Tag Archives: Oregon State University

Putting years and years of established theory to the test

A lot of the concepts that scientists use to justify why things are the way they are, are devised solely based on theory. Some theoretical concepts have been established for so long that they are simply accepted without being scrutinized very often. The umbrella species concept is one such example as it is a theoretical approach to doing conservation and although in theory it is thought to be an effective strategy for conserving ecosystems, it is actually very rarely empirically tested. Enter Alan Harrington, who is going to test its validity empirically.

Alan is a 2nd year Master’s student in the Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences working with Dr. Jonathan Dinkins. Alan’s research and fieldwork focuses on three species of sagebrush- steppe habitat (SBSH) obligate songbirds: the Brewer’s sparrow, sagebrush sparrow, and sage thrasher. Being a SBSH obligate means that these three birds require sagebrush to fulfill a stage of their life-history needs, namely during their breeding season. However, by studying these three species, Alan is aiming to tackle a broad conservation shortcut as he is trying to figure out whether the umbrella species conservation approach has worked in the SBSH where conservation is guided by the biology of the greater sage-grouse (GSG), which has been termed an umbrella species for sagebrush habitat for many years.

An umbrella species, a close cousin to keystone or an indicator species, is a plant or animal used to represent other species or aspects of the environment to achieve conservation objectives. The GSG is such a species for the SBSH. However, the SBSH is an expansive habitat found across 11 western US states and two Canadian province that covers several millions acres of land. Hence, the question of whether one species alone can be used to manage this large habitat is a valid one. Furthermore, SBSH has been declining dramatically over the last decades. In fact, it is one of the fastest declining habitats in North America. This decrease in available sagebrush habitat has led to the decline in GSG populations since European settlement and the GSG requires SBSH to fulfill its life-history needs. Thus, populations of other birds that require the SBSH have been declining too, like sagebrush-obligate songbirds.

Alan using binoculars to survey for songbirds to determine their abundances.

The state of Oregon, like many other western US states, are concerned about protecting SBSH and GSG because they are both quickly declining and songbirds are extremely sensitive to changes in the environment responding quickly to them. Within the last 10 years, the GSG was petitioned to be listed under the Endangered Species Act by several expert groups due to the severity of the decline. Both times, the petitions were designated warranted however were precluded from listing. This issue of declining SBSH and declining GSG populations is made more complicated by the fact that most SBSH also doubles as rangeland for grazing cattle or SBSH is often used for agriculture. Thus, the petitioning for trying to get the GSG listed as endangered caused stakeholders in Oregon to get involved in this situation since the listing of the GSG as endangered could result in very radical management changes for the SBSH, limiting agricultural and land use of this habitat.

Map of Alan’s study area.

As you can see, the topic is not a simple, straightforward one, however Alan is already two years into getting the data to answer some of his questions. Alan’s fieldwork takes place in eastern Oregon in a study area that is 1.4 million acres big. Naturally, he doesn’t survey every single foot of that massive area. Instead he and his lab mates (three of them work together during the field season to collect data for all of their projects) have 147 random point locations, which are located within five Priority Areas of Conservation (PAC), designated by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife as core conservation areas based on high densities of breeding GSG. The field season is from May to July and Alan often puts in 80-hour work weeks to get the job done. For his data collection, Alan does random nest transect surveys at each of the 147 locations for the three sagebrush obligate songbird species, as well as collecting abundance data on any songbird he sees at each random point location. These two methods are also done for GSG UTM locations so that Alan can compare data between them and the songbirds. On top of this, Alan received a grant from the Oregon Wildlife Foundation to purchase iButton temperature loggers to deploy into songbird nests. Along with trail cameras, these will help Alan identify events indicative of nest success or nest failure.

Alan will start his first round of analyses this winter and he’s looking forward to digging into the data that he and his lab mates have worked hard to collect. Ultimately, Alan hopes that his research will make a difference, not just for the sagebrush steppe habitat, his three songbird species, or the greater sage-grouse, but also within other ecosystems. The umbrella species concept is used in all aspects of ecology and so hopefully his findings will be applicable beyond his field of study. 

