Annual Spring Research Symposium Held at the CVM

Spring Research SymposiumOn Thursday, January 26, 2017, the Graduate Student Association (GSA) and the Postdoctoral Association (PDA) at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) held their annual Spring Research Symposium.

This event has grown into a full-day of platform and poster presentations given by master’s and Ph.D. students from across the departments in the college and representing the diversity of research areas that reflect the breadth and depth of research in the CVM. This year’s symposium was one of the largest ever with 91 presentations by 75 different students.

Held for the first time at the Veterinary & Biomedical Educational Complex (VBEC), a new “Flash-Talk” format was introduced, in addition to traditional platform and poster presentations. During a Flash Talk, students give a brief and concise (three minutes with one static PowerPoint slide) idea of their research and a synthesis of their poster presentation.

Approximately 20 graduate faculty members from the CVM judged the student presentations resulting in the following awards given in recognition of outstanding work at the banquet held at Pebble Creek Country Club that evening. (People’s Choice awards were voted on by the entire audience.)

Graduate Student Posters:

First Place: Yang Gao, Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences (VIBS); Dr. Qinglei Li, mentor

Second Place: Jessica Elswood, VIBS; Dr. Weston Porter, mentor

Third Place: Tae Kim, Department of Veterinary Pathobiology (VTPB); Dr. Albert Mulenga, mentor

People’s Choice: Jessica Elswood, VIBS; Dr. Weston Porter, mentor

Postdoctoral Posters:

First Place: Quinci Plumlee, VTPB; Dr. Jeff Cirillo, mentor

Second Place: Xi Li, Department of Veterinary Physiology & Pharmacology (VTPP); Dr. Stephen Safe, mentor

People’s Choice: Lindsay Dawson, VTPP; Dr. Ken Muneoka, mentor

Graduate Student Platforms:

First Place: Connor Dolan, VTPP; Dr. Ken Muneoka, mentor

First Place (tie): Cassandra Skenandore, VTPP; Dr. Annie Newell-Fugate, mentor

Second Place: Carlos Pinzon, VTPP; Dr. Charles Long, mentor

Second Place (tie): Joana Rocha, Department of Veterinary Large Animal Clinical Sciences (VLCS); Dr. Noah Cohen, mentor

People’s Choice: Hanah Georges, VTPP; Dr. Charles Long, mentor

Graduate Student Flash Talks:

First Place: Candice Chu, VTPB; Dr. Mary Nabity, mentor

People’s Choice: Candice Chu, VTPB; Dr. Mary Nabity, mentor

Postdoctoral Flash Talks:

First Place: Emily Schmitt, VIBS; Dr. Weston Porter, mentor

Each year, the Office of the Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies at the CVM also presents High Impact Achievement Awards at the research symposium banquet.

First Author Publication Award:

Amer Alhaboubi, VTPB; Dr. Maria Esteve-Gassent, mentor

Sabrina Clark, VTPB; Dr. Mary Nabity, mentor

Yang Gao, VIBS; Dr. Qinglei Li, mentor

Carolyn Hodo, VTPB; Dr. Sarah Hamer, mentor

Sherrelle Milligan, VTPB; Dr. Ann Kier, mentor

Italo Zecca, VIBS; Dr. Sarah Hamer, mentor

Alyssa Kasiraj (fourth-year DVM student), Department of Veterinary Small Animal Clinical Sciences (VSCS); Dr. Jan Suchodolski, mentor

Small Grant Award:

Candice Chu, VTPB; Dr. Mary Nabity, mentor

Caitlin Curry, VTPB; Dr. James Derr, mentor

Rachel Curtis-Robles, VIBS; Dr. Sarah Hamer, mentor

Sina Marsilio (VSCS); Dr. Jörg Steiner, mentor

Large Grant Award:

Alyssa Meyers, VIBS; Dr. Sarah Hamer, mentor

Maral Molaei, VTPB; Dr. Jason Karpac, mentor

Constance Woodman, VTPB; Dr. Donald Brightsmith, mentor

The keynote speaker at the symposium banquet was Dr. Edward Hoover, university distinguished professor and past department head of the Departments of Pathology and Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology, at the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. His talk was titled “Zombie Story: Chronic Wasting Disease of Cervids.”

