One of my annual March sojourns is to partake of the Mid-Atlantic Nutrition Conference. I come away filled with adrenaline and excitement: my brain neurons firing away at all the paths those little research tidbits lead me down. None of my conjectures have any scientific backing, but they are still worth a moment or two of wonder. I noticed some interesting directions from the conference this year.
It might help for you to understand what this conference is all about–– livestock nutrition. Primarily dairy cattle, poultry and equine. This is where the academic researchers, feed mills, veterinarians and large livestock producers go to find out what are the newest research studies and theories on animal nutrition. You are not going to get razzle-dazzle slides here; you are going to get charts and ugly photos. But you walk out with a good sense of what isn’t known, what needs to be studied and a few sentences of something that has finally been proven.
It always reminds me the road to knowledge is a long one and that the body is blessedly complex. I hope to post a number of entries over the next several weeks on specific topics covered at the conference along with my thoughts and questions. But for now I am still cogitating on a number of overall directions and impressions from my time in Maryland.
- There was a new word thrown around quite liberally phenotype. Phenotype refers to the OBSERVABLE characteristics of an organism that has resulted from the interaction of its genotype and environment. It is an old word, but is being picked up and used more regularly in the scientific community. One might say that I am a phenotype for heart attacks; I have a chicken physique. (we’re using silly examples here, folks.) All fat lands in a plumb Buddha belly with nary an ounce going into my legs or butt. Observable characteristics are the belly fat. My mother and father had the same structure. This predisposition is most likely a genetic code of where my family line should store fat. Environment characteristics are the incessant putting of a full fork into my mouth. And now we have research to show that belly fat is hormonally active and a leading cause of heart attack. So I could stand as a phenotype for humans courting heart attacks. Or I could be a fat horse and the phenotype for laminitis.
There was a lot of discussion of the laminitic, IR and obese horse phenotype.
- I think this word is being used more often because of another trend- the researchers are looking really small. Better technology has helped here as well as directions in human medicine. And in looking really small they are finding that the organism is REALLY connected. A cure for laminitis isn’t going to come by just looking at the inflammation of the feet. That is a sign, but now they are realizing that there are a lot of things on the cellular level that might cause inflammation in a body structure that might send hormone signals to other parts of the body that might start another cascade of seemingly unrelated events that end up in the feet. In looking really small, researchers are broadening their horizons.
- Researchers are starting to whisper in the hallways about the failures. No one studies the failures in a research project. Part of that is due to the “system” of publishing papers where talking about failures is likely to result in a failure of the paper to get published. One of the speakers mentioned that in a clinically induced challenge of horses with genetic predispositions for laminitis, 20% of them never get laminitis. Their results are left in the paper trail that hits the circular file. Yet, this researcher had the strength to pause and say, folks someone should study these failures- what have they got in their systems that the other horses don’t have. (Please remember a failure is what does not prove the hypothesis. So if the hypothesis is that lush green grass will produce laminitis and these predisposed horses didn’t get it. Well, they “failed” in that they did not prove the point where as the other 80% did get it and proved the hypothesis.- Okay, okay- it’s a very simplistic explanation to help get across a very complex point.)
I’m not a scientist, but I find this thrilling stuff. Finally the research industry is connecting the smaller dots that make up the larger ones. I also find it overwhelming- the amount we now know we don’t know. Dr. Raymond Goer from the University of Michigan School of Veterinary Medicine said it nicely,
“I know a lot less than I did a year ago. And I know a whole lot less than I knew two years ago.”
We are having to step back to go forward, but it is putting us on a better path.
Oh, and that word “phenotype” bet you see it everywhere now.