To hear more about Alan’s research and also about his journey to OSU and more on his personal background, tune in on Sunday, November 24 at 7 PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM or stream live

If you can’t wait until then, follow Alan’s lab on Twitter!

Also, check out this recent publication that Alan played a big role in devising and writing while he was at the University of Montana in the Avian Science Center. The project tested auditory survey methodologies and how methodology can help reduce survey issues like misidentification and double counting of bird calls/signals. 

Giving therapy-resistant cancer cells a taste of their own medicine

The use of chemotherapy to fight various forms of cancer in the human body has been a successful method for decades, but what happens when it fails? This question strikes a personal note for Martin Pearce, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology at Oregon state University. Prior to his graduate work, both of his grandmothers were diagnosed with breast cancer. One successfully went through treatment and although the other initially responded well to chemotherapy, years later the cancer cells reappeared and there was no other treatment available.

Martin in the lab, running one of many Western Blots.

The academic system in the United Kingdom, from where Martin hails, encourages undergraduate students to take what is termed a “placement year” between their second and third years to gain practical experience. At the time of his grandmother’s returning prognosis, Martin was in the second year of his studies at University of the West of England Bristol which had a connection with East Carolina University in the States. Although deviating somewhat from his initial advanced level courses in business, the opportunity to work full time in a biomedical sciences lab at a university renowned for its medical research provided just the right place for Martin to spend the following year.

Martin’s time in North Carolina was not only practical but a reminder of his experience with biology in secondary school. His teacher was a doctor and she encouraged him to pursue a career in a biomedical field. While biology wasn’t his easiest subject, Martin was inspired by his mentor and enjoyed the challenge. Today, he is fully committed to this challenge as a key member in Dr. Siva Kolluri’s Cancer Biology lab group at Oregon State University researching new strategies to target the cancer cells that continue to grow after treatment with chemotherapeutic agents.

Current members of Dr. Siva Kolluri’s Cancer Biology Laboratory group.

Their work involves screening tens of thousands of compounds against such resistant cancer cells that express a particular group of proteins called the Bcl-2 family of proteins. The lab has discovered a novel compound that binds specifically to the Bcl-2 family of proteins that are consistently expressed in therapy-resistant cancer cells and cause them to change shape. One of the fundamental principles of cell and molecular biology is the relationship between structure and function. Change the structure of a molecule and its function within a cell can completely transform. In the case of the Bcl-2 family of proteins, this literally means life or death for the cell.

Protected within the typical expression of a Bcl-2 protein is a region Martin describes as a “death domain”; if this domain is exposed, it induces cell death. Cell death or ‘apoptosis’ is a naturally occurring process in biology. Without apoptosis in the early stages of human development, we would all have webbed fingers! Martin and his team have discovered a compound capable of binding to a Bcl-2 protein, causing it to unfold and expose its death domain. Thus, the protein transforms from one that protects the resistant cancer cell into one that kills it.  

Example of Breast cancer cells that are resistant to chemotherapeutic agent Taxol, that are responsive to compound Bcl-2 Functional Converter (BFC). Blue dots are cancer cell colonies.

Demonstrating the effectiveness of this pathway at the cellular level is remarkable, but Martin explains even the years it has taken to reach this stage are just the beginning of a very long process until it can be used to treat people with cancer. Beyond discovery, through the work of his Ph.D. Martin has realized other critical steps in developing effective cancer treatments that occur outside of the lab. For example, once a compound has been identified that successfully binds to a target protein, medical researchers must work with a patent attorney to protect their work and generate funding. Without patent protection, new drugs can’t be developed.

The dedication to ‘translational research’ or science that is specifically designed to be applied in improving health outcomes is what drew Martin to work with Dr. Kolluri in the first place and continues to inspire his plans for the future. Drawing back to his early interest in business, after finishing his Ph.D., Martin intends to explore a career as a patent attorney.

