Madagascar: A Country of Contrasts III

This is the last post of my three-part photoblog highlighting all of my favorite pictures from the four field seasons I completed in Madagascar. I really hope y’all liked it! As a teaser (and shameless plug!) for some upcoming posts, I have some exciting results from a study I was conducting with the captive colony at the Duke Lemur Center. Human hibernation, here we come!!

Part tres:

Dawwwww!

Dawwwww!

Dave is wondering where the little chameleon went!

Dave is wondering where the little chameleon went!

He's making a run for it!

He’s making a run for it…or showing off by doing pull-ups.

Madagascar scops owl (Otus rutilus) provided nighttime serenades

Madagascar scops owl (Otus rutilus) provided nighttime serenades

This is "Toothpaste". He hung out in my favorite toothbrushing spot.

This is “Toothpaste” hanging out in my favorite toothbrushing spot–the bushes next to my tent.

Momma diademed sifaka. Her baby is hiding on her belly

Momma diademed sifaka. Her baby is hiding on her belly

Here she is!

Here she is!

The little Malagasy boys were in charge of taking care of the babies, while their mothers harvested the produce

The little Malagasy boys were in charge of taking care of the babies, while their mothers harvested the crops

Probably my favorite lemur picture of all time!

Probably my favorite lemur picture of all time!

"Signpost" the chameleon hangs out in the same spot every night to make sure we don't miss a turn on the trail.

“Signpost” the chameleon hangs out in the same spot every night to make sure we don’t miss a turn on the trail.

Kathrin holding an adorable dwarf lemur (that she crocheted). I know, it's hard to tell because it looks so real!

Kathrin holding an adorable dwarf lemur (that she crocheted). It looks so real!

Talking about data and freezing our buns off!

Talking about data and freezing our butts off!

Bobby reaping the rewards of his hard vet work

Bobby reaping the rewards of his hard vet work

Martha and lemur hanging out on the lawn

Martha and lemur sunbathing on the lawn

Lovely!

Lovely!

Dave, the mouse lemur, on his favorite perch

Dave, the mouse lemur, on his favorite perch

Dr. Ed Louis, a world-famous lemur researcher, showing off the newest member of his focal animals--the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis)

Dr. Ed Louis, a world-famous lemur researcher, showing off the newest member of his focal animals–a young male aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis). These animals are so elusive people almost never see them in the wild!

That white stuff outlining the leaves? Frost!!

That white stuff outlining the leaves? Frost!!

Our hand-washing statement is the victim of chilly night temps

Our hand-washing station is the victim of chilly night temps

Spring is here!

Spring is here…

Rice harvest

…and the rice harvest begins

The plum trees show off their lovely blooms

The plum trees show off their lovely blooms

Moments like this are why I love what I do!

Moments like this are why I love what I do!

I hope you enjoyed the pictures. It was a small collection of the numerous out-of-this-world experiences I was lucky enough to have while completing my dissertation field work in Madagascar. Now let’s hope the data I collected while there compliment the awesome-ness.

It’s a jungle out there!

Madagascar: A Country of Contrasts II

Part Dos:

Rice paddies, a plenty!

Rice paddies, a plenty!

Sometimes rain highlights natural beauty

Rain highlights the natural beauty of peach trees

Our internal compasses may be off. This is how we find our way back to the campsite

Our internal compasses may be a little off. This is how we find our way back to the campsite

So life-like!

So life-like! A Malagasy rum bottle makes the best subject matter

Donning the rain gear

Donning the rain gear…and being very excited about it

We enjoy working in inclement weather conditions

We obviously enjoy working in inclement weather conditions

That tickles!

That tickles!

Lovely Christine!

Lovely Christine watching over the rice!

Working hard...

Casey and Wiggles working hard…

The gang

The gang after a long field season

The children love looking at photos of themselves

The children love looking at photos of themselves with digital cameras. They were such good models!

Just hanging out, literally

Diademed sifakas just hanging out, literally

Typical biologists....

Typical biologists….

This is what intrigued them so! Termites!

This is what intrigued them so! Termites!

Any entomologists want to tell me what this is?

Any entomologists want to tell me what this is?

You might be a Leaf chameleon (Brookesia superciliaris). But then again, you might not be...

