Professor Jaishri Menon’s Tadpoles Are Advancing Students and Science

Courtesy of Fall 2015 William Paterson University Vol. 39

Courtesy of Fall 2015 William Paterson University Vol. 39

Christie Dix, Contributing Writer

Tadpoles are cute, little creatures that seem to have very little in common with humans at first glance. However, research on how they change and regenerate can advance science in a way that benefits human health.

Dr. Jaishri Menon has been a biology and physiology professor at William Paterson for upwards of twenty years, and has been studying tadpoles ever since. Dr. Menon has tested a number of factors that affect the metamorphosis of a tadpole to a frog, while teaching undergraduate students methods that they can use in their research in the future.

After completing her PhD at the University of Baroda in India, Dr. Menon moved to the United States to begin her research at San Francisco State University in 1989. When she moved to New Jersey in 1995, her work became specialized in the metamorphosis and regeneration of tadpoles.

The process of metamorphosis is fascinating to her because, as she states, “it is like watching evolution in a bowl.” Just as many things needed to evolve for the first water-dwelling animals to become land animals, many parts of the tadpole must undergo significant changes to become a frog.

For example, the tadpoles’ gills degenerate and lungs develop, their digestive tracts turn from that of an herbivore to that of an omnivore, and they must lose their tails and grow limbs. Metamorphosis is a complicated process that relies on a very delicate balance of factors. Since so much is changing in such a short amount of time, a lot can go wrong if the tadpole’s environment is negatively affected.

It has been recently reported that many drugs, such as Metformin, a very commonly used drug to treat diabetes, are in higher concentrations in the water than they ever have been before. When a tadpole is exposed to a chemical in higher concentrations than usual, it can have a direct effect on their metamorphosis into a frog. Many times, this effect is very visible, since tadpoles are sensitive to their environment.

Dr. Menon has tested the effect of retinol, or vitamin A (which is used for treating acne and skin aging), on tadpoles. Tadpoles exposed to retinol in the lab have many limb malformations, while the control group is much less likely to show any abnormalities. These findings can be directly correlated to the health of pregnant mothers. Retinoic acid, which is derived from retinol, can cause malformation of human fetuses as well. When a human baby is forming, it is also very sensitive to its environment, just like the tadpole undergoing metamorphosis.

Most recently, Dr. Menon has been working with Dr. Kevin Martus, a physics professor at William Paterson, to see the effects of atmospheric pressure plasma on tail regeneration of tadpoles. Atmospheric pressure plasma has several medical applications, including cancer therapy, skin sterilization, melanoma treatments, wound healing and tissue regeneration.

The tadpole’s tail regenerates fairly quickly, which is something most animals cannot do. When exposed to the plasma, the tail regenerates at a faster rate than usual. This speedy regeneration comes at a price, as the process of metamorphosis is delayed, since the tadpole needs its tail to live in water. This experiment demonstrates that all of the tadpole’s energy is going to the process of regeneration. This is an example of adaptive plasticity. This observation is of interest to scientists who are involved in wound healing and tissue regeneration research.

Dr. Menon’s student Adonis Rivie, who is currently in a PhD program at UC Berkeley, won several awards for his contribution to this work with atmospheric pressure plasma. Some of the students who have worked with Dr. Menon have even gone on to medical school, veterinary school, pharmacy school, or other PhD programs. According to Dr. Menon, undergraduate research is “real science” and “there is no better way to learn science than by doing science.”

She enjoys celebrating her students’ accomplishments in her lab. She proudly shares that “research demands a kind of imagination and creativity that is often not found in the classroom. Additionally, research experiences can help students reach their career goals and define their trajectory.”

Dr. Menon continues her work on tadpoles with her students to this day.

Contact Dr. Memon at [email protected] for further information.