksonville, Robert Wears, M.D., a professor in the department of emergency medicine, scans engineering books and medical journals, taking notes on his cluttered desk. He is carefully piecing together the historical puzzle of hospital safety.

Bridging the fields of engineering, psychology, medicine and sociology, Wears is designing an approach to eliminate hospital accidents, mistreatment and misdiagnosis.

“The way that nature has divided up her problems is not the same way the university has divided up its subjects,” Wears says. “You need a really interdisciplinary group.”

By studying hospital safety from a historical perspective, Wears hopes to devise an interdisciplinary plan to minimize harm in health facilities.

Wears is just one of the many world-renowned UF researchers who reside and study in the heart of Jacksonville. Located less than two hours from the main campus in Gainesville, UF Health Jacksonville typically has been known more for the clinical care it provides patients. But the research occurring at the UF College of Medicine- Jacksonville — basic, translational and clinical — is internationally recognized. M.D.s and Ph.D.s from around the globe collaborate to pump out groundbreaking research to improve public health and medicine. In fact, during the past five years, federal funding for research on the Jacksonville campus has grown 110 percent. Continue reading

UF researcher says T cells the answer to cancer vaccines

8 Aug

Editorial note: This is reprint of a press release I wrote for UF Health News and Communications, and it was my first whack at a press release. But I can tell you this guy is pretty interesting if you decide to write about him!

T-cellsJohn “Bobby” Goulding, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the department of pathology, immunology and laboratory medicine at the University of Florida, is in a scramble to help create safe and effective vaccines to prevent and fight human respiratory viruses.

While past vaccines focused solely on triggering antibody responses to fight the viruses, Goulding and his colleagues are shifting the emphasis to T cells, otherwise known as white blood cells, because of their ability to target specific pieces of a virus.

Figuring out how to create an army of these virus-fighters will aid in the creation of a new generation of vaccines that are safe and long-lived and that target viruses we don’t have existing vaccines against. He recently received the prestigious Thomas H. Maren Junior Investigators Postdoctoral Award to fund his research. The $50,000 award was founded by UF’s first chairman of pharmacology, Thomas H. Maren, M.D., to help postdoctoral students in the UF College of Medicine further their scientific goals.

Rapidly mutating viruses in the human respiratory tract account for millions of deaths worldwide each year. Because invasive attackers such as avian flu and others mutate so quickly, the antibody response prompted by current vaccines is often not strong enough, which is why the flu shot is seasonal and not a one-time-fix-all.

Goulding explains that while antibody vaccines have been very successful in eradicating certain viruses, most notably the virus that causes smallpox, they have not been as effective in rapidly mutating viruses or retroviruses, such as HIV, which can integrate into someone’s DNA.

“Antibodies by definition can really only bind and protect against viruses that are outside the cell and prevent them from getting inside,” Goulding said. “But if the viruses change so that your antibodies can no longer recognize them and gain entry to your body, an antibody response is unlikely to be able to protect you from being infected.”

T cells, which are a type of white blood cell, work a bit differently, he said. They can kill a virus that has already infected a cell, whereas antibodies cannot do this.

“T cells are cells of the immune system that have evolved to be really picky at attacking a very specific part of viruses, bacteria or cancers,” Goulding said. “These cells recognize something that is foreign to the body and only react against a real specific protein or peptide of the virus, and that’s kind of their job or duty.”

Goulding studies a subset of T cells, called CD8+ T cells. Once the pieces of a virus are mopped up, digested and presented on the surface of certain cells in the body, the CD8+ T cells recognize the chopped up virus bits and begin cloning themselves so they can rapidly and effectively kill cells that become infected with the virus.

“Your body has essentially generated an army that’s really great at recognizing a really specific type of virus and killing infected cells,” Goulding said.

He explains that this army would then be waiting to attack if a human actually came in contact with the virus later. Goulding wants to figure out how to generate large numbers of these virus-specific T cells while preventing the vaccine from causing unwanted side effects. T cells need to be presented with digested virus in an inflammatory environment before they can begin cloning themselves.  However, this inflammatory environment can cause side effects in people injected with the vaccine.

Goulding wants to trick T cells into thinking they are in an inflammatory environment without disrupting the body and risking unwanted side effects. By thinking something is wrong, the cells will form the army and wait patiently until the foreign host attacks. He is currently looking at a group of receptors, called TNF receptors, which are part of the main decision-making team telling the T cells whether to multiply and wait ready to ambush an invading target virus.

“So the premise is that if we understand those signals from the receptors, we can utilize that as a system in which you can control the number of T cells — like in a vaccine,” Goulding said. “We could then induce a positive signal and boost the T cell response. We could, in theory, interfere with that interaction and produce lots of CD8+ T cells against any type of virus we want.”

Due to aging populations, increasing antibiotic resistance and public skepticism about vaccines, Goulding says the public health impact of respiratory viruses and other infectious diseases are increasing.

“The ultimate goal of all of this research is really to develop a robust understanding of how vaccines can be utilized to generate really good T cell responses that are required to protect against certain types of infections or cancers,” Goulding said. “The hope is to understand the activating and inhibitory signals that the TNF receptors give to the T cells. Scientists can use that to their advantage and design the next generation of safe vaccines.”

Media Contact: April Frawley Birdwell

How is health literacy measured in America?

18 Sep

Health communicators face the challenge of communicating what can be complex subjects to the general public. To do this, measures of a particular audience’s health literacy may be measured to create a strategic communication plan. Surprisingly, the form below is how health literacy is tested in the United States.

Is this enough? Is there a more comprehensive strategy? This test simply measures whether or not the patient can read the words aloud, not if they can comprehend them. Research also shows that a majority of the population is health illiterate based on this test. What are effective mediums that health communicators can use to educate lay people?

This, is of course a rhetorical question that will appreciate any comment. I hope I will slowly learn some sort of answer to this question as I research more.

The Rapid Estimate of Adult Literacy in Medicine takes two to three minutes to complete and can be administered by a nurse or other staff member.

What exactly is “Science Communication” anyway?

7 Sep

Communication can come in many different forms, but must always have a goal in mind. With this definition of science communication, found in the Public Understanding of Science Journal, communicators can better articulate what the point of their articles are.