Senior Abigail Engel studied cow pro­teins for her research.
Abigail Engel | Courtesy

When senior Abigail Engel designed her thesis project for her biology major, the inspi­ration for her research orig­i­nated close to home —Wis­consin.

“My research is about quan­ti­fying heat-shock pro­teins in dairy cattle,” Engel said. “I was inter­ested in how much of a role genetics plays in how well cattle deal with heat-shock.”

Engel, who said she is inter­ested in vet­erinary science, said dairy cows produce more milk in cold tem­per­a­tures, and milk pro­duction declines in the summer.

By studying the amount of heat-shock pro­teins in the samples, Engel was able to determine whether the genes for these pro­teins are more active in the summer than in the winter. The research results could help indicate how big of a role tem­per­ature plays in a cow’s milk pro­duction.

“My goal was to cor­relate the pro­duction of heat-shock pro­teins with the pro­duction of milk in the summer,” Engel said.

Engel’s research adviser, Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Biology Jeffrey VanZant, said he believes the project could have a prac­tical sig­nif­i­cance for dairy farmers.

“This research will help con­sider ques­tions like, ‘Is it worth it to install an air con­di­tioner? Will the increase in milk pro­duction help keep costs lower?’” VanZant said.

Heat-shock pro­teins are always present in cow blood but more so in the summer heat.

“Pro­teins have to fold a certain way to have a certain function,” Engel said. “If they are folded into an incorrect shape, they mal­function. The folding is highly dependent on the tem­per­ature. So if the tem­per­ature rises, the pro­teins misfold. Heat-shock pro­teins attach to mis­folded pro­teins and refold them in the correct way.”

Although the presence of heat-shock pro­teins is ben­e­ficial because they fix mal­func­tioned pro­teins, the presence of more heat-shock pro­teins means the cow is under more heat stress, which is ulti­mately harmful.

At the beginning of the project, Engel took blood samples from Wis­consin dairy cows in January. She then took samples from the same cows in July and com­pared the amount of heat-shock pro­teins present in the samples in the winter versus the summer.

Engel then iso­lated RNA from the blood samples and used an instrument called a qPCR cycler to quantify the RNA and by extension, the amount of heat-shock pro­teins in the blood samples.

Frank Steiner, Hillsdale’s biology department chairman, described qPCR as a modern mol­e­cular tech­nique in which the instrument can pick out a spe­cific gene, quantify it, and amplify it expo­nen­tially.

For her project, Engel iso­lated the spe­cific RNA that codes for the heat-shock protein. This shows how active the spe­cific heat-shock protein gene is.

Engel is still working on her research, but so far, she said the results look promising: There is a greater number of heat-shock pro­teins in the summer blood samples.

“The amount of success we’ve had with the instrument is very sur­prising,” Engel said.

VanZant said the project was com­pletely Engel’s own design.

“Abigail is really moti­vated,” VanZant said. “I just facil­itate the process and make sure she has what she needs.”

After grad­u­ation, Engel plans to go on to vet­erinary school, pos­sibly to pursue zoo med­icine.

“I knew I wanted to do a project applicable to caring for animals,” she said.