“This way I can be involved in the most exciting part of the process for me and be a part of people being at the edge of achieving what I was initially inspired in this career to achieve.“

Lifelong Bristol City F.C. supporters, Martin and his dad at Ashton Gate Stadium.

To hear more about Martin’s graduate work and insights into translational research, tune in on Sunday, October 13th at 7 PM on KBVR 88.7 FM, live stream the show at http://www.orangemedianetwork.com/kbvr_fm/, or download our podcast on iTunes!

What ties the Panama Canal, squeaky swing sets, and the Smithsonian together? Birds of course!

Have you ever wondered why you see birds in some places and not in others? Or why you see a certain species in one place and not in a different one? Birds have wings enabling them to fly so surely we should see them everywhere and anywhere because their destination options are technically limitless. However, this isn’t actually the case. Different bird species are in fact limited to where they can and/or want to go and so the question of why do we see certain birds in certain areas is a real research question that Jenna Curtis has been trying to get to the bottom of for her PhD research.

Jenna is a 4th year PhD candidate working with Dr. Doug Robinson in the Department of Fisheries & Wildlife. Jenna studies bird communities to figure out which species occur within those communities, and where and why they occur there. To dial in on these big ecological questions, Jenna focuses on tropical birds along the Panama Canal (PC). PC is a unique area to study because there is a large man-made feature (the canal) mandating what the rest of the landscape looks and behaves like. Additionally, it’s short, only about 50 miles long, however, it is bookended by two very large cities, Panama City (which has a population over 1 million people) and Colón. Despite the indisputable presence and impact of humans in this area, PC is still flanked by wide swaths of pristine rainforest that occur between these two large cities as well as many other types of habitat.

Barro Colorado Island can be seen in the centre of the Panama Canal.

A portion of Jenna’s PhD research focuses on the bird communities found on an island in the PC called Barro Colorado Island (BCI), which is the island smack-dab in the middle of the canal. To put Jenna’s research into context, we need to dive a little deeper into the history of the PC. When it was constructed by the USA (1904-1914), huge areas of land were flooded. In this process, some hills on the landscape did not become completely submerged and so areas that used to be hilltops became islands in the canal. BCI is one such island and it is the biggest one of them in the PC. In the 1920s, the Smithsonian acquired administrative rights for BCI from the US government and started to manage the island as a research station. This long-term management of the island is what makes BCI so unique to study as we have studies dating back to 1923 from the island but it has also been managed by the Smithsonian since 1946 so that significant development of infrastructure and urbanization never occurred here.

Large cargo vessels pass next to BCI on their transit of the Panama Canal

Now back to Jenna. Over time, researchers on the island noticed that fewer bird species were occurring on the island. There are now less species on the island than would be expected based on the amount of available habitat. Therefore, Jenna’s first thesis chapter looks at which bird species went extinct on BCI after the construction of PC and why these losses occurred. She found that small, ground-dwelling, insectivore species were the group to disappear first. Jenna determined that this group was lost because BCI has started to “dry out”, ecologically speaking, since the construction of PC. This is because after the PC was built, the rainforest on BCI was subjected to more exposure from the sun and wind, and over time BCI’s rainforest has no longer been able to retain as much moisture as it used to. Therefore, many of the bird species that like shady, cool, wet areas weren’t able to persist once the rainforest started becoming more dry and consequently disappeared from BCI.