The Spring Research Symposium is a key part of the Office of the Associate Dean of Research & Graduate Studies annual Doctoral Student Recruitment Weekend activities, providing a glimpse to potential students of the excellence in research that graduate students are able to accomplish at the CVM.

Manuscript about Brain Inflammation in Dogs Published in PLOS ONE

Dr. Nick Jeffery, professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), was recently accepted to publish his manuscript in PLOS ONE, an open access journal that publishes scientific research.

Jeffrey PaperJeffery’s paper, “The Association of Specific Constituents of the Fecal Microbiota with Immune-Mediated Brain Disease in Dogs,” describes an investigation of a type of common brain inflammation in dogs that might be associated with changes in the bacterial constituents of the gut. Jeffery said there is increasing evidence that the bacteria in the gut of both humans and dogs can influence the way their immune system works, and it could also be involved in creating susceptibility to brain inflammation.

In addition, his paper and research is an example of the ‘one medicine’ approach, in that human and veterinary medicine are connected and can influence one another.

“This particular type of brain inflammation we treat in dogs has many similarities with multiple sclerosis (MS) in people,” Jeffery said. “So any parallels between the diseases might be useful in understanding causes and developing new treatments.”

Through his research, Jeffery found that the lack of a specific type of gut bacteria was associated with brain inflammation in dogs. This means investigations into changing the gut bacteria in dogs might also help with treatment of MS in people.

“Now we can investigate methods of altering the bacteria in the gut in dogs to see if we can help treat the brain inflammation,” Jeffery said. “It is possible that our findings may also help in treating people with MS.”

By publishing his work in PLOS ONE, Jeffery hopes to show veterinary research can be relevant to different parts of the medical field, such as human medicine. Jeffery said he chose to submit his work to PLOS ONE because it is a well-regarded journal that is also open access, meaning anyone can read it online for free.

“The open access aspect was important for this study because the results may have relevance or interest to many different groups, including dog owners, veterinarians, and human physicians,” Jeffery said.

Furthermore, Jeffery said the project was a result of collaboration and would like to thank the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation for their sponsorship of this project, the pet owners and veterinarians who contributed their time and effort, and especially Dr. Jan Suchodolski in the gastrointestinal lab at the CVM.

Figure caption: 3T T2W axial MR image at the level of the caudal colliculus illustrating the typical hyperintensity (*) that is often prominent adjacent to the ventricles in cases of MUO.

Student Researchers Tackle Societal Issues

What program combined public health, environmental health, and animal health to answer two research societal needs? Two Texas A&M students, Clara Bush (veterinary student), and Jarius Pulczinski (graduate student), participated in the thirteen-week on- campus summer Veterinary Medical Scientist Research Training Program (VMSRTP)(http://vetmed.tamu.edu/vmsrtp). Their scholarships were sponsored by the Texas A&M One Health Initiative. Each student was provided the opportunity to address a societal need, conduct hands-on research and identify One Health solutions working alongside accomplished faculty mentors. The students analyzed and presented their individual research findings at the Veterinary Medical Scientist Research Training Program Research Conference ( http://vetmed.tamu.edu/vmsrtp/about-the-vmsrtp/research-conference) and the Merial-NIH National Veterinary Scholars Symposium ( http://www.merialscholars.com/Pages/national-symposium2016.aspx) at The Ohio State University

Jarius Pulczinski
Jarius Pulczinski

Jarius, a public health MS graduate student, was mentored by Dr. Natalie Johnson (https://sph.tamhsc.edu/eoh/faculty/johnson.html), an assistant professor in the Environmental and Occupational Health Department at the Texas A&M School of Public Health. Jarius’s research examined the relationship between air pollution exposure and health outcomes in humans and mice.  Dr. Johnson explained that Jairus, “compared data from a mouse model of prenatal air pollution exposure-induced asthma and from a maternal exposure characterization study in a population with high rates of childhood asthma. He measured inflammatory markers reflective of maternal air pollution exposure in human and mouse samples to investigate the link between maternal inflammation and asthma susceptibility.” Dr. Johnson observed that this summer the program led to new insights about opportunities at the interface of human and animal research.

