In The Field

Fat and Ferrets

The Society for the Study of Reproduction meeting in Kona, HI sports an eclectic mix of talks and posters — so eclectic, in fact, that I’ve regularly found myself asking just what many of the talks have to do with reproduction. The keynote address for example by Evan Simpson of Prince Henry’s Institute of Medical Research, Monash Medical Center in Australia covered his lab’s amazing work linking metabolic dysregulation, obesity, aging, and cancer. Nope, no reproduction there, except for the role of circulating androgens. Simpson laid out a career devoted to aromatase and the ways in which changes in estrogen signalling contribute to breast cancer. Fascinating stuff, but even he was a bit stymied by the link to cancer.

Other talks on cell fate determination, entire sessions devoted to stem cell biology, and more talks and posters still to come on environmental toxicology leave me wondering what exactly this society is all about. I asked Doug Stocco, the current president of SSR what exactly gives and he told me about how SSR had in the past built a strong base of livestock reproductive researchers (these are the folks “with the brown rings around their biceps,” he joked) and then saw an influx of molecular people and mouse jockeys. For his part, Stocco studies steroids and sperm in mice. The wish has always been to build membership and camradarie rather than pare back to a party base, so the current mix has people who work in animals from cows to bank voles and several strange models in between.

Just to put a fine point on it, there were two short back to back talks on ferrets. Xingshen Sun from the University of Iowa was using viral gene targeting and nuclear transfer to create a CFTR knockout version of a domestic ferret. By deleting portion of the CFTR gene, these ferrets could be a good model for cystic fibrosis. The very next talk featured Rachel Santymire, of Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, IL, who is working with the Smithsonian Institution National Zoological Park to maintain the U.S. population of black footed ferrets, reportedly one of the most endangered mammals in North America. As part of her conservation work, she compared several different sperm freezing techniques for both domestic ferrets and black footed ferrets. The domestics did better on all counts, but it sounds as if the little swimmers from the black footed ferrets are starting from a disadvantage. The fact the project Santymire works with has produced thousands of ferrets from just seven rescued in the 1980s wouldn’t seem to bode well for their reproductive health. Although says Santymire, the breeding program and who mates with who is very well managed. More likely, she says, changes to the diets for captive ferrets might have caused problems. They eat prairie dogs almost exclusively in the wild.

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