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PhD student nets award for lamprey discovery

Windsor, ON — The sea lamprey is a long and parasitic eel-like fish that attaches itself to the side of larger fish, essentially sucking the innards out of its host.

Warren Green, a PhD student in Biological Sciences at the University of Windsor, has made an important discovery about how the lamprey processes olfactory information, which he says may help aid efforts to eradicate the invasive species from the Great Lakes. For this he received the first place prize for the best oral presentation at the 10th International Congress on the Biology of Fish held last month in Madison, Wisconsin.

“If we could design the ultimate cocktail of odours, we might be able to improve pheromone-based trapping strategies,” said Green. Sea lampreys found their way into the Great Lakes during the early part of the 20th century through artificial canals, and they prey on many species such as lake trout.

Green, studies the brain functioning of lampreys, focusing specifically on the olfactory bulb, where odours are processed. He was following up on research conducted by Barbara Zielinski, his academic supervisor, which mapped out the neural route between a sea lamprey’s nose and its spinal cord, explaining why certain smells make the creature automatically swim and confirming that its brain can translate smell in to locomotion.

He conducted a series of experiments and traced the precise region of the lamprey’s brain where pheromones, which help fish make mating and migratory decisions, and amino acids, which determine feeding decisions, are all processed. As in other fish, the lamprey olfactory bulb is “chemotopically organized,” meaning different areas of the brain process different types of odour information. However in lamprey, this chemotopy includes a specific  medial region that processes information from many odours, and stimulates movement.