Another chapter of Jenna’s thesis considers on a broader scale what drives bird communities to be how they are along the entire PC, and what Jenna found was that urbanization is the number one factor that affects the structure and occurrence of bird communities there. The thing that makes Jenna’s research and findings even more impactful is that we have very little information on what happens to bird communities in tropical climates under urbanization pressure. This phenomenon is well-studied in temperate climates, however a gap exists in the tropics, which Jenna’s work is aiming to fill (or at least a portion of it). In temperate cities, urban forests tend to look the same and accommodate the same bird communities. For example, urban forest A in Corvallis will have pigeons, house sparrows, and starlings, and this community of birds will also be found in urban forest B, C, D, etc. Interestingly, Jenna’s research revealed that this trend was not the case in Panama. She found that bird communities within forest patches that were surrounded by urban areas were significantly different to one another. She believes that this finding is driven by the habitat that each area may provide to the birds. 

Jenna has loved birds her entire life. To prove to you just how much she loves birds, on her bike ride to the pre-interview with us, she stopped on the road to smash walnuts for crows to eat. Surprisingly though, Jenna didn’t start to follow her passion for birds as a career until her senior year of her undergraduate degree. The realization occurred while she was in London to study abroad for her interior design program at George Washington University in D.C. where on every walk to school in the morning she would excitedly be pointing out European bird species to her friends and classmates, while they all excitedly talked about interior design. It was seeing this passion among her peers for interior design that made her realize that interior design wasn’t the passion she should be pursuing (in fact, she realized it wasn’t a passion at all), but that birds were the thing that excited her the most. After completely changing her degree track, picking up an honor’s thesis project in collaboration with the Smithsonian National Zoo on Kori bustard’s behavior, an internship at the Klamath Bird Observatory after graduating, Jenna started her Master’s degree here at OSU with her current PhD advisor, Doug Robinson in 2012. Now in her final term of her PhD, Jenna hopes to go into non-profit work, something at the intersection of bird research and conservation, and public relations and citizen science. But until then, Jenna will be sitting in her office (which houses a large collection of bird memorabilia including a few taxidermized birds) and working towards tying all her research together into a thesis.

To hear more about Jenna’s research, tune in on Sunday, October 6th at 7 PM on KBVR 88.7 FM, live stream the show at http://www.orangemedianetwork.com/kbvr_fm/, or download our podcast on iTunes!

Proteins run the show (except when they unfold and cause cataracts)

Your eye lenses host one of the highest concentrated proteins in your entire body. The protein under investigation is called crystallin and the investigator is called Heather Forsythe.

Heather is a 4th year PhD candidate working with Dr. Elisar Barbar in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. The Barbar lab conducts work in structural biology and biophysics. Specifically, they are trying to understand molecular processes that dictate protein networks involving disordered proteins and disordered protein regions. To do this work, the lab uses a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). NMR is essentially the same technology as an MRI, the big difference being the scale at which these two technologies measure. MRIs are for big things (like a human body) whereas NMR instruments are for tiny things (like the bonds between amino acids which are the building blocks of proteins). Heather employed OSU’s NMR facility (which has an 800 megahertz magnet and is on the higher end of the NMR magnetic field strength range) to investigate what the eye lens protein crystallin has to do with cataracts.

Your eye completely forms before birth, and the lens of the eye that helps us see is made of a protein called crystallin. This protein is essential to the structure and function of the eye, but it cannot be regenerated by the body so whatever you have at birth is all you will ever have. However, in the eye lens of someone affected by cataracts, the crystallin proteins become unfolded and then aggregate together. They stack on top of each other in a way that they are not supposed to. A person with cataracts will suffer from blurry vision, almost like you’re looking through a frosty or fogged-up window. While the surgery to fix cataracts (which basically takes out the old lens and puts in a new, artificial one) is pretty straight-forward and not very invasive, it isn’t easily accessible or affordable to a lot of people all over the world. Cataracts is attributed to causing ~50% of blindness worldwide, likely due to the fact that not everyone is able to take advantage of the simple surgery to fix it. Therefore, understanding the molecular, atomic basis of how cataracts happens could result in more accessible treatments (say a type of eye drop) for it worldwide.