You might be a leaf chameleon (Brookesia superciliaris). But then again, you might not be…

The Indri (Indri indri) is the largest extant lemur

The Indri (Indri indri) is the largest extant lemur

Look at that face!

Look at that face!

Surveying the beauty of our surroundings (or pretending to do work...)

Surveying the beauty of our surroundings (while pretending to do work…)

Parson's chamleon (Calumma parsonii)

Parson’s chameleon (Calumma parsonii) doing his best to be inconspicuous

Almost ready to harvest the rice!

Almost ready to harvest the rice!

How's that banana, Bema Luis?

How’s that banana, Bema Luis?

You got something in your teeth.

Bema, you, ummm, have something in your teeth.

Believe it or not, this is a type of fungus. I'm not sure I do!

Believe it or not, this is a type of fungus. (I’m not sure I do…)

Is this real, or a painting?

Is this real, or a painting?

Sometimes clothes fall apart in the field and you have to make do.

Sometimes clothes fall apart in the field, and you have to make do. Duct tape pants!

The morning fog is clearing away

The morning fog is clearing away to reveal the landscape

Even the flies are prettier in Madagascar!

Even the flies are prettier in Madagascar!

He thinks he's hiding!

He thinks he’s hiding!

The bustling metropolis of Antananarivo. It sprawls.

The bustling metropolis of Antananarivo. It sprawls.

The Queen's Palace, in the place of honor--the hilltop!

The Queen’s Palace, in the place of honor–the hilltop overlooking the capital

Piles and piles of produce at the open air market

Piles and piles of produce at the open air market

Our remote lab in the field.

Our remote lab in the field

Enjoying the rare sun during the rainy season

Enjoying the rare sun during the winter season

Majestic!

Majestic!

Until next time!

It’s a jungle out there!

Madagascar: The Country of Contrasts (a photoblog)

I think I’m having withdrawal. This July marks the first summer I haven’t been in Madagascar in two years. I could respond by laying on my couch–fighting the shakes–and suppressing bad feelings by downing an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food, but instead I’m taking the healthier route: Obsessively going through my thousands of pictures and crying buckets. Ok, just kidding about the bucket part…and crying part, but I was going through my pictures. Then I had a thought (rare, but it happens). I said to myself: “Self, some of these pictures are lovely and shouldn’t be kept to yourself. Share.” I don’t always listen to myself, but sometimes I do–especially when it’s a great idea (rare, but it happens). So, for your viewing pleasure, I’m doing a three-part photo blog of all of my favorite pictures from Madagascar. I do have to give some kudos to Kathrin Dausmann and David Parent, as some of these photos may have been stolen (or lovingly borrowed?). Props, Kathrin and Dave! They are amazing photographers and deserve to have the fruits of their labor shared, too! I do hope you enjoy! Part Uno:

Quintessential Madagascar

Quintessential Madagascar

Brilliant view of our field site from "Phone Hill"

Brilliant view of our field site from “Phone Hill”

Malagasy patriotism

Malagasy patriotism

Hello, little friend!

Hello, little friend!

Peacock Day Gecko (Phelsuma quadriocellata)

Peacock day gecko (Phelsuma quadriocellata)

Sometimes Peacock Day Geckos end up on my favorite hat.

Sometimes peacock day geckos end up on my favorite hat. Maybe he’s a Brewers fan, also?

Capturing the morning dew

Capturing the morning dew

Lookout from the view point

Lookout from the view point

Madagascar has ants, too!

Madagascar has ants, too!

Dwarf lemurs have feet...but they look like hands.

Dwarf lemurs have feet…but they look like hands.

Tiny alien-lemur hands!

Tiny alien-lemur hands!

Stunning display of the color wheel!

The world is on fire!

Marina and her lemur burrito

Marina and her lemur burrito

Wishing it was peach season, but this is just as appealing

Wishing it was peach season, but this is just as appetizing

Arachnophobes, look away!

Arachnophobes, look away!

Watch where you sit down!

Watch where you sit down!

Oh, heeeeey! Diademed sifaka (Propithicus diadema) spying on us during a daily hike.

Oh, heeeeey! Diademed sifaka (Propithecus diadema) spying on us during a daily hike.

