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ASU research applies Darwinian medicine to bird guts

Evolutionary medicine applies evolutionary theory to health and disease.
Studying bird health might uncover solutions for human health.
March 9, 2017

School of Life Sciences doctoral candidate Pierce Hutton says study of microbes could lead to solutions in human health

The stomach of a house finch might hold secrets to how humans absorb nutrients, age and deal with the omniprescence of nighttime light pollution.

Pierce Hutton, doctoral candidate in Arizona State University’s School of Life SciencesThe School of Life Sciences is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences., is studying the gut microbiome — the cocktail of microbes in the stomach that help digest food and promote health — of house finches to answer these questions.

His research is funded by ASU’s Center for Evolution and Medicine. Evolutionary medicine, also called Darwinian medicine, is the application of modern evolutionary theory to understanding health and disease. The goal is to understand why people and animals get sick, not simply how they get sick.

Human and animal common denominators can be used to diagnose, treat and heal all species. Human and veterinary medicine are the same, if examined from an evolutionary medicine standpoint.

Two years ago, the Center for Evolution and Medicine Venture Fund was launched to finance research projects that connect evolutionary biology and topics relevant to medicine or public health. The fund is open to all ASU, Mayo Clinic faculty and students.

Hutton had questions that arose from work in the behavioral ecology lab. Working along with postdoc Mathieu Giraudeau, he studied four questions relating to the gut biome of house finches: What do carotenoids tell us about overall health? What is the effect of light pollution? What role does the gut play in aging? What role does microbe diversity play in health?

The males have bright red breasts. Those plumage colors are made by chemicals called carotenoids, which they get from their diet. The intestine is a gatekeeper, so to speak.

“We think the males might vary in how well they absorb the carotenoids,” Hutton said. “One thing that might be helping them absorb them is the gut microbiome. It’s beneficial for them to absorb them, because the plumage colors they have are evaluated by females when they’re selecting mates. It could be some microbes in the gut are helping them become sexier. We wanted to manipulate their diet and see if certain microbes get more abundant. That would tell us which ones are beneficial for uptaking those carotenoids.”

Carotenoids are also linked to health. They have important health benefits in the forms of antioxidants and immune stimulants.

“You could make some extensions to human health and biology by saying, ‘Well, if we know these microbes are beneficial for taking in these key nutrients, then it might be the same case for humans as well,’” Hutton said. “There’s the medicine angle.”

Humans have carotenoids in their bodies, and it changes their appearance too. If Caucasians eat an excessive amount of carrots, they will take on an orange hue.

Hutton and Giraudeau added carotenoids to the birds’ diet. “We did find a major effect,” he said. “’We think these microbes might be related to the uptick of those.”

A second ongoing study is looking at how light pollution affects humans and wild animals. How does living with light in our homes and outside at night affect intestinal health?

“Light pollution is a global epidemic, so we were looking at how it affects the gut microbiome,” Hutton said.

They put birds in separate rooms, one with a blue light (blue light is more disruptive to sleep than any other wavelength) that switched on at night.

Hutton is also trying to manipulate the rate of aging in house finches by regulating their gut microbiome.

DNA has strands of non-coding DNA on the ends called telomeres. They protect DNA from damage.

“As you age and as your cells divide, those end caps shorten over time,” Hutton said. “It opens up DNA to becoming damaged more quickly. There are enzymes we can target to regrow these end caps. We can essentially slow or reverse biological aging in a way. We can do this by up-regulating this enzyme that does that. ... Intestinal health and the microbiome might change as people age. It might be helpful for medicine to know how it’s aging, if it does age, those sorts of things.”

The fourth experiment looked at how the cleanliness of bird feeders affects microbiome in birds. Many people neglect to clean their backyard bird feeders, and so birds are defecating on and eating from the same surface.

“This means that both pathogenic and beneficial microbes might have an easier time colonizing new hosts,” Hutton said.

They put up bird feeders in the wild. During some periods they allowed the feeders to accumulate dirt, and other periods they cleaned them daily.

“We are expecting to see a rise in the diversity of their gut microbe community when the feeder was dirty relative to when it was clean, which might also include more pathogenic bacteria,” Hutton said. “This might connect to humans because many human populations eat under less cleanly conditions, which could lead to similar effects. It also might help us understand how the process of urbanization, and feeding wildlife, affects their gastrointestinal health.”

Researchers are studying house finches because human and animal common denominators can be used to diagnose, treat and heal all species, according to evolutionary medicine. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons. 

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now


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Center on the Future of War hones focus with new administration

March 9, 2017

ASU center examines ISIS, the future of Middle East conflict and possible reconciliation, and the National Security Agency

Since its inception, ASU’s Center on the Future of War has led discussions on the emerging role of drones and autonomous weapons, the civilian impact of the conflict in Syria, and the significance of “lone wolf” terrorist attacks in post-9/11 America.

Now in its first year under a new White House administration, the center is shifting its focus to the rise of ISIS, the future of Middle East conflict and possible reconciliation, and the National Security Agency.

