In 2006, Dr. Leslie Leinwand, professor in the Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology department, was awarded a professorship by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to begin two courses at University of Colorado Boulder. The courses, “Bench to Bedside: the role of science in medicine” and “The Python Project”, aimed to present a multidisciplinary view of basic science and how it is used to shape modern medicine (HHMI Grant Description). While Bench to Bedside is a lecture-based course, The Python Project provided students with an opportunity to engage in authentic research in collaboration with the Leinwand Lab (HHMI News 2010).
The Leinwand lab use molecular approaches to understand the extreme biology of the Burmese python with the hope of discovering novel treatments for human diseases. The incredible physiology of the python is likely a result of its unusual lifestyle; a python eats meals that can be up to 50% their body weigh with 6-12 months between meals. Amazingly, most of the organs in the body double in size in 24 hours and reduce back to pre-feeding size in a matter of days, including the heart, which does so in a manner similar to that of an endurance athlete! The Leinwand lab have identified a combination of three fatty acids in the plasma that can promote heart growth in pythons and in mice (Riquelme 2011) and are testing whether these fatty acids can prevent or treat heart disease in mice. Using this extreme model of organ growth, the Python Project course extends the research interests of the Leinwand lab and examines growth and physiology of organs during growth including the heart, liver and adipose tissue. To parallel the work in the Leinwand lab, the research focus of the Python Project shifts from semester-to-semester.
Since its inception in 2006, the Python Project has been taught by several instructors including Steve Luckey and Steve Langer, postdoctoral fellows in the Leinwand lab, and currently, Pamela Harvey, a former postdoc in the Leinwand lab and instructor in MCDB. Many Leinwand lab members have been and continue to be involved in shaping the projects that the students work on including Cecilia Riquelme, Brooke Harrison, Chris Wall, Jason Magida, and Angela Peter, who is currently the lead postdoctoral fellow working on the python project in the Leinwand lab.
The research and the course have caught the attention of many including National Public Radio’s Science Friday (listen here) and The Atlantic Monthly (full article here). Additionally, the course has been published as a model for extending research opportunities to undergraduate students (Harvey 2014).