Isn't she pretty? This female Carpet chameleon (Furcifer lateralis) was laying eggs when I almost stepped on her!

Isn’t she pretty? This female Carpet chameleon (Furcifer lateralis) was laying eggs when I almost stepped on her!

Malagasy babes, dressed in their best.

Malagasy babes, dressed in their best.

Marina's groupies

Marina’s groupies

Christine and her new grandson, Nekena

Christine and her new grandson, Nekena

Sibree's dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus sibreei)

Sibree’s dwarf lemur (Cheirogaleus sibreei)

Rene and Jules lugging the oxbox through the forest

Rene and Jules doing a great job lugging research equipment through the forest

Contemplating how to fully capture the realism of the hot sauce bottles

Contemplating how to fully capture the realism of the hot sauce bottles during painting class

Incoming storms cast brilliant light on the forest!

Incoming storms cast brilliant light on the forest!

Until next post! It’s a jungle out there!

Ode to a Tissue Ruptor

Here’s a life lesson learned: If you do not want to increase the number of gray hairs on your head by three orders of magnitude, then do not try to import tissue samples from endangered species across international borders. If you do want to increase your gray hair count well then, by all means, go ahead. You have my blessing.

As it turns out, this process, if completed successfully, can be qualified as nothing short of miraculous. Miracles do happen. I am now a believer. However, sometimes they require a bit of, well…nudging along. The nudging, in the case I’m documenting here, consisted of paying an exorbitantly incompetent shipping company an exorbitantly gross amount of greenbacks, completely lucking out and having our samples inspected by the nicest U.S. Fish & Wildlife customs officer ever to exist, and a graduate student who was willing (or desperate enough?) to spend 13 hours in the car driving from Durham, NC to Atlanta, GA and back in one day to recover them when FedEx refused to deliver them. All right, if I’m being honest, the nudging was a bit more like shoving.

Now that I’ve shoved my way into witnessing a miracle, what do I do with the tissue samples that were delivered like manna from above?* Molecular biology! The term “molecular biology” sounds impressive, but I promise you that buried underneath that cryptic appellation, is a simple concept. Let’s break it down: The word “molecule” is derived from the Latin word “moles” which means tiny particle. And “biology” just translates to the study of life. The goal, then, of molecular biology is to understand the interactions between the different particles that make up a cell, for instance. Here, the particles are simply DNA, RNA, and protein. It helps to think of it as trying to uncover a buried set of blueprints. The blueprint is the plan that encodes for the interacting parts of the architectural structure—the cell!

If you’re anything like I was 10 years ago, the term molecular biology evokes romanticized images of bespectacled scientists in their crisp lab coats hovering over a microscope in a darkened room. You’ve heard of the term glorifying the mundane? Well, I’m here to dull-ify the exalted—to dispel distorted perceptions. I am a molecular biologist. I don’t wear spectacles. I hate microscopes. And I work under supreme lighting conditions. Hell, I don’t even wear a lab coat most of the time!

Actually doing molecular biology is pretty much like preparing a meal. It’s cookbook! It is, quite literally, following a recipe. But of course, in science, we have fancy names for everything. We call our recipes “protocols”. When we talk about ingredients, we give them enigmatic names like “substrates”, “solutions”, or “buffers”. Mixing or stirring can be labeled as “vortexing” or “centrifugation”.

Think of this like a hand mixer.

Think of this like a hand mixer. A $10,00 hand mixer

The protocol tells you to add this ingredient here, stir your amalgamation of components for this many minutes, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. If you do it exactly right, then magic happens. Actually, most of the time you don’t even have to do it exactly right. Almost exactly is okay, too.

That magic that I need to happen is to separate the RNA in my “manna from above” from the rest of the cellular “junk” that is uninteresting to me at this moment. Follow the protocol that tells you exactly how to do this, and you’re golden. However, RNA is a finicky, little molecule. It has an annoying tendency to deteriorate rather quickly. In fact, it holds the superlative of “Most Likely to Degrade” by its senior high school class.

When I’m in the field collecting my samples from the fuzzies, I immediately place them into a solution that stabilizes the RNA and keeps it from being degraded (or at least slows down the degradation. Nothing in life is perfect). Back in the lab, once I remove my tissue samples from the safety of their solution, they become a ticking time bomb. Enzymes called RNases, which in my mind look like greedy, little Pac-Men, are just waiting to chew up my RNA in their oddly triangle shaped mouth.

