Matching Items (27)
For animals that experience annual cycles of gonad development, the seasonal timing (phenology) of gonad growth is a major adaptation to local environmental conditions. To optimally time seasonal gonad growth, animals use environmental cues that forecast future conditions. The availability of food is one such environmental cue. Although the importance of food availability has been appreciated for decades, the physiological mechanisms underlying the modulation of seasonal gonad growth by this environmental factor remain poorly understood.
Urbanization is characterized by profound environmental changes, and urban animals must adjust to an environment vastly different from that of their non-urban conspecifics. Evidence suggests that birds adjust to urban areas by advancing the timing of seasonal breeding and gonad development, compared to their non-urban conspecifics. A leading hypothesis to account for this phenomenon is that food availability is elevated in urban areas, which improves the energetic status of urban birds and enables them to initiate gonad development earlier than their non-urban conspecifics. However, this hypothesis remains largely untested.
My dissertation dovetailed comparative studies and experimental approaches conducted in field and captive settings to examine the physiological mechanisms by which food availability modulates gonad growth and to investigate whether elevated food availability in urban areas advances the phenology of gonad growth in urban birds. My captive study demonstrated that energetic status modulates reproductive hormone secretion, but not gonad growth. By contrast, free-ranging urban and non-urban birds did not differ in energetic status or plasma levels of reproductive hormones either in years in which urban birds had advanced phenology of gonad growth or in a year that had no habitat-related disparity in seasonal gonad growth. Therefore, my dissertation provides no support for the hypothesis that urban birds begin seasonal gonad growth because they are in better energetic status and increase the secretion of reproductive hormones earlier than non-urban birds. My studies do suggest, however, that the phenology of key food items and the endocrine responsiveness of the reproductive system may contribute to habitat-related disparities in the phenology of gonad growth.
Methyl-CpG binding protein 2 (MECP2) is a widely abundant, multifunctional regulator of gene expression with highest levels of expression in mature neurons. In humans, both loss- and gain-of-function mutations of MECP2 cause mental retardation and motor dysfunction classified as either Rett Syndrome (RTT, loss-of-function) or MECP2 Duplication Syndrome (MDS, gain-of-function). At the cellular level, MECP2 mutations cause both synaptic and dendritic defects. Despite identification of MECP2 as a cause for RTT nearly 16 years ago, little progress has been made in identifying effective treatments. Investigating major cellular and molecular targets of MECP2 in model systems can help elucidate how mutation of this single gene leads to nervous system and behavioral defects, which can ultimately lead to novel therapeutic strategies for RTT and MDS. In the work presented here, I use the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, as a model system to study specific cellular and molecular functions of MECP2 in neurons. First, I show that targeted expression of human MECP2 in Drosophila flight motoneurons causes impaired dendritic growth and flight behavioral performance. These effects are not caused by a general toxic effect of MECP2 overexpression in Drosophila neurons, but are critically dependent on the methyl-binding domain of MECP2. This study shows for the first time cellular consequences of MECP2 gain-of-function in Drosophila neurons. Second, I use RNA-Seq to identify KIBRA, a gene associated with learning and memory in humans, as a novel target of MECP2 involved in the dendritic growth phenotype. I confirm bidirectional regulation of Kibra by Mecp2 in mouse, highlighting the translational utility of the Drosophila model. Finally, I use this system to identify a novel role for the C-terminus in regulating the function of MECP in apoptosis and verify this finding in mammalian cell culture. In summary, this work has established Drosophila as a translational model to study the cellular effects of MECP2 gain-of-function in neurons, and provides insight into the function of MECP2 in dendritic growth and apoptosis.
In wild birds, the stress response can inhibit the activity of the innate immune system, which serves as the first line of defense against pathogens. By elucidating the mechanisms which regulate the interaction between stress and innate immunity, researchers may be able to predict when birds experience increased susceptibility to infections and can target specific mediators to mitigate stress-induced suppression of innate immune activity. Such elucidation is especially important for urban birds, such as the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), because these birds experience higher pathogen prevalence and transmission when compared to birds in rural regions. I investigated the role of corticosterone (CORT) in stress-induced suppression of two measures of innate immune activity (complement- and natural antibody-mediated activity) in male House Sparrows. Corticosterone, the primary avian glucocorticoid, is elevated during the stress response and high levels of this hormone induce effects through the activation of cytosolic and membrane-bound glucocorticoid receptors (GR). My results demonstrate that CORT is necessary and sufficient for stress-induced suppression of complement-mediated activity, and that this relationship is consistent between years. Corticosterone, however, does not inhibit complement-mediated activity through cytosolic GR, and additional research is needed to confirm the involvement of membrane-bound GR. The role of CORT in stress-induced inhibition of natural antibody-mediated activity, however, remains puzzling. Stress-induced elevation of CORT can suppress natural antibody-mediated activity through the activation of cytosolic GR, but the necessity of this mechanism varies inter-annually. In other words, both CORT-dependent and CORT-independent mechanisms may inhibit natural antibody-mediated activity during stress in certain years, but the causes of this inter-annual variation are not known. Previous studies have indicated that changes in the pathogen environment or food availability can alter regulation of innate immunity, but further research is needed to test these hypotheses. Overall, my dissertation demonstrates that stress inhibits innate immunity through several mechanisms, but environmental pressures may influence this inhibitory relationship.