Clara Bush
Clara Bush

Clara, a second-year veterinary student, was mentored by Dr. Raquel Rech (http://vetmed.tamu.edu/vtpb/directorydetail?userid=12806), a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology at Texas A&M University. Clara’s research will ultimately impact the creation of a pig model to study Environmental Enteropathy, a Gastrointestinal (GI) disease in humans. “I worked to determine what tissue fixative best preserved the mucous layer of the colon in pig colonic samples,” Clara explained about her research “In the future, the use of optimal tissue handling and fixation will be an important aid in the further discovery of more targeted treatments and therapies for GI disease in veterinary medicine and human medicine alike.”

Clara’s response to this experience was, “Overall the program was a confidence booster for me, as a person who had never been on the presenting end of a scientific research project. It gave me the push to explore other career options and opportunities that I might not have known about.” She added, “This program was such a great way to break into the field of veterinary medicine which truly exemplifies a collaborative effort. Not only was I able to gain valuable laboratory skills that I can take with me far beyond veterinary school, but I was also able to get a first-hand look at the way the “One Health” concept works in real life.”

Information about One Health student programs and opportunities are available through the Texas A&M One Health Initiative (http://onehealth.tamu.edu).

Texas A&M, Johns Hopkins receive $5.3 million NIH grant to study how lead exposure affects humans

Dr. David Threadgill
Dr. David Threadgill

When researchers try to uncover the cause of disease, they commonly start with two questions: Did a quirk in the patient’s genes open the door to illness, or did exposure to environmental factors play havoc with the patient’s health?

 

Very often, both genes and the environment are at least partly to blame, and to provide the most effective treatment, health care providers need to know as much as possible about how they work together.

With support from a $5.3 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant, scientists from Texas A&M; University and Johns Hopkins University will further investigate how individuals’ health is affected by the environment and genetics. Two NIH units-The National Human Genome Research Institute and The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences-will provide the funding over a five-year period.

David Threadgill, Ph.D., director of the Texas A&M; Institute for Genome Sciences and Society at the Texas A&M; College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences and professor and holder of the Tom and Jean McMullin Chair of Genetics at the Texas A&M; College of Medicine is co-lead on the project, along with Andrew Feinberg, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and director of the Center for Epigenetics at Johns Hopkins.

Research on how genetics work in concert with the environment to affect health is a relatively new area of research, according to Threadgill. “For the last several decades, research has largely focused on genetic differences that are associated with disease,” he said. “However, the environment, particularly intersecting with genetics, probably has a much larger impact on our health.”

Threadgill will provide the expertise in genetics and clinical phenotyping for the project. “My research group has a long-standing interest in how environmental exposures, such as chemicals and diet, interact with our genetics to impact future health and disease,” he added, “and importantly how this knowledge can be used to reduce the health impacts of detrimental environmental exposures.”

Epigenetics is the study of genetic activity changes that occur without alteration of the basic DNA sequences. Sometimes, epigenetic changes triggered by environmental factors lead to serious health problems. As a first step toward averting or treating such illnesses, researchers need to figure out precisely how this process unfolds.

“The environment is perhaps the major contributor to human disease, yet its effect is virtually impossible to control for in human genetic studies,” Feinberg said. “One example of how this team will try to get around this problem is by studying a very genetically diverse set of animal models and an environmental issue that is important to many people: exposure to lead and how it is linked to significant health and behavioral issues.”

The team will use advanced genomic and mathematical methods to gather data and relate these findings directly to human disease population studies in order to understand how our distinct genomes and individual exposures to environmental factors affect human health.

