Principles of Animal Physiology: Pearson New International Edition
Physiological research exploded in the 1960s as a result of several related events. Advances in diverse technologies, from nuclear medicine to molecular genetics, paved the way for new approaches to studying animal diversity. Population demographics led to massive hiring of universitybased scientists, creating a critical mass of researchers interested in understanding the physiological diversity of animals. It became commonplace to see international teams of researchers collaborate as multidisciplinary teams, exploring projects that would otherwise be prohibitative.
The ease of travel and growth of the worldwide research community created opportunities for physiologists to study unusual animals in exotic places. It was during this period that Dr. Per Scholander, a renowned animal physiologist and director of the Scripps Institute
of Oceanography (University of California, San Diego), spearheaded an initative that would allow teams of international researchers to work together to study biological problems in remote locations. After many years of effort and negotiation with researchers, universities, and government agencies, the Alpha Helix program was launched.
The Alpha Helix was an oceanic research vessel named after the structural model of DNA proposed by Watson and Crick only 10 years earlier. It was purchased in 1964 by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography through a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation. The ship was built to provide technically sophisticated laboratories for experimental biologists to use as the ship explored the unusual natural habitats of the world. Although launched and funded by the U.S. government, it supported the research of both American and international scientists. On her maiden voyage in 1966, the Alpha Helix carried 12 crew members and 10 scientists around the world on a “quest of biological and medical knowledge.” The Alpha Helix program was a career-changing experience that inspired a whole generation of animal physiologists.
The ship was the floating laboratory for three or four expeditions each year, bringing together teams of scientists with complementary interests and expertise. The inaugural expedition of the Alpha Helix was a six-month expedition to the Great Barrier Reef, where researchers studied coral reefs, tropical mangrove forests, and the animals that lived in the sea and on land. Three months after returning from Australian waters, a new expedition was launched to South America. The Alpha Helix traveled up the Amazon River to study the behavioral and evolutionary properties of fish and terrestrial animals in the neotropics. The trip home passed through the Galapagos Islands,
where researchers studied the same animals that Darwin studied a century earlier. The cruises over the next 15 years took researchers back to these same locations, and to others such as the Bering Sea (cold-water fishes), New Guinea (tropical animals), Guadalupe Island (fish and elephant seals), Antarctica (polar animals), the eastern Pacific (reef animals, sharks, whales), Australia (sea snakes), Hawaii (deep-sea fishes), and the Philippines (nautilus). Many of these animals had never been studied, and their physiological properties were largely mysterious at that time.
The Alpha Helix exemplified the explosion of work in animal physiology that began in the 1960s. The Alpha Helix program continued until 1980, at which point government support ended and the ownership of the vessel was transferred to the National Science Foundation. The vessel itself remains in active duty, based at the University of Alaska, and is used for international oceanographic research. The Alpha Helix program gave hundreds of researchers the opportunity to learn firsthand about the diversity of the natural world and how organisms function in their various environments.
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