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Probing Effect of Light on Animals
August 1, 2014   
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Appropriate dosing of light could help farmers prevent many diseases affecting animals in breeding establishments, says Elżbieta Turkowska, a young researcher from the University of Warsaw. This is because melatonin, the light-sensitive hormone produced by the pineal gland that controls the sleep-wake cycle in both people and animals, improves the work of the immune system, she argues.

Chickens, for example, are less susceptible to infections if their biological clock functions properly, Turkowska says.

All kinds of parasitic, bacterial and viral infections affect poultry and other animals bred by farmers, regardless of the size of the breeding population, according to Turkowska. She is conducting research that seeks to prevent poultry diseases that can transfer to humans, including the notorious H5N1 avian flu virus.

The rhythmic nature of most physiological processes allows animals to adapt to changing environmental conditions, Turkowska says. Such rhythmic processes in the body are synchronized by the biological clock—located in the pineal gland. When it gets dark, the body begins to rhythmically produce melatonin, the “hormone of darkness,” which probably participates in the transfer of information between the central biological clock and the cells of the immune system, Turkowska says.

Turkowska is analyzing interactions between the so-called molecular oscillator in the pineal gland and melatonin and selected cells of the immune system. Scientists still know little about these interactions. Turkowska says she is looking for an immunomodulatory mechanism related to the action of melatonin that improves the resistance of chickens with experimental peritonitis.

“I assume that in the course of my doctoral studies I will manage to establish if the presence of seasonal and diurnal changes in the functioning of the immune system is subject to central control (through melatonin) or whether it is subject to peripheral control (through changes in the expression of biological clock genes), or perhaps is the result of the work of both these systems,” Turkowska says.

The avian pineal gland is a convenient model for studies of biological clock mechanisms because it displays functional similarity to its mammalian counterpart, according to Turkowska.

Meanwhile, Katarzyna Zięba, another young researcher from the University of Warsaw, is pursuing research that focuses on laboratory animals. She argues that animals used in research should have the same living conditions in all laboratories. This will make the results of various experiments comparable. Differences in living conditions affect the behavior of animals undergoing tests, according to Zięba. She describes this variability of behavior in her doctoral dissertation.

Zięba focuses on the emotions, activity, and memory of four animal species. She is analyzing changes resulting from different living conditions of rats, gerbils, voles and mice. These small mammals are often used in behavioral studies. Breeding them is easy and relatively inexpensive, Zięba says.

Zięba has set out to check how breeding conditions affect the behavior of selected animals. Her work involves manipulation of environmental factors that are often overlooked in descriptions of research procedures. According to Zięba, environmental factors are inconsistent in many research projects. These differences have an impact on the behavior of animals in tests and consequently affect the results of experiments conducted with them.
“An animal provided with good living conditions will react differently to one unable to meet their its needs,” says Zięba.

As part of her project, Zięba is making comparisons between different rodents most commonly used in laboratory tests to offer tips on how to select the right species for experiments.

Both Turkowska and Zięba are among the winners of the Doctorates for Mazovia scholarship program run in Warsaw and across the central province of Mazovia.

Karolina Olszewska
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