In Love With Leeches

A professor who likes leeches, despite the yuck factor.

By Sydney Espinosa

At Bryn Mawr College, deep within the infamous labyrinth of the Park Science building, a modern-day beast master tames his minions, looking on as his creatures vainly wriggle about in their watery prison.

Dr. Peter Brodfuehrer, a professor of Biology at Bryn Mawr, is this mustachioed Poseidon; and his mighty Leviathan? Leeches.

“It’s a versatile beast,” said Brodfuehrer. “It’s a hardy preparation that people can manipulate and look at different aspects of it, even when manipulations are pretty gross.”

He has been studying the nervous system of the leech—exploring how its neurons make it swim—since attending graduate school at the University of Virginia.

Yet, Brodfuehrer admits that the leech love ran cold while he was a Post Doc at Cornell University, but after coming to Bryn Mawr College in 1981, he rekindled his love with leeches and has never looked back.

“I decided to go back to the leech because there were some unanswered questions that came out of my thesis work that I didn’t pursue because I had finished the original,” he said, “but there was data that said here is another question or line of investigation.”

But what does Brodfuehrer find so important about a leech swimming around in a bucket?

His latest research looks at the neuron’s glutamate receptors, which are important in the leech’s nervous system for sending the specific signals for swimming through the nervous system. Glutamate is essential in almost all animals, including humans, for sending signals required for muscle movement.

“Rhythmic behaviors, for example, like swimming, walking, flying, things like that, most of them are episodic behaviors,” he explained. “They start, they go for a while, and then they stop…How do you actually turn on these behaviors? What are the neural mechanisms?”

While the research may not sound blockbuster exciting, his findings in leeches are surprisingly similar to what others have found in humans.

“There are a set of general principles that apply to how you get any system to produce any rhythmic behavior,” he explained, “like, how do you walk? What neural circuits allow you to alternate the movement of your legs? That’s a rhythmic motor pattern.”

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