TITLE: Dr. Richard Peter, Professor, Biological Sciences, University of Alberta
SUBJECT: #200 2006 Fry Medal, Canadian Society of Zoologists
SYNOPSIS: The University of Alberta is home to two brilliant researchers who have made outstanding contributions to our understanding of the natural world. And this spring, both have been recognized with prestigious awards for their work. First off, the Canadian Society of Zoologists has given its top honour to fish endrocrinologist Dr. Dick Peter.
#200 May 16, 2006
Intro: When the Canadian Society of Zoologists met in Edmonton at the beginning of May, this scientific group bestowed its highest honour, the Fry Medal, on one of our own, Dr. Dick Peter. Dick is currently a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta. But he has also served as the U of A’s Dean of Science and he inaugurated the Integrated Resource Management Program for the Alberta Research Council The Fry Medal recognizes Dr. Peter’s outstanding contributions based on his work with goldfish.
Dr. Dick Peter
DP: Well, I’m a fish physiologist. I work on the brain regulation of reproduction and growth and food intake of fish. And so our research ranges from the molecular level, cloning genes and gene expression, to the behavior level and all the physiology that’s in between there.
CC: YOUR LAB IS JUST NEXT DOOR. HOW HAVE YOU ACTUALLY DONE THIS? WHAT KIND OF FISH ARE YOU WORKING WITH?
DP: The animal that we’ve used for nearly all of our research is the goldfish. And it’s a wonderful laboratory animal. It’s part of the cyprinid family. So it’s a north temperate zone fish. We can have the goldfish in the lab and mimic all of the life stages. We have an outstanding aquatic facility here at the University of Alberta. Without that, we wouldn’t have been able to do the kind of work that we’ve been doing because of the excellent facilities we have So the goldfish is a very good animal model to work with.
I started working with them when I was doing my PhD at the University of Washington. One of the key foundation techniques that I developed was a brain stereotaxic apparatus. So what that means is it’s a 3D map of the forebrain of the goldfish. And with this apparatus we can implant electrodes, hormone pellets, do injections into the brain of the fish. So it really provided a very unique kind of approach to use in our research. And it’s been an important part of a lot of the work we’ve done. And I’ve trained many people how to do this during my career here. So it’s been a useful technique that’s been applied in essentially all of the studies that we’ve done on reproduction growth and food intake.
CC: HOW DO YOU ACTUALLY GET THOSE ELECTRODES INTO THAT TINY LITTLE GOLDFISH BRAIN?
DP: Well it’s actually quite easy once you know how to do it. Do you want me to take you down and show you how to do it? It’s actually quite easy.
You have to anaesthetize the animal and with a dental blade open the roof of the skull. Then we zero the electrode or the injection needle on a certain point on the brain, and then we know the measurements from there to go anterior, posterior, up, down, sideways to place the electrode or whatever in a specific part of the brain.
CC: WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS THEN THAT YOU’VE FOUND OUT IN DOING THIS WORK?
DP: Well the goldfish has been a marvelous model because we can mimic the lifecycle in the laboratory. We buy the fish in from fish farms in the United States, so they have been kept in ponds and then we bring them in and mimic environmental conditions here in the laboratory. And because we can have their whole lifecycle including spawning and growth and all this happening in the lab, it means we can investigate all of these things in the lab and then take those findings out and test them on fish farms with carp in China, for example.
I’ve done quite a lot of work in China during the 80’s and early 90’s. I annually made a trip to China. And we did a lot of work there with a colleague, Professor Lin Hao Ran. So it was a neat situation where our lab findings on the goldfish, which remember is the cyprinid family, taken to China and then applied on a whole range of carp species, that are also part of the cyprinid family. And then we expanded that out to quite a number of other species and different families of fish as well. So it was quite an adventure, actually.
CC: SO HOW IS THIS APPLIED THEN? WHAT’S THE RESULT FOR THE CONSUMER OR THE PUBLIC?
DP: The studies we did on reproduction and essentially the neuro endocrine regulation of gonadotropin secretion, when we started out doing these studies 30 some years ago, the concept prevailing was that there was a stimulatory hormone from the brain essentially driving the release of gonadotropin. When we started working on this, it was clear there was something missing in the whole picture in the fish.
What we discovered was there was a very strong inhibitory hormone involved. And so we discovered that through some brain lesioning experiments and then investigated different possibilities as to what the inhibitory factor would be We found it to be dopamine. And then with that we were able to investigate receptors for dopamine, and understand how to manipulate that system so we could turn off the brake and turn on the stimulator. And when we could do that, we could then induce ovulation of fish that were in the pre-spawning stage.