The evil RNase

The evil RNase

The way to combat Pac-Man RNases is to complete protocols in record time. Speed is your friend here. To that end, one must become very proficient at things like opening tubes with one hand and, importantly, reading through your protocols ahead of time!

This is where the magic happens. Yes, that is an inflatable shark above my workstation.

This is where the magic happens. Yes, that IS an inflatable shark above my workstation.

Not all of molecular biology is monotonous and slightly stress-inducing, though. For example, I get to use Über-expensive equipment. Behold the TissueRuptor®!

My muse

My muse

This little gem functions to break apart my tissue samples, so that the RNA I am after is released from the nucleus of the cell (i.e. nuclear prision). Using the TissueRuptor® is so inspiring that I wrote a sonnet in its honor. It’s called “Ode to a TissueRuptor®”**.

“TissueRuptor®, the love I bear thee is never enough.

You gleam, pulverizing samples like a beast.

Because of you, my RNA is released.

Your stainless steel is all shiny and…stuff.

TissueRuptor®, my heart soars, joyful and giddy.

You cut through fat tissue like butter with a knife.

You are, at this moment, the most important thing in my life.

Thanks to you, I may actually get my Ph.D.”

 It’s a jungle out there!

*And I say this with most extreme sense of irony, as I was, of course, the unlucky graduate student who was stuck in my car driving to Atlanta and back on a lovely Saturday afternoon. I’m not bitter, I swear.

**Also of noted import is the fact that these two paragraphs took me longer to write than the rest of the post. Maybe I should stick to the science.

The Animal Only Looks Dead

The narrow hallway is bathed in a warm, red glow. I stare, entranced by the image on the screen, almost hypnotized by its monotony. His tiny fist is curled up into a delicate ball next to his face. His massive tail carefully envelopes his head.IMG_0178

The animal looks dead. But he’s not. The jagged lines moving across the ancient laptop screen confirm this.IMG_0152

In fact, this animal has been like this—utterly motionless—for 96 hours straight. His heart rate is about 12 beats per minute, he can go 15 minutes without taking a single breath, and his body temperature hovers around 59°F. His name is Tanager. He is a fat-tailed dwarf lemur. And he is hibernating.

I write from a hallway constructed out of sienna-hued cinderblock and tinted glass, cluttered by expensive-looking equipment. Dominating the hallway’s small space is “The Beast” tucked neatly in the corner. “The Beast” is our environmental chamber. Designed to control ambient temperature and humidity to a precise degree, unwavering in its onus. It is essentially an oddly shaped refrigerator with a window. An overpriced oddly shaped refrigerator with a window. “The Beast” emits a dull hum that is enough to lull even the most well rested researcher to sleep, betraying its mischievous intentions. Beast, you will not win this one.

The scene before my weary eyes involuntarily elicits nostalgia for the classic film Apollo 13, taking me back to the good ‘ole days when I had ample free time to actually watch movies. The set-up for our study is a mirror image of that legendary space shuttle’s control panel depicted in the film. Outdated equipment, looking like it belongs back in the 1970’s, vomits wires and plastic tubing in jumbled mess. Power strips, connected to cables, litter the floor. I’m willing to bet that NASA shuttles were more organized than this, however.

Is it me, or does this look like the inside of a space shuttle?

Is it me, or does this look like the inside of a space shuttle?

Our control panel, as disordered as it appears at first glance, is completely functional and is beautifully serving its purpose. I am watching Tanager’s brain activity in real-time. But it gets better. I am also monitoring his heart rate, respiration, and metabolic rate, while simultaneously watching him curled up in his tiny ball form on-screen. Tanager Television, coming to you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Broadcast live, on site, from the Duke Lemur Center.

Scientific research always has a motivation. Sometimes it’s to understand and cure human disease. Sometimes it’s to appreciate how and why the natural world came to be. Sometimes it’s to comprehend a deeply unique biological phenomenon. This study has elements of all three.