“We are using epigenetic information,” Feinberg said, “to understand how genes and environment connect as information that reprograms our bodies in early development to behave in a healthy or unhealthy way, and how it sets us up for adverse responses to stressors later in life. In particular, we are studying lead exposure in the mouse model, and then will connect these results to a large group of urban lead-exposed people in Baltimore and the behavioral effects this exposure causes.”

“This is one of several collaborative projects we are working on to address how the environment alters our epigenome to influence health and disease,” Threadgill said. “We hope that this work will lay the foundation for understanding the mechanisms by which the environment alters our health and to identify interventions that can reduce the negative impacts of disease.”

Texas A&M Researchers Awarded Grant to Establish “Tissue Chip” Center

Testing drug safety and efficacy is challenging, expensive, and time consuming. Recent advancements have given way to what is known as “tissue chips.” These tiny bioengineered systems mimic the larger, complex organs and tissues of the human body. The chips may improve our ability to ensure that a drug is safe before clinical trials begin and could ultimately replace drug testing in humans and animals.

2016 10 13 Rusyn

 

Researchers with a tissue chip
Researchers with a tissue chip

A team of Texas A&M; University researchers, led by Dr. Ivan Rusyn, will be working to advance tissue chip research through a recently awarded $4.2 million grant by the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Center for Advancing Translation Sciences (NCATS). This award will establish a state-of-the-art, tissue chip-testing infrastructure, known as Texas A&M; Tissue Chip Validation (TEX-VAL) Center. The center will work with tissue chip developers to test and validate their devices. This work will help facilitate and further the use of tissue chips for drug and chemical testing in both the United States and Europe.

“TEX-VAL Center will conduct testing in the microphysiological systems developed by a number of NIH grantees,” said Dr. Ivan Rusyn, professor at the Texas A&M; College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) and principal investigator. “Our goal is to provide resources, personnel, and infrastructure for establishing functionality, reproducibility, robustness, and reliability of tissue chip models that represent a wide array of human organ and tissue systems.”

Currently, many researchers use conventional tissue cultures to test drug efficacy, but tissue chips offer a more physiologically relevant model that better imitates whole human tissues and organs, Rusyn said.

Although many are researching how to create tissue chips and testing their physiological function, TEX-VAL Center takes the research a step further. “The next important step is to demonstrate that tissue chips may be transferred to the laboratories and companies outside of the developers’ lab and shown to perform equally well and on a wide range of drugs and chemicals,” Rusyn said.

The project is a collaborative effort and includes faculty from across Texas A&M;’s campus and beyond. “The team of senior investigators and staff at TEX-VAL Center has been assembled to address all aspects of the tissue chip technology development and use,” Rusyn said. “Our team includes experts in toxicology, in vitro and in vivo testing, microscopy, genomics, pharmacokinetic modeling, bioengineering, analytical chemistry, and risk assessment.”

Other TEX-VAL collaborators are: Dr. Weihsueh Chiu, Dr. Robert Burghardt, Dr. Candice Brinkmeyer-Langford at the CVM; Dr. Clifford Stephan at the Texas A&M; Institute of Biosciences and Technology; Dr. Terry Wade with the Texas A&M; Geosciences and Environmental Research Group; Dr. Arum Han in the Texas A&M; College of Engineering, and Dr. Michael Mancini at the Baylor College of Medicine.

Learn more about the grant from NCATS’
press release
.

Texas A&M Professor a Lead Investigator in the Largest Prospective Veterinary Cardiology Study Carried Out to Date

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Mitral valve disease (MVD) accounts for approximately 75 percent of all canine heart disease. However, a recent global clinical trial led by a Texas A&M; University veterinarian was published in the Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine (Sept 2016). The trial shows that early treatment can slow progression of the disease, prolonging overall survival and helping patients remain symptom free for longer.

The trial, titled “Effect of Pimobendan in Dogs with Preclinical Myxomatous Mitral Valve Disease (MMVD) and Cardiomegaly” (EPIC), is the largest clinical study ever to be conducted in veterinary cardiology. The trial found pimobendan, a drug treatment, is effective in delaying the onset of clinical signs for an average of 15 months in dogs with increased heart size secondary to preclinical MMVD.

