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The Heart of a Snake
by Amanda Mascarelli
An unusual model organism is offering insight into cardiac physiology—and attracting students to research.
You want to study extreme biology? Check out the python. These snakes can go a full year without food, and, once they do score a meal, their heart and liver nearly double in size. HHMI professor Leslie Leinwand's animal model of choice has turned out to be a great way to lure upper class students into hands-on biology.
Because python organs undergo such a dramatic response to feeding, they make an ideal study organism for Leinwand, who is interested in understanding how the genetic landscape of the mammalian heart shifts during feeding, exercise, pregnancy, and disease.
Leinwand, at the University of Colorado, Boulder, had been studying heart biology in mammals, including humans, for 15 years when her research took an unexpected turn. In 2006, she came across an article by reptile physiologist Jared Diamond exhorting researchers to think beyond typical model organisms and study animals with more “extreme” physiology.
Diamond was studying Burmese pythons, which can survive in the wild through these year-long fasts. Their heart and liver balloon after a long-awaited meal; then, within a few days, the organs revert to fasting size. Leinwand was intrigued that pythons thrive under physiological conditions that would be toxic to humans.
“Not only are they not sick [during fasting], they don't even lose muscle by virtue of not taking in nutrition,” Leinwand says. “I read this article and said to myself, ‘this is the coolest thing. I'm going to work on this.’”
So four years ago, Leinwand placed an order for Burmese pythons. Soon, a gaggle of baby pythons arrived, writhing and tangled inside a pillowcase and packed in a Styrofoam box. “People in my lab thought I had lost my mind,” Leinwand remembers.
But she had a hunch her undergrads would think it was as cool as she did. With an HHMI grant, Leinwand developed a course that included a lecture program—“From Bench to Bedside: The Role of Science in Medicine”—and a lab-based class called the “Python Project.” The course gives students a chance to learn fundamental molecular biology techniques and make discoveries about python biology.
Because of the novelty of working with snakes, and the fact that almost nothing is known about the genetics and molecular biology of pythons, she thought it would create an ideal learning opportunity.
Illustration: Brett Ryder