Chronic stress results in functional and structural changes to the hippocampus. Decades of research has led to insights into the mechanisms underlying the chronic stress-induced deficits in hippocampal-mediated cognition and reduction of dendritic complexity of hippocampal neurons. Recently, a considerable focus of chronic stress research has investigated the mechanisms behind the improvements in hippocampal mediated cognition when chronic stress ends and a post-stress rest period is given. Consequently, the goal of this dissertation is to uncover the mechanisms that allow for spatial ability to improve in the aftermath of chronic stress. In chapter 2, the protein brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) was investigated as a mechanism that allows for spatial ability to show improvements following the end of chronic stress. It was found that decreasing the expression of BDNF in the hippocampus prevented spatial memory improvements following a post-stress rest period. Chapter 3 was performed to determine whether hippocampal CA3 apical dendritic complexity requires BDNF to show improvements following a post-stress rest period, and whether a receptor for BDNF, TrkB, mediates the improvements of spatial ability and dendritic complexity in a temporal manner, i.e. during the rest period only. These experiments showed that decreased hippocampal BDNF expression prevented improvements in dendritic complexity, and administration of a TrkB antagonist during the rest period also prevented the improvements in spatial ability and dendritic complexity. In chapter 4, the role of the GABAergic system on spatial ability following chronic stress and a post-stress rest period was investigated. Following chronic stress, it was found that male rats showed impairments on the acquisition phase of the RAWM and this correlated with limbic glutamic acid decarboxylase, a marker for GABA. In chapter 5, a transgenic mouse that expresses a permanent marker on all GABAergic interneurons was used to assess the effects of chronic stress and a post-stress rest period on hippocampal GABAergic neurons. While no changes were found on the total number of GABAergic interneurons, specific subtypes of GABAergic interneurons were affected by stressor manipulations. Collectively, these studies reveal some mechanisms behind the plasticity seen in the hippocampus in response to a post-stress rest period.
Reproduction is energetically costly and seasonal breeding has evolved to capitalize on predictable increases in food availability. The synchronization of breeding with periods of peak food availability is especially important for small birds, most of which do not store an extensive amount of energy. The annual change in photoperiod is the primary environmental cue regulating reproductive development, but must be integrated with supplementary cues relating to local energetic conditions. Photoperiodic regulation of the reproductive neuroendocrine system is well described in seasonally breeding birds, but the mechanisms that these animals use to integrate supplementary cues remain unclear. I hypothesized that (a) environmental cues that negatively affect energy balance inhibit reproductive development by acting at multiple levels along the reproductive endocrine axis including the hypothalamus (b) that the availability of metabolic fuels conveys alterations in energy balance to the reproductive system. I investigated these hypotheses in male house finches, Haemorhous mexicanus, caught in the wild and brought into captivity. I first experimentally reduced body condition through food restriction and found that gonadal development and function are inhibited and these changes are associated with changes in hypothalamic gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). I then investigated this neuroendocrine integration and found that finches maintain reproductive flexibility through modifying the release of accumulated GnRH stores in response to energetic conditions. Lastly, I investigated the role of metabolic fuels in coordinating reproductive responses under two different models of negative energy balance, decreased energy intake (food restriction) and increased energy expenditure (high temperatures). Exposure to high temperatures lowered body condition and reduced food intake. Reproductive development was inhibited under both energy challenges, and occurred with decreased gonadal gene expression of enzymes involved in steroid synthesis. Minor changes in fuel utilization occurred under food restriction but not high temperatures. My results support the hypothesis that negative energy balance inhibits reproductive development through multilevel effects on the hypothalamus and gonads. These studies are among the first to demonstrate a negative effect of high temperatures on reproductive development in a wild bird. Overall, the above findings provide important foundations for investigations into adaptive responses of breeding in energetically variable environments.