“I am excited about the results of this groundbreaking study and proud to be a part of the EPIC team,” said Dr. Sonya Gordon, associate professor at the Texas A&M; College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Science and a lead investigator in the study. “The results of this clinical trial will change the way the most common cause of heart disease and heart failure in the dog is managed on a day-to-day basis by veterinarians around the world and contribute to dogs with MMVD living better and longer.”

The study is the largest prospective cardiology study in veterinary medicine and took place over the course of seven years. The study was terminated early following an interim analysis as the evidence was considered conclusive, and it was deemed unethical to continue to withhold treatment from the placebo group.

EPIC was an international effort run by specialized veterinary cardiologists at 36 trial centers. Half of the trial centers were in the United States, while the other 18 centers were in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The 360 canine patients enrolled in the trial randomly received pimobendan or a placebo, with 180 dogs in each group. Gordon and her colleagues at Texas A&M; treated 16 of those dogs.

These findings will allow veterinarians to offer pimobendan as a treatment for dogs with heart enlargement as a consequence of MMVD to delay congestive heart failure and prolong survival. “Thanks to the EPIC study results, vets no longer have to adopt a ‘watch and wait’ approach to suspected preclinical cases of MVD. When a typical mitral valve murmur is detected, vets should now investigate further to look for cardiac enlargement. If demonstrated, this suggests the patient will probably benefit from treatment with pimobendan before the onset of clinical signs,” said Dr. Adrian Boswood, professor of veterinary cardiology at the Royal College of London and a lead investigator of the study.

Full and final results of the study, which was sponsored by Boehringer Ingelheim, were presented for the first time the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Forum in June 2016 of this year.

Texas Has No Need for Second Veterinary College, Coordinating Board Study Concludes

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – A new report issued by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board concludes that a second veterinary college would be expensive to create and operate and is unnecessary in the state of Texas, particularly with the opening of a $120 million veterinary teaching complex at Texas A&M; University.

“The high cost of establishing a new veterinary school would outweigh the potential benefits to the state, given the small to moderate workforce demand and the issue that building a new school would not guarantee that any of the graduates would practice on livestock, which is the state’s principal area of need, but there are more cost-effective ways of addressing the need for medical care for food animals in Texas,” the study concluded. The staff report was presented at Thursday’s meeting of the Coordinating Board.

“I concur with the overall conclusion because it confirms the Coordinating Board’s past recommendations to the Texas Legislature,” said Dr. Eleanor M. Green, the Carl B. King Dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M; University. “It is clear they were diligent and thoughtful in their study, which has resulted in a substantive, data-driven report about veterinary medical education in Texas. I believe this report bolsters our announcement in January for a judicious expansion of veterinary education, research and undergraduate outreach into several regions of the state through four Texas A&M; System universities.”

In January, Texas A&M; University announced partnerships with West Texas A&M; University, Prairie View A&M; University, Texas A&M; University-Kingsville and Tarleton State University that would add veterinary faculty and researchers at those universities to support the state’s important agricultural industries while focusing on increasing the number of successful applicants to veterinary college from those regions.

The partnerships address two ongoing concerns repeated in the new study: Increasing the number of underrepresented minority students in veterinary college and ensuring a supply of large animal veterinarians practicing in the state’s rural areas.

All four of the A&M; System universities have significant underrepresented minority student populations as well as unique animal science programs and ties to the livestock or wildlife industries in their regions.

“The thought is that students from those regions are more likely to return home to practice veterinary medicine,” said Green. “Our proposal is the only one that tries to address all the key concerns, including achieving greater diversity in the veterinary profession, increasing the number of large animal and rural veterinarians and meeting the unique needs of multiple regions of the state. And we do it at a fraction of the cost of creating a new veterinary medical education program from scratch.”

The creation of the regional partnerships became possible with this fall’s opening of a state-of-the-art veterinary teaching complex at College Station that allows the veterinary college to accept more applicants, particularly from the four regional universities. The $120 million facility, which is located at the heart of the university’s main campus and works closely with the Texas A&M; Health Science Center, was funded from the Permanent University Fund.

