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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.