Guided by Tinto’s Theory of College Student Departure, I conducted a set of five studies to identify factors that influence students’ social integration in college science active learning classes. These studies were conducted in large-enrollment college science courses and some were specifically conducted in undergraduate active learning biology courses. Using qualitative and quantitative methodologies, I identified how students’ identities, such as their gender and LGBTQIA identity, and students’ perceptions of their own intelligence influence their experience in active learning science classes and consequently their social integration in college. I also determined factors of active learning classrooms and instructor behaviors that can affect whether students experience positive or negative social integration in the context of active learning. I found that students’ hidden identities, such as the LGBTQIA identity, are more relevant in active learning classes where students work together and that the increased relevance of one’s identity can have a positive and negative impact on their social integration. I also found that students’ identities can predict their academic self-concept, or their perception of their intelligence as it compares to others’ intelligence in biology, which in turn predicts their participation in small group-discussion. While many students express a fear of negative evaluation, or dread being evaluated negatively by others when speaking out in active learning classes, I identified that how instructors structure group work can cause students to feel more or less integrated into the college science classroom. Lastly, I identified tools that instructors can use, such as name tents and humor, which can positive affect students’ social integration into the college science classroom. In sum, I highlight inequities in students’ experiences in active learning science classrooms and the mechanisms that underlie some of these inequities. I hope this work can be used to create more inclusive undergraduate active learning science courses.
The RASopathies are a collection of developmental diseases caused by germline mutations in components of the RAS/MAPK signaling pathway and is one of the world’s most common set of genetic diseases. A majority of these mutations result in an upregulation of RAS/MAPK signaling and cause a variety of both physical and neurological symptoms. Neurodevelopmental symptoms of the RASopathies include cognitive and motor delays, learning and intellectual disabilities, and various behavioral problems. Recent noninvasive imaging studies have detected widespread abnormalities within white matter tracts in the brains of RASopathy patients. These abnormalities are believed to be indicative of underlying connectivity deficits and a possible source of the behavioral and cognitive deficits. To evaluate these long-range connectivity and behavioral issues in a cell-autonomous manner, MEK1 loss- and gain-of-function (LoF and GoF) mutations were induced solely in the cortical glutamatergic neurons using a Nex:Cre mouse model. Layer autonomous effects of the cortex were also tested in the GoF mouse using a layer 5 specific Rbp4:Cre mouse. Immunohistochemical analysis showed that activated ERK1/2 (P-ERK1/2) was expressed in high levels in the axonal compartments and reduced levels in the soma when compared to control mice. Axonal tract tracing using a lipophilic dye and an adeno-associated viral (AAV) tract tracing vector, identified significant corticospinal tract (CST) elongation deficits in the LoF and GoF Nex:Cre mouse and in the GoF Rbp4:Cre mouse. AAV tract tracing was further used to identify significant deficits in axonal innervation of the contralateral cortex, the dorsal striatum, and the hind brain of the Nex:Cre GoF mouse and the contralateral cortex and dorsal striatum of the Rbp4:Cre mouse. Behavioral testing of the Nex:Cre GoF mouse indicated deficits in motor learning acquisition while the Rbp4:Cre GoF mouse showed no failure to acquire motor skills as tested. Analysis of the expression levels of the immediate early gene ARC in Nex:Cre and Rbp4:Cre mice showed a specific reduction in a cell- and layer-autonomous manner. These findings suggest that hyperactivation of the RAS/MAPK pathway in cortical glutamatergic neurons, induces changes to the expression patterns of P-ERK1/2, disrupts axonal elongation and innervation patterns, and disrupts motor learning abilities.
