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NSF awards more than $1 million to Heritage College anatomists

(ATHENS, Ohio – Oct. 15, 2015) The National Science Foundation has awarded more than $1 million to researchers at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. The funding will support the studies of three anatomists at the college. The following grant awards were announced:
  • $438,759 to investigate the relationship between how the tongue and teeth sense food and its effects on jaw and tongue movements in mammals. Studies have shown that animals’ bodies have physically adapted over time to match their dietary habits. Evidence of those adaptations overwhelmingly points to evolutionary changes in the muscles, bones and teeth involved with feeding, which are collectively called the feeding apparatus. However, far less is known about changes in the neurosensory components that are connected to the way animals eat. This study will investigate how animals use sensory information to adapt jaw and tongue movements when feeding on foods of different sizes, shapes and textures. By comparing a broad range of animals including those considered generalists with varied diets and specialists which rely on a narrow range of foods, this research has long-term implications for understanding the evolution of dietary preferences in mammals. It may also reveal how the evolution of dietary specialization may have limited the function of the feeding apparatus. The project is a collaboration between the lead researcher, Susan Williams, Ph.D., professor of anatomy in the Heritage College’s Department of Biomedical Sciences, and researchers at the University of Michigan.
  • $303,138 for a three-year laboratory- and field-based study in northwestern Madagascar to collect and examine land-living and freshwater vertebrate fossils and environmental data from the Late Cretaceous. The research project is being conducted jointly by Patrick O’Connor, Ph.D., professor of anatomy and neuroscience in the Heritage College’s Department of Biomedical Sciences; David Krause, Ph.D., and Alan H. Turner, Ph.D., from Stony Brook University; Kristina Curry Rogers, Ph.D., and Raymond Rogers, Ph.D., from Macalester College; and Joseph Sertich, Ph.D., from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. The team is conducting research on plant and animal life and their environment from about 68 million years ago to better understand the relationship between ecosystem dynamics and the changing face of the planet. In addition to the high potential for the discovery of species new to science (of which many have already been described), the research addresses fundamental questions related to plate tectonics and the breakup of the southern supercontinent of Gondwana. The team’s previous field work in Madagascar has found some of the best preserved backboned animals from the entire Southern Hemisphere during the Mesozoic and has more than quintupled the number of known vertebrates from the Cretaceous Period in Madagascar. The research focus of the Madagascar project is tied to the efforts of two separately-funded NSF projects with which O’Connor is involved. Antarctica and Tanzania were also once part of the southern supercontinent of Gondwana, and O’Connor has been funded to conduct similar investigations on plant and animal life from the Late Cretaceous period in those locations. He will travel to Antarctica in early 2016 on an expedition that was delayed last spring due to poor weather conditions. These projects seek to learn more about the influence of large-scale landform dynamics on plant and animal communities in the Southern Hemisphere, a region where comparatively little paleobiological research has been conducted.
  • $264,481 to Lawrence M. Witmer, Ph.D., professor of anatomy in the Heritage College’s Department of Biomedical Sciences, to explore the transition of dinosaurs to birds, with a focus on the evolution of the feeding apparatus. Birds’ skulls and jaws have unique features that are missing in mammals. This three-year project brings together experts from numerous fields including biomechanics, neuroscience, paleobiology and engineering to create life-like, 3D computer models of avian and non-avian dinosaur heads based on information collected through a combination of imaging, dissection and modeling techniques. This is a novel process that will likely be a model for other researchers. The research team expects significant details and evolutionary patterns will emerge, such as the changing relationship between muscles, joints and the skull, creating an anatomical bridge between modern birds and their prehistoric ancestors. Witmer is collaborating on the study with Casey M. Holliday, Ph.D., and Kevin M. Middleton, Ph.D., from the University of Missouri and Julian L. Davis, Ph.D., from the University of Southern Indiana.

“Our anatomical scientists take a holistic and historical approach to health research by investigating biomechanics, anatomy, and evolutionary and comparative biology, which better help us understand how and why various biological parts and systems interconnect the way they do,” said Heritage College Executive Dean Kenneth H. Johnson, D.O. “The relationship between form and function is a foundational concept in osteopathic medicine.”

The Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine is a leader in training dedicated primary care physicians who are prepared to address the most pervasive medical needs in the state and the nation. Approximately 50 percent of Heritage College alumni practice in primary care and nearly 60 percent practice in Ohio. CARE LEADS HERE.

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Last updated: 01/28/2016