I will start a new project in the next weeks. I’m trying to solve an old mystery: Why do birds live longer than mammals? This is particularly surprising as birds have high metabolic rates and very active life styles and one could think that the high energy consumption comes with a cost. One particular cost that has been proposed to cause ageing, is oxidative stress. Oxidative damage occurs when free radicals and so-called reactive oxygen species (ROS) outweigh the defence of antioxidants and repair processes, and according to the free radical or oxidative stress theory of ageing, this is the main reason why we age.
Recent studies have however shown that the link between free radicals and ageing really isn’t that straightforward, and that ROS production may actually be a more controlled process than previously thought. Indeed, ROS act as signalling molecules in many biological processes.
Nevertheless, mitochondria, those symbiotic cell organelles famously called ‘the powerhouse of the cell’, seem to have a central role in both ROS production and ageing. Our understanding of the importance of mitochondrial function and the interplay between mitochondrial and nuclear genes in affecting health and fitness is rapidly growing. There is also an emerging field of mitochondrial ecology that may bring novel answers to old questions such as speciation and the geographic distribution of populations. In my current project, I will study mitochondrial function in multiple mammal and bird species with the aim of establishing whether mitochondria carry the secret of the long lives of birds.
At the moment, I’m maintaining a number of bird feeders that will help us to collect wild birds from their natural environment. Many previous studies have used animals bred in laboratories, but we are not convinced that animals adapted to a non-challenging and stable environment represent the vast majority of animals.
Doing my daily round of feeder-filling serves as a nice break from sitting in the office or working in the lab.
The local surroundings are somewhat exotic from my Nordic perspective: sugar cane, soy beans and maize (corn).