One of the principle investigators driving this study, Dr. Andrew Krystal, is a sleep researcher at Duke Medical Center. His main goal is to understand the mysteries of sleep and sleep disorders in humans. Understanding the link between sleep and metabolic rate is crucial for delving into these questions. This is where Tanager comes in. Hibernation is a phenomenon that encompasses both questions surrounding sleep and metabolic rate. How are the two linked? What happens to the brain when metabolic rate is severely depressed, as in hibernation?

In addition, researchers that study hibernation in mammals are on a relentless mission to understand why we see hibernation in some mammal groups, but not other, closely related ones (for example, many ground squirrel species hibernate, but tree squirrels don’t. Why?). Or why we see hibernation appear in very disparate mammal groups (like bears and primates). By doing similar studies in distinct lineages we can begin to figure out if there are common mechanisms present, or if each group has figured out different ways of achieving the same goal: to survive the winter. These questions are Dr. Peter Klopfer, the other principle investigator’s bag of tricks.

Lastly, hibernation is just insanely cool. It has a “wow” factor that is off the charts. Understanding even a tiny piece of the puzzle is enough motivation for me to want to watch a hibernating animal for 13 hours straight, multiple days in a row, tucked away in a dark hallway.

It’s 8:00 p.m. Only a Coleman lantern perched high on a TV stand and a solitary, red ceiling lamp illuminates the tiny hallway where I sit. The rest of the building is dark, the only light coming from the glowing neon green exit signs. Occasionally I hear gurgling noises deep within the bowels of the building, as if a toilet is being flushed. But I’m the only one here. It’s totally creepy…and totally worth it.

Wait. What was that noise?!?

Wait. What was that noise?!?

It’s a jungle out there!

Science Fail: Mouse Lemurs Misbehavin’

“What could go wrong? My study uses superb experimental design.” The soothing thoughts shallowly lapped at the 3rd year graduate student’s mind as her pessimistic inner monologue was wondering if the data she was collecting could even begin to answer the questions that were keeping her up at night. Those unnerving thoughts had recently begun to surreptitiously infiltrate even the deepest recesses of her brain. Now she was being kept awake for different reasons other than deep-seated scientific curiosity. It would not be long before she would discover that the naughty mouse lemurs in her study would routinely make a habit out of refusing to eat their food, the technology used to measure body temperature would fail in epic fashion, and the data she would be so painstakingly collecting might be too noisy to interpret.

Nearly one year ago, jittery from the anticipation of finally having data to canoodle with, I downloaded body temperature profiles from the collars my mouse lemurs had been wearing for the past 2 ½ months. Growing increasingly dumb-founded, as validated by my gaping jaw, I experienced my first major science fail.

“What could go wrong?” This question every graduate student has faced at least once in his or her career. Suspicion’s ironic cousin. Failures happen all the time in scientific research. Except most of the time scientists don’t want to expose our dirtiest secret. Science isn’t perfect. Allow me to enlighten you. (As a refresher for motivation behind this study, see a recent post—the last paragraph should suffice for refreshment purposes).

My study began beautifully, as meticulously planned. Every morning (and I mean every morning. Weekends have mornings, too!) for nearly 5 months straight, I transported my diet-prepping butt to the Lemur Center to concoct diets for the fuzzies. This involved weighing out primate chow (i.e. pellets o’ nutrition that mouse lemurs can’t wait to stick their tiny faces into. Seriously. They have opposable thumbs, yet choose to eat their food by dunking their fuzzy kissers into it. I imagine a tiny blueberry pie-eating contest, except it’s not blueberry pie. It’s pulverized primate pellets. And it’s not gluttonous Americans at a Fourth of July celebration. It’s adorable mouse lemurs boasting delightfully crumb-y beards). Got a mental image? Here. This might help.

Imagine these guys being tinier and fuzzier, and that's what mouse lemurs look like...minus the garbage bags. (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons. Used with permission under Creative Commons License)

Imagine these guys being tinier and fuzzier, and that’s what mouse lemurs look like…minus the garbage bags. (Photo source: Wikimedia Commons. Used with permission under Creative Commons License)

Weighing out primate chow requires precision. I use a super-fancy scale, which Amazon.com sold to me for 10 whole dollars, to make sure I get each diet to within a hundredth of a gram of the required amount. This precision is not limited to the chow. My lucky lemurs also get served (quite literally on a silver platter, I might add) a mélange of fruits and veggies that must be weighed out. Think this sounds easy? I thought that, too.

