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The wonderful quail…and what Sen.Coburn should learn about it.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) released his “Wastebook” a week ago – a list of 100 government-funded projects that are supposedly a waste of money.

Every campaign season, quite predictably, someone from the GOP makes a document like this, listing examples of spending that, in their view, represents the most egregious excesses of governmental spending. Counting on their voters not to know or understand anything about these projects (especially the way these are carefully framed) and aware that nobody in the mainstream media will be pointing and laughing at them, they push these memes onto the unsuspecting public.

Many of these projects are competitive grant-funded scientific research, already paid by NIH or NSF after a draconian process of peer-review of the grant proposals by the experts in the field.

Remember the autism fruitfly research that Sarah Palin thought was wasteful? John McCain’s deriding of important bear DNA research? The “projector” at the Adler Planetarium? All horrendous misinterpretations of the actual research for the sake of scoring political points.

Just a campaign tactic to get people riled up against the “pointy-heads”.

Unsurprisingly, this latest list contains quite a few volleys against science – in service of politicking. A quick scan finds about a dozen scientific research projects already funded by federal grants, and I think some of the other bloggers on the network may cover some of them. I will focus on this one:

23) Rockin’ Robins: Study Looks for Connections Between Cocaine and Risky Sex Habits of Quail – (KY) $175,587

What common sense suggests, science has confirmed over and over again: namely, that cocaine use is linked to increased risky sexual behavior. Just to be sure, however, one federal agency thought it should test the hypothesis on a new subject: Japanese quail.

The University of Kentucky received a grant of $181,406 in 2010 from the National Institute of Health to study how cocaine enhances the sex drive of Japanese quail. In 2011, grant funding was extended and an additional $175,587 was provided for the study. The total awarded to the project will be $356,933.140

The study seeks to verify the clinical observations that indicated that cocaine use in humans may increase sexual motivation, thereby increasing the likelihood of the occurrence of high-risk sexual behavior. The researcher conducting the study highlighted how Japanese quail are ‘ideal‘ animals to use when studying the link between sex and drugs because the birds readily engage in reproductive behavior in the laboratory. University of Kentucky‘s website stated that quail provide a convenient and interesting alternative to standard laboratory rats and pigeons. This study is slated to continue through 2015.

Scicurious goes in great depth and detail about this particular line of research and why it is important – check it out. I will instead point out what’s wrong about laughing at Japanese quail as a research model, since I spent ten years of my life doing research on it.

Let me start with the first statement that this research is done “on a new subject: Japanese quail”. Maybe it is new to Coburn, but Japanese quail has been a pretty standard laboratory animal for about a century. Not wanting to dig through my file cabinets to find several dozen additional reviews on printed paper, I just did a quick Google Scholar search and found these few reviews on the usefulness and importance of this species in research: J.R.Cain and W.O.Cawley, 1914, Padgett, CA and Ivey, WD, 1959, Ellen P. Reese and T. W. Reese, 1962, A. E. Woodard, H. Abplanalp, W. O. Wilson, and P. Vohra, 1973, Ichilcik R and Austin JC., 1978, Huss D, Poynter G and Lansford R., 2008, Greg Poynter, David Huss and Rusty Lansford, 2009, Gregory F. Ball and Jacques Balthazart, 2010.

Note that these reviews span about a century. That’s not “new”.

Also note that most of these reviews are behind the paywalls.

Not everyone in the country is deeply ideological. Most of the US voters are intelligent and open-minded. Every couple of years they need to go to the polls so they want to be making informed decisions. They will look for information, but will not spend too much time and effort (and certainly not money) finding it. So, it is deplorable that the side of reason, the Reality-Based community, is keeping its information hidden behind paywalls, while the side of Anti-Science is not just making it all free, but actively pushing their disinformation by every avenue and channel available. Why is it a surprise that the guys who deny reality keep winning? It is easy for snake-oil salesmen to make fun of stuff that most people cannot even access to read!

Why is Japanese quail such a good laboratory animal?

Japanese quail is sometimes called the “mouse of bird research”. The two species are comparable in a number of important properties (see: Breeding Strategies for Maintaining Colonies of Laboratory Mice – A Jackson Laboratory Resource Manual; Japanese Quail As A Laboratory Animal – Avian Genetic Resource Laboratory (AGRL); Quail – AnimalResearch.info).

For example, gestation in mice lasts 18-21 days. In quail, the eggs hatch in 16-17 days. Those are both extremely fast developmental times, making it easy to quickly breed a lot of experimental animals.

