Peanuts and peanut butter

(Photography by Corleto Peanut butter / Unsplash)

UChicago research roundup

Peanuts, pollution, plant energy, and a precise picture of the universe.

Gut reaction

Certain gut bacteria can help protect against food allergies by blocking antigens, such as those found in milk or peanuts, from entering the bloodstream. A study led by UChicago immunologist Cathryn Nagler, published online December 22 in Nature Biomedical Engineering, found that delivering the chemical butyrate, produced by a certain type of gut bacteria, directly to the intestines of mice with a peanut allergy reduced their allergic response. The delivery also allowed the beneficial bacteria that make the chemical to flourish. But the solution couldn’t be just to make a butyrate pill; the chemical has a foul odor and taste and gets absorbed in the stomach before it can reach the intestines, where it’s needed. So Nagler teamed up with UChicago molecular engineer Jeffrey Hubbell to design polymers called micelles to carry a payload of butyrate to the intestines before releasing it. This technology could put once-deadly snacks back on the menu.

Poverty costs

Growing up in a low-income neighborhood has been associated with lapses in child development, which can emerge as early as six months—well before children start school. But it’s not clear exactly how neighborhood poverty leads to these gaps. A study led by UChicago sociologist Geoffrey Wodtke, published online November 30 in Science Advances, investigated whether early exposure to air pollution—which disproportionately affects lower-income areas—plays a role. The team analyzed data from a national sample of American infants matched with their estimated exposure to more than 50 air pollutants monitored by the EPA that are known or suspected to harm the central nervous system. They found that about a third of the decline in cognitive abilities associated with neighborhood poverty could be attributed to increased exposure to air toxins in infancy. The research suggests that improving environmental health may promote better outcomes for children.

Fueled by nature

Plants efficiently convert water and carbon dioxide into sugar using the power of the sun, offering a model for how humans can create our own energy sources—and maybe one day replace fossil fuels. But nature’s complex machinery isn’t easy to copy, and sugar can’t meet our energy needs. A team led by UChicago chemist Wenbin Lin has brought us one step closer to a viable energy alternative by developing an artificial photosynthesis system that creates methane and is exponentially more productive than previous artificial systems. Described in a paper published online November 10 in Nature Catalysis, the “artificial enzyme” that drives the reengineered photosynthesis is based on crystalline compounds called metal-organic frameworks arranged in a single layer to maximize surface area where the chemical reaction occurs. Then the team made their artificial enzyme more like natural enzymes than previous designs did by adding amino acids, which increases the efficiency of the photosynthesis.


In an instant, roughly 13.8 billion years ago, all matter in the universe sprang forth and spread out in an explosive expansion. The extremely hot, dense matter cooled and clumped together—into planets, stars, galaxies—as the universe expanded, a process that is still happening. By mapping matter today, cosmologists can study the evolution of the universe. A recent analysis combining data from the Dark Energy Survey Collaboration, which maps distant galaxies, and the South Pole Telescope Collaboration, which searches for leftover radiation from the big bang, has produced one of the most precise maps of the universe to date. The new map shows that matter isn’t as “clumpy” as cosmologists would expect based on current models, suggesting there may be something missing from how they think the universe is evolving. The project involved more than 150 researchers, several from UChicago and Fermilab, and was published online as a three-article set January 31 in Physical Review D.