Then I learned. 

Banana is notorious for its opposition to allow itself to be weighed to the hundredth gram. This evil fruit gloms onto itself (and everything around it…gloves, measuring spoons, jeans. Nothing is safe from its greedy reaches!), and refuses to hit that sweet spot on the scale. Banana, I will eat you every day for breakfast as a result of your defiance!!! Corn, on the other hand, is laid-back. Super chill. I love corn. I won’t be eating corn for breakfast any time soon. I have been known to literally rejoice on corn day at the Lemur Center by doing a little jig in my isolated kitchen away from the judging eyes of Lemur Center staff. (Confession: I don’t really think they would judge me. They probably love corn day, too!)

Once diets are prepped and ready to go, you would think that the mouse lemurs are dying to down on the meal you so lovingly prepared for them. Wrong, again. Sure, you have some animals that will gobble up anything you put in front of their chubby little faces, but then there are the picky-eaters in the bunch. (You know who you are, Joe Pye Weed!). This little set back serves to single-handedly destroy the entire experiment. How can you test whether diet influences torpor patterns if said diet is not consumed?

Then comes the issue of weighing the animals. The weighing procedure really gives the animals a chance to display their charming personalities, but also poses the risk of hindering any sort of forward progress. Since my interest lies in the fact that animals fed a certain diet will torpor longer than their counterparts, it is essential to keep disturbances minimal. Then this happens.

Every Friday morning at 9 am, Erin and I tip-toe silently into the room to weigh the animals. Monty, sensing our presence, inevitably vocalizes his little head off in a series of high-pitched shrieks and chatters. This little jerk (ironically, my favorite animal of the bunch. His tail is half the length as all the others) thus manages to “wake up” his buddies and alert them of our intentions, while his adorably disfigured tail is spinning like a helicopter rotor blade gone rogue. Thanks, Monty. Is this what I get for making you my favorite?!?

Erin, Duke Lemur Center research manager extraoridnaire, helps me weigh the fuzzies! (Photo credit: David Haring, DLC)

Erin, Duke Lemur Center research manager extraoridnaire, helps me weigh the fuzzies! (Photo credit: David Haring, DLC)

And here’s the kicker and, notably, a brilliant demonstration of an epic science fail. My study animals had been fitted with pre-programmed collars to record body temperature at hourly intervals. The study was designed so that the animals would be wearing their necklaces from mid-November until the end of January. So. Much. Data.

Such. Incorrect. Assumptions. Here’s a little tip. Assumptions in science? Bad. Very, very bad.

Here I am merrily plugging along assuming everything is working flawlessly, spared from the knowledge that anything was amiss. At least for the time being. Flash forward to me sitting at the dining room table downloading my data, while my yapper is the rivaling the size of Texas. Not only did my collars lose the will to keep recording halfway through the study (December 10th at 10:01 p.m. is the exact time and date, in case you were wondering), but 2 of my 10 collars didn’t work at all! Zero data.

I’m chalking this one up to “gaining experience” and/or “life lesson learned”.  And, in a demonstration of extreme resilience, planning my next failed experiment.

This is science, folks. It ain’t perty.

But stay tuned. There is a happy ending!

It’s a jungle out there!

“Rule-breakers” Aid in Quest for Mysterious Fountain of Youth

The National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) is currently holding their annual blog contest. The winner gets cash, money to put towards attending SciOnline2014, a science communication conference, held in Raleigh, NC. This post serves as my entry, in all its hopeful, optimistic glory. Wish me luck!

With so many products on the market claiming success in reining in the ever-elusive fountain of youth, it’s no wonder society (a certain blogger included) is willing to spend exorbitant amounts of dough on these products. Is it possible that said fountain of youth might be, instead, hidden among our genetic code?

A brand-spanking new study reveals some promising results to suggest just that. Using the power of exceptions to the norm (or, as I like to call them, “rule-breakers”), coupled with sophisticated molecular evolutionary analysis, this study delves deeper into the molecular underpinnings associated with aging and longevity in mammals.

