What good could possibly come from studying a nematode's libido? Or a shark's sense of smell? And who in the world would want to collect samples of sweat from treadmills at the gym? Those are all studies that have been undertaken by Florida universities over the past few years. And school officials say the studies can do a lot of good. Florida's public and private universities spent almost $1.7 billion on scientific research and development in 2009 (the last year figures are available), the 10th highest amount in the country. Fifty-four percent of that money was granted by the federal government, according to the National Science Foundation, slightly less than the national average. At first blush, some of the work may sound zany or obscure, but the experts who immerse themselves in it believe they can provide answers to serious questions and solutions to nagging societal problems. Here's a look at how Florida's universities stack up in research spending as well as a few examples of the ways in which offbeat ideas meet science.
Study: The behavior of nematodes
School: Florida State University, National High Magnetic Field Lab
Why: Some nematodes have the ability to lengthen their own lifespan and alter their own libido. By studying such creatures, scientists could find clues about how to increase human longevity and libido. Some nematodes behave as destructive parasites, destroying crops. Understanding how they communicate could help curb crop losses.
Study: Save the bananas
School: University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Why: Tropical race four of Panama disease, or TR4, travels up the trunks of banana plants and destroys their canopy. There is no cure. It wreaked havoc on banana plantations in Southeast Asia and Australia in the 1990s and researchers expect it could arrive one day in the Western Hemisphere. By studying the disease, UF scientists hope to map existing populations, raise awareness and create a plan for eradication, thereby saving the North American banana supply.
Study: Sweaty treadmills
School: University of Florida, College of Medicine
Why: You know that sweat puddle someone left on the weight bench? What about the slimy handles of the treadmill? Pretty disgusting, right? Well, UF researchers found they probably aren't teeming with germs or MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, aka "staph"), as popular belief would hold. Scientists took samples from several gyms to get a better picture of how MRSA is spread. They determined the hard, flat surfaces of gym equipment might not offer the enticing environment bacteria need to thrive.
Study: How sharks use their sense of smell
School: University of South Florida, Department of Integrative Biology
Why: Understanding how sharks smell may give scientists clues needed to help protect some of their declining species. But it also might give scientists a better understanding of sensory communication in humans, thereby increasing the chances of helping people who have experienced sensory damage or loss.
Study: Reading oyster shells for history
School: University of South Florida
Why: Oyster shells discarded in a well from 1604 to 1612 gave scientists data about record dry conditions that killed almost half of the English colonists at Jamestown. By studying the shells, researchers collected evidence about the poor drinking water that exacerbated disease.
Study: Is there a PTSD gene?
School: University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine
Why: Researchers collected blood samples from 1,200 trauma patients in an Atlanta emergency room, some of whom went on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder and some who did not. They determined that PTSD might be better predicted by looking at a gene called the pituitary adenylate cyclase activating polypeptide (PACAP). Such information could help physicians make better decisions about how to treat patients.
SOURCE: University of Florida, University of South Florida, Florida State University, University of Miami
STEVE MADDEN | Times graphic