It takes about six weeks for both mice and quail to attain sexual maturity after they are born. Again, that is a very fast maturation rate, making it efficient for breeding in the lab.

Mice can have litters anywhere between two and 12 pups at a time. Quail can lay essentially an egg per day throughout the year, throughout their lives. Quail win on this one – they can produce much more offspring per year. Efficient.

While techniques for genetic manipulation in quail lagged behind those of mice (just like those of mice lagged by many years behind Drosophila techniques), they are now available. It is now possible to make transgenic quail and use them in genetic research.

In many other aspects, quail is a better lab animal than the mouse (or rat or chicken). While laboratory strains of mice have been “domesticated” for only a few decades, the quail has been fully domesticated for about 500 years – it is poultry. While lab mice will rarely bite, they have to be handled with care – on the other hand, you can CUDDLE with a quail if you want to!

A decade ago, cuddling with quail.

Unlike its wild counterparts which are long-distance migrants, laboratory strains of Japanese quail are very slow fliers. Unlike wild songbirds (that need to be caught outside which is stressful) which, if they get lose in the lab one needs an army of technicians with butterfly nets to catch it (stressed), I can’t even remember how many times I caught runaway quail in mid-flight, with one hand, barely looking (actually, many times I caught them in the dark, not seeing but just hearing and feeling where they might be flying). Then you huddle it, and pet it on the head and put it back in its cage. And you get a loving look back and perhaps a quail-style “thank you” call. They are cute. But not as cute as many other species of birds, which makes it somewhat easier to overcome one’s reluctance to occasionally do something unpleasant to them, e.g., surgeries.

It is a hardy animal, very easy to keep, breed and feed, with minimal demands (which is why so many small farmers breed them around the world). They are social animals so they can be kept in groups. They are small and generally happy and content, so many more quail can be kept in a room without being stressed than, for example, one can keep comparatively enormous, slow-breeding, slow-maturing chicken in the room of the same size.

The lab rodents, like mice, have to be handled with utmost care, always keeping the threat of zoonozes in mind – there are many diseases that can jump from mice to human and back. There is essentially nothing that can infect both a human and a quail, especially not in the isolated, climate-controled environments of a university laboratory.

Quail’s immune system is amazing. While one has to perform a completely sterile surgery on mice, in quail it is done so only because IACUCs (Institutional Animal Care and Use Commitees) recently started demanding this (discussion of the wastefulness of this approach can be left for some other time). I bet you could do a surgery on a quail with dirty fingers and a rusty pocket-knife and the only consequence would be that the bird’s white blood cells would heartily laugh at you. This is also the reason why quail has been under intense research in Immunology for decades – if we learn something how the quail can be so resistant to essentially anything and everything in its environment, perhaps we can apply some of that knowledge to human medicine as well.

On the “intelligence scale” of birds, the quail hits the rock bottom. It is, frankly, not that smart. And this is a good thing from the point of view of research on behavioral neuroscience. They “don’t do” much thinking. They essentially go through the day like little automatons and most of their behaviors are routinized and stylized and automatic, like ‘fixed-action patterns’. Thus, manipulating a particular brain area usually results in a particular change of a particular behavior. This is repeatable and replicable, without too much noise in the data (at least in comparison to some other species), so the statistics are reasonably easy to do and findings are pretty clear. This makes research useful and efficient – sample sizes can be reasonably small.

There are very few species of animals about which we know as much as we do, and in so many areas of biology, as we understand the quail: embryonic development, genetics, physiology, metabolism, reproduction, immunology, endocrinology, neurobiology and behavior. With such a large amount of background information, it is much easier to make breakthroughs than when one is just starting to explore a new animal model (though as my regular readers know – I am very much in favor of adopting new models, as well as just purely comparative research). Studying effects of cocaine on reproductive behavior is so much more efficient in a species in which we do not have to start from scratch – we already know so much about its brain, behavior and reproduction, we can move on to more sophisticated studies than just the first exploratory “basic experiments”. Thus we can make faster progress. This is an efficient approach.

Most research on quail has – and often the same experiment simultaneously – relevance to three different areas of human interest: understanding of basic biology, application to human biomedical research, and application for agriculture – remember that quail is poultry.