The three rule-breakers in question are none other than the naked mole rat, the little brown bat, and, of course, humans (We can never seem to follow the rules, can we?).

Behold. The amazing little brown bat!

Behold. The amazing little brown bat! (Photo credit: USFWS. Used with permission under the Creative Commons License)

So, how does this seemingly hodge-podge assortment of species get lumped into my arbitrary and newly-defined category of “rule-breakers”? Well, generally among mammals, there is an apparent correlation between body size and life span, with larger mammals tending to live longer; however, this is not the case in the three aforementioned species. They are severely out of line with what should be expected based upon body size alone. The 10-gram little brown bat most drastically demonstrates this by boasting a maximum lifespan of 34 years!

Slide1

Body weight is plotted against longevity to show a strong correlation between body size and life span. The bigger you are the longer you should live! Notice the “rule-breakers” as obvious outliers. (Figure modified from Morgan et al., 2013).

In an article published last month in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, Morgan and colleagues used these exceptions to the norm to their advantage by comparing the three rule-breaking species with 26 other rule-following species to look for possible changes in telomere-associated genes that might explain why these species can live so long, despite their small body size.

Lets’ learn. Telomeres are a repeating sequence of the genetic code that cap the ends of mammalian chromosomes. It is well established that telomeres are very important for maintaining chromosomal integrity, and thus, cell vivaciousness (hint: anti-aging properties). I like to think of telomere function as analogous to the bottomless chips and salsa you find at Chili’s.

You will never see the bottom of this bowl!

You will never see the bottom of this bowl…or will you?

Each time a cell divides, the chromosomes gets truncated at the ends. This is bad. The ends are imperative for carrying genetic information that must be replicated, and passed on during cell division. The telomeres, acting as the chromosome’s savior, make the ultimate sacrifice by allowing themselves to be chopped off in lieu of the important genetic material. And here is where our hypothetical chips and salsa come in. The enzyme telomerase (think: uber-attentive Chili’s server) is constantly refilling the telomere stock that gets depleted in each cell cycle. See? Bottomless telomeres…I mean chips and salsa.

But eventually our fictional Chili’s server gets bored and stops refilling his or her patron’s chips (I guess they’re not really bottomless after all). The patrons eventually run out of chips. Sad.

The same happens with telomeres, as telomerase will eventually “get bored” and stop renewing them. This leads the telomeres to shorten to the point of hindering cell division, along with a host of other detrimental effects. This lack of cell division manifests as the outward signs we call aging.

The authors of this ground-breaking study decided that telomere-associated genes, the suite of genes that regulate telomere function, might be a good place to search deep within the recesses of the genome to discover if there were any advantageous changes in those genes in our three long-lived species, when compared to species that cannot claim to have mastered the secret to anti-aging. What genetic surprises are they holding?

The authors arrived at the astonishing conclusion that there are, in fact, a large number of genes that do show advantageous changes in telomere-associated genes when comparing rule-breakers vs. the rule-followers. Of noted importance was the fact that the genes that display these changes are different between bats, naked mole rats, and humans, suggesting that long-lived species may have evolved different ways to combat aging. And to that I say, “I guess there really is more than one way to skin a cat!” The authors propose that these differences might be due to disparities in timing of reproduction and/or survival strategies.

Adorable, aren't they? (Photo credit: Smithsonian National Zoo. Used with permission under the Creative Commons License.)

Adorable, aren’t they? (Photo credit: Smithsonian National Zoo. Used with permission under the Creative Commons License.)

For example, in naked mole rats, older females produce more offspring than young females which is contrary the reproductive strategies of little brown bats and humans.

This elegant study offers a first-glimpse into how genomes might hold the secret to finding the elusive fountain of youth. As the old adage goes, “Rules were made to be broken”. I guess this might be true after all. Alright, I’m off to rob a bank!

Reference: Morgan CC, McCartney AM, Donoghue MTA, Loughran NB, Spillane C, Teeling EC, and O’Connell MJ. Molecular adaptations of telomere associated genes in mammals. BMC Evolutionary Biology 13:251. 2013.

UPDATE: The results for the blogging contest are in. I did not take home the top prize; however, I came in first runner-up! As a novice science writer, I couldn’t be more pleased. Thanks, NESCent, for the awesome opportunity to hone my skills!