Animal physiology conference sheds light on human physiology

BETHESDA, MD (September 11, 2006) If you're a bit weary of writing stories based on the latest press releases, consider covering The American Physiological Society's conference, Comparative Physiology 2006: Integrating Diversity, taking place October 8-11 in Virginia Beach, Virginia. There are plenty of fresh and interesting story lines you can develop, breaking away from the cookie cutter stories that everybody else is covering.

Comparative physiology is the study of all kinds of animals, finding general principles that may apply to humans, too. Working with frogs, snakes, squirrels, seals and a host of other animals not only answers the key question "How do they do that?" but may spur future biomedical advances to benefit people. The thought-provoking plenary speakers are:

  • Theunis Piersma, University of Groningen, the Netherlands

Do you feel a bit jittery before leaving on a big trip? If you do, then you have something in common with the Red Knot, which flies 7,500 miles from its summer home in the Arctic to its winter breeding grounds in New Zealand. Red Knots show signs of the jitters just before leaving on their arduous trek, said Piersma.

But there's a bigger change you can't see, a physiological packing of the bags: The Red Knot's pectoral muscle, which powers its wings, increases by 30-50% of its normal size in the weeks leading up to migration. Its heart grows bigger, fat stores balloon and digestive tracts shrink precipitously. The bird's blood thickens, making it possible to deliver more oxygen to the muscles. The end result? An animal built for the marathon, but not for eating.

One particularly interesting aspect of bird migration is related to obesity, said Piersma, who is also affiliated with the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research. Even birds that don't make the seasonal trip will store fat in the weeks leading up to the migration, but they manage to lose it quickly, even when they

Contact: Christine Guilfoy
American Physiological Society

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