Quail and chicken are very closely related. Each one of their genes is about 99% identical. In many ways, the quail is a model for the chicken. Instead of keeping just a few large, slow-breeding chickens in the lab, doing one slow experiment at the time, one can instead keep hundreds of quail in the same amount of space without stress, and do several fast, simultaneous experiments in the same amount of time. That is efficient. And that is how we can learn how to increase chicken (and turkey) productivity AND at the same time study how to make them healthy, unstressed and happy while doing so – a very important aspect of Poultry Science research.

A big advantage of quail over rodents is in the research on sleep. Rodents are nocturnal. Rats and mice sleep more during the day than during the night. But their sleep is not consolidated – they sleep in many short bursts: there are just more of these bursts during the day than night. On the other hand, quail is, like us, a diurnal animal. Quail are fully awake throughout the day and have a long consolidated sleep during the night (at least in short summer nights, while they may occasionally wake up during long winter nights…wow – just like us!!!!)

Finally, my own past research combining the studies on circadian rhythms and clocks, thermoregulation, photoperiodism, seasonality and reproduction (see this for a follow-up in another species) has several areas of relevance. It helps us make smarter husbandry for the poultry industry. It is a great model for why human adolescents, once they hit puberty, have phase-delayed circadian rhythms (cannot fall asleep in the evening, then cannot wake up in the morning, just like quail). It helps to inform how to conserve endangered bird species, and to predict how the birds will respond to climate change.

Not too shabby for a small bird, right? You really want to make fun of it for the sake of politics? You are lucky the quail is just too nice to bite you back!

Related at Scientific American

Cocaine and the sexual habits of quail, or, why does NIH fund what it does?

The Guppy Project is not wasteful, Sen. Coburn.






Comments 6 Comments

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  1. 1. hanmeng 1:01 pm 12/28/2011

    Republican? You have forgotten William Proxmire (Democratic U.S. Senator from Wisconsin from 1957 to 1989) & his Golden Fleece Awards. And while we can argue over the merits of government funding for research, a better point might be the quantity of money involved. A couple of hundred thousand is pocket change compared to money the government pisses away on middle class entitlements and defense of rich countries.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Bora Zivkovic 1:39 pm 12/28/2011

    Lots has changed over the past several decades. Perhaps Whigs or Mugwamps did this during their times in the past.

    But since around 1980, it is the GOP that is (more and more) anti-science, so digging far back into history to find a Democrat from the times when Dems might have also done this is useless for the purposes of today’s politics – just an interesting historical note, and an effort to do “He Said She Said” commentary, straining to find an example from “the other side” for the sake of false balance.

    Link to this
  3. 3. GeekStatus 1:44 pm 12/28/2011

    I don’t think anyone is debating the usefulness of quail as a research model. I also think that government funding of research is necessary and beneficial.

    I think the point being made here though is why we need to spend 350k to eek out loosely correlated data from quail sexual preferences under the influence of cocaine. What is the value of this research? Even if we found a huge statistical importance in the research why would it even matter? Please explain that to me and then ill eat my crow and move along.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Bora Zivkovic 1:51 pm 12/28/2011

    As I noted in the post, this specific study was covered by Scicurious – linked twice in the post.

    And BTW, 350k is pittance as far as research grants go. And most of it goes for overhead, technician salaries, equipment, chemicals (no idea how much cocaine costs when ordered from a laboratory vendor, but I bet it is more than on the street), renting university lab space, etc. Nobody’s getting rich from this tiny grant. This was picked because it could be easily turned into a slogan for Iowa caucuses, red meat for the die-hard ideologues who will vote there, not because Repubs care about science and know what they are talking about.

    Link to this
  5. 5. scicurious 3:27 pm 12/28/2011

    @GeekStatus: The coverage of the study in the Wastebook does not accurately show what the aims of the study are. Aside from behavioral manipulations, the study aims to look at mechanism, the neurobiological underpinnings of sexual behavior in quail following cocaine administration, and how these differ from normal animals. It’s far more than just a behavioral correlation, the study will focus on pharmacological and behavioral manipulations of the effects in order to understand the mechanistic alterations in reward-related processes. I’ve explained more in my post which is located here: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/scicurious-brain/2011/12/28/cocaine-and-the-sexual-habits-of-quail-or-why-does-nih-fund-what-it-does/

    I do not think the peer review process at the NIH would pass a loosely correlated sexual behavior and cocaine study in quail. There is already far too much research, and in this funding climate, the best applications, those getting at biological mechanism, will be the ones selected for funding.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Diesel67 1:50 am 12/30/2011

    What would a certain ex-Vice-President have to say about all this? I quayle at the thought.

    Link to this

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