Blind Cavefish and You … Who Knew?

If you were a grown up in the years between 1975 and 1988, you might remember the famous (or infamous) Golden Fleece Award issued monthly by Senator William Proxmire (D – WI) to government funded projects and research that he deemed a waste of the taxpayers’ money. Rather than being the highly sought after prize bestowing authority and kingship of Greek mythology, Proxmire’s “Golden Fleece,” was associated with a fleecing of the public, a.k.a. a boondoggle. In all, Proxmire issued 168 of these “awards” before he retired in 1988. And various organizations and entities have carried forward on a similar vein since Proxmire vacated the scene.

To the average layperson, the Golden Fleece recipients’ projects looked like complete and utter wastes of time and money. We’ve all heard the refrain, sadly even from our Senators and Representatives, “I’m no scientist but …” Followed by something along the lines of “this makes no sense to me, seems utterly ridiculous, and therefore must be bogus.” The key phrase in this is “I’m no scientist,” because what follows is often something that may not make sense to laypeople but does make sense to other scientists. Nonscientists simply don’t have the background knowledge and training to know whether or not a line of research will generate useful and important knowledge. Sometimes the seemingly oddest lines of research do. Examples of that come later.

In fact, the same reasoning underlies climate change denial. Since it’s bitterly cold and snowing where I am (weather, a local phenomenon), the earth clearly can’t be warming (climate, a global phenomenon). Serious problems arise when the “common sense” opinion of a non-scientist is somehow equivalent in credibility to the consensus of multiply degreed climate and related sciences specialists. In what universe does that make sense?

A 2013 Washington Monthly article described Proxmire’s impact as follows:
“Proxmire doled out Golden Fleece awards to dozens of government agencies, including the Department of Justice, the National Institute of Mental Health, and NASA, often successfully stripping funding from their projects in the process. Scientists and their advocates were not amused, saying that Proxmire was presenting the intents of research projects unfairly to make them appear frivolous to a public predisposed to gobble it up, and that the award was a ploy for attention and political gain. While some of the projects he highlighted and stopped truly were stupid, the Golden Fleece Award did more harm than good: it halted legitimate research for political purposes, and worse, engendered widespread suspicion and hostility towards the notion of government spending on science, even when it represents only the tiniest portions of the overall budget.

It is the latter reason that makes those of us who want to love Proxmire for his litany of other accomplishments so uneasy, especially now that the mantle of equating scientific research with government waste has been taken up by the worst parts of the Republican Party, from cranky media obsessives like John McCain to anti-spending zealots like Tom Coburn. Bashing science in this manner became the cool new thing for the right—and it was a Wisconsin progressive who had made it cool!” 

And that brings me to the topic of this post – blind cavefish — and the research currently being done on them.

So there are these fish that live in caves and because there isn’t any light in those caves, the fish don’t need to see, and so they are blind and eyeless. They are also colorless. I mean, of what possible use could that research be?

Yet, scientists who study them have discovered some remarkable adaptations blind cavefish have made in response to their environment. For example, Science Daily reported that the research team led by Nicolas Rohner, Ph.D., of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, discovered that the species Astyanax mexicanus, a cavefish native to certain areas of Mexico, has “very high body fat levels, are very starvation resistant and have symptoms reminiscent of human diseases such as diabetes and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease,” yet, “the fish remain healthy and don’t have any obvious health problems like we see in humans. …While in humans this condition can lead to tissue scarring, inflammation, cell death, and eventually liver failure, the cavefish with fatty livers didn’t show any of these problems.”

The researchers also found that the cavefish exhibit very high blood glucose levels just after eating and very low levels when food isn’t available. These swings in blood glucose are similar to those experienced by people with untreated type 2 diabetes, though they appear to cause no negative effects in the cavefish. ’We think that like hibernating animals that acquire extra body fat in the fall to survive the winter, the cavefish become insulin resistant as part of their strategy to acquire high body fat levels,” said Rohner. ‘Similarly they likely use higher body fat levels to be more starvation resistant during periods when food isn’t available.’

The researchers identified a genetic mutation as the source of the cavefish’s insulin resistance. ‘It is not a regulatory or seasonal mechanism like in hibernating animals,’ said Rohner. ‘The cavefish are constantly insulin resistant, and that makes the argument even stronger that this is a strategy they are using to gain higher body fat levels. The fish must have also acquired compensatory mechanisms that allow them to stay healthy despite these high fat levels.’”

Scientists believe that further study of these fish might lead to cures for diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and obesity — all this from studying the genetic adaptations of an obscure species of fish.

When you consider that 30 million Americans have diabetes, probably including someone you know, and that $1 in every $3 Medicare dollars is spent on diabetes and $1 in every $5 of healthcare dollars is spent on diabetes, a total of $322 billion per year according to the American Diabetes Association, studying blind cavefish seems like a good investment, whatever the research dollars involved.

All of this makes me wonder if scientists, by simply pursuing their curiosity about the world, don’t often stumble on solutions to seemingly intractable problems that would remain unsolved if those research dollars dried up, withered away by the scorn of the “I’m not a scientist but” crew.

Cases in point, the Washington Monthly article cited above goes on to talk about the Golden Goose Award, created in 2012 by a coalition of various scientific and academic organizations at the urging of a bipartisan group of members of Congress, which intends “to celebrate scientists whose federally funded research seemed odd or obscure but turned out to have a significant, positive impact on society,” citing, for example, John Eng, a VA doctor, who received funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs to study Gila monster venom, which turned out to contain a hormone that is highly effective in treating diabetes, and Wallace Coulter who received funding from the Office of Naval Research and “invented a now-industry-standard way to count blood cells by studying how to improve paint used on Naval ships.” In the process, Coulter engendered “a technological boon with economic impact across major economic sectors like health and manufacturing,” giving American taxpayers ample return on their research investment.

Why is this important now?

We currently face a powerful impetus in America to mock science and defund major research agencies like NASA. It’s the popular thing to do, always good for a laugh. If we continue along these lines, however, the laugh will be on us. We will laugh ourselves straight out of contention as world class innovators and problem solvers in health, the environment, and other essential domains. And lives will be lost unnecessarily.

That is why, teachers, you are essential. You can activate the innate curiosity of your young learners from preschool on and guarantee that it won’t be extinguished before they get to university, where they will by then have the necessary background and interest to be eager and confident enough to pursue the advanced study necessary to find answers to the novel, mind-bending questions that lead to scientific breakthroughs, breakthroughs which ultimately benefit all of humankind. Keep science alive in your classroom to keep curiosity and scientific thinking alive in your students!

The first step toward both is to keep science alive in your own life, sparking your own sense of wonder at the diversity of life’s many solutions to the challenges of living on planet Earth.

To that end, you might enjoy this TED talk by ichthyologist Prosanta Chakrabarty on what we can learn from blind cavefish about the geology of the planet and the biology of how we see.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

Several other articles not cited in this post might be of interest to you:

http://www.stowers.org/stowers-report/spring-2015/basic-research

http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/10030/title/What-Proxmire-s-Golden-fleece-Did-For–And-To–Science/

 

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Filed under blind cavefish, science teaching, scientist, TED, Uncategorized, war on science

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