On the value of comparative physiology

Published on February 29, 2016   35 min

Other Talks in the Series: Evolutionary Physiology

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Hello, my name is Karen Sweazea. And I'm an Associate Professor at Arizona State University. I'm in the School of Nutrition and Health Promotion, as well as the School of Life Sciences. My main research focuses are cardiovascular disease as well as diabetes. And I use a comparative physiology approach to study these conditions.
So people often ask me, what is comparative physiology? Everyone knows that physiology is the study of how the body functions. But people often assume that comparative physiology is simply the comparison of lab animals to humans, to which my response is usually "well, not quite."
Doctor August Krogh was a physiologist who lived from 1874-1949. And he is often considered the Grandfather of Comparative Physiology. He stated, "For many problems there is an animal on which it can be most conveniently studied."
So comparative physiology is a special field that considers both the evolutionary history of animals, as well as their ecological environments when attempting to understand how these animals deal with challenges to their physiology. Some of the questions that comparative physiologists might ask include, how do animals work? Why did they evolve specific traits or mechanisms? And what are the driving forces for adaptations? And these driving forces could include changing environment, such as climate change that's so popular in the news these days, or changes in food availability, more or less food, changes in season, longer seasons, shorter seasons, more or less severe, as well as changes that occur in daily life. All of which could affect the fitness and reproductive success of an individual. Often, there are more simplistic models of fundamental problems that can be found in nature. For example, instead of studying the human brain to understand nerve function, a researcher might want to study, perhaps, a giant squid, that has a more simple nervous system. So by understanding how simple and complex animals deal with specific challenges, we can begin to develop general or unifying principles that relate to all animals, including humans.