UAB Magazine Weekly - Features on Research
Gulf Species Get a Second Chance at UABBy Glenny Brock
UAB biologists reflect on the ecological effects of the Gulf oil spill and its impact on their research in this video.
So far it seems that oil-slicked pelicans have been the sad mascots of the Gulf oil spill. Ever since the fatal explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, birds with greasy, tar-black feathers have been the decisive images of wildlife in peril. But pelicans aren’t the only Gulf animals in need of rescue from the vast slick.
UAB biologists are at the forefront of efforts to protect two species: diamondback terrapin turtles native to Dauphin Island, Alabama, and Gulf-native sea urchins in Florida’s upper peninsula. Although their work with these animals began as part of other research, the scientists have become noteworthy participants in the struggle to safeguard life in the Gulf.
Far from the coast, about 120 adult diamondback terrapins are now in residence on the UAB campus, all hatched from eggs that biology professor Thane Wibbels, Ph.D., and his colleagues collected from Cedar Point Marsh on Dauphin Island. The turtles are part of a captive-rearing program that began in 2006 with the goal of keeping the diamondback terrapin off the endangered species list.
“The diamondback terrapin has an incredibly rich history in Alabama,” Wibbels says. “The state used to have thousands of terrapins. At one point, they were shipping up to 12,000 a year out of Alabama.”
By Bob Shepard
In our increasingly mobile society, the fastest-growing segment of the population is also the slowest moving: Over the next few decades, the number of people in the United States over age 65 will double. But a major UAB study has demonstrated that mobility is just as important to older Americans as it is to their younger counterparts. In fact, for the elderly, the ability to keep moving can mean the difference between life and death.
The UAB Study of Aging enrolled a thousand people in five central Alabama counties and followed them for eight years. Over that time, participants who frequently ventured out beyond their homes, without assistance from equipment or another person, were far more likely to remain healthy and independent than those who stayed at home or left only with assistance, says Richard Allman, M.D., principal investigator of the Study of Aging and director of the Birmingham/Atlanta VA Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Center and the UAB Center for Aging.
Allman compares the Study of Aging to the famous Framingham Heart Study, which began in 1948 and has provided much of the now common knowledge on the effects of diet, exercise, and medications on heart disease. In the same way, Allman says, UAB's study is “providing the knowledge that will be needed to develop and validate a whole host of possible interventions aimed at giving our aging population a better quality of life.”
Student Researcher Explores Boundaries of Performance Arts Medicine
By Caperton Gillett
Christophe Jackson's portable sound booth system provides detailed biomechanical feedback to help singers improve their performances.
Christophe Jackson found his love of music early on. Growing up in the heart of Montgomery, Jackson touched his first piano at the Nellie Burge Community Center and never stopped playing. He studied both classical and jazz music, performed with orchestras and jazz bands, and taught piano to inner-city children. So when it came time to choose a major in college, the answer was simple: biology.
With a double major in biology and music, Jackson blended his love of music and his fascination with science with his goal of becoming a doctor. With careful planning, he managed to divide his time between the concert hall and the biology lab, and even continued performing with the RJS trio in Birmingham and, on occasion, with friends in New Orleans.
Today Jackson is pursuing a Ph.D. in biology at UAB while working on a master’s degree in music (focusing on piano) at Samford University. It’s part of his effort to explore—and expand—the field of performing arts medicine.
Exploring the Marketplace of the Mind
By Jo Lynn Orr
It turns out that you may have a mind for economics—even if you can’t tell a Laffer curve from a bump in the road. Today many scientists are trying to understand how people make choices by viewing the human brain as a sort of marketplace, where each decision comes with a price tag reflecting its risks and rewards. This field of study is known as neuroeconomics, and it could help shed light on everything from consumer preferences to substance abuse.
Don Ross, Ph.D., is applying neuroeconomics to another form of addiction: gambling. Ross, a professor of economics and philosophy at UAB and professor of economics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, explains that gambling can provide the truest model of addiction because it doesn’t involve a substance introduced from outside the brain. Most people who gamble don’t become addicted, of course, but some people find the experience so “rewarding” that it becomes obsessive. Ross and his research team are trying to find out what makes those addicted minds tick. “We’re interested in understanding how—independently of the whole person—that part of the brain that auto-processes reward stimuli does the computations that it does,” he says.
Unraveling a Cellular Mystery
By Matt Windsor
Once dismissed as the cellular equivalent of tonsils, primary cilia are now known to be invaluable antennae that help cells sense their environment. UAB's Bradley Yoder has helped connect primary cilia with a host of human ailments, from kidney disease to obesity and even cancer. At top, primary cilia (colored green and red) protrude from renal epithelial cells grown in culture.
In cell biology, as in love, you often don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. For more than a century, scientists have known that most cells in the human body come equipped with an odd projection on their outer surfaces called the primary cilium. Unlike the wavy, hairlike cilia you may remember from biology class—the ones that sweep mucus out of the airways—the primary cilia are rigid and didn’t seem to have any useful function. They were written off as vestigial, like tonsils or the appendix.
But 10 years ago, a handful of cell biologists including UAB’s Bradley Yoder, Ph.D., began to unravel the secrets of this obscure organelle. Starting in green algae and only lately moving up to humans, they made a startling discovery: If a cell loses its cilium, bad things begin to happen. Their investigations have revealed that, far from being an artifact, the primary cilium is actually an important communications device—and a major player in human growth and development, kidney disease, obesity, wound healing, and even cancer.
“Human patients with ciliary defects are often blind, they can’t smell, and they have difficulty hearing,” says Yoder. “It turns out that the cilia are loaded with receptors and channels that allow a cell to sense its environment and communicate with that environment.”
Cilia in the embryo help determine the overall body plan, including the key directive to put the heart just to the left of the centerline. (One genetic defect in the cilia causes people to be born with a completely reversed body plan, says Yoder: “Everything’s on the wrong side.”) Cilia on the rods and cones of the eye gather and respond to light. Cilia in the nose sense and react to odors. Primary cilia are involved in so many sensory functions, Yoder says, that they have earned the name “the antennae of the cell.”