Kama Szereszewski, Ph.D. Biology 2019

Regulation of antioxidant defenses, DNA damage repair, the immune response, and neuroprotection during hibernation in the thirteen-lined ground squirrel


Hibernation is a fascinating survival adaptation that allows animals to transition into a torpid state to survive the winter by coordinating a strong suppression of metabolic rate, conservation of fuel/energy, and reduction of body temperature. This strategy permits thirteen-lined ground squirrels (Ictidomys tridecemlineatus) and other hibernating mammals to endure the harsh winter season when there is little access to food. Many energy-expensive cellular processes are suppressed, including gene transcription and protein synthesis/turnover, but are reactivated rapidly when animals arouse back to euthermia. Both torpor and arousal can have damaging consequences; for example, during arousal, reactive oxygen species flood the cell causing oxidative damage to numerous cellular components. Therefore, hibernation requires many pro-survival mechanisms to mitigate multiple types of damage: e.g. from oxidative damage, DNA damage, and pathogen attack, among others. The research reported in this thesis on damage control processes in hibernators shows that antioxidant enzymes such as PRDXs are upregulated in key tissues but in an isoform-specific and time-specific manner over the torpor-arousal cycle. PRDX2, 3, 4 and 6 were found to be significantly upregulated in specific tissues. Similarly, DNA damage repair is initiated during torpor and is characterized by the binding of repair proteins such as Ku80 and the MRN complex to the site of breaks, but ligation (with XLF) reactions to fully repair DNA do not appear to occur until the arousal period. Pro-inflammatory mechanisms are also used to deal with pathogens; these remain active at basal levels in a tissue-specific manner during torpor, but are up-regulated in the final stages just before arousal or only during arousal depending on the tissue, such as the induction of CCL5, a recruiter of monocytes. A cyto/neuro-protective mitochondrial peptide, s-humanin, was also identified that is induced in a tissue-specific manner, helping to protect key organs such as the brain cortex and adipose tissues. The results show that hibernation is a complex, multi-faceted process that employs specific adaptations of damage prevention/repair pathways to protect squirrel tissues from damage not only during prolonged torpor but over the transitional states to/from torpor and does so expertly while conserving energy until such a time that repair mechanisms may be fully initiated.