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Home | Tag Archives: University of Texas at El Paso’s Department of Biological Sciences

Tag Archives: University of Texas at El Paso’s Department of Biological Sciences

UTEP Professor, Smithsonian researchers make genetic discoveries related to North American Ducks

A recent study published in the journal Molecular Ecology presents significant findings related to the genetic makeup of two North American iconic ducks: mallards and American black ducks.

Philip Lavretsky, Ph.D., assistant professor in The University of Texas at El Paso’s Department of Biological Sciences, collaborated with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History and National Zoo on the study.

In the manuscript titled “Assessing Changes in Genomic Divergence Following a Century of Human Mediated Secondary Contact among Wild and Captive‐bred Ducks,” Lavretsky and colleagues utilize state-of-the-art genomic techniques to access the genomes of American black ducks and mallards that were sampled across time and space.

This research not only renders similarities between the two ducks, it represents the growing importance of museum specimens in the realm of DNA research.

“We first started this project to understand why mallards and American black ducks were genetically so similar,” Lavretsky said. “To do so, we needed to get the genetic signature from today and in the past.”

However, this was not the only question that Lavretsky needed to answer. Work published previously by Lavretsky and associates in the journal Ecology and Evolution set the stage for what would become the more interesting story.

“We started to pick up two genetic populations among our North American mallards,” Lavretsky said. “We had a hypothesis that perhaps the release of game-farm mallards, which has been practiced in North America since 1920, may in fact have fundamentally changed the genetic make-up of North America’s wild mallard population through widespread hybridization.”

Lavretsky not only needed more modern samples to really understand what was happening between American black ducks, wild mallards, and game-farm mallards, but he needed to go back in time.

To do so, Lavretsky partnered with co-authors Helen James, Ph.D., research zoologist and curator of birds at the National Museum of Natural History, and Robert Fleischer, Ph.D., head of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Center for Conservation Genomics.

Together, they analyzed DNA samples of historical (1860-1915) museum specimens that were sampled before wide-spread game-farm mallard releases started in North America, and compared these to today’s populations.

“We knew that in addition to the historical data, we really needed to get known game-farm mallards that are currently being released by hunting or dog training preserves that could potentially escape and breed with wild populations,” Lavretsky said. “And so we were able to get these reference game-farm mallards from two eastern states that allowed us to directly test whether the second mallard lineage now widespread in eastern North America was due to interbreeding with these domestic game-farm mallards.”

In the paper, researchers concluded that black ducks and mallards have always been genetically closely related, and despite evidence of historical hybridization, they continue to maintain genetic separation; a finding that overturns decades of prior research and speculation suggesting the genetic extinction of the American black duck due to extensive interbreeding with mallards.

Unlike the happier ending reported for the American black duck, the authors conclude that the genetics of North America’s mallards had indeed been fundamentally transformed through extensive, landscape-level hybridization with released game-farm mallards.

“Who knew that old natural history museum specimens would one day become repositories of genetic information from the past?” James said. “For me, this study shows just how valuable that information can be. It allays some fears that the iconic American black duck may be facing genetic extinction via hybridization. Yet, it raises new fears that interbreeding between wild and domesticated mallards threatens the genetic integrity of the wild mallard, especially in the eastern United States”

“Based on our estimates, more than 90% of all eastern mallards possess a substantial amount of game-farm mallard genetics,” Lavretsky said. “This is a stark finding, as it indicates that the eastern North American mallard population is effectively a wild x domestic mallard hybrid swarm today. I find it a bit sad that there is only at maximum a 10% chance that someone looking at a mallard in eastern North America is in fact looking at a wild North American mallard.”

How, and to what extent these domestic genes impact wild mallard population remains to be determined. However, many populations in which stocking of domestic variants start – such as rainbow trout, runs of salmon, bobwhite quail, pheasants, etc. – the stockings do not end due to populations becoming ever-poorly adapted.

Mallard populations are recently declining in eastern the U.S., and the authors hypothesize that the increase in domestic genes in these populations may explain this decline. Moreover, finding that the game-farm mallard genetic signature is moving westward is especially worrisome for the main breeding mallard population of the Prairie Pothole region. Research is ongoing to answer these new inquiries.

“It is essential to identify and understand what species, population, etc. are in regard to their adaptive and non-adaptive potential, particularly when attempting to inform conservation or management efforts,” Lavretsky said. “We thought we had one mallard population, but in fact, we have two very distinct mallards breeding in North America.

“I believe that with advances in ancient DNA techniques, ancient/historical museum specimens are becoming an ever more valuable asset to understand the speciation processes, identify unique and extinct lineages, determine the timing of speciation events, and without which, the same comparisons that were done in our recent article would not be possible.”

Read the full article by clicking here.

UTEP Professor awarded $1.5M Grant to Research Inflammatory Responses in Immune System Diseases

The University of Texas at El Paso’s Department of Biological Sciences was awarded a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to research how natural killer T (NKT) cells regulate uncontrolled inflammatory responses in immune system diseases.

Leading the study is professor Charles Spencer, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences at UTEP. The objective of his research is to develop therapeutic drugs to control overwhelming inflammation triggered by infectious disease.

