Jennifer Forbey, an associate professor of biological sciences at Boise State, will travel to Sweden and Norway in February 2016 on a Fulbright Scholar award.
Forbey will spend four months studying the co-evolutionary relationship between plants and herbivores in an effort to speed the discovery of new and more effective drugs to treat diseases, particularly those that have developed multidrug resistance. She’s done similar research with Idaho sage-grouse and pygmy rabbits for several years.
For her Fulbright award, she will partner with colleagues at Grimsö Wildlife Research Station, Sweden, and the Hedmark University College in Evenstad, Norway, which is a leading institution for grouse research. Hedmark is responsible for coordinating the grouse monitoring activities across Scandinavia and Russia as leaders of the Grouse Monitoring Network.
Researchers will observe four species — Rock ptarmigan, willow ptarmigan, capercaillie and black grouse — as they eat native plants that are highly toxic to other animals. The foraging behavior of these species is easily observed in the wild, and their seasonal habitat use is well known, making them perfect for the study.
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“We see which plants they eat and don’t eat, and we test those plants for levels of different chemicals,” Forbey said. “We will identify which plants have the right dose and which chemicals are toxic versus therapeutic.”
Forbey also will observe how the birds evolved to handle toxic chemicals in the plants they are eating, and how those plants, in turn, are constantly evolving their chemical defenses in an effort to overcome those adaptations.
“It’s a co-evolutionary arms race,” she said. “Plants develop new chemical defenses and concentrations can change quickly — sometimes within hours.”
But it’s that arms race that is exciting for scientists and offers hope in efforts to overcome multidrug resistance. “I want to see if the co-evolutionary battle between herbivores and plants parallels the relationship between diseases and drugs and if that could provide a strategy to speed the discovery of novel and effective drugs against a variety of diseases that are resistant to existing medicines,” she said.
Plants seen as promising based on the birds’ natural selection of what to eat or not to eat will be collected, chemicals extracted and those chemicals tested for their ability to kill cancer cells, bacteria and parasites that affect humans, livestock and wildlife.
When an effective chemical is found, researchers can synthesize that chemical synthetically, genetically alter microbes in the laboratory to synthesize that chemical or commercially breed the plants that are rich in the chemical of interest. These approaches reduce the need to over-collect native plants and may create new industries for their synthesis.
At the end of the four-month process, Forbey will bring samples back to Boise State, where she will collaborate with colleagues at Boise State and the College of Idaho. They will use state-of-the-art bioanalytical instrumentation in the Boise State Biomolecular Research Center (funded by the National Institutes of Health and Murdock Foundation) to screen chemicals for their biological activity against cancer, bacteria, parasites and other diseases.
She plans to use this opportunity to also seek out sustainable exchange opportunities for Boise State students to travel to Sweden and Norway to conduct hands-on research.