Texas A&M;’s decision to invest in the new complex was prompted by a 2009 report issued by the Coordinating Board, which similarly concluded that no new veterinary school was needed and encouraged Texas A&M; to expand its enrollment. At the time, the American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education warned that the college’s existing facilities could not handle such an expansion. With the opening of the new complex, there are no longer any constraints on the college’s ability to meet the state’s future veterinary educational needs.

“The new building will accommodate a first-year, class-size increase of 20 to 30 students easily, with more room to grow, should there be a future need,” the Coordinating Board study noted.

Texas A&M; University already has hired veterinary faculty assigned to West Texas A&M; and is asking the Legislature for an appropriation to further support all of the partnerships.

The veterinary faculty at those universities will teach students, further support animal agriculture and mentor students to successfully enter the rigorous veterinary curriculum. They will also offer relevant veterinary courses on site.

“For the sake of taxpayers and our students and alumni, it is vital that we approach the expansion of veterinary education strategically and judiciously,” Green said.

Michael Dicks, the director of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Veterinary Economics Division,
issued a report
in December 2015 concluding that the creation of new veterinary schools could have an adverse impact on the starting salaries of veterinarians.

“This decline in income would exacerbate the existing disparity between growth rates in income and debt, causing the debt-to-income ratio to rise. The rising debt-to-income ratio will likely accelerate the reduction in applicants, perpetuating the potentially negative effects on the market for veterinary education,” he wrote.

The Coordinating Board study noted that tuition and fees at Texas A&M;’s veterinary college are not only below the national average but in the bottom third of all U.S. veterinary schools. Texas A&M; veterinary students already have the lowest debt-to-income ratio in the nation.

The report also said that the workforce demand for veterinarians is “moderate and closely aligned with supply.”

About The Texas A&M; University System

The Texas A&M; University System is one of the largest systems of higher education in the nation, with a budget of $4.2 billion. Through a statewide network of 11 universities, seven state agencies and a comprehensive health science center, the Texas A&M; System educates more than 140,000 students and makes more than 22 million additional educational contacts through service and outreach programs each year. System-wide, research and development expenditures exceeded $946 million in FY 2015 and helped drive the state’s economy.

Contact: Laylan Copelin
Vice Chancellor of Marketing and Communications
(979) 458-6425
(512) 289-2782 cell
lcopelin@tamus.edu

Texas A&M’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences Researcher’s Study Reveals the Underlying Genetic Diversity of One of the World’s Most Abundant Fish

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – The Atlantic herring-one of the world’s most abundant fish and historically a staple of the Northern European diet-has recently helped scientists understand how species adapt and evolve. Previous studies only examined a few genes and suggested that different groups of the Atlantic herring were genetically indistinguishable despite marked differences in behavior, such as when they reproduce and the salinity of their habitat. However, a study published in eLife and led by Dr. Leif Andersson, professor at Texas A&M; University and Uppsala University in Sweden, revealed that there is in fact much underlying genetic diversity between various groups of herrings.

Herring ball
Herring ball: Atlantic herring forming a ball in the presence of predator (Photo by Per Eide from the film The Silver of the Sea by blaastfilm.no).

In the study, researchers sequenced the whole genomes of several groups of Atlantic herring, including both herring that live in the high-salinity Atlantic Ocean and the low-salinity Baltic Sea. The study also compared herrings that spawned in the fall versus in the spring. A total of 500 loci-or locations on chromosomes-were identified as being different between the various herring groups. This genetic diversity indicates how herring are able to adapt to varying conditions.

“The new study reveals that the Atlantic herring is a near ideal model to study genes underlying ecological adaptation,” said Andersson. “Firstly, it is highly adaptable and it shows a considerable diversity in spawning time. Secondly, the population size is enormous which makes random fluctuations in the frequency of gene variants of minor importance. Thus, the signal-to-noise ratio for detecting natural selection is exceptionally good in this species.”

