Taste test

In a study published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, UVA Health System researchers reported that two interacting genes related to bitter taste sensitivity play an important role in a person’s development of nicotine dependence and smoking behavior. They found that people with higher taste sensitivity aren’t as likely to become dependent on nicotine as those with decreased taste sensitivity. Previous studies have suggested a link between so-called taster status and nicotine dependence, but genetic evidence underlying such a link has been lacking.

Taste sensitivity varies widely among individuals and between ethnic groups. For this study, researchers examined genetic data of more than 2,000 participants.

“We’re laying an important foundation for addressing nicotine dependence,” says Ming Li, a UVA professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences. “First we need to establish a comprehensive understanding of how all associated genes work together to affect smoking behaviors and addiction; that’s what we’re doing now.”

A lab in the palm of your hand

UVA forensics researcher Jessica Voorhees Norris (Grad ’08) has developed a time-efficient method for processing rape evidence that could eliminate huge crime-lab backlogs. Despite an overwhelming demand for DNA analysis of sexual assault evidence, laboratories today are unable to handle the caseload in a timely manner because of limitations in current technology. Norris’ method reduces DNA analysis time from 24 hours to 30 to 45 minutes. Her new process also improves the sperm cell recovery rate by streamlining the number of steps that lab technicians must perform to get their results and eliminating the need to incubate samples overnight. Norris presented her findings recently at a meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Science.

Advancing cancer treatment

A team of researchers is working to create an autonomous undersea vehicle that mimics the graceful motions of a manta ray. Hilary Bart-Smith, a UVA mechanical and aerospace engineering professor, received a $6.5 million grant from the U.S. Office of Naval Research to lay the groundwork for such a vehicle, to be used for undersea exploration and scientific research. She and her team of researchers at Princeton and West Chester universities chose the manta ray as a model because of its aerodynamic qualities and efficiency as a swimmer. They are now investigating the design of a mechanical wing that would imitate its maneuvering capabilities, including quick turns and rapid acceleration and deceleration. “Mother Nature has designed over millions of years highly efficient structures for a diverse array of creatures, such as the manta ray,” says Bart-Smith. “As engineers, we can learn a great deal from the design of these organisms and very possibly improve upon them.”