New Auburn mobile lab hits the road, expanding university’s research opportunities far and wide

Published: October 04, 2019
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A bird can migrate hundreds of miles in a day unimpeded, but an average human can run for just 30 minutes and feel exhausted. An interdisciplinary team of researchers at Auburn University is trying to determine why this is so, and today they’ll literally get moving toward an answer with the maiden voyage of the Auburn MitoMobile.

Auburn’s new mobile mitochondria lab—launching today to Moscow, Idaho—will allow researchers to travel the country to study bioenergetics, studying the difference in energy sources among certain animals and humans and ultimately pinpointing where they believe the answer to their question lies—our mitochondria.

Known as the powerhouse of the cell, mitochondria are responsible for releasing energy from food. The ways in which mitochondria do this for different species may answer questions about energy sources.

Auburn’s new mobile mitochondria lab—deemed the MitoMobile—will allow researchers to travel the country to study bioenergetics without being in their campus labs.

“The MitoMobile is a mobile laboratory where we actually can measure bioenergetics in a variety of different species including birds, mammals, insects and reptiles, where we collect the animals in the wild and we can isolate mitochondria,” said Andreas Kavazis, a professor in Auburn’s School of Kinesiology.

The study of mitochondria involves using fresh and live tissue, so researchers only have about two hours to work with the material. Having a lab on wheels will allow a team to go out and collect material in a variety of locations, not just those areas that are within a few minutes of the permanent labs in Auburn.

The MitoMobile is headed to Moscow, Idaho, to study dairy cows at the University of Idaho. The team from Auburn includes professors and students from the School of Kinesiology, the Department of Biological Sciences and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Wendy Hood, associate professor of biological sciences, is going on the inaugural trip, as one of her former doctoral students is now working at the University of Idaho. Hood’s research also focuses on mitochondria and energy—but for this particular trip, her work will center on energy used during lactation.

“I’ve been interested in the energetic cost of lactation for a long time,” she said. “My former student had done a previous study in dairy cows where she found that there were effects on mitochondrial performance when lactating cows were under heat stress.”

That stress oftentimes reduces milk synthesis, so Hood will be performing mitochondrial measurements to further the research.

“Most of our studies in the future will likely be field trips where we’re in a remote location for data collection,” Hood said. “This is really the perfect project for our first voyage because we will be at another university so if there are additional tools we need, we will have access to those whereas we wouldn’t in a remote field location.”

This project, Kavazis said, could provide information with implications for humans, too.

“We can use the information for agricultural purposes and to potentially improve milk production in dairy cows, and use it as an experiment for female reproduction,” he said. “Moms who give birth and breastfeed their young can lose weight much more quickly and also have less chance of developing cardio-metabolic diseases down the road.”

Future trips will focus more on migratory bird research. Kavazis said that next year, the team will study a migratory sub-species of birds as well as a local sub-species. Comparing the results will allow researchers to identify differences in mitochondrial function and how those differences impact bioenergetics, or the transformation of energy in a living being. Bruce Gladden, also a professor of Kinesiology and part of the MitoMobile team, is an expert in lactate metabolism and its relationship to mitochondrial function. His primary interest with the MitoMobile will be differences in red blood cell energetics.

One of the trips next year will include Professor Geoffrey Hill of the Department of Biological Sciences. His research on birds has focused on questions relating to mitochondrial function, and the MitoMobile will enable him and his students to pursue what he calls “the most important and cutting-edge questions related to mitochondrial function in birds.”

“I’m interested in the role of mitochondrial function in bird evolution, but I have no ability to measure mitochondrial function,” he said. “My colleagues in Kinesiology are experts in measuring that function in birds, mammals and even insects. With the MitoMobile, we can now do work with birds at field locations anywhere in North America that has paved roads. We are no longer tied to projects near our lab.”

In addition to offering opportunities for research that hasn’t been conducted before, the MitoMobile will give students hands-on experience as they will be traveling with Kavazis and Hood to Idaho.

Hailey Parry, a doctoral student who researches mitochondrial function and oxidative damage, is going on the MitoMobile’s first trip.

“My role on this trip will be collecting data on the lactating cows,” Parry said. “The most beneficial aspect of this trip, and future research trips, is that it has provided me a brief look into what it is like to fully start up a lab and plan research projects from start to finish. When students enter graduate school, they begin their education in a lab that is already established. Being a part of projects on the MitoMobile means learning to start up a new lab, which provides me with experience when it is time for me start my own lab.”

She’s also seeing firsthand the benefits of departmental collaborations for research projects.

“The trip will provide great experience in collaborating with lab members in a confined space” she said. “I hope to be able to gain the experience needed to safely transport across the country, and successively collect data in a scientifically sound way.”

Auburn University is a nationally ranked land grant institution recognized for its commitment to world-class scholarship, interdisciplinary research with an elite, top-tier Carnegie R1 classification and an undergraduate education experience second to none. Auburn is home to more than 30,000 students, and its faculty and research partners collaborate to develop and deliver meaningful scholarship, science and technology-based advancements that meet pressing regional, national and global needs. Auburn's commitment to active student engagement, professional success and public/private partnership drives a growing reputation for outreach and extension that delivers broad economic, health and societal impact. Auburn's mission to educate, discover and collaborate drives its expanding impact on the world.