Volume 16 - 2006
University-based biologists can be hard pressed to describe their basic research to nonscientists. They might find it difficult, for instance, to drum up excitement for zebrafish genetics or avian respiratory system development for people interested in how science can help us today.
Two researchers with the Developmental Physiology and Genetics Research Group, based in the University of North Texas Department of Biological Sciences, have the answer. Their work involves basic study of species chosen specifically for their ability to model human development at the embryonic and genetic stages.
Through their work, Edward Dzialowski and Pudur Jagadeeswaran can already tell us worlds more than we knew even a few years ago about how humans develop and about diseases and conditions we might avoid developing in the future.
Even in this age of big science, superconductors and high-tech research labs, some of the most exciting work is being done small. Very small - like in your refrigerator, in the egg carton, inside the eggs.
Dzialowski, assistant professor of biological sciences, is interested in what's going on inside that chicken embryo because it yields big clues about the development of human respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Dzialowski's lab is halfway through a National Science Foundation grant to research the ductus arteriosus - two blood vessels that allow blood returning to the heart to bypass the developing chick's not-yet-functioning lungs.
Edward Dzialowski's work may help explain how smoking or certain drugs affect a developing human fetus.
You might have noticed the air cell that develops in eggs that have been left in the fridge a little past their prime. That cell is filled with a hypoxic gas used by the developing embryo until it breaks forth from its shell. The developing respiratory and cardiovascular systems of certain avian species in the embryonic stage - such as chickens - are roughly comparable to those of humans; both have ductus arteriosi.
But the human process of taking that first breath comes pretty much all at once. A baby is born and instinctively fills its lungs with that first gasp of air; its blood-oxygen levels rise. Developing chickens give scientists a nicer window of time in which to study the process
"In mammals, the ductus closes over the first few hours after birth because the neonate no longer has access to the fetal gas exchanger but receives all of its necessary oxygen via the lungs," Dzialowski explains. "Hatching in the chicken is a much slower process. The embryo goes through a stage known as internal pipping when it gets oxygen from both the embryonic gas exchanger and the lungs. This period can last from 8 to 24 hours, depending on the species. Over this period, the ductus closes much more slowly in the bird than the mammal, allowing us to tease apart the physiological, cellular and genetic processes governing closure."
What does all the opening and closing say about developing human organisms? Dzialowski says he hopes the work will allow his lab team to piece together the effect of any number of environmental factors surrounding hypoxia - characterized by a lack of oxygen - on the developing human fetus.
"I am interested in how environmental factors influence an animal during development and how its physiology and morphology might change to allow it to deal with these challenges." - Edward Dzialowski
Smoking and indomethacin use are two examples. Smoking is thought to cause congenital heart defects in infants - it does so by interfering with the development of the ductus. Indomethacin, sometimes prescribed to pregnant mothers prone to pre-term labor, has been shown to affect closure of the ductus in the developing infant.
"I am interested in how environmental factors influence an animal during development and how its physiology and morphology might change to allow it to deal with these challenges," Dzialowski says. "At the end of this three-year study, I hope to be able to fully describe the ductus and make some prediction of how it will respond to certain environmental factors."
When we get cut, we count on hemostasis - successful blood clotting - to stop the bleeding. Unfortunately, the same process inside a vessel is not so positive.
"We call that thrombosis, and of course it can be devastating," says Jagadeeswaran, professor of biological sciences. "If the clot occurs in the blood vessels leading to the heart, we call it a myocardial infarction. If it occurs near the brain, we call it a stroke. Location, location, location."
Jagadeeswaran has conducted a longtime study of hemostasis and thrombosis at several posts, including the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio and the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago, since his first research appointment at Yale in 1979.
Pudur Jagadeeswaran uses zebrafish to model human genetics and then predict how best to counteract blood clots in human blood vessels.
Along the way, Jagadeeswaran - students call him Dr. Jag - has become a renowned expert in the use of the zebrafish. The clear, inch-long, striped fish, which originated in the River Ganges in India, has become a model for study of human disease and is now used in labs worldwide.
With Jagadeeswaran's recent appointment at UNT comes a new, state-of-the-art zebrafish facility, an upgrade from a few aquariums to upwards of 50,000 fish in specialized breeding tanks.
Jagadeeswaran's team was the first to use aspirin with zebrafish to model human blood thinning. But what interests him most about the fish today is how they can be used to model human genetics and then to predict how best to counteract thrombosis in humans by refining the blood thinning process.
Simply mutate a male zebrafish by soaking it in water containing a chemical, called a mutagen, then breed that fish. The resulting offspring carry mutated genes. Those fish are bred to produce homozygous random mutations, and so on; the end result is a library of gene mutations in something like 30 to 40 zebrafish. That provides plenty of subjects on which to test how random genetic mutations might affect the hemostatic system in zebrafish and gives researchers a tool to identify human genes by using fish mutations as a bait.
For the past seven years, Jagadeeswaran's team has worked on a genetic test for use on his inch-long subjects that allows the researchers to detect developing hemostatic and thrombotic problems.
Before coming to UNT, he identified several major genetic mutations in hemophilia patients, as well as the problems in platelet thinning that lead to hemophiliac conditions. Jagadeeswaran's latest big question surrounds the unusual development in hemophiliac patients who make it to adulthood - they're usually not hemophiliac anymore.
"Something is broken that corrects as they age. We have to identify that part in order to solve the puzzle," Jagadeeswaran says.
UNT's new zebrafish facility offers the Jag team's best shot yet, and he's hopeful they can get their questions answered.
Coastal sediments reveal ancient tsunamis and hurricane storm surges.
- By Sara LaJeunesse
PATHS project creates interest in health fields for Hispanic students.
- By Cass Bruton
Few places on the planet have the lineup of microscopes available at UNT.
By James Naples
UNT scientists reach the Holy Grail of computational chemistry.
- By Sally Bell
Ethnomusicology research covers women's music festivals and African healing practices.
- By Cass Bruton
An art historian's quest for missing Iraqi art will help preserve a culture.
- By Ellen Rossetti
Student's award-winning research with nematodes may help treat cell damage.
- By Nancy Kolsti
Research at UNT is student centered, broad based and far reaching.
UNT research ranges from brain tracking to eye tracking, RFID to VoIP, early college high schools to early music.
Student research includes quantum mechanics, mathematical modeling, computer programming and linguistic profiling.
Cultural health beliefs, computational perception of motion, space station hardware and genetics occupy these former UNT students.
UNT authors write on emergency management, multiphase flows, structural equation modeling and entrepreneurship.
Miguel Acevedo's research makes environmental issues clear.