Saturday, July 23, 2016

Ruminations of a dog scientist on a 96-well plate

I've been doing a lot of bench work in the laboratory lately. This involves filling the tiny little wells on a plate with my ingredients (sample, reagents, primers) and then inserting the plate into a reader. The machine takes the plate up with whirring sounds that always fascinate me. I know there are little robot arms in there moving the plate into place, and I wish I could watch the process. But as I listen to the robot work, I sometimes think: is this the closest I get to living, moving animals now? How did I get here, so separated from fur and behaviors and emotions?

96 well PCR plate

My long term research goal is to understand the differences in how brains work in dogs who suffer from fear issues compared to resilient dogs who take life's arrows a bit more in stride. I'm doing this by studying gene expression in the brains of foxes who have been bred to be fearless (“tame”) or fearful (and aggressive — those who study them just refer to this line as “aggressive,” though).

My approach is, at the moment at least, deeply reductionist: what are the differences in gene expression in a few brain regions in these two lines of foxes? In other words, does one group make more of a certain kind of gene than the other? My hope is that I’ll be able to make some conclusions about the differences in function in these brain regions between the two lines of foxes, and that what I find will be relevant to fearful dogs. But I find myself burrowing deeper and deeper into learning about very small parts of the brain, and then very specific functions of those parts to the exclusion of other parts. Currently I’m learning about the pituitary gland — no, wait, just a particular cell type in the pituitary gland, the corticotroph — no, wait, just a particular set of processes of the corticotroph, how it releases one particular hormone into the bloodstream.

So in my daily work, I do things like take some tissue and extract all the RNA from it (throwing out DNA, proteins, cell structure, all sorts of interesting information — that's not what I'm working on or able to assess at the moment). I use PCR to extract a tiny piece of RNA from the complete transcriptome (all the RNA from that tissue), throwing out even more information. And then assess the expression level of that RNA, resulting in just one number. One number out of all that information after a day’s work.

Behavior can’t really be fully understood using this reductionist approach. If I do find a few important gene expression differences in a few small brain regions, they won’t explain the whole story of why an animal has a fearful personality. They’ll be a tiny, tiny piece of a complicated network of interactions involving genetics and life experience. But in order to get at that tapestry we have to first be able to visualize the threads that make it up. So here I am, in the trenches, doing that.

A recovering shy dog.

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