This is where Heather comes in. There are different types of crystallin proteins and Heather zeroed in on one of them – gamma-S. Gamma-S is one of the most highly conserved proteins (meaning it hasn’t changed much over a long time) among all mammals, which tells us that it’s super important for it to remain just the way it is. Gamma-S makes up the eye lens by stacking on top of itself, making a brick wall of sorts ensuring that the eye lens retains its structure. However, research prior to Heather’s found that with increased age there is an increase in a modification called deamidation, which occurs in the unstructured loops of the gamma-S protein. Deamidation is a pretty minor change and is common in proteins all over the body, however in the eye lens if too much of it happens it no longer is a minor issue since it starts to disrupt the structure and protein-protein interactions of the eye lens. Heather’s collaborators at Oregon Health Sciences University found that there are two sites on the gamma-S protein (sites 14 and 76) where these deamidation events increase the most in cataracts-stricken eyes. It’s been known for a while that this deamidation is associated with cataracts however we never knew why it is associated with cataract formation because the changes caused by this modification were seemingly minor. This is how the Barbar Lab, and Heather specifically, became connected to this work since they specialize in studying unstructured proteins and protein regions, such as the loops present in gamma-S.

An example of an “1H(x-axis) 15N(y-axis) HSQC” spectra, aka, the fingerprint of a protein. This spectra is of WT gamma-S crystallin.

These deamidation changes are mimicked in the lab by creating two different mutants of the gamma-S protein’s DNA. Heather then compared the two mutants with the normal DNA by putting them through a series of experiments using the trusty NMR. The NMR is basically a large magnet that can make use of the magnetic fields around an atom’s nucleus to determine protein structure and motions. When Heather puts a protein sample into the NMR, the spins of the atomic nuclei will either align with or against the magnetic field of the NMR’s magnet. The NMR spits out spectra, which look like a square with lots of polka dots. This is essentially the fingerprint of the protein, unique to each one and extremely replicable. Heather can analyze this protein fingerprint since the different polka dots represent different amino acids in the gamma-s protein. Heather can compare spectra of the two mutants to the spectra of the normal protein to see whether any of the dots have moved, which would signal a change in the position of the amino acids.

After running experiments which measure protein motions at various timescales, from days to picoseconds, Heather discovered significant changes in protein dynamics when either site 14 or 76 was deamidated, however at different timescales. What this discovery means is that if both of these mutations are associated with cataracts and they are changing the same regions of the gamma-S protein, then these regions are likely central to changes resulting in cataracts. Therefore, research could be directed to target these regions to perhaps come up with solution to prevent and/or solve cataracts in a non-surgical way. The results of Heather’s study were recently published in Biochemistry.

Heather with her dog Piper.

Heather is from Arkansas where she completed her high school and undergraduate education. Living in a single-parent, non-academic home at this time, it took Heather a long time to figure out how to navigate the scientific and college-application scene, as well as even coming to the realization that science was something she was good at and could pursue. Despite receiving scholarships for college, she still had to work multiple jobs while in high school and college to have enough money for car-payments and gas to get to extra-curricular activities and volunteer jobs in the science field; things critical for graduate school applications. As a result, Heather is a strong advocate for inclusivity, striving to make things like science and college in general more accessible to low-income and diverse students. Heather’s decision to leave Arkansas and come to the PNW was inspired by advice she received from her undergraduate advisor who told her “not to go anywhere where you wouldn’t want to live. You will learn to love research, whatever it ends up being, but if you live in an environment that you don’t find fulfilling, then you are going to suffocate.”. Following this advice has lead Heather to where she is now – the senior in her lab where she has become a mentor to undergraduates, makes Twitter-famous Tik Tok videos (see below), goes on adventures with her dog Piper, and publishes cutting edge structural biology research.

Heather and her undergraduate mentee performing The Git Up in the lab.

To learn more you can check out the Barbar Lab website and Twitter page.

To hear more about Heather’s research, tune in on Sunday, September 29th at 7 PM on KBVR 88.7 FM, live stream the show at http://www.orangemedianetwork.com/kbvr_fm/, or download our podcast on iTunes!