“By comparing the genome sequences between fall-spawning and spring-spawning population samples, Dr. Leif Andersson and colleagues identified a number of potential genetic factors that affect spawning time,” said Dr. James Cai, assistant professor in the Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences (VIBS) at the CVM, who was not an author of this study. “These genetic determinants for the timing of reproduction can be used as markers for stock assessment, which has important implications for sustainable fishery management.”

Prior to this study, scientists wondered how it was possible that these groups of herrings could have such distinct behaviors despite being so genetically similar. They came up with two possible explanations. One explanation suggested that herrings were flexible and could adapt to a range of environments, meaning their genetics did not need to change. The other explanation was that the differences were in the genes that had not yet been identified.

“I was involved in one of these early studies as an undergraduate student at Stockholm University in the late 1970s, and during the last 35 years I have wondered which of these explanations is the correct one,” Andersson said. “I was convinced that by applying the new sequencing technologies that have revolutionized biology, we would eventually get the final answer.”

A number of the identified genetic differences do not have a known function, but finding these differences lay the foundation for future research. Additionally, this discovery is expected to have implications to understanding speciation and sustainable population management.

“This study exemplifies how the population-level genome sequencing can help us understand the genetic basis of adaptation of animals to their habitats,” Cai said. “Herring, unlike zebrafish and stickleback, is not a model fish species commonly used in genetic studies. The availability of the genome information has made herring an emerging model, which is ideal for studying salinity adaptation.”

“I am convinced that further research on this rich collection of genes associated with ecological adaptation will lead to new basic knowledge about gene functions that will be relevant also for human medicine since the majority of genes in herring are also found in humans and are expected to have similar functions,” Andersson said.

“I congratulate Dr. Andersson and his team on another stunning piece of work. This study is remarkable not only for its boldness and breadth, but even more for its implications for species adaptation and survival in a changing climate,” said Dr. Evelyn Tiffany-Castiglioni, head of VIBS.

Texas A&M Researcher’s Team Discovers Evolution in Action in Darwin’s Finches

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Long and pointy, short and blunt, large and prominent: these are just a few of the beak variations of Darwin’s finches. Beaks are not only highly variable among species, but also they are shaped by evolution. In a study published in Science, a research team led by Leif Andersson, professor at the Texas A&M; College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences and Uppsala University in Sweden, has discovered a gene-HMGA2-affecting the variation in beak size in Darwin’s finches.

A large ground finch (Photo credit: K.T. Grant)

 

Finch
A large ground finch (Photo credit: K.T. Grant)

Previously, the team discovered that the ALX1 gene affects beak shape, specifically whether the beak is pointed or blunt. Both studies help unveil the genetic basis of the beak variation in Darwin’s finches and further explain this iconic example of evolutionary adaptation.

“Our data shows that beak morphology is affected by many genes, as is the case for most biological traits,” Andersson said. “However, we are convinced that we now have identified the two loci with the largest individual effects that have shaped the evolution of beak morphology among Darwin’s finches.”

Aptly named, Darwin’s finches greatly influenced Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. The finches descended from a common ancestor, which arrived in the Galápagos Islands about two million years ago. Since then, the finches have evolved into 18 species, differing in body size, beak shape, song, and feeding behavior. Variations in beak size and shape allow the different species to consume different foods, such as insects, seeds, and nectar.

Specifically, the researchers compared the medium ground finch and the large ground finch on Daphne Major Island in the Galápagos. The average beak size in the medium ground finch was reduced following a drought because birds with a large beak could not compete well with the large ground finch.  Having two different beak sizes allowed the two species to use different food sources, reducing competition for a single food source. The team now demonstrates that the HGMA2 gene played a prominent role in this rapid evolution.

The HMGA2 gene is known to play a role in body size in dogs and horses as well as height in humans.

“The HMGA2 gene regulates the expression of other genes, but the exact mechanism how it controls beak size in Darwin’s finches or human stature is unknown,” Andersson said. “It is very fascinating that this gene pops up in many different species as a gene affecting growth. In humans is also a gene affecting dysregulated cell growth in cancer, and it is clear that more research to better understand the function of the gene is well justified.”

