Biology researcher receives sleep research grant

National Science Foundation grants Alex Keene $341,541 to study Mexican cavefish

6/28/2013 - By: Abbie Walker
Alex Keene Mexican Cavefish Alex Keene (center, black t-shirt) alongside Suzanne McGaugh (far left) other researchers visit a cave in the Sierra de el Abra region of Northeast Mexico. This trip was arranged as part of the 2013 International Cavefish Meeting, which McGaugh and Keene have been named organizers for the upcoming 2014 meeting.

When someone thinks about studying sleeping disorders in humans, most think the research subject would be humans; but, Department of Biology researcher Alex Keene has a different research subject in mind, Mexican cavefish. 

Keene has received a $341,541 National Science Foundation grant to conduct research on the regulation of sleep in the Mexican cavefish. 

Keene's project seeks to understand how diet and metabolism influence sleep duration using the blind Mexican cavefish as a model system.

"We're going to perform a detailed analysis of sleep behavior in cavefish and their surface counterparts," Keene said. "We think cavefish have evolved to sleep less because food is scarce in caves and therefore they need to spend more time foraging." 

The hope is he and his team can test this theory by manipulating diet and looking at the effects on sleep. They will also look at the fish's behavior in their natural environments in collaboration with Suzanne McGaugh, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota

In his NSF proposal, Keene explained that the Mexican cavefish is an extremely informative system for examining behavioral and genetic adaptations. These fish were trapped in caves approximately one to eight million years ago, and have adapted to these nutrient-poor environments by dramatically reducing sleep and developing numerous physiological changes, including altered metabolism, eye-loss, and albinism. This project will determine the evolutionary basis for the reduction in sleep.  

Keene's research began in 2010 when he was at New York University completing his post-doctoral studies.  

"My collaborators, Erik Duboue, then a New York University graduate student, and Richard Borowsky, a professor in New York University's Department of Biology, and I, first identified sleep differences in these fish," Keene said. "Borowsky and I have the only two laboratories in the world looking at sleep in these fish.  I think a lot can be learned and the funding of this research will allow us to move forward addressing these critical questions." 

Keene began his independent research and teaching career at the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011.  He continues to work closely with Duboue, now a postdoctoral fellow at the Carnegie Institution in Baltimore, Maryland, and Borowsky.  The three researchers are now using cutting edge molecular techniques to look at differences in gene expression in the brains of cavefish. 

"Alex's work is another great example of our new faculty getting national recognition through support of their research with competitive National Science Foundation grants," Jeff Thompson dean of the College of Science, said. "This project not only shows how we can engage students with important research, it shows our consistent success in building our neuroscience programs." 

The NSF funding for Keene means he can invest in developing Mexican cavefish as a model system for understanding how and why we sleep.  

"Research funds are tight now at federal agencies, and most scientific endeavors require funding" Keene said. "We're all grateful when our work is funded. I am going to work very hard over the next three years to make the most of these funds.  Hopefully this work will lead to a significant scientific breakthrough." 

Beyond his new NSF grant, Keene is one of five target faculty on a $10 million Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) research grant directed by Michael Webster, professor in the Department of Psychology. The grant is designed to support junior faculty and facilities in order to develop a world-class Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University.  Keene's COBRE project seeks to use powerful genetics in fruit flies to identify the neural basis for memory loss in sleep deprived individuals.  Because genes are highly conserved throughout the animal kingdom, using model organisms, such as the fruit fly and Mexican cavefish can help explain human biology and disease. 

While this is an exciting time for Keene, there is a downside to being stuck in a dungy compacted cave. 

"This will require getting over my fear of bats flying at me in small dark spaces," Keene said.


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