We investigate the metabolic processes that enable specialized animals to enter dormant states such as hibernation and metabolic depression. But just what are these dormant states?
When a natural environment becomes depleted of some essential factor such as food, water, heat, or oxygen, the animals living in that environment tend to do the same thing we humans would: they leave. However, not all animals are able to leave, and for those that don’t, the most effective survival strategy is a dormant state involving a depressed metabolic rate. Metabolic depression is effective because it reduces the rate at which the animal uses the dwindling essential factor, extending the time over which that factor lasts. If the time extension is long enough, then the animal may live to see its environment replenished with that factor.
Not all animals can induce these metabolically depressed dormant states, but those that can are diverse, with representative species from all major vertebrate and invertebrate groups. Metabolic depression allows these animals to tolerate conditions that, to us, are extreme. This enables them to colonize environments that are otherwise inhospitable, and their survival strategies provide us with a natural blueprint for mechanisms that hold profound biomedical application potential.
In the Regan Lab, we study animals that use metabolic depression. Specifically, we investigate the physiological and biochemical mechanisms they use to induce and sustain metabolic depression, and to protect against some of its damaging effects such as muscle wasting. Our overarching goal is to uncover unifying principles of this metabolic trait that are present among diverse animal groups. Such discoveries will deepen our understanding of the natural world and accelerate the development of technologies to safely induce these states in animals that have no naturally evolved ability to do so, including humans.
Currently, we pursue this work along two axes: metabolic strategies of hibernation and metabolic strategies of hypoxia tolerance. Within both, we pursue lines of basic and applied research.
Top image: Alta Lake in British Columbia where we have conducted field work. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Bottom image: 13-lined ground squirrel in torpor during hibernation season. Photo by Matthew Regan.