Undergraduate researcher turns up the heat on hibernation

If doctors could put people in hibernation and pull them out at will, scientists think they could minimize damage from strokes, help recipients' bodies accept transplanted organs, perhaps even enable astronauts to travel in suspended animation until reaching distant destinations. But up to now, researchers have not understood the molecular mechanism controlling hibernation-like states.

An HHMI-supported undergraduate's research, published in the January 2006 Journal of Neuroscience, describes for the first time the specific mechanism mice use to enter torpor, a hibernation-like state that enables them to survive periods of fasting during cool weather. Ross Smith is a co-author of the paper from researchers at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and Emory University in Atlanta. Smith conducted the research as an undergraduate in Williams' biologist Steven J. Swoap's laboratory, as part of the college's HHMI-supported undergraduate science education program. A June 2005 graduate of Williams, Smith is now a technician in Gokhan Hotamisligil's laboratory at Harvard University.

"We were trying to figure out what signaling pathway was involved in allowing mice to go in and out of torpor," explained Smith. Working with Swoap, he helped show that torpor is controlled by the same system that controls fight-or-flight responses and further, that it involves the stimulation of receptors for epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine, called adrenergic receptors, most likely those found in fat stores.

The work on torpor began in Swoap's lab when he observed that knock-out mice that cannot synthesize the neurotransmitters norepinephrine or epinephrine do not enter torpor when they fast.

In 2004, Smith joined Swoap's research team as an HHMI summer research fellow. Williams College, like more than 100 colleges and universities throughout the United States, has an undergraduate science education grant from HHMI to encourage and supp

Contact: Jennifer Donovan
Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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