So that became a very useful technique in fish farms in China and around the world. It was actually commercialized in China by my colleague Professor Lin Hao Ran. It was likewise commercialized by a company in Vancouver, Syndel Laboratories. And OVAPRIM was the trade name they sold us under. And that was likewise sold around the world to fish farms around the world. So it became a very, very useful technique to induce spawning of cultured fish
CC: WHAT OTHER APPLICATIONS ARE THERE?
DP: Well we’ve worked on growth hormone regulation. And in each of these cases for reproduction, growth home regulation and food intake, we try to develop a model to help summarize our findings and our understandings. It also helps us raise additional questions. But it gives also a way to show how applications can occur. With growth hormone, we have found multi-factoral regulation of growth hormone secretion.
We’ve tested actual feeding of neuro-endrocrine factors to stimulate growth rates of fish. It certainly does work. And it actually is being tested in China on a wide scale basis, how to stimulate growth rates of cultured fish by adding neuro-endocrine factors into the food that actually stimulate hormone secretion.
CC: THIS IS INTERESTING. YOU HAVE QUITE A CONNECTION WITH CHINA. HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT?
DP: Well it started with Professor Lin Hao Ran. He was one of the first scholars to come from China to study outside the country. He had two years in Canada. He spent one year at UBC and then one year in my lab and that was in 1980-81. And during the time when he was here, we did a lot of discussion about what we could do together. And we were very fortunate to get very nice grant support from the Canadian IDRC, International Development Research Centre of Canada to help set up his laboratory at Zhongshan University in Quongchow, China.
And then for the next ten years we would design experiments, I would go to his lab in the spring and participate in the experiments, He would come to my lab in the fall and we’d analyze data and write papers. And so, we had a wonderful time doing all kinds of stuff it was really quite an adventure.
CC: WHAT QUESTIONS ARE YOU WORKING ON RIGHT NOW?
DP: The lab, for the last ten or twelve years has been primarily focused on the brain regulation OF food intake of fish. I’ve always been interested in food intake regulation, I love food myself, so its all natural.
This was a new field in essentially non-mammalian vertebrates to take the kind of approaches that we did to study the effects of various kinds of neuro-peptides injected into the brain and then observe the effects on feeding behavior and food intake. We cloned a large number of brain peptides and then used gene expression as a tool for having the animal tell us when a specific brain peptide system was activated and part of the feeding behavior response. And we made quite a lot of progress in this involving a lot of post-docs and graduate students in my lab
And now I have quite a nice model that actually competes with the best there is in the rat or the mouse in terms of understanding of food intake regulation. So I’m really quite pleased to do that in essentially the last part of my research career here.
CC: WELL ALONG WITH ALL THE RESEARCH YOU’VE DONE, YOU’VE ALSO BEEN THE DEAN OF SCIENCE HERE AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ALBERTA. AND THEN YOU’VE ALSO HELPED THE ALBERTA RESEARCH COUNCIL SET UP THEIR INTEGRATED RESOURCE MANAGEMENT PROGRAM. IF YOU TAKE A STEP BACK, AS SOMEONE WHO HAS SPENT THEIR LIFE DEALING WITH THE SCIENTIFIC WORLD, WHAT DO YOU SEE AS SOME OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES FOR US FROM AN ENVIRONMENTAL PERSPECTIVE, A HEALTH PERSPECTIVE, OR HOW THE WORK YOU’VE DONE IN SCIENCE AFFECTS LIFE AROUND US?
DP: Oh that’s a tough question, Cheryl. In terms of what are the issues today, environmentally, clearly there are very serious issues in Canada. Canada in spite of its pristine pictures of mountains and streams really has really serious issues in terms of its environmental contaminations. We have serious problems in terms of our energy use. We’re one of the most energy consuming societies on Earth. And we really have to deal with those issues. We have to deal with what we’re doing with our water, with our air and with our land. Land use issues are a major problem here. We really haven’t got any clear plans in Canada about land use issues.
In terms of science in general, the University of Alberta, of course, is I think a real powerhouse and able to contribute to these kind of environmental issues. We’re able to contribute to basic science in many ways. My own research program was basic science that had a lot of really kind of interesting applications. So I think that we have great opportunities to do things. What we need is a willingness by our society to actually participate and deal with some of these problems.
CC: THANK YOU VERY MUCH, DR. PETER
DP: Thank you very much, Cheryl. It’s been fun talking to you. Thank you.