Scientists, including a professor and his students at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Ill., are using the salamanders to learn how people grow and develop. These salamanders may one day help us understand how humans could re-grow limbs lost during accidents or war.

The axolotl is a curious-looking salamander from Mexico that looks like it never wants to grow up.

But scientists, including a professor and his students at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Ill., are using the salamanders to learn how people grow and develop.

These salamanders may one day help us understand how humans could regrow limbs lost during accidents or war.

"Axolotls are common research animals that have been used for over 180 years to study basic things like how we get an arm and how we get a heart and how we get a brain," says Ed Zalisko, professor of biology at Blackburn. "Since then, we've studied more sophisticated animals like rats, but we are still interested in salamanders because of some of the tricks they can perform. And one of the tricks is they can regenerate an arm, or any part of an arm that is cut off, even as an adult animal."

At Blackburn, students are learning about genetic traits and have identified an unusual trait that allows a few axolotls (ax-oh-lot-uls) to use their lungs to float upside down early in life. Zalisko and his students call them "the floaters."

"It's just a trait, like a new dog breed, right now," Zalisko says.

The axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) is native to Mexico in the vicinity of Mexico City. They are rarely found in the wild but are common in captivity and especially so in academic research.

The axolotl's name translates roughly to "water dog." They spend their entire lives in their larval form, and they look like tadpoles that stopped developing just short of adulthood. They are closely related to the more familiar tiger salamander.

Beyond limbs and lungs

Research is going on across the country as scientists try to determine what triggers the axolotl's cells to re-grow a lost limb.

"What we are learning is that this is about stem cells," said Ed Zalisko, professor of biology at Blackburn College in Illinois. "We need to tell these cells to be more generalist."

That's because most cells have a very specific purpose. Zalisko says scientists want to switch those cells on to do other things, or retrain them, in a way.

"These cells have to stop studying their major and go back to general education," he said with a laugh.

At Blackburn, students helped discover new traits 30 years after scientists were convinced they knew all there was to know about the axolotl. But about six years ago, students noticed that some of the animals were floating upside down.

"They also have lungs," Zalisko said. "The salamanders are holding their breath for periods of up to a year or more."

Gills provide oxygen, even if they are holding their breath.

"What we're trying to discover is whether or not these animals are holding their breath because they are choosing to do so or because they can't use their lungs to breathe in and out," he said.

Tim Erton, a biology pre-med major entering his junior year, is helping out in the lab thanks to Blackburn's work program that requires students to pitch in around campus as part of their education.

"Tim and I, along with two former students, hope to present the results of our current studies of Blackburn College Floaters at the upcoming January 2012 meetings of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology, where we presented the trait in 2009," Zalisko said.  "Without the weekly work of our biology majors in the work program, this five-year research program would not have happened.”

"The best thing about the work program is being able to work one-on-one with teachers on research," Erton says. "I'm going to go to medical school, and one of the big things they look for is research experience."

Beyond the discovery of a new trait, there may be implications for those studying growth and development in animals and people.

"It's original research," Zalisko said. "We're asking questions to which we don't know the answers.

"Usually in a classroom situation, we are posing questions, and most of us have an idea of what the answer is, and students always feel the pressure to come up with the right answer,” Zalisko said. "In this case, Tim (Erton) is getting a chance to understand a bit about what is it to actually learn what the answers are and not just to discover what someone else already knows."

Erton is spending the summer in the lab communing with the salamanders. He gets to observe them in different situations and see how they react at feeding time. But there's not always a lot of action.

"It's very quiet," Ertonsaid. "I work here by myself, so I find myself talking to the animals, or I turn on the radio and sing to them."

Zalisko says Erton is learning an important lesson: every salamander, and person, is different.

"As a physician, one thing you must understand is that every patient is unique," Zalisko said.

Chris Young can be reached at 217- 788-1528.

Young snakes make unhealthy pets

According to the Centers for Disease Control, snakes and other reptiles can carry salmonella.

Students working with professors at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Ill., worked together to find out if young snakes commonly kept as pets were at a greater risk for infection?

Their studies show young hatchling snakes less than six months old are more likely to carry the germ.

The CDC estimates 70,000 people get salmonella each year from contact with reptiles in the United States. A colony of 23 milk snakes was fed previously frozen mice during the research project. The incidence of infection rose from 9 percent before the snakes were fed their first meal to 33 percent at 8 to 9 weeks of age and 39 percent at 16-17 weeks of age.

The incidence of salmonella began to drop to 27 percent at 24-25 weeks and 13 percent at 32-33 weeks. A second study also showed a relationship between the age of young snakes and the incidence of salmonella.

The incidence of salmonella dropped dramatically after the 240-day (about eight months) testing period.

-- Be Healthy Springfield (Ill.)