News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

April 24, 2011

Flashpoint: Scientific research can have significant, long-term benefits

TERRE HAUTE — I am the lead investigator on a National Science Foundation grant to study lizard aggression, featured in a Tribune-Star article (April 13) and criticized in a letter to the editor (April 17). Readers may not completely understand how and why such money is being spent. 

Yes, it may sound funny to spend taxpayers’ money to study lizards. But lizards have been studied, just like white mice, for medical research. Research using lizards solved the problem of why we run a fever when we have a bacterial infection, and was first to show that a moderate elevation in body temperature actually helps fight the bacteria. Much of what we know about how nerve cells work used squids as the prime research animal. The genetics of proteins that control activities inside a cell was and still is being advanced by studies on the fruit fly.

Once a biological phenomenon is sufficiently demonstrated in a “lower” animal (read “easier to study”), researchers studying animals more similar to humans, such as white mice or monkeys, have greater justification to try such research in “their” species, however more complicated and more expensive it may be.

In my research area of hormones, brains and behavior, there are many examples of fundamental biomedical contributions made by studying “odd-ball” species. Past dogma used to state that receptor molecules for steroid hormones (such as testosterone and estrogen) were only inside cells. But a long-term research project on mating behavior in newts provided the first demonstration in a vertebrate animal that steroid hormone receptors can be on the cell surface too (the receptor location creates a key difference in how the hormone affects the cell).

Who would have predicted that studies of sex in salamanders would have shifted our understanding of how these hormones regulate the cell? Similarly, our understanding of how these sex hormones affect brain development has been fundamentally advanced by researchers around the world studying a single bird species, the Japanese Quail, which initially was studied because it kept well in the laboratory and had some easily studied behaviors.

Growth of new neuron cells in the adult brain was once thought to never occur, until it was first demonstrated by researchers in a long-term study of a wild bird species that caches seeds for the winter. So, you never know what valuable lessons we might learn in my study — aggressive male lizards may not be a threat to humans, but aggressive human males certainly are.

As emphasized in the original article, our research will be a multi-pronged effort. This is an approach that the NSF and peer-reviewers especially value. Many argue that using a multi-disciplinary approach is also the best way to conduct science education (see for example, a white paper from the National Academies of Sciences, at www.nap.edu/catalog/12764.html).

Interdisciplinary research is also expensive. We will be gathering data and using methods related to histology, sensory physiology, neuroendocrinology, radioimmunoassay of steroid hormones, gas chomatography, mass spectrophotometry, DNA sequencing, gene expression analyses of mRNA, and computational statistics. These methods, and our specific studies, are intimately related to many research topics of interest to biomedical researchers.

Undergraduate and graduate students will be funded to receive training in these methods, and in research approaches that use these methods. The grant money coming to ISU, and to my collaborators’ universities, will support students and their scientific education (of the “experiential learning” variety), will buy supplies to conduct the experiments, will support travel to study, and then collect the lizard tissues that we will examine once back in the laboratory, and will provide overhead to the institutions that supports the infrastructure (e.g. research laboratories) with which the training and research is being done.

In sum, critics of basic research may often not appreciate the degree to which biomedical research stands on the shoulders of the achievements of basic research, nor understand the degree to which the training of the next generation of scientific researchers is funded through research grants. And, for comments on how basic research generates jobs and U.S. competitiveness, especially important in these tough economic times, go online to read an essay in Science News (March 26, 2011; Vol.179 #7 page 32); just GOOGLE “Science News”.

— Diana K. Hews, Ph.D.

Biology Department

Indiana State University

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