Undergraduate researcher turns up the heat on hibernation

ort undergraduate research opportunities.

Swoap said that work by students like Smith is critical to the pace of science at an undergraduate campus like Williams. "The undergraduates are the ones that spark the ideas and generate the enthusiasm. They drive the research," the biology professor said.

Smith showed that replacement of epinephrine or adrenaline to the peripheral nervous system, and not to the brain, determines whether an animal enters torpor. "We could replace the neurotransmitters in the brain and still not get torpor in these mice," Smith said. Torpor was restored when the neurotransmitters were made available at nerve-endings in the periphery.

The undergraduate also found that the ability to enter torpor could be restored in the knock-out mice through the use of a synthetic amino acid that enabled production of the two neurotransmitters. "This was an extremely important control," Swoap said. Smith also generated data showing that low body temperatures achieved during torpor are maintained by the animal and are not just due to heat loss.

Up to now, most research on torpor focused on which animals enter the state. Swoap predicted his team's findings will move the field in a new direction. "It's going to draw more basic researchers into studying the mechanism," he said.

Some scientists are already thinking about the human applications of torpor research, Swoap added. "It would be extremely beneficial, for example, for a person to have a low metabolic rate during surgery to avoid injury," he said. "The ability to pull people in and out of a hibernation-like state at will, if it can be accomplished, is decades away," he said, "but, this is a first step in that direction."


Contact: Jennifer Donovan
Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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