Inquiring Minds
Illustrations by Jim Paillot

In this issue:

Divine Bovines
Northern Flight
Blinded by Love

Divine Bovines

When Drew Conroy '86, '01G stands at the edge of his field and calls, his cattle come running—determined, it seems, to shatter every last stereotype attributed to cows. Conroy's bovines are not lazy. They are not stupid. And they most definitely do not plod. These are American Milking Devons. They are fast, smart and tough. Put them in a yoke and they pull hard.

"Emily's the old lady," he says, pointing to the biggest of the four, her thick auburn coat glistening in the sun. The UNH professor of animal science lists her accomplishments proudly. In her 13 years, she's given birth to 11 calves. "And look at her," says Conroy, as she bounds around. "She looks great."

Emily—plus Belle, Bubba and RC—are descended from the very first cattle to set foot in the New World: Their hard-working ancestors arrived with the Pilgrims in the 17th century. Today there are only 900 Devons left in the United States. Holsteins, by contrast, the ubiquitous black and white cows that produce America's milk, number around 9,000,000.

Best known as "the oxen guy" for his expertise training and working with teams of oxen both in this country and in developing nations, Conroy is also the director of the board of the American Milking Devon Association. He and his fellow board members are on a mission: They are out to save the Devon from extinction. Of the remaining 900, only 150 are bulls—and half of them are brothers. "This is the challenge of rare breeds," he says. "You only have a small pool to draw on."

Why all the effort for one small breed? "If we're not careful," says Conroy, "the cattle industry will go the way of the turkey industry—one mass-produced breed which, like a monoculture forest, could be easily wiped out."

Conroy's goal is to find the best bulls in the country and work with their owners to secure reproduction material for the future. "With so few animals left," says Conroy, "all it would take is a few years and pretty soon the animals would be inbred and subject to disease, deformity and the inability to reproduce that comes with inbreeding. We don't have much margin for error."

To accomplish his mission, Conroy studies a database that includes all the Devons in the country. He pores over certificates of registration showing each animal's pedigree going back several generations. And he examines photos, looking for straight legs and strong backs. "This one's too fat," he points out. "This one was nasty. If we hadn't jumped the fence, he would've killed us."

Then he finds a bull that has everything—good proportions, straight legs, a gentle temperament. Best of all, he's not related to half the existing breed. This is the perfect bull. So now Conroy is working with the owner, getting him to help with the preservation effort.

At Conroy's Oxwood Farm in Berwick, Maine, he and his wife, Janet '86, are preserving a way of life that's as rare as the bovines they raise there. When Conroy takes students from his classes to visit, they get experience in the field and a glimpse of agricultural history.

On other days, when Conroy and his two young sons head into the woods to collect firewood, they return—just as the early settlers once did—riding in a wagon pulled by a pair of Devons and moving, no doubt, at a lively clip.

Northern Flight

There are several different ways to define the Arctic. Geographically, it is the area north of the Arctic Circle at latitude 66 degrees, 32 minutes north. Ecologically, it's defined by the extent of the permafrost, the layer of soil that never thaws. Culturally, it's characterized by indigenous peoples who have hunted and fished for thousands of years in a region of long, dark winters and short, light summers. The Arctic is divided politically into regions owned by eight countries, and UNH professor of sociology Larry Hamilton has traveled in all of them.

Hamilton never planned to study Arctic societies, but in the early '90s, a colleague asked for his help with a survey she was conducting in northwest Alaska. He was captivated with the region and its people, and found a research niche that has fascinated him ever since.

As a social scientist, Hamilton collects stories and data and then analyzes them together. "Basically, I count things, and then read patterns from the data," he says. In the Arctic, the results are often surprising. For example, a survey he conducted in Alaskan high schools found two widespread patterns: that the majority of students wanted to leave the region, and that more girls expressed this desire than boys.

"We didn't expect this," he says. "One of our findings is that the young women want careers. Being a fisherman often looks like a better deal to the young men than being a fisherman or a fisherman's wife does to the young women." But the transition to life elsewhere is difficult, Hamilton notes. The reasons are complicated, he says, but satellite television plays a part. "While you and I might know that TV depicts fantasy lives," he says, "it's not always so obvious when seen from far away."

Change in the Arctic is not only social, but also physical and ecological, and Hamilton's research is ground-breaking because it synthesizes data from different disciplines.

An example is his research on the north Atlantic, where large-scale climate change has affected fish populations, and in turn, the people who fish for a living. In addition, overfishing is altering the ecosystem, and indigenous communities are shifting from a subsistence economy based on hunting and fishing toward an industrialized cash-based economy. "If you step back and look at all these changes together, you see strong patterns across the Arctic," he says.

Hamilton's research is used in many different ways. He is part of several panels that are coming to grips with how Arctic societies are evolving. He is also a member of the National Academy's Polar Research Board, which advises the government on Arctic policy. "Nations who have an investment in the Arctic need information on what is happening there," he says. "Using the recent past, you start to get clues to the Arctic's future, and can start asking larger questions, like, 'What will an ice-free Arctic Ocean mean?' Or, 'How do communities respond, and what succeeds, when biological and physical environments change?' The data helps us map out where the Arctic, and the rest of the planet, may be headed in the 21st century."

Blinded by Love

To understand why Rick Cote, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, is working with Viagra, you have to understand two things: first, that functions in the body are connected in unexpected ways, and second, that drugs don't always work the way they're supposed to.

Viagra—which, along with Levitra and Cialis is prescribed for erectile dysfunction—was originally designed to both reduce blood pressure and treat angina. While early trials showed little effect on either, male volunteers were reluctant to stop taking it because of its now well-known sexual side effect. Drug companies quickly realized the potential for such drugs and have been spending millions on advertising them ever since.

Drugs like Viagra work by blocking a class of enzymes called phosphodiesterases, or PDEs. There are 11 different PDE families, but Viagra inhibits PDE5, which is found in high concentrations in the corpus cavernosum, a spongelike region of penile tissue.

The link between Viagra and vision was uncovered when men in clinical trials complained of a bluish tinge and blurring in their vision, and a reduction in light sensitivity. Clinicians theorized that the PDE5 inhibitors were also affecting PDE6, which is present in the retina.

Because Cote's lab has been working extensively with PDE6 since the early '90s, he and his fellow researchers are in a unique position to help determine how these side effects happen, and whether the drugs can harm the retina.

The lab's overall mission is to understand how the retina converts light into an electrical response. The retina has two types of cells: rods, which are responsible for night vision, and cones, which provide day and color vision. In both, PDE6 is the key enzyme that biochemically amplifies light into a nerve impulse to the brain.

Cote is searching for a cure for retinitis pigmentosa and other diseases that cause blindness. "The problem with the retina is that you're born with the photoreceptor cells that you'll die with," he notes.

His lab is working with several pharmaceutical companies to study PDE6. One thing that is clear so far is that in the lab, Cialis interferes much less with PDE6 than do Levitra and Viagra.

In general, Cote says there is no evidence of long-term negative side effects for occasional use of PDE5 inhibitors. But since they also inhibit PDE6, the drugs are not recommended for people with retinitis pigmentosa. "I would go further and caution anyone with a known retinal disease to avoid these drugs until further testing of their safety has been conducted," says Cote.

Ultimately, Cote says, drugs specifically designed to alter the activity of the photoreceptor PDE6 may also be developed as tools to fight retinal disease.

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