Humans and gators and chickens, oh my!

Jimena B. Pérez-Viscasillas, University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez

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When I first applied to this Marine Biology REU, in a lab that works mostly with alligators, at a Marine Science Campus right by the Charleston shore, I never thought I’d end up working with chickens. Yes, you read correctly: chickens, of the Chick-Fill-A and Kentucky Fried sort. I was surprised too, naturally, but it turns out the reason behind it is actually pretty important.

A couple of years ago, a group of scientists noticed some alligator populations in Florida weren’t doing too well. Their fertility levels were decreasing and a lower percentage of the eggs laid were hatching. Upon further study, evidence pointed towards a likely culprit: anthropogenic chemical contaminants in the environment. These contaminants were negatively affecting the gators’ hormone production and, in turn, their reproductive systems.

What do these gators have to do with chickens, though? Perhaps more importantly, what do they have to do with us? Let’s review some basic bio…

Figure 1: Vertebrate phylogenetic tree. Amniotes are organisms which have adapted to terrestrial reproduction. This group includes birds, reptiles, and mammals. (Graphic taken from: UCL)

There are some terrestrial animals which lay eggs (like chickens and gators) and some that carry their young in the womb, inside the placenta (like us). Both types of organisms, collectively called amniotes, have much of the same tissues surrounding their embryos during development. This shared characteristic means that we may be able to study some egg-laying animals to better understand our own reproductive systems.

Figure 2: A chick embryo and membrane. The membrane I’m going to be studying is that which lines the inside of the shell. Its called the chorioallantoic membrane, and it allows gas and waste exchange between the embryo and the environment. (Taken from Angiogenesis Laboratory Amsterdam)

Before we can use these organisms’ tissues as models of our own, however, we have to make sure we understand how they function. This is where I (and the chickens) come in. This summer, I’m going to be measuring how (and if), at different stages of development, the egg membrane of chickens produces hormones called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins play a major role in the immune system, as well as the body’s general regulation and reproduction. This preliminary research would help us better understand these sentinel species and allow us to later assess how their endocrine, immune and reproductive systems are being compromised by environmental pollutants. If we know how chemical contaminants in the environment are having negative effects on their reproduction, what might it tell us about how they’re affecting our health and reproduction?

To learn more about my project, check back for further posts!

Acknowledgements

This research, conducted at Dr. Louis Guillete’s MUSC Laboratory, is made possible thanks to funding from NSF and the College of Charleston. Further equipment and facilities are provided by the Hollings Marine Laboratory.

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References:

Bellairs, Ruth & Osmond, Mark. The Atlas of Chick Development.  San Diego, California: Elsevier Academic Press, 2005. Print.

Guillette LJ Jr. “The evolution of viviparity in amniote vertebrates—new insights, new questions.” J Zool  223 (1991): 521–526. Web. 10 June 2015.

Guillette LJ Jr. “The evolution of viviparity in lizards.” Bioscience 43 (1993): 742–751. Print.

Kalinski P. “Regulation of Immune Responses by Prostaglandin E2.” J Immunol 188 (2012):21-28. Web. 10 June 2015.

Kluge AG. Chordate Structure and Function. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.; 1977. Print.

Milnes MR, Guillette LJ Jr. “Alligator Tales: New Lessons about Environmental Contaminants from a Sentinel Species.” BioScience 58.11 (2008): 1027-1036. Web. 15 June 2015.  doi:10.1641/B581106

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