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NMSU biologist's study of birds may lead to medical benefits for humans

"I started out wanting to be nothing more than just a bird biologist, studying these animals that are so similar to us, yet so different from us. Now I've made a discovery that's tied to several of my family members who have suffered with the lasting effects of oxygen deprivation."

Dr. Marvin Bernstein, NMSU professor of biology (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

The discovery by Marvin Bernstein, professor of biology at New Mexico State University, is that birds use several mechanisms to help them adapt to oxygen deprivation, or hypoxia, and intense cold.

Bernstein is the fourth presenter in the NMSU College of Arts and Sciences' Spring 2006 Colloquia. His discussion, titled "Flying Over Everest: How Do Birds Do It?," will take place at 3:30 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 28, in Room 107 of the university's Science Hall.

Besides discussing how birds adjust to hypoxia, Bernstein also will relay how his research may eventually lead to new ways to treat victims of oxygen depriving events such as stroke.

To understand the connection, one must first understand the uniqueness of birds.

Some bird species fly at altitudes where the oxygen supply is only one-fourth as high as at sea level and where daytime temperatures are often 75 degrees below freezing. Since birds need 20 to 40 times more oxygen for flying than for resting, the feats of these high-flying birds are even more remarkable. By shifting the chemistry of some of their cells to a metabolism that requires no oxygen, birds can extract energy from their food to live and fly at extreme altitudes.

To understand the physiological adaptations for flight and high altitude tolerance in birds, Bernstein and his students study temperature regulation, energetics, or the study of the flow and transformation of energy, cardiac and respiratory mechanisms, transport of oxygen and carbon dioxide and the regulation of body fluids. The research team also studies the effects of hypoxia at the tissue and cell levels, especially in skeletal muscles, eyes and the brain. The team recently discovered another mechanism for supplementing the oxygen supply to the brain and retina of birds exposed to hypoxia. As part of an experiment on tissue hypoxia, Bernstein and his students discovered that the body tissues store huge quantities of body fluids that can replace blood lost due to injury and, therefore, birds never suffer from shock.

Mammals do not tolerate hypoxia as well as birds. Using rats, Bernstein's team measures changes in learning ability and memory to study the effects of hypoxia. The team has discovered that rats change their metabolism in the same way as birds at high altitude. The long-term goal is not just to understand the mechanism and evolution of hypoxia tolerance; knowledge gained from studying rats may be applicable to humans.

"My hope is that we will someday reach a point where we can learn how to induce these biochemical changes in the cells of the brain of a human being when there is a stroke that shifts the metabolism to this other, previously undiscovered, set of biochemical pathways. This is much more efficient so the brain stays alive longer, reducing or eliminating permanent damage and reducing the time to recover," Bernstein said.

Other colloquia presentations scheduled for this spring semester include the following topics, presenters and dates. All presentations will begin at 3:30 p.m. in Room 107 of the NMSU Science Hall.

- "Frank Zappa was Right! Perspectives on the Future of Jazz and Classical Music" - James Shearer, Department of Music, March 14, 2006
- "Crustal Extension and Historical Earthquakes in Central Greece" - Greg Mack, Department of Geological Sciences, March 28, 2006
- "Engine and Enigma: A Learner's Journey" - Kevin McIlvoy, Department of English, April 11, 2006
- "Saving the Ranch: Conservation Easements in New Mexico" - Jack Wright, Department of Geography, April 18, 2006
- "Mexican Descent Youth at the Crossroads of Sameness and Difference: A Mosaic of Youth Cultures and Border Identity" - Cynthia Bejarano, Department of Criminal Justice, April 25, 2006