April 28, 2010
CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine:
Student researchers discover protein in snake gland
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Don't look yet, but there is something creeping up behind you in Slippery Rock University's Patterson Hall - a snake. Run for your life. Wait, false alarm. SRU student-faculty researchers are studying the biology of garter snakes in Patterson, but under a microscope and with molecules, not live snakes.
The researchers are gaining insights into the reptile's Harderian gland, which is thought to assist sensory action when snakes stick their forked tongues out and flip them up and down to "smell" the air for food or enemies.
"The goal of our research is to ultimately determine the function of the Harderian gland of the garter snake," said Michael Brown, a biology major from Greensburg. "All work that has focused on the molecular aspect of the gland has been inconsequential, so we are trying to reveal some useful molecular data about the gland."
Garter snakes, which are common in North America, grow to be about a foot long. They are harmless to humans.
While there has not been extensive research done on the Harderian gland, scientists do know that the barley-grain sized gland in the orbit secretes a protein-rich liquid that helps the snake detect chemical signals when snakes flick their tongues. Brown and Mathew Laubham, a biology major from Greensburg, hope to find the genes that produce the proteins and determine whether the gene exists only in garter snakes or are more widely distributed among vertebrates. Collaborating with Susan Rehorek, associate professor of biology, and Carolyn Steglich, professor of biology, they discovered a protein in the snake gland.
"Over time, as I learned more about the subject, I began to become more and more interested," Brown said. "I guess now I could say the 'thrill of the chase' trying to find the missing pieces to figure out what the gland does is the best part."
If you've ever looked at the face of a snake, you will notice that they flick their tongues a lot. What they are doing is sampling the air for scents, Rehorek said. The tongue connects to the Jacobson's organ, which checks out the scents and sends a message to the brain for the snake to eat, mate or beware of an enemy. The Jacobson gland is a sensory organ, much like the oflactory organ of the nose.
Brown said the research excites him because no one knows for sure what the Harderian gland does, whether its supports the Jacobson gland, and it is only present briefly in the human fetus.Johann Jacob Harder, a Swiss anatomist, first described the Hardian gland in 1694.
"I have learned that research is not as easy as one would imagine," Brown said. "I have much more respect for all the people around the world doing research, especially ones trying to find the cure to some disease that we barely understand, like HIV. It has taught me to be flexible and when something does not work the first time, try, try again."
Laubham said the pair isolated the most common mRNA molecules produced by the Harderian gland and made a cDNA library from them. Since mRNA comes from DNA, the transcribed sequence of the mRNA will yield the DNA sequence, and from that amino acid sequence of the protein can be deduced. The students attempted to match four such snake Harderian gland specific DNA sequences known sequences in a databank of known proteins. Two of the four snake sequences were comparable to known sequences of proteins but were not exact matches. They also attempted to see if the four genes appear in other organisms such as salamanders, frogs or lizards.
"No such data has supported one way or the other for the latter question this far," Laubham said.
Laubham said he has gained a great appreciation for everyday researchers. "It's a very daunting task with much failure, but that's the nature of the business," he said. "However, when things go smoothly, it is a very rewarding field, because it was fixed from your investigation and own thinking."
Both students said they are grateful to SRU and the biology department for the opportunity to do the research, which they presented at SRU's annual research symposium. "Because SRU is a smaller university, it allowed me and my colleagues to really become close with Dr. Steglich and learn from her experiences with research at SRU and at her other endeavors," Laubham said. And, the experience will serve him well in the future. He has been accepted into a doctor of osteopathic medicine program.
"The experience of working with Dr. Steglich and Dr. Rehorek has been great," Brown said. "I have not only absorbed a great deal of knowledge from them, but I have observed firsthand how professionals handle themselves in the academic world. It has indirectly forced me to read numerous scientific papers on a number of different topics, and I listened to a number of presentations at scientific gatherings on many subjects other than the Harderian glad. Overall, this independent study has allowed me to expand my knowledge base beyond that of a typical college student."
Rehorek, from Australia, said learning more about the Harderian gland could shed light on snake behavior. "A person might ask why we are interested in snakes. Obviously, you don't live in Australia, where we have 7 of the top 10 of the deadliest snakes around. And we want to know how to keep them away," she said.
The researchers have made a legitimate scientific discovery, because they have identified a little-understood protein. "We're finding out things that nobody has ever done before, proteins that no body has every described before," Steglich said.
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