“Dr. Andersson’s research is not limited to discovering genes, but extends deeply into the biology of inheritance and adaptation,” says Evelyn Tiffany-Castiglioni, head of the Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences at Texas A&M; University. “This new paper is an elegant example of how the function of a gene can play a role in survival of a bird lineage when the environment changes. It will undoubtedly shed light in future on how this gene and others influence growth and body size of important domestic animal species.”

Andersson has been a Texas A&M; University Institute for Advanced Study (TIAS) Faculty Fellow-one of the nationally and internationally renowned scholars invited by the Institute to come to the campus for extended stays to teach, conduct research, and interact with Texas A&M; students and faculty.

Texas A&M Researchers “Paint” the Congo African Grey Parrot’s Chromosomes

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Congo African grey parrots are well known for their intelligence and beloved by many as pets, but little is known about their genetic make up. Researchers at the Texas A&M; College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) are changing that by studying the parrot’s chromosomes.

African GreyIn a paper published in Cytogenetic and Genomic Research, scientists looked at the Congo African grey parrot’s chromosomes and compared them to other parrot species from South America and Australia. “This is the first study of its kind in true African parrots,” said Dr. Terje Raudsepp, associate professor and lead author of the study. “So far, analogous work in parrots has been done in three South American macaws, Australian budgerigars and cockatiels, and peach-faced lovebirds from Asia and Africa.”

The study found that Congo African grey parrots were strikingly similar to Neotropical macaws found in South America. Unexpectedly, Congo African grey parrots were genetically more similar to Neotropical macaws, such as the scarlet macaw and the red-and-green macaw, than parrots from Australia, such as cockatiels and budgerigars.

“We found that the rearrangements are essentially, but not completely, indistinguishable from the scarlet macaw,” said Dr. Ian Tizard, distinguished professor of immunology at the CVM, director of the Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center, and an author of the study. “That was a bit of a surprise because you’re talking about an African parrot and a South American parrot. It implies a much closer relationship between the South American parrots and the African parrots than we would have predicted.”

Further, Tizard suggested that this genetic similarity could have originated before Africa and South America were separated over 70 million years ago. The African and South American parrot species ended up on opposite sides of the world due to continental drift, yet much of their genome remained similar.

To get a better look at the African grey parrot’s chromosomes, the researchers “painted” them, using a technique known as Zoo-FISH (Fluorescence In-situ Hybridization). This color codes a known genome-in this case the chicken’s genome-and compares it to a less understood genome, such as the Congo African grey parrot. By painting the chromosomes with Zoo-FISH, researchers can identify identical or similar sets of genes between species that get rearranged during the process of evolution. For example, genes that are all together on one chromosome of one species may appear on two different chromosomes in another species.

“Zoo-FISH, or comparative chromosome painting, allows comparison of chromosomes of different species at a molecular level and exchange genome sequence or gene mapping data between the species,” Raudsepp said. “Zoo-FISH shows chromosomal correspondence between species but also allows indirect transfer of genetic information from well-studied species, such as the chicken, to species with no genome sequence information, such as African grey parrots.”

Although the genes’ locations on the chromosome don’t greatly affect the animal, the comparative location of these genes can give researchers clues about evolutionary relationships. Species with genes in similar chromosomal locations are generally more closely related than those with dissimilar genetic arrangements. “From the body’s point of view, it doesn’t matter whether a gene is on chromosome one or chromosome seven, as long as it’s there,” Tizard said.

Increased understanding of the Congo African grey parrot also has conservation implications, Tizard said. Although parrots may look the same, they might be genetically distinct and, in some cases, separate species. “We’re trying to dissect out these relationships and they’re proving to be a little bit more complex than expected,” he said.

This is the third collaboration between Raudsepp’s research group and researchers at the Schubot Center, including sequencing the genome of the scarlet macaw. More collaborations between the groups are expected in the future, according to Raudsepp. Tizard agreed and suggested that similar studies could be done on other exotic birds.