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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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Quiz your knowledge of ASU team's mission, try your hand at lunar lander game.
March 10, 2017

Sun Devils working with teammates on the other side of the globe for a chance to induce photosynthesis on our lunar neighbor

Unlocking humanity’s future as an interplanetary species is no simple feat.

But students at Arizona State University and the Central University of Tamil Nadu in India are up for the challenge. The international collaboration is vying for a chance to induce photosynthesis on the moon.

“Photosynthesis is the basis of all life,” said Jonathon Barkl, a physics and economics major in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “If it can happen on another planet, we’re one step closer to proving humanity can eventually do the same.”

The quest to help build sustainable life on the moon started with TeamIndus, the only Indian team competing for the Google Lunar XPRIZE. The $30 million international competition inspires innovators to develop low-cost methods of robotic space exploration and be the first privately funded team to land spacecraft on the moon, travel 500 meters and transmit high-definition video and images back to Earth.

TeamIndus has officially secured a launch contract with India’s Space Research Organization to send a lander to the moon in December 2017. As part of their mission to catalyze humankind as a multi-planetary species, TeamIndus created the Lab2Moon challenge to fly one youth experiment aboard their spacecraft to the moon.  

“We have this amazing opportunity to send a payload to the lunar surface and conduct science that could impact the future of human exploration,” said Barkl, a member of the ASU/CUTN Lab2Moon team. “It blows my mind every time I think about it.” 

During phase one of the challenge, TeamIndus received 3,000 entries from across the globe explaining a range of experiments to catalyze the evolution of humankind – from growing plants on the moon to investigating the lunar subsurface.

Twenty-five teams were shortlisted in the competition to build prototypes of their concept, including the ASU/CUTN Lab2Moon team who are eager to determine if photosynthesis can take place on the moon with its very hostile conditions.

“The premise of our mission is taking cyanobacteria – a really robust and primitive life form – and placing it on the lunar surface to see how it affects the photosynthesis process,” Barkl said. “If cyanobacteria can photosynthesize and thrive on this surface, we can use it as a means of potentially producing energy, food or even possibly terraforming another planet.”

Can you land on the moon?

Landing on the moon isn’t easy. Test your luck and show your support for the ASU/CUTN Lab2Moon team.

The ASU/CUTN Lab2Moon team has been developing a strategy for putting their mission on the moon, from outlining power requirements to maintaining a safe environment for the bacteria. As they start to develop a full-on prototype of their project, they have to meet TeamIndus’ three criteria: be the size of a regular soda can, weigh less than 250 grams and connect to the spacecraft’s on-board computer.

“It’s a unique challenge to coordinate between the two universities,” Barkl said. “We’re halfway around the world and our colleagues are 12.5 hours ahead. We’ll message them while they’re trying to sleep or they’ll message us when we’re in class. The time coordination is hard, but it’s going well.”

During the development stage, the team has broken down responsibilities for the members at each university. Santosh and Sukanya Roychowdhury from CUTN will be developing the space capsule and testing it for space-grade readiness, structural integrity and its ability to withstand pressure and temperature. Barkl, Aidan McGirr and Autumn Conner from ASU will determine how to configure the electronics with the on-board computer, prepare the cyanobacteria and test the capsule’s sensors.

“Our mission is very heavy in science and data because we’re going to have about nine sensors whereas several other teams have only two or three,” Barkl said. “We have two main groups of sensors: one for maintaining a relatively friendly environment for the cyanobacteria and one for measuring the output of photosynthesis as the function of radiation on the lunar surface.”

Team of ASU students competing to go to the moon

Members of the Arizona State University and the Central University of Tamil Nadu Lab2Moon team — (from left) Autumn Conner, Jonathon Barkl and Aidan McGirr — along with Rakshith Dekshidar (right), a graduate student in electrical engineering, who has been helping the team configure the space capsule's sensors and electronics systems.


After their second design review with TeamIndus, the ASU/CUTN Lab2Moon team was invited to the final stage of the competition. The team will showcase their prototype to an international team of judges in Bangalore, India, on March 13, where they’ll find out who gets to fly with TeamIndus to the moon this year.

“We see professors from the School of Earth and Space Exploration all the time getting research grants from NASA and winning different missions. It’s inspiring to think, ‘Wow, I can go to space too,’ ” Barkl said. “ASU has never had a student mission of this caliber. We want to prove that not only are the faculty doing amazing science, but so are the students.”

Although Barkl is a student in the Department of Physics, he considers himself an honoree member of the School of Earth and Space Exploration. The research being conducted in the school was the reason he decided to attend the university and what inspired him to pursue this competition.

“The ASU community has really been a huge support for us,” Barkl said. “It’s a humbling experience to work with so many inspiring researchers who are so supportive and answer all our questions. If we had three years to research these questions, we could probably figure them out on our own. But with such a short turnaround time, they have really helped us make this project possible.”

The team’s mentors include Lindy Elkins-Tanton, planetary scientist and director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration; Philip Christensen, geologist and geophysicist; Scott Parazynski, retired NASA astronaut and current professor of practice; Ferran Garcia-Pichel, dean of natural sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Mark Jacobs, dean of Barrett, The Honors College and professor in the School of Life Sciences; Mark Naufel, director of strategic projects at the university; and Scott Smas, program manager of ASU’s Space Technology and Science Initiative.

“ASU has provided us with funding, supplies, facilities and mentorship,” Barkl said. “Having access to all these resources has pretty much changed the game for us.”

Barkl and McGirr, an astrophysics major, want to use the Lab2Moon project to kick off a miniature space agency and private, student-run organization at ASU where students can take what they are learning in the classroom and apply it in a meaningful way to advance space technologies.

“What I look forward to most is being able to say I’ve contributed to the goal of human colonization on other planets,” Barkl said. “And we want to prove that students can do meaningful work in the space sector too.”

To learn more about the ASU/CUTN Lab2Moon mission, visit the team’s website and Facebook page

Top photo: The moon photographed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera team at ASU. Photo by NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Amanda Stoneman

Copywriter , College of Liberal Arts and Sciences