In order to accomplish this, Spencer hopes to define the immune response elicited by inflammatory infectious diseases to identify commonalities that could be targeted by future drugs.

“Inflammation is a critical part of our immune response to all infectious diseases,” Spencer said. “However, certain infectious diseases, including Francisella tularensis, Ebola, and pandemic influenza, trigger an over-reactive inflammatory response, referred to as a cytokine storm.

For these diseases, the production of this cytokine storm is the direct cause of pathological damage, including acute respiratory distress, hemorrhage, hypovolemic shock, pneumonia, tissue damage, and ultimately death of the patient.”

NKT cells are a population of immune cells that mediate both protective and regulatory immune functions. They play an important role in regulating inflammation in many tissues, including the liver, lungs and abdomen. Recent studies demonstrate that subsets of NKT cells are indeed functionally distinct and that the specific functions of these cells may be dictated in part by organ-specific mechanisms.

“By determining how NKT cells are responding to infection, we can design a drug to stimulate their ability to control the excessive inflammation induced by Francisella tularensis,” Spencer said. NKT-cell-based immune therapy would make it possible to activate the cells present in a particular organ and control the disease.

Research findings from the NIH grant will allow for the development of therapeutics to treat inflammation that is elicited by inflammatory infectious diseases. It is further likely that these drugs could be used to treat other inflammatory conditions, leading to a new class of non-steroidal immune-based anti-inflammatory drugs.

“This grant is the beginning of a line of research that could change how we treat infectious diseases and other conditions, which are caused by an over-reaction of our own immune response,” Spencer said. “The development of these new drugs is critical for infections that can’t be targeted by conventional anti-microbial drugs which target microbial products, such as toxins, and may result in an alternative treatment for the development of drug-resistant microbes.”

UTEP Professor Recognized as 2016 State Bar of Texas Inventor of the Year

Marc Cox, Ph.D., associate professor in The University of Texas at El Paso’s Department of Biological Sciences, has been selected as the 2016 Texas Inventor of the Year for his treatments for breast and prostate cancer developed at UTEP.

Cox was chosen as the top inventor in Texas by the Intellectual Property Committee of the State Bar of Texas, who selected the researcher from a highly competitive field of nominees. He is the first awardee from a university and will be recognized at the Annual Meeting of the State Bar of Texas in Fort Worth on June 17, 2016.

Prostate and breast cancer growth is frequently driven in response to the body’s own hormones. As a result, many current therapies include hormone-blocking agents.

However, a significant number of cancers develop the ability to grow even in the absence of hormones because their hormone sensors become stuck in an “on” state that normally only occurs in response to hormones, making them resistant to hormone blocking treatments. Such treatment-resistant cancers account for a significant proportion of prostate cancer deaths and also lead to many breast cancer deaths.

“Dr. Cox’s research has resulted in an entirely new class of drugs that bypasses the hormone sensors all together and instead block internal messages within cancer cells, so the cancer acts as if its hormone sensors are ‘off’ and does not grow. Without a constant message to grow, the cancer may die partially on its own or become much easier to kill with combination treatment,” said Michelle Lecointe, chair of last year’s Inventor of the Year committee.

MarcCox3D“I am both excited and honored to have been named the 2016 Inventor of the Year,” Cox said. “As a scientist, nothing would satisfy me more than to see my work directly contribute to increasing patient quality of life, and my efforts in technology development and commercialization are necessary steps towards that ultimate goal. Recognitions such as this provide strong validation of my technology development efforts, and of the great strides that UTEP has made toward fostering and supporting highly competitive research.”

Cox developed drug candidates that target a critical protein for androgen receptor signaling, which is a process that these cancers are dependent on for growth. Pharmaceutical compounds developed by Cox will help pave the way for the development of similar technologies that have less undesirable side effects than current treatments, thereby improving the quality of life of patients.

Preliminary findings suggest that Cox’s therapeutic strategy will lead to more potent and effective drugs. These drugs will likely demonstrate efficacy toward the treatment of breast and prostate cancers, either alone or in combination with existing therapeutics.

“Dr. Cox is adding new weapons to the clinicians’ arsenal of treatments that will provide greater options for the design of individualized and/or combination therapies, and significantly contribute to the reduction of death from prostate or breast cancer,” said Roberto Osegueda, Ph.D., vice president for research at UTEP.

Cox is currently working with scientists from the National Institutes of Health, Texas Southern University, Clark Atlanta University and the University of Colorado to conduct pre-clinical studies, and is in discussion with collaborators to design the initial clinical testing of the compounds.

Novel technologies and new goods are at the heart of economic progress and the major long-term economic benefits of novel drug technologies include increased longevity of patients, reduced limitations on patient activities including working, and reduced medical expenditures.

Six patents related to Cox’s breast and prostate cancer treatments are currently pending and issued.

“These novel drug technologies and their development toward commercialization attract funding that benefits the University, the University of Texas System and the regional economy through increased research expenditures and the creation of jobs,” said Melissa Silverstein, director of UTEP’s Office of Technology Commercialization.

To date, these technologies have attracted close to $2.3 million in research funding and created at least five new jobs within the academic research sector in Cox’s lab at UTEP.

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