Specific dendritic morphologies are a hallmark of neuronal identity, circuit assembly, and behaviorally relevant function. Despite the importance of dendrites in brain health and disease, the functional consequences of dendritic shape remain largely unknown. This dissertation addresses two fundamental and interrelated aspects of dendrite neurobiology. First, by utilizing the genetic power of Drosophila melanogaster, these studies assess the developmental mechanisms underlying single neuron morphology, and subsequently investigate the functional and behavioral consequences resulting from developmental irregularity. Significant insights into the molecular mechanisms that contribute to dendrite development come from studies of Down syndrome cell adhesion molecule (Dscam). While these findings have been garnered primarily from sensory neurons whose arbors innervate a two-dimensional plane, it is likely that the principles apply in three-dimensional central neurons that provide the structural substrate for synaptic input and neural circuit formation. As such, this dissertation supports the hypothesis that neuron type impacts the realization of Dscam function. In fact, in Drosophila motoneurons, Dscam serves a previously unknown cell-autonomous function in dendrite growth. Dscam manipulations produced a range of dendritic phenotypes with alteration in branch number and length. Subsequent experiments exploited the dendritic alterations produced by Dscam manipulations in order to correlate dendritic structure with the suggested function of these neurons. These data indicate that basic motoneuron function and behavior are maintained even in the absence of all adult dendrites within the same neuron. By contrast, dendrites are required for adjusting motoneuron responses to specific challenging behavioral requirements. Here, I establish a direct link between dendritic structure and neuronal function at the level of the single cell, thus defining the structural substrates necessary for conferring various aspects of functional motor output. Taken together, information gathered from these studies can inform the quest in deciphering how complex cell morphologies and networks form and are precisely linked to their function.
To address the need of scientists and engineers in the United States workforce and ensure that students in higher education become scientifically literate, research and policy has called for improvements in undergraduate education in the sciences. One particular pathway for improving undergraduate education in the science fields is to reform undergraduate teaching. Only a limited number of studies have explored the pedagogical content knowledge of postsecondary level teachers. This study was conducted to characterize the PCK of biology faculty and explore the factors influencing their PCK. Data included semi-structured interviews, classroom observations, documents, and instructional artifacts. A qualitative inquiry was designed to conduct an in-depth investigation focusing on the PCK of six biology instructors, particularly the types of knowledge they used for teaching biology, their perceptions of teaching, and the social interactions and experiences that influenced their PCK. The findings of this study reveal that the PCK of the biology faculty included eight domains of knowledge: (1) content, (2) context, (3) learners and learning, (4) curriculum, (5) instructional strategies, (6) representations of biology, (7) assessment, and (8) building rapport with students. Three categories of faculty PCK emerged: (1) PCK as an expert explainer, (2) PCK as an instructional architect, and (3) a transitional PCK, which fell between the two prior categories. Based on the interpretations of the data, four social interactions and experiences were found to influence biology faculty PCK: (1) teaching experience, (2) models and mentors, (3) collaborations about teaching, and (4) science education research. The varying teaching perspectives of the faculty also influenced their PCK. This study shows that the PCK of biology faculty for teaching large introductory courses at large research institutions is heavily influenced by factors beyond simply years of teaching experience and expert content knowledge. Social interactions and experiences created by the institution play a significant role in developing the PCK of biology faculty.
Systemic lupus erytematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease where the immune system is reactive to self antigens resulting in manifestations like glomerulonephritis and arthritis. The immune system also affects the central nervous system (known as CNS-SLE) leading to neuropsychiatric manifestations such as depression, cognitive impairment, psychosis and seizures. A subset of pathogenic brain-reactive autoantibodies (BRAA) is hypothesized to bind to integral membrane brain proteins, affecting their function, leading to CNS-SLE. I have tested this BRAA hypothesis, using our lupus-mouse model the MRL/lpr mice, and have found it to be a reasonable explanation for some of the manifestations of CNS-SLE. Even when the MRL/lpr had a reduced autoimmune phenotype, their low BRAA sera levels correlated with CNS involvement. The correlation existed between BRAA levels to integral membrane protein and depressive-like behavior. These results were the first to show a correlation between behavioral changes and BRAA levels from brain membrane antigen as oppose to cultured neuronal cells. More accurate means of predicting and diagnosing lupus and CNS-SLE is necessary. Using microarray technology I was able to determine peptide sets that could be predictive and diagnostic of lupus and each specific CNS manifestation. To knowledge no test currently exists that can effectively diagnose lupus and distinguish between each CNS manifestations. Using the peptide sets, I was able to determine possible natural protein biomarkers for each set as well as for five monoclonal BRAA from one MRL/lpr. These biomarkers can provide specific targets for therapy depending on the manifestation. It was necessary to investigate how these BRAA enter the brain. I hypothesized that substance P plays a role in altering the blood-brain barrier (BBB) allowing these BRAA to enter and affect brain function, when bound to its neurokinin-1 receptor (NK-1R). Western blotting results revealed an increase in the levels of NK-1R in the brain of the MRL/lpr compared to the MRL/mp. These MRL/lpr with increased levels of both NK-1R and BRAA displayed CNS dysfunction. Together, these results demonstrate that NK-1R may play a role in CNS manifestations. Overall, the research conducted here, add to the role that BRAA are playing in CNS-lupus.