Center on the Future of War leaders say these challenges should be at the forefront of everyone’s thinking as the nation enters into a new era of international relations — and potential conflicts.

“There is a broad-based interest in discussing conflict and war within our society,” said ASU professor of practice Daniel Rothenberg, who co-directs the center with CNN senior analyst and ASU faculty member Peter Bergen. “Our students are part of a post-9/11 war generation, having grown up their entire lives with our country involved in ‘the longest war,’ and current political discourse is dominated by accounts of violence and multiple global threats.”

Since its formation in 2014, the center has brought together a team of ASU faculty and policy experts to explore the social, political, economic and cultural implications of the changing nature of war and conflict, addressing these issues by linking more than 100 affiliated faculty at Arizona State University with a team of three dozen national security experts at New America, an interdisciplinary Washington, D.C.-based think tank and civic engagement institutionThe Center on the Future of War operates under the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences with support from the School of Politics and Global Studies., according to organizers.

These thinkers, writers and decision-makers seek to attract media coverage and create meaningful public engagement.

“There is such a babble of voices in Washington and everybody has a platform, so it all becomes noise after a while,” said Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and New America Fellow David Wood. He said the center presents thoughts and ideas from a calm, sober and well-informed place.

Wood added the partnership between ASU and New America allows the center to “have one foot in Washington and one in the real world.”

One of the center’s signature events is the annual Future of War Conference held in Washington, which features senior military leaders from each branch, scholars and a number of less traditional voices. That is no small feat, said Benjamin C. Freakley, former commanding general for the U.S. Army.

“It’s remarkable and has created exceptional networks for awareness on this critical topic,” said Freakley, who is also a special adviser to ASU President Michael Crow for leadership initiatives. He said the conference serves as a superb platform in Washington for leaders to get their message out in front of a “broad, sophisticated and involved audience.”

Last year’s event drew more than 400 people, and more than 11,000 viewed it via live stream — a 60 percent increase from the 2015 conference. Tweets about the 2016 conference reached more than 2 million with #FutureofWar the third-highest trending hashtag in Washington, D.C. during the event.

This year’s conference will be on March 21 and features Gen. Mark Milley, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, and Gen. David Goldfein, chief of staff of the Air Force, speaking about the future of their services; Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, discussing links between Silicon Valley and national security; Juan Carlos Pinzon, the Colombian ambassador to the U.S., speaking about the end of decades of civil war; and academics from ASU and elsewhere speaking about social media, moral injury and the possibilities of peace in a turbulent world.

From past and current discussions, center experts have determined that the future of war will be defined by innovations in labs, cyberspace and technological and scientific advantages — as well as broad shifts in global culture, demographics, climate change and competition over resources.

The talk isn’t confined to Washington. The center hosts an annual spring speakers’ series and facilitates classroom visits and guest lectures, giving students and community members an opportunity to participate.

“We try and select people who are interesting thought leaders who are involved with exciting and innovative work,” Rothenberg said. “We want to launch big, interdisciplinary ideas in a number of different spaces at the time, which includes Arizona.”

Wood, who kicked off the spring 2017 lecture series to introduce the term and his book “Moral Injury” to the public lexicon, said his January visit to ASU was memorable. 

“I was quite taken by the students and the questions they asked me,” Wood said. “Those kids were not afraid to challenge me, and it brought a whole new perspective I would have never gotten had I not visited Arizona.”

The center also creates a platform for policy-oriented scholarly research for ASU Future of War Fellows at New America, tapping the talents of ASU students to assist with papers, books and articles. Current projects include an investigation of reconciliation in Iraq based on in-depth fieldwork in multiple communities formerly controlled by ISIS, the impact of gender issues on national security and conflict, a comparative review of domestic genocide laws and emerging military technologies.

Their work also extends to universities around the world, including a project on moral injury linked to the PLuS Alliance connecting ASU, the University of New South Wales and Kings College London.

Student Ryan Schneidewind assisted political scientist, author and New America senior strategist P.W. Singer on his new book, “Cyber Security and Cyber War: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

“The research is interesting because it’s so much bigger than just ASU,” said Schneidewind, a 2016 political science graduate who is seeking his master’s at Georgetown University. “I gained an understanding of what academia was besides just sitting in class.”

Alexa Magee, who conducted research for Rothenberg and Bergen’s book “Drone Wars,” worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia after graduating and is currently a program assistant for the American Red Cross field office in Yangon, Myanmar. She said that she was able to pursue a career in international law as a direct result of her work and research at the center.

“Working with the center helped me hone the research skills needed to write project proposals and gave me a forward-thinking perspective,” Magee said. She added it’s a needed skill when implementing projects that “prepare communities for distressing events and mediate harmful consequences.”

Erin Schulte, a 21-year-old global studies major and Marshall Scholar, said the center not only produces important work, but is minting leaders.

“These are some of the brightest students I have ever had the privilege to know,” Schulte said. “You can tell these are going to be the future leaders in their fields.